"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Pacifism 4

with 2 comments

I wrote this when I was feeling particularly frustrated (and a bit persecuted) over the question of pacifism. My friend Tim (see the comments) took this as a personal attack, which it wasn’t. When I re-read it through his spectacles, I realized that it sounds like an arrow shot directly at him. Mea culpa. I’ll leave it up, as it has a bit of a prophetic sense about it, but with an introduction that forewarns of the strong language. It reflects an event which happened some time ago, in a different place and time, and caused considerable damage to those I was caring for. It also reflects a clear point of serious conflict for me – my call to serve as a soldier was as clear a vocational call as my call to the priesthood or to marriage. To accept that “Christians do not join the military” leaves me having to either renounce that call, or to conclude that God calls us into sin at times…both which are theologically unsupportable positions.

I see several major difficulties with the position of absolute pacifism. To be clear, an absolute pacifist is one who believes an absolute prohibition on violence is a commandment of God. That is, the Christian who deliberately commits an act of violence against another, is committing what a Roman Catholic would consider to be a mortal sin. There is a position I consider more balanced, which I might call a pragmatic pacifist, which is where I would find myself. A pragmatic pacifist is one who acknowledges Christ’s teaching against violence, but acknowledges that in a broken world this side of the parousia there is sometimes little choice but to use violence to meet the second Great Commandment, to love thy neighbour.

So, those difficulties…

• The Scriptural support for absolute pacifism is a derived moral teaching, as it cannot be demonstrated as a direct command of Christ. That there are lots of other things that fall into that category (like prostitution) does not alter the logic – those who claim Christ issued an absolute prohibition against violence do so by inferring that from related teachings. It is a derived moral teaching, not a command of Christ (and not anywhere near the same class as ‘love your neighbour’).

• Christ does not prohibit killing, but murder (through his affirmation of Torah), which is a different act of ending another’s life. Also, if you look at the Greek behind Matthew 26:52 “all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”, the verb (lambano) is a verb that implies the action of drawing the sword. That is an act of aggression or vengence – drawing the sword to stike back at a perceived wrong – which I would contrast strongly with an act of defence of neighbour. The context of that passage is a condemnation of those who would take up swords to attack those who were there to arrest Christ. That ties into a number of other passages (submission to the secular authorities for one) but I do not think the language supports an absolute prohibition.

• When I was in high school, I had two clear vocational calls from God. These were crystal-clear, and time has done nothing but confirm that God was the source of those calls. One was to marry my wife. The other was to become a soldier for the purpose of bringing peace. Unless you call me a liar, or misguided, or not a “real” Christian, I’m not sure how a godly vocational call such as mine supports an absolute prohibition.

• The ultimate failure of the pacifist position comes in the question of our response to horrific violence being done to the weak, to our neighbour. Hays offers the standard response to those questions, like what about ending the Holocaust, what about stopping the Rwandan genocide. The standard answer is…if “real” Christians had been involved, those things would not have happened, which is no response at all…I might equally glibly state that if Eve had not eaten the apple we would be in paradise right now, and while a nice thought it does nothing to forward the discussion as it has no basis in reality. We live in a broken world, a world where sometimes people seek to do great harm to others. If we have the means to protect our neighbour, and we refuse because of some higher moral command, I would suggest that we are failing to follow Christ’s will.

• Absolute pacifists are very quick to avoid answering that question directly, and it detracts greatly from their moral stance. If the answer to, what about Rwanda, is we did the right thing by not sending in troops to do violence and stop the killing, I would like to honestly hear that. If the answer to, what about the Holocaust, is we should never have sent troops overseas because to do so was a great sin, and we can trust God to care for those heading to the ovens, I would like to hear that directly and clearly. If the absolute pacifist prohibits all violence, even that which might save their family from a violent home invasion, I would like to hear that, directly and honestly.

• It is easy to have an absolute pacifist position living in a first world country where the vast majority of us will never even have a serious car accident, let alone a violent encounter with a criminal. It is easy to say “Christians do not become police officers” when there are people willing to be police who maintain that rule of order which allows us to live in safety and security. As Mennonite Ron Sider (www.cpt.org) points out, this is nothing but pure hypocrisy, as it relies on other people sending their sons and daughters into harm’s way to protect those who sit back and critique their actions.

• The position of absolute pacifism requires that the lessons of history be ignored, as it would argue that wars do no good whatsoever…or do so much evil that any possible good is lost. So, to support the moral belief of absolute pacifism, one must be prepared to assert that not stopping the Nazi machine in WW II would have had no impact on the world either way. Allowing the Nazi rule to continue would have left the world no worse than it is today, and might even have left it better. This is nonsense (because if you do not argue war does no good, and accept history shows some wars may have done much good, you’re right in the place of a pragmatic pacifist).

• The reason why the absolute pacifist position fails with me is because I have seen little evidence that those who so boldly proclaim that as “The” teaching of Christ have any inclination to place themselves in harm’s way to demonstrate how strongly they believe. It is one thing to courageously state your beliefs in a debate in a church in Canada, quite another to go and stand between combatants in a foreign land and risk real harm or death. If you are not willing to demonstrate love of neighbour by protecting them with force if required, are you willing to demonstrate that love by dying for your neighbour? The answer, all too often, is that the pacifist is unwilling to risk their own life to save another. As a soldier I took oath to defend the weak, even if it meant my death – are you willing to do the same? Will the pacifist serve his God with the same unlimited liability with which I served my country? In this, actions speak far louder than rhetoric.

