"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Pacifism – 2

with 2 comments

One point that I concur with Hays is his critique of traditional Just War theory – the thought that there are certain wars that can be considered “just” by the church. There is a well-developed field of thought around that question, that includes a series of tests to determine just from unjust warfare.

I do recall once hearing John Stackhouse (the elder) comment that World War II was the only “just” war in his opinion, as it was undertaken to end the Holocaust. My problem with such assertions is that they are a bit facile when made in deep hindsight. The history suggests that the Allies were not aware of the Holocaust underway, or at least were not aware of the extent of what was taking place. History teaches me that most times you can not assess a priori if a war meets the “just” criteria. If Just War Theory has a use, I think it is mostly a retrospective use, to allow us to judge the actions of the past.

I would go even further and suggest that there is no such thing as a “just” war, and this is the main point where I think Hays errs in his analysis of the scriptural witness to violence and soldiering. He attempts to disprove that warfare and soldiering are holy undertakings, and concludes that they are unholy and not the domain of the Christian. His failure is the consideration of a middle position: the New Testament does condemn violence, but we live in a world in which sometimes violence is the only way we can save greater suffering.

Now, the automatic pacifist response to that argument is that it places us in the place of God. When we judge and act, we assume the mantle of Lord and preclude the possible goodness which we can not anticipate, but which God may bring out of the present evil. I’m not so sure as there is a delicate balance between God’s call on us to act, and his call on us to allow God to act.

What do I mean? What I mean is that sometimes we must choose the way of violence as the only option that exists in a violent and broken world. When we make that choice we should not try to dress it up in something like “just” war theory, but acknowledge that we are acting in a sinful manner and repent accordingly. Sometimes within the present reality, we have no choice but to follow a path that is not what Jesus would have done. When we do that, Jesus weeps, we weep, but maybe through our action there is a limit to the suffering.

The problem with absolute pacifism like Hays’ (in my mind) is that it is a wonderful academic or philosophical position to hold in the safety of a stable society. It is not so successful when it comes smack into the question of neighbourness. It is easy to say “I will not do violence” when you live in a culture where the chance you will need to be violent is slim at best. It is easy to say “I will not join the military” when you live in a country that has not been invaded or threatened in over 100 years. It is easy to do so in Canada, but I’m not sure that this easy path is the path of Christ.

Jesus said, Hear O Israel…Love God…this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. All the law and the prophets hang on total love of God and neighbour – which includes all of the New Testament teaching of Christ on violence. How do we reconcile love of neighbour with the absolute pacifist’s charge to do nothing, when our neighbour is dying?

I refuse to allow that question to become an academic one, because the only place the question takes a real meaning is in the face of actual decisions – to fight or not to fight.

In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the USA actively lobbied at the UN to prevent troops from being dispatched to stabilize the country. Those troops would not have needed to fight an extensive battle, but just needed to be present to protect the unarmed. What side of that decision would the pacifist choose? The USA’s active inaction resulted in the genocide proceeding unchecked – is that love of neighbour?

What about on a more personal level – a gang of drunken rapists enter your home by force with the sole goal of assaulting and murdering your wife and daughters? What does love of neighbour call you to do if you had access to the means to stop the violence, but that required you to use violence? What if it wasn’t your family, but your neighbour’s family that was under attack?

I do not believe that a coherent answer to the question of violence and the Christian can be made until the question of neighbour is firmly engaged. My perspective is that love of neighbour sometimes demands that we take actions which the teachings of Christ would mark as sinful. Acting for love of neighbour, without adopting a violent heart, serves to justify that action. Our response is to do the minimum harm necessary to protect those in need, and then to repent of our sin.


Written by sameo416

September 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm

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  1. Sometimes within the present reality, we have no choice but to follow a path that is not what Jesus would have done.

    This is where I get stuck: the idea that we might call Jesus Lord and then find it necessary to disobey him.

    Our response is to do the minimum harm necessary to protect those in need, and then to repent of our sin.

    But true repentance surely includes a resolve not to repeat the offence, whereas in your scenario we acknowledge that it may be necessary for us to repeat it again and again (given that ‘the present reality’ is not likely to change very much…).

    I would also note that Jesus and the early Christians did not practice love of enemies ‘in the safety of a stable society’. They practiced it in the middle of a Roman occupation of their country.

    I didn’t realise you were blogging again, my friend. You should blow your own horn a bit more!!!

    Tim Chesterton

    October 5, 2011 at 6:08 am

    • Hi Tim,

      This certainly demands a more thoughtful response, which I’ll work on. As we approach the season of remembrance events, my mind ends up back on these questions.

      I’m not thinking about living under a dictatorship, as the early Christians did. In that situation you can make the choice to submit to unjust authority and to suffer, or to fight. It’s a clearer question for me. The question that challenges me is the use of force when one is in the position to stop violence being done to others, but only through the use of force or at least the threat of force. Your choice to not act does not bring suffering upon you, but upon your neighbour.

      So, what does it mean to be a neighbour, when your neighbour is being murdered, and you have it within your means to save your neighbour, but only by injuring or killing the attacker?

      I keep coming back to Rwanda on this point (and Romeo D. was in town today speaking on mental health). If the US had supported UN action to send an armed force to Rwanda, the threat of force in-country would have likely halted much of the genocide. That UN force would have to go with the ability to use that force, just in case their presence was challenged. Would that be a Godly use of violence?

      My answer would still be no; however, it might be a situation where the best we could do is to respond with force…to accept we’re sinning…and to repent after the lives are saved. I can’t justify (in a Godly sense) violence by arguing that the situation is dire (that’s just an end justifies the means argument), but I can accept that it is perhaps the best we can do in a broken world.

      The contrary argument would seem to drive us to remain passive, albeit in prayer, while our neighbour is killed. My choice to opt for holiness brings suffering on others. I can’t accept that.

      However, I will freely acknowledge that not accepting that means that at times I will choose to act because the short-term protection of neighbour is more critical to me than the thought that God, in His time, will make all things right. That’s another sin by my measure, but the best I’ve been able to figure out in my brokeness.

      My stable and safe society comment wasn’t thinking back to our communion of the saints under occupation, but about how easy it is to debate pacifism when no one is seeking to kill your neighbour.


      October 5, 2011 at 11:06 pm

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