The Long Journey of a Christian Pacifist

It has been said that ‘life is strange, and then you die’. There is some truth to that aphorism. I am 60 now and I’ve seen a lot of life. Some of the strangeness comes from one’s individual life experiences. Consider my childhood. I grew up in High Point N.C. playing Civil War soldiers with my Jewish girl friends down the street. I read books about the Civil War (ranging from Classics Illustrated to Bruce Catton, when I got older). I went through the Pictorial History of the Confederacy more times than I care to count. I still have the book. I was a Southern boy, the son of a ‘patriot’, as my father served proudly in WWII in the European theater.

Something was in the air however in the 60s, with the rise of the Jesus movement. I will never forget the Sunday that a ‘radical’ from High Point College came to Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, and took over the pulpit during the 11 o’clock service (much to the shock of everyone there), and ranted and raved about how unchristian the Vietnam War, an undeclared war I might add, was. The thing is, though I didn’t really like the man’s rudeness and interrupting of worship, I actually had begun to agree with his message.

Actually reading the Gospels as a High School student required to read the Bible for my God and Country award, it began to dawn on me that: 1) the Sermon on the Mount was rather important when it came to Christian ethics, and 2) I came to the conclusion Jesus would not have agreed with Richard Nixon about the moral nature of the Vietnam war. Indeed, he would not have agreed with the idea that any of the wars fought by the U.S. in my lifetime were examples of ‘just wars’ or even ‘justifiable wars’.

Jesus, as it turns out was a hard core pacifist and he was serious as a heart attack about that non-resistance, turn the other cheek, take up your cross and be prepared to die at the hands of your enemies stuff. He was, to use an oxymoron, an adamant even a belligerent pacifist. ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword’ was his warning, and when his disciples tried to take up swords for the sake of the Kingdom Jesus not only told them ‘enough of that’ but he then repaired the damage to the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus was in deadly earnest about being the Prince of Peace.

So where did that leave me? Well, I had Quaker friends like Allen Haworth and for them it meant conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. So….. I decided that is what it meant for me as well. As you might well imagine, when it came to my being old enough to be draft eligible and I told my father I intended to go get the ‘papers’ (i.e. the conscientious objector forms), he was none too pleased. He tried to argue me out of it. He failed.

One of the things I will always admire about my father is that when he saw he couldn’t convince me, he went with me to the big Post Office to the Selective Service Office on Green St. to get the papers. He wasn’t happy, but he respected my right to make up my own mind. It showed me how much he loved me. I will never forget that.

As it turned out, my draft number was 192. So I was convinced to wait and see how things played out. My birthday was December 30th, so perhaps they would never get to my number by the end of the year, and I wouldn’t have to file those papers. So I waited, and waited, and waited, and they got into the 170s in the Fall. I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. The moment of truth seemed imminent.
As it happened however, they never got to my number in High Point, and I am sure my father and mother were relieved that I never filed those papers. Not that either one of them wanted me to go to Vietnam and come back in a box. But they also were not going to sing along like I did to Country Joe and the Fish when they sang at Woodstock:

“And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for,
Don’t ask me I don’t give a dam…
Next stop is Vietnam.

“And it’s one, two, three
Open up the pearly gates
Ain’t no time to reason why
Whoopee we’re all gonna die.”

And then I went to Carolina. The very first day on campus I saw them collecting money for the Kent State fund. National Guardsmen had shot our own American college students for protesting the war. That was my wake up call to just how much a pacifist could be an endangered species if they protested too loudly or long in public. Note to self—- ‘be careful, people will see you as unpatriotic and un-American’ (further note to self— ‘they still do when you stand up for pacifism in America’).

I never saw myself as unpatriotic or a coward, indeed it took a lot of courage to take the stand I did. I profoundly loved and love my country. I just saw myself as the loyal opposition suggesting there were better ways to settle our differences. I was pretty sure when Jesus insisted we love our enemies he didn’t mean love them to death at the point of a gun. I became especially clear about this reflecting on the Lukan Passion narrative where Jesus prayed for his executioners “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Clearly this Gospel thing was deadly serious about forgiving instead of killing, or retaliating, or doing bodily harm. And I am happy to say that thus far, I have kept my bargain with Jesus on that score. I have never done violence of any kind to anyone. I hope I never will. Moses was also right when he said “no killing”.