• Finally, stating to a group of Christians, many of whom are veterans themselves, or ex-police, or spouses of veterans, or family members of veterans, that “real” Christians do not serve in the military or the police is one of the most horrific personal attacks cloaked in Christian teaching I have ever personally heard. If you have made such statements, you probably won’t hear about it, as you’ve condemned those individuals to silence (at least around you). I’ve dealt with the pastoral fallout of those statements, and it leaves those Christians deeply wounded – the worst impact is on the spouses of veterans who have died, one of whom asked me, “Does this mean my husband wasn’t a Christian?” That sort of teaching is no different than the rationale used to persecute fellow Christians that has been trotted out throughout history (and there is more than a hint of irony that it often comes from the Anabaptist perspective, given the degree that the Anabaptists were persecuted by other Christians). That an absolute pacifist is willing to so quickly cause such harm to fellow Christians does not lead me to see God behind their conviction, but only power.

My main problem with absolute pacifism is that it demands that I stand by and watch while my neighbour is slaughtered. While I make the moral decision to safe-guard my own holiness, at no cost to myself, my neighbour bears the cost by dying.

In the Good Samaritan, the blessing of being called a neighbour goes to the one who showed mercy to the wounded. Christ teaches that showing mercy, being a neighbour, trumps the previous absolute rules about purity. My understanding of Scripture is that my choice to be a neighbour to the weak, by sometimes using force, similarly sometimes trumps Christ’s teaching on violence.

Until I see absolute pacifists willing to die to support their moral position, I am afraid it is just another voice in a sea of voices. On November 11th, I will remember the soldiers who spoke their belief in blood, on beaches and in forests or desert in far away lands.

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Written by sameo416

November 11, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Well then , since you’ve just judged me to be exegetically inaccurate (although reputable scholars and the vast majority of the post-apostolic Fathers agree with my exegesis), uncaring about those who suffer violence (although I care deeply about the millions of innocent victims of war), historically ignorant (although I spent twenty-five years as a non-pacifist and read quite a lot of military, especially naval, history during that time), pastorally barbaric towards those who served and their families (although my mentor Bishop Jack Sperry served in the Royal Navy, and my grandfather spent 4 years in the trenches in the most senseless war in recent history) and a coward who hides behind the guns of others (although I have served in isolated northern communities and have walked unarmed into situations of alcoholic violence when the nearest police were an hour’s plane ride away)…

    …what’s left for me to say?

    Except to ask, Matt, why you are spending all this time and energy on us poor benighted pacifists? Tens of thousands of people attended official Remembrance Day activities yesterday; less than a hundred came to our prayer service and peace walk. The vast majority of Christian leaders don’t want to know us; the likelihood of us ever being a majority in the mainline denominations is minimal at best. Why are we such a threat to you that you feel you have to write at such great length and use such contemptuous and dismissive language about us?

    I’m very curious about that.

    Tim Chesterton

    November 12, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    • Those comments were not directed at you…but are some of my frustration over an incident that happened in a parish dear to my heart a few years ago. Those comments are not directed at anyone who has the courage to walk into danger to proclaim Christ’s presence. They are directed at people that preach a cheap grace, and condemnation of others, without any willingness to take up Christ’s cross on their own.

      Please, don’t read my comments about Anabaptists as pointed your way, or towards most of that ilk…you were not in my mind as I wrote. The only thing I’ll say is that sometimes the spray from a shotgun takes out more than one bird in the flock. It is directed at a number of commentators I’ve been reading who have a quite glib approach to pacifism and are quick to condemn others who disagree, or to call us not real believers.

      I’m not sure the early church witness is that unitary on the question of pacifism in believers, just as I’m not sure the church fathers were of one mind on the question. There’s lots of debate that can go either way on the authorities, which is one reason why I’m not interested in that aspect.

      The goal wasn’t contempt, but to speak directly and bluntly about the issues on which I feel absolute pacifism fails, which is to address the question of our response to violence done to the weak.

      What I am interested in is those who are happy to proclaim a teaching as “the” teaching, but are unwilling to bear any of the burdens that go with that teaching…and I seem to have been encountering a large number of those witnesses as of late. My message is very much that of Ron Sider, to ask how committed believers really are.

      To be blunt, after watching a 37 year-old widow with her 10 and 7 year-old daughters lay a wreath as the silver cross mom this year, I’ve had it with glib pacifism that condemns the soldiers that have gone where many of those glib commentators would never think to go. If you’re not one of that crowd, hold your head high. I have great respect for any absolute pacifist who brings that moral teaching to life in a real way. For me, I’m tired of condemnation without commitment.

      It’s not response to threat, it’s truth-telling. I don’t do it for anyone at all, except to fulfill one aspect of my ministry, one aspect I don’t always enjoy, but which I agreed to follow regardless of the cost.

      sameo416

      November 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm


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