Why I am Not a Pacifist

Recently there have been a number of articles on pacifism in the Methodist blogosphere, and not a few elsewhere. The most recent set started on Locusts and Honey with his recommendation of this article by Dave Kopel. Another of my blog favorites, Mark Warnock, has challenged the foundation of Kopel’s arguments in Pacifism Got Wrong. John Meunier, member of both the Methodist blogroll and the Moderate Christian Blogroll (thus doubly read by me!) responded thoughtfully to both in his post The Impossibility of Christianity.

Now I’m not going to try to respond directly to any of these. Instead, I’m going to make a brief (I hope) Sunday morning statement of my own view on this fine Veteran’s Day. When I link to several people who got me thinking on a topic, and then write without responding directly, I almost always get a comment or an e-mail saying that I have misconstrued something one or another of the linked posters said. My only response is that I’m not critiquing anyone. I found all of the articles helpful. I’m making my own statement, not trying to critique that of others.

I come to this subject with some bias. I am a veteran. I spent 10 years in the U. S. Air Force, during which I collected two Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals (Grenada, Panama), and did my time in the first gulf war. I was honorably discharged, having decided that the 20 years required for retirement was not for me, and went to work for a defense contractor. Bible teaching came a couple of years later.

On the other hand, my father spent World War II planting trees in Canada as a conscientious objector. He would have served in a medical capacity (after the war he became an MD), but he was not given that option. For refusing to bear arms he was given alternate service. Thus I have a certain amount of sympathy for the conscientious objector, even though I do not accept that position for myself.

I think that we in the United States often fail to appreciate the value of a professional military under civilian control. I experienced being part of that military. We came from a variety of political persuasions and religious views. We could argue about practically any political topic you would hear debated in a civilian forum. I served most of my two enlistments under commanders-in-chief for whom I did not vote, and went to wars I personally opposed. But that is the task of one who serves in professional armed forces under civilian control. If you do not appreciate that, it’s possible you aren’t carefully observing the rest of the world.

Our troops are sometimes vilified as warmongers, and sometimes praised as the protectors of peace and freedom. They are invoked in arguments on both sides of the political arguments about any conflict. They are described as the poor of society, and as those who couldn’t get any other job, by those who somehow claim to defend them.

But what they are is the folks who will go out there and carry out the policies of those we elect, and they do so almost universally with professionalism and honor. The vast majority could get other jobs, if they chose, but they have taken a job–a profession–that is challenging and dangerous. Whatever we think of any particular policy, they should have our thanks. I’m proud to have served.

But getting back to pacifism, over the years in my discussions on this issue I’ve heard two basic categories of arguments. First is the “gentle Jesus” argument. Let’s become more and more like Jesus, and Jesus was a pacifist, even going to the cross without fighting. Second is the utilitarian argument, which says simply that pure pacifism doesn’t work. Now in summarizing those arguments I do them some violence, because they are generally a bit more nuanced than that, and there are also many positions in between. I’m not trying to tell anybody who they are and what they have to believe–I’m just categorizing the arguments I have experienced.

My personal position is driven by two principles that I teach in Bible study and theology. The first is the toolkit. The toolkit is a metaphor I use to illustrate selecting scripture and/or doctrinal principles suitable to the circumstances. Scripture frequently gives multiple answers, my favorite example being Proverbs 26:4-5. You need to apply appropriate principles to applying each possible response.

The second principle is prioritizing. Not all doctrines or principles are equal. In this case, I would ask the following questions:

  1. Is the principle of non-violence universal or specific?
  2. Where and how does it apply?

This involves nuancing the toolkit idea just a bit, because it is not just a matter of selecting one tool or another; it’s also a matter of selecting where to use them, how much, and how many different tools to use. When building a cabinet I may well use a hammer, a saw, and a screwdriver. I don’t have to decide that a particular job is a “screwdriver” job, and thus throw out the hammer and saw.

When I look at the question of the use of violence as a Christian I do see a number of principles that I must apply. Some major ones are:

  1. Being a peacemaker
  2. Protecting the weak and disadvantaged
  3. Carrying out justice
  4. Doing to others what I would have them do to me
  5. Last, but not least, loving God, and loving my neighbor as myself

Now let me dismiss out of hand the utilitarian argument in its blatant form, at least. God can ask me to do things that do not appear to have utility by the standards of this world. My primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and kingdom activities don’t have to have worldly utility. At the same time, however, I can seek means that are successful in accomplishing kingdom goals.