Killing leaves blood on your hands, whether it’s manslaughter or pre-meditated murder or vehicular homicide. Killing is forever. If I ever did that, even by accident, or even while just intending to protect someone else’s life, I’d still have to do some serious repenting afterwards. All human life is sacred, and I have no right to take someone else’s life away. Ever. And BTW, the Bible says leave vengeance entirely in the hands of the Lord, he will repay.

What makes the journey of a pacifist long and hard is because of course you are swimming upstream in America, and sometimes you are swimming against a torrential flood in the other direction. You get used to being called a coward, unpatriotic (and a few unmentionable things), and this is all the more likely to happen to you, because you feel like that deer in the Far Side cartoon (see above). The Amish in one sense, take the easy way out. It would be one thing to live in a conclave of like-minded pacifists. That would be easier (see the movie The Witness). It’s harder to be in the world whilst not being of the world. It’s harder to be a non-sectarian, non-monastic pacifist. It just is.

There is some consolation in all this from consistency. In my book, to be truly pro-life across the board, one needs to be opposed to abortion, capital punishment, and war. Period. That is to be totally pro-life. I don’t much understand what the disconnect is for people who at the same time are adamantly pro-birth, nevertheless are some of the strongest advocates for guns, capital punishment, and war. I realize that war, capital punishment, and abortion are not the same issue, but they are very much related life issues, and one’s life ethic, one’s worldview approach to them should be broadly the same, or so it seems to me.

One of the things that has shocked me most about the youth today is how readily they line up as lambs to the slaughter in Afghanistan or Iraq with never a single protest, or even ‘on further review….’. Never. Where is the moral outrage against the hideousness of war, which as General Mark Clark rightly called it is “hell….on earth”? It is MIA. Where are the good debates about whether Afghanistan is a righteous cause or not? They too are missing in action. We will hear nothing about this matter in the Presidential debates I would wager. Nothing. Both candidates will wrap themselves in the flag while claiming to be Christians. And they will lose no sleep over it either. It’s very disappointing. Even if there was just a little wrestling with the moral issues I might feel better about voting for one or the other of them. But we don’t even see that.

Clearly 2012 is not 1968 in America. Can you imagine George McGovern running now for President? Or Eugene McCarthy? We are in a far more brutal stage of American history now, where even the rhetoric becomes abusive and violent, with shock jocks on the radio spewing venom of all sorts from the right and the left. We don’t talk to or dialogue with one another any more— we just yell at each other in twitters, tweets, emails, bumper stickers, rallies, on the radio, on TV, with the help of PACS. It’s almighty depressing, frankly.

Some days I feel like moving to Switzerland, but then I remember, I am the loyal American opposition, and even if my voice is drowned out I still have a vote and a right to be heard. If America really wanted to be a more Christian country it would study war no more, learn how to beat its swords into plowshares, and spend its military billions on the peaceful work of disaster relief in Haiti, Africa, wherever instead figuring out new ways to more easily destroy other human lives.

Some days I feel like John the Baptizer— a voice crying in a brutal wilderness. I wonder how many of you out there feel this way, but having gotten the beat down, at least verbally, have been Limbaughed or O’Rileyed into submission once or twice for being a pacifist? And so you have kind of gone silent and deep, gone underground, pulled your hat down low on your head and walked on by. But at home you listen again to Bobby Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ or Joan Baez’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and weep.

This much I know for sure. I am proud to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and if that puts me at odds with my country’s official policies about abortion, capital punishment, or war, well then— so be it. I want to be totally pro life until the day I die. I don’t want to be like Lady MacBeth with blood on her hands which she curses again and again saying ‘out out, damned spot’ but she never can wash herself clean.

