Some readers may be surprised to learn that pacifism is not a monolithic ideology. In fact, in Nevertheless: The Varieties of Religious Pacifism, Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder lists twenty-nine varieties of pacifism. Yoder’s list, which is confined to religious forms of pacifism, serves to illustrate the mind-boggling panoply of pacifisms on offer. For the purposes of this brief article explaining why I am not a pacifist, I will draw upon ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr’s simple two-fold division in his essay “Why the Church is Not Pacifist.”
Niebuhr argued that all versions of pacifism can be divided into two: absolute-consistent pacifism and pragmatic-inconsistent pacifism. The absolute-consistent pacifist is completely and entirely opposed to the use of lethal force. The pragmatic-inconsistent pacifist sometimes justifies war but still wants to call himself a pacifist. Given that the latter type of pacifist is inconsistent with its own ideal, and thus lacking any real purpose, we will focus our critique on absolute-consistent pacifism.
The absolute-consistent pacifist denies that there is any moral justification whatsoever for using lethal force. Even when faced with gross injustice and evil, the pacifist legitimizes non-violent responses alone. For the absolute-consistent pacifist, virtuous people cannot participate in violence for any reason. (Among consistent pacifists, there is disagreement on whether a virtuous person should support the use of deadly force by others.)
Arguments Used to Support Christian Pacifism
Most Christian pacifists use historical and theological lines of argument to support their pacifism. Historically, the argument is simple. They argue that the early church was almost uniformly pacifist. Theologically, the argument is more complex. This article will limit itself to a brief summary of some of the most prevalent theological arguments in support of pacifism.
In regard to the Old Testament, pacifists generally argue that God’s standards for Israel do not apply to Christians today. New Testament scholar Richard Hays, for example, argues that the Old Testament ethic flatly contradicts the New Testament ethic and thus is irrelevant for Christian moral understanding.
In regard to the New Testament, most pacifists make their primary argument from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus blesses “peacemakers” (Mt 5:9), commands his disciples to reject the “eye for an eye” ethic (Mt 5:38-42), and commands them to love even their enemies (5:43-46). Often, pacifists appeal to the narrative in which Jesus rebukes Peter for attempting to defend Jesus as he was being taken captive (Mt 26:52). Similarly, they appeal to Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians not to wage war as the world does, but to fight with spiritual weapons (2 Cor 10:3-5).
In regard to the doctrines of historic Christianity, pacifists appeal most often to the atonement. Richard Hays argues that the crucifixion narrative reveals a “Messiah who refuses the defense of the sword and dies at the hands of a pagan state that bears the power of the sword.” Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas argues that “non-violence…is at the very heart of our understanding of God.” In relation to the doctrine of the church, Hays argues that God calls the church to be a counter-cultural community who breaks the cycle of violence by embodying the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20).
As Nigel Biggar notes, these theological reasons for adopting pacifism are strengthened by what he calls “the virus of wishful thinking,” the tendency to think that all problems have rational solutions. I think Biggar is right. Many Western leaders have—to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase—an “unconstrained vision” for what the world could be. Ignoring the Bible’s teaching that human beings are constrained by our finitude and fallenness, these leaders are optimistic that human nature can take a great leap forward, that we can eradicate evil—in the pacifist’s instance by laying down our arms and thus being moral exemplars.
Why I Do Not Buy the Pacifist’s Arguments
In response to Christian pacifism, there are several arguments to be made. The first argument to be made is historical: early Christians were not uniformly pacifistic. In a later article, I will draw upon historians such as James Turner Johnson to prove this point.
The second argument to be made is biblical: the Bible’s teaching on warfare does not lead Christians to embrace a pacifistic ethic. Many pacifists adopt an approach to Scripture which prioritizes the so-called non-violence imperatives to the exclusion of passages which seem to justify violence in certain instances. This approach usually involves placing a greater priority on the direct words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels over other parts of the Bible, such as determining that the Sermon on the Mount provides non-violent principles by which all the rest of Scripture should be interpreted. A better interpretive approach would be to see Scripture as justifying violence in certain instances, such as self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3), police actions of the state (Rm. 13:4), or to protect others from harm (Ne. 4:14), and then to see the Sermon on the Mount providing an ethic of neighbor love which should characterize all our actions.
Consider, as a another example, the pacifist interpretation of Jesus rebuking Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. This interpretation makes the mistake of deriving a universal principle—the disarming of every soldier or police officer—from an absolutely unique and unrepeatable historic moment. In that moment, Jesus Christ, as God-in-flesh, was determined to die on a cross to atone for the sins of the world. Jesus, who mere hours before rebuking Peter had instructed his disciples to carry swords for self-defense (Lk. 22:36), was not making a statement about pacifism. He was making a statement about his determination to fulfill prophecy and provide for our salvation by dying on a cross.
The third argument to be made is theological. Again, this brief article can only provide a glimpse of the much more expansive argument to be made against the pacifist interpretation of the Bible.
Consider, as an example, the Christian doctrine of original sin. Scripture teaches that there exists in human beings an evil that cannot eradicated. Wars will continue until Christ returns (Mt 24:6). Justice must therefore include the use of lethal force. Justice without force is a myth. In an evil world, sometimes war is the only good and just way of achieving justice.
Or, consider the Bible’s teaching about atonement, church, and Christ’s return. Christ’s calling to lay down to pay for the sins of the world was singular. No other person has been, or will be, called to atone for sins in this manner. Hays is right that Christians must be people of a peaceful disposition. In our interpersonal encounters, our first impulse should not be retaliation but reconciliation. In our foreign policy, our first impulse should not be to wage war. And yet, in a world riddled by evil, sometimes force must be used to achieve justice. We should long for a day when weapons will be used no more (Ps 46:8-11; Is. 2:4).
Yet, we live in a fallen world in which evil cannot be eradicated and in which sometimes it cannot be avoided through peace talks or technical solutions. In the Bible, we are told that wars “will continue until the end” (Dan 9:26). The wisdom writer declares, “There is an occasion for everything…a time for war and a time for peace” (3:1,8). Therefore, Christians are good witnesses to the gospel by praying for peace and encouraging political leaders to avoid unnecessary wars. But we are also good witnesses when we love our neighbors by protecting them via lethal force.
Finally, consider the Bible’s teaching about love. As Reinhold Niebuhr argued, pacifism distorts Christ’s command to love by excluding large swathes of the biblical definition of true love. Love cannot be limited to the possession of a genuine attitude of goodwill toward persons with whom we interact (the focus of pacifists). Love also bears upon the larger, social dimension of our life together in this world. In the social dimension, one of love’s instruments is justice and justice must sometimes be achieved by force.
Pray for Peace, Prepare for War
I respect consistent pacifists but am convinced they are wrong. Pacifism applies the personal ethic of sacrificial love to the social problem of war and peace. It confuses the private with the public, the individual with the corporate, the personal with the political. Instead of pacifism, therefore, we must embrace an ethic—the just war ethic—in which one of love’s instruments is justice and justice must sometimes be achieved by force. Which means that while we pray for peace we must also be prepared for war.