Let’s look at the goal of being a peacemaker. One can pursue peace in quite a number of different ways. At home or in church, I have observed that very often some authoritative speaking, and even application of authority, is very good for making peace. There may be a need for some people to move on before there can be peace in a community. (This doesn’t necessarily mean violence; I’m simply pointing out that different strategies may be useful.) How much talking, how much separation of angry parties, how much compromise, and so forth are all elements of a peacemaking strategy. I think I can justly ask how appropriate my peacemaking strategy was, and a good test will be just how much peace I made!

In the case of war or any other type of violent activity, we can look at the results of those activities to see just how appropriate the means was to the end. The question, I believe, is utility for what? What are we trying to accomplish and have we done so successfully?

This is not a case of putting up a worldly goal and standard against Biblical principles. I’m not going to extend this essay by extensively quoting scripture, but I will be glad to respond in that way in comments or future posts. What we are looking at is not the world vs the church, but rather different values and goals that are provided in scripture.

Let me look at a very simple example. Let’s say I see someone in a wheelchair who is about to become the target of violence. Some thug, let us say, is going to rob him. There are a number of principles that come into play, as I read scripture. I am commanded to love not just the man in the wheelchair. I am commanded to love the thug. I am also commanded to protect the weak. I combine these principles as requiring me to take a best choice of actions to defend the weak, while at the same time requiring me to give consideration to the thug. (I use the word thug to emphasize the contrast.) Thus I must avoid a hands-off policy on the one hand that allows unnecessary injury, but I should also not simply draw a gun and blow the attacker away, unless that is the only avenue open to me consistent with protecting the weak. (Note that I give priority to “protecting the weak” over “loving the thug.”)

I see a similar weighing of principles on the question of war. The question, in my view, is which type of behavior is closer to kingdom behavior. Now many of my friends and colleagues will take the view that obviously the most “kingdom-like” behavior is to refuse to engage in violence. I see where that comes from, but I don’t agree.

The main line of defense on this is such things as the commands and example of Jesus. I agree that Jesus lived his life and went to the cross without committing violence against any person. He commanded people to turn the other cheek, and to carry a burden the second mile. I also believe that Jesus, because of the incarnation, was God in the flesh, and in practical terms this means that he presented God to us in the clearest way possible.

But there are two points I would like to add. Jesus was also finite as a human, that is, he presented God to some folks in 1st century AD Galilee and Judea, and a few people elsewhere. That is, he acted in a divine manner in a particular place and time, and his actions were, by definition, appropriate to that place and time. Second, we do not directly perceive the physical, 1st century Jesus. We see his reflection in his followers. Again, this ties the teachings of Jesus to time and place.

Amongst the characteristics of that time and place were the Roman occupation of Palestine and a powerlessness on the part of most of his audience. We do not, for example, have any record of the advice Jesus would have given to a good Roman soldier if he was confronted by a colleague engaged in brutality. Might the good Roman soldier, who possessed some civil authority and physical means, have been given different instructions than the disenfranchised peasant who lacked both? I think it is quite possible that he would have. But if Jesus ever did give such advice we have none of it available.

We do know that Paul was willing to place himself in the hands of the Roman authorities from time to time, allowing them to protect him when they were willing to do so. What might he have done if those authorities had been even more friendly than they were?

I believe that the implementation of kingdom principles will differ based on the means available. Being a follower of Jesus requires me to implement those principles in the best way possible in my circumstances. Whether I call in the police, take action on my own, or choose to suffer without resistance is not a universal choice. It is a choice specific to the circumstances under which I encounter the choice.

When we look at the broader lines of scripture I think we see this kind of thinking repeatedly implemented. The same God appeared at Sinai who later appeared on Golgotha, but he acted very differently in the two cases. Why? The circumstances and the needs were different.

There are times when he Israelites are ordered to collect a large army and attack their enemies. Deuteronomy 20 assumes that there will be occasions for war. God will fight for them, but they are to fight as well. Then there are other times when they are to get rid of most of the army and wait for God to respond (Gideon). When God has a lesson to teach, he can even call in the heathen enemies of Israel, such as Assyria and Babylon to attack them. Different circumstances, different actions.