For me, part of being holy, being pure, being clean, being like Jesus, is being a pacifist. And whatever the cost, I do not regret it….and I doubt I ever will. And dat is all I got to say just now, about dat.

  • Danny Yencich

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Witherington. I am with you on this (and I believe we are both with Jesus). Grace and peace.

  • unkleE

    Excellent Ben. I am a few years older than you, my number came up and I served in the Australian army for two years as a reluctant conscript, but I wasn’t required to go to Vietnam (I would have refused). I went in believing as I had been taught that we needed to stop the communists, but came out close to a pacifist, believing as you do, that Jesus’ teachings cannot be interpreted any other way. It took me a little longer than it did you, but I got to the same place. Well done and well said!

  • James Petticrew

    Deeply respect you for the position you describe here. I must admit I loved the year we lived in the States, many of my best friends are American, so this is not from anti-US stance but I was shocked by how militaristic the US was when we were there. The armed forces seemed to me like a cultural idol, no criticism or questing was allowed. I am certain the military of the US is filled with many fine men and woman and is in so many ways a credit to your country however I fear deeply for any nation that has a military which thinks it is above criticism, reproach or accountability.

    Where are the American Christians asking difficult questions about the shocking numbers of innocent men, women and children being killed in Pakistan by US drones? Can a Christian really believe it’s just to kill innocent people in order to ensure enemies are killed? What would the US think of drone strikes by Mexico or Canada on it’s territory?

  • JeremyJ

    Thank you BWIII. I never thought when I started seminary at Asbury that I would find myself rejecting violence and embracing pacifism. I am an Army vet (peacetime) I was bought and sold on the way of war and violence. I went to a Christian undergrad where I never once heard the way of war question or challenged. But at Asbury in a post 9/11 world, three years follwing that dark day I was a Christian wrapped in the flag and serving as an apologist for our American wars. In that place I heard for the first time a challenge to take seriously Jesus’ command to love my enemy, a command that previously ignored or killed by a death of a thousand qualifications. Over the next couple years I found myself a self described “struggling pacifist”. When I graduated in 2009 I was known by my peers as one of the Christian pacifists on campus, some of them watched my transformation.

    What I feared was what would happen to my fervor and pacifist commitments once I left the vacuum of seminary. For awhile in my first church I stayed relatively quiet, until the question came up in a church administative meeting. I found at that time that my commitments weren’t the stuff of ivory tower day dreams but they were real and for the first time I had to stand firm on these issues which had become so formational in my life.

    Now, years later from that moment in my new church I am open about my pacifism, I don’t flaunt it and one of my best friends here is a vet who served a tour in Iraq. On this issue we disagree, but in Christ we agree. In some ways today it is easier to be a pacifist, since there is an ever rising tide against our current conflicts, but I do not preten that given another opportunity for a national or individual used of violence that I would then find myself at odds with very sincere people. I pray that God’s grace fills the gap between us so that my commitments to pacfism would not be met with anger and rejection but that we can meet and serve one another in love.

  • Michael Gorman

    Thanks for this, Ben; am with you all the way. After 9/11 we posted a sign on our gate, “War is not the Answer,” courtesy of the Quakers. It is still there–and we live 3 miles from Ft. Meade and NSA. When Tom Wright, who is not a pacifist but is a critic of current wars–visited our house, the first thing he saw was the sign. He read it aloud and immediately, spontaneously said, “Amen.”

  • Dave

    Dr. Witherington,

    While I disagree with some of your pacifist views, I would like to echo the admiration the other commentators have expressed for your consistent stand on this issue.

    I respect the strength and depth of your convictions and hope that one day I can feel as certain of my beliefs in this area as you do. This has been a trying part of my faith journey, especially here in the US where there is much heat but little light on both sides of this issue.

  • Stephe

    I’d like to echo Dave’s sentiments and I too struggle to reconcile my Christian faith on these issues.

    Nobody wants war and violence but the truth is we don’t live in an Utopian society. There are people that want to kill us. Just look at the situation with Israel. Should they lay down their weapons and let their enemies wipe them off the map? What if no one stood up to Hitler?

    In my opinion, being a pacifist only works if either:
    1. Everyone is a pacifist
    2. There are non-pacifists that will fight to protect the pacifists.

  • Terrence O’Casey

    Ben, the documentary on Desmond Doss, a 7th day Adventist serving as a medic during WWII who ended up winning a congregational medal of honor is a great example of a courageous pacifist. If you have a chance, show the DVD to your students. It is about God and country without making our country or war our God.

  • David D. Flowers

    Thanks, Ben! I wasn’t aware that you held these views. I’m an even bigger fan than I was before. You’re not alone.

  • Kevin Stamps

    While I respect your views and the consistency thereof, I find that Christians who staunchly hold this position at all costs are naive. To argue against the legal and moral issues of certain and particular wars is definitely a patriotic and ethical thing to do. However, to simply state that military service or war in any form is wrong is a blatant failure to understand how the world truly is. As you might imagine, I’m an officer in the U.S. Army and a soon-to-be graduate of Asbury. I laughed when I read that you felt “beat up” about being a pacifist because the past four years at ATS have been that way for me (as far as not being a pacifist).

    Have any of you seen the filth and squaller that Iraqis and Afghans live in? And it’s not because of the military. I assure you our engineers have risked life and limb to rebuild and fix that nation. Women and children who were destined to a life of male domination now attend schools. It just seems that so many who hold this pacifist view have no clue how the world really is. It’s easy to hold your position while behind the desk of academia. It’s much harder in the desert of Iraq.

    Remember when Bush said we don’t negotiate with terrorists? People hooped and hollered because they thought that was masculine and tough. But in reality, we don’t negotiate with terrorists because they won’t negotiate. We’ve thrown money at the issue, humanitarian aid, and even military security and it hasn’t helped. So my simple question to my pacifist brothers and sisters is how exactly do we protect the week that are slaughtered every day? Pray about it? Hope really hard that some day it will get better? Send over some food that the terrorists can steal and then sell (a la Somalia/Black Hawk Down)? I just think that what you consider the moral high ground isn’t much more than an ant hill.

  • Scott

    Dr. Witherington,

    I do agree wholeheartedly that Jesus is the ultimate example of pacifism, even when he knows he will be crucified he tells Peter that he could command a whole army of angels if he wanted to intervene, but he doesn’t.

    I do know that those who are familiar with the gospels will ask about the time Jesus went into the temple and cleared out the money lenders. This seems to point to the idea that while we are called to peace, we should not be afraid to take action if necessary.

    I also know many people point to Joshua, when the Israelite’s were heading into the promised land and they were ordered to kill all the men women and children, how do we reconcile these events with the example of Jesus?.

    If Jesus is an example of pacifism, then does that not support the argument that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different, one is vengeful, and one is loving?

  • Russell Purvis

    Definitely have felt the harsh words for being a pacifist. Thanks for speaking prophetically to us.

  • Ben Witherington

    Kevin its not a matter of naivete. I know what the world’s evil can do. I have indelibly printed on my brain my father’s stories from WWII and from talking with Holocaust victims. I know, but the issue is not naivete, it has to do with the level of commitment in spite of the evil in this world. BW3

  • Josh Crain

    Yes, Ben, thanks so much for this post. I’m a pastor who has been very “out” about his pacifism. I taught an entire series on it in 2010 and several families left our church over it. I’ve never insisted that people agree with me, but I’ve always encouraged them to at least consider it.

    I appreciate you speaking out on this, as I feel the more opportunities people have to interact with respected Christian pacifist the more likely they are to consider the position on its merits. Thanks again for writing this post.

  • Andy

    Thank You. I especially am grateful to hear someone express a consistent Christ-like response across the broad spectrum of life issues. I for one stand with you.

  • Larry Chouinard

    Thanks Ben–
    I became a Jesus follower in the late sixties, and had it not been for my association with a pacifist church I would have struggled with the general agreement of most churches with Nixon’s war. The effort to explain away the Sermon on the Mount and applauding those who joined the armed forces felt like