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7) Pacifism

1. What is/was Pacifism? Pacifism is usually thought of as the refusal to participate in war or other forms of potentially lethal force on principle. I have always accepted that view and so I have defined myself as “not a pacifist.” I have never believed that the violence of war was always and everywhere uncalled for or unnecessary. I do believe there are some situations, some conditions worse than war and that war could be called for in such terrible situations, for the sake of a greater justice.

However, such wars, such virtually just wars, if they ever existed, have gotten rare. It is hard to think of a war in which my country has participated in my lifetime that has been a just war.

Everyone assumes that due to my Christian outlook, I have a politically liberal stance on many issues and that I will therefore harshly judge the wars of the Republicans and give Democratic wars a pass. Not so. Wars which the U.S. waged in the first half of my life were bi-partisan affairs; Truman’s Korean War became Eisenhower’s and Johnson’s Viet Nam, without a doubt, became Nixon’s War. Only since Clinton have parties turned from pro to con and vice-versa on wars for political advantage. At least that is my impression – I could be wrong again.

No, I am not talking politics here. I am not even concerned about the motives for Beirut or Mogadishu or Belgrade, let alone Baghdad or Kandahar Province. I am talking about how Christians ought to behave in the light of the coming of the kingdom of God. Am I in danger of setting up a false dilemma, Christians as kingdom-citizens vs. Christians as citizens of nations? This discussion will not lead me there.

My thesis is this. Jesus, the messiah, took on the forces of violence, both in little Israel and in massive Rome by absorbing, grounding and shaming violence. The earliest generations of Christians were pacifists, one and all. Pacifism was a part of the early ways of God’s people. Given that war requires violence and always means the violation of the norms of creation, given that war is hell, given that violence always begets violence and never solves any problem for long, surely, Christians today ought to work in their various nations as well as internationally, toward solutions which get behind and beyond violence. Christians, it seems to me, of all people, ought to work for and promote both peace and justice. Surely today, those who desire to erect signs toward the coming of the kingdom of God ought to oppose war. That is the sort of pacifism I wish to promote. War and warlike behavior should always and everywhere be our last, most remote option.

2. How was Pacifism lost? The answer to this question is well-documented. Christians avoided service in the Roman Legions as long as the empire was the enemy of the Christian faith. But when Constantine became a Christian he had his whole army baptized, en mass. After that, some actual Christians and many nominal believers were in the Roman Army. And while there have been pacifist groups throughout the sixteen-plus centuries of Christian experience since, they have almost universally been groups who questioned the legitimacy not just of war and the military but of government itself. In fact, it is hard to believe government is a good creature of God and oppose one of the main tasks of government, the defense of national borders through armed force.

3. Should Pacifism be reclaimed?  There are some Christians who believe they and we should have as little to do with government as possible. I disagree. I do not imagine, as some have recently written, that God did not create government. I do not think God just found government lying around somewhere and decided to “ordain” it in a pinch because of the rebellious hearts of humankind. I believe God created “the state” and intends it to serve as his servant in every society for the sake of law and justice. I suspect government on some level would still be necessary, even in a perfect world with perfect people. Ironically, it does seem to be lost on some people that the institution which Jesus announced he was inaugurating which would never end is a political entity: the kingdom of God. There is no area of life in which God does not call on his people to make just/righteous signposts of the kingdom, including government.

So what about an essentially pacifist government? Must government be violent? How does one believe that God created government for the sake of justice but at the same time promote peace?

How about this? Imagine a government which prioritizes every issue and activity in terms of service and compassion? Imagine a government which has the sword at its disposal and trains its soldiers to use it but sends the bulk of its personnel to the peace college rather than the war college, that focuses its attention on prevention of conflict, on conflict resolution and reconciliation rather than on SWAT, killing and war. Imagine a nation that is much better known for its diplomacy, its micro-bank loans and irrigation systems than for its saber-rattling, its attack drones and its special forces.

Back in the 90s, Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton declared his policy on abortion: that it “be safe, legal and rare.” As a pro-life guy, I scoffed at this slogan. It sounded like a cop-out to me. What followed taught me a lesson. Because his administration focused on eliminating the conditions which led to abortion and on prevention of the need for abortion, rates of abortion declined sharply during his time in office. And although the next President opposed the very legality of abortion he also slashed the prevention funds made available by his predecessor and the rates of actual abortions climbed markedly. Although I am and have always been pro-life, it was the pro-choice guy that brought down the actual numbers of abortion in the U.S. Made me think.

My point is, even if most nations must maintain armies and even if they must sometimes be forced to fight, can we not make it a priority and work hard to make war itself rare? Ought not God’s people be advocates for the end of all sorts of violence? Ought God’s soldiers be the people who shoot an enemy if ordered to do so but then, because of Christ, worm their way over to the fallen enemy in order to heal him? As bizarre as such a scenario sounds, what other choice would a Christian soldier have than to save the life of a child of God if she could? At some point the people of God need to stand up for the gospel and its priorities in all of life, including government and the “defense” of the nation.

In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.

Richard Foster,[1] again, to remind us, to keep us focused on the point. And if the Spirit comes in power, will not the same Spirit who guided the Quakers to free their slaves en mass in 1753 guide Christians today to be people of peace? 

Do, please, come, Holy Spirit. We are so confused and divided and upside down right now. We need you to shake us and to shake the world again! Amen.

Please join me in praying that the Spirit of God will fall afresh on his people; that we might again be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming body of Christ to bring heaven down as we were taught to pray.

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1 Back to Post Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline The Path to Spiritual Growth, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983 [1978]) page 175.