There are times when failing to employ violence is equivalent to collusion with violence. That is why, for example, I cannot stand with my father’s position in World War II. I would feel that failing to stand up to the violence of the axis powers would be, for me, equivalent to collusion with it. I am not, however, going to disrespect those, such as my father, who saw the matter quite differently. I would place a much higher value on living in accordance with your own conscience.

I want to make clear, however, that I don’t see this approach as permission to do whatever we want in terms of war or violence. We have seen folks condone torture because of violence that has been done to us. Others here in the U.S. accept any amount of violent action simply because we were attacked. I think it is important here to note that we are not the primary victims of terrorism in the world. That doesn’t mean that we need to roll over and permit any amount of terrorist action, but it does mean we need to keep a sense of proportion. It is not surprising that other nations are often less than sympathetic when they have lost a greater proportion of their population to terrorist acts.

The temptation is to justify any amount of violent action based on the notion that I have the means and I must protect the weak. But very often more violence is not the best way to protect the weak. Violence is always a terrible temptation; once you allow yourself to use it, you can often justify it where it does not belong. As Christians, we need to be very careful to be willing to accept the blow on the other cheek when that is what we are called upon to do. We would be amazed, I believe, with what could be accomplished with a little more application of love to our enemies. While I believe that there is a time for violence, I also believe that we in America have generally tended to lean the other way and justify violence when the situation called for grace.

There are those who would prefer to deny violence because that prevents the temptation to use violence improperly. But I believe we are called upon to make the hard decisions, and to use the tools available to us as and when they are appropriate, facing the danger and the consequences of wrong decisions.

My own views on the balance of these principles have led me to support the war in Afghanistan (though I think we have failed to follow through), but to oppose the war in Iraq. That should give folks enough grounds on which to attack my specific applications. I’ll enjoy hearing from you.

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  1. Bruce says:

    Bravo my man! Bravo!

  2. Anne says:

    Or as G.K. Chesterton said, “The pacifists have it right, but not quite right enough …”

  3. Obviously he had the gift of brevity, which I lack! 🙂

  4. IanR says:

    Resorting to violence is always an admission of failure. Just because we find ourselves in a position where we can see no other viable option doesn’t mean it’s right. And it definitely isn’t consistent with the commandment to love our neighbour as yourself. Sure, it’s human nature to love your family more than your enemies. That’s easy. But I don’t think that Jesus called on people to take the easy path.

    Given your hypothetical about the guy being attacked by thugs, you chose to value protecting the weak over loving your neighbour. That’s a logical decision, it’s a compassionate decision, but is it really Christlike? We are programmed to be tribal. Once you make the choice to admit the weak into your tribe, your emotional response to their attackers is pure instinct. When Jesus said “love your enemies” he didn’t say “love your enemies when it’s convenient”, or “love your enemies, but less than your love your friends”. The question isn’t “when is violence acceptable?”, the question is “at what point do I discard what Jesus said and let instinct take over?” Freely giving up your life for strangers isn’t an evolutionarily sustainable strategy. We aren’t, for the most part, the descendants of those kinds of people.

    There’s no shame in failure. The shame is in rebranding failure and calling it success.

  5. Mitch Lewis says:

    Henry – Thanks for your comments, and (on Veterans Day) thanks for your service.

    Your distinction between “universal” and “specific” is important. I think that I take Jesus’ complete and absolute non-violence more seriously than many pacifists, but I understand it to be specifically one aspect of Jesus’ saving work in Galilee and Judea. This one shining moment in history informs and judges our lives, but Jesus did not intend his teachings be be abstract, universal ethical principles. How many people think that Jesus intended all believers in all times to walk from town to town begging for food and lodging?

    Your distinction between principle and application is also important. To believe in the responsible, lawful use of force does not mean that people will always agree on how and when to use force. The arguments that belong to this discussion, however, are different than we often hear from church leaders. “War is bad” is not a rational argument for or against any particular use of force.

  6. Clix says:

    I don’t think Henry is putting protecting the weak over loving your neighbor; we are called to love both the weak and the strong, but to protect only the weak. Does protecting the guy in the wheelchair mean loving either of them less? I certainly don’t think so.

  7. We are programmed to be tribal. Once you make the choice to admit the weak into your tribe, your emotional response to their attackers is pure instinct.

    Well, not quite. First, the issue isn’t tribal at all. I have concern for both the person who is unable to defend himself and for the attacker. In defending the weak I do not make a value judgment about the two people, I make a value judgment about their current actions.

    Because I care about what happens to both, I will use the least lethal form of intervention consistent with defending the weak person, but if that “least lethal” form ends up lethal, I will use it.

    There’s no shame in failure. The shame is in rebranding failure and calling it success.

    I’m not rebranding anything. In the worst case I listed, I have indeed failed to redeem the thug, but I have succeeded in protecting the weak. It would only be appropriate for me to feel guilty, however, if I had not made my best effort toward redemption.

    You appear to have an unrealistic expectation of success. Some people cling to their “badness” such that redemption will not happen. All efforts at their redemption are doomed to failure.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    We do know that Paul was willing to place himself in the hands of the Roman authorities from time to time, allowing them to protect him when they were willing to do so.

    Really? When? The closest to this is I suppose Acts 23:17, but this was when the authorities were already supposed to be protecting Paul. Note that in Philippi and initially in Jerusalem he refused to claim on his Roman citizenship in order to avoid mistreatment. In 25:10-11 he appealed to Caesar to ensure a fair trial.

    I don’t accept that violence is ever the best way to protect the weak. It may succeed temporarily, but it just feeds more violence. If you attack your thug and chase him off, he won’t give up, he’ll bring a gun next time and escalate the violence.

  9. I would regard Acts 23:17 as the best example, and he specifically arranges a change of circumstances and protection. I do not claim that a pacifist could not do so, but I consider it more consistent with someone who accepts the validity of forceful action by the state.

    don’t accept that violence is ever the best way to protect the weak. It may succeed temporarily, but it just feeds more violence. If you attack your thug and chase him off, he won’t give up, he’ll bring a gun next time and escalate the violence.

    I frequently hear this claim, but I’m not sure of the basis for it. I would regard violent treatment of a violent person to be quite effective in the right circumstances.

    You seem to me to be overgeneralizing this.

  10. Richie says:

    Underlying this entire discussion, as often with discussions on pacifism, seems to be the assumption that “violence” is intrinsically evil and that Christ specifically forbid it in the Sermon on the Mount, thus, setting a command and pattern for all of his followers.

    But if “violence” is intrinsically evil how can a just God in his righteous “wrath” judge the world and condemn to the lake of fire the ungodly? And, how could his judgments in the Old Testament upon wrongdoers have been just? And why is a government official in the NT specifically commended as “an avenger who carries out ‘God’s wrath’ on the wrongdoer” via bearing the sword? (Rom. 13). In fact, these officials are specifically called “ministers of God” in Rom. 13 – a principle that is illustrated throughout the Old Testament.

    There is no change in this from the Old Testament to the New. Justice is still justice and all of us participate either directly or indirectly in the resistance of evil – even governmentally, if we pay taxes, vote, etc. In fact, God’s new covenant people are specifically commanded to not only render governmental officials respect, but also to pay taxes for the specific support of their God-ordained work.

    So, are Christians supposed to pay for unbelievers to “avenge God’s wrath on wrongdoers” because it is somehow intrinsically evil and thus believers can’t participate directly (only indirectly) in it? Or is it not rather true that the work itself is godly and that believers themselves not only can, but should, participate in such actions – directly or indirectly – in participatory democracies (and maybe in others as well) so as to carry out the functions of government as justly as possible in the midst of this present evil age?

    If Christ’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount “do not resist evil (an evil person)” was meant to be universalized then it becomes a principle that contradicts many other biblical statements (as above). In fact, we all particularize this statement since we all “resist evil” in our children, in our schools and institutions, and in our adult population at all governmental levels. The use of “violence” is only a matter of degree in the process of resisting evil and Christ never mentions the word nor forbids it. He only speaks of not resisting evil (persons). In fact if taken as a universal statement, Christ’s statement would equally be “disobeyed” by the resistance of evil in “non-violent passive resistance” or any other acts of “civil disobedience” as well.

    God’s righteous judgement against evil will ultimately be carried out with complete justice at the final judgment. Until that time the resistance of evil by government officals is not only honorable but also godly work which can be carried out by believer or unbeliever alike. Though Veteran’s day is now past, I salute all – especially fellow-Christians – who have participated in doing so by serving in our Armed Forces.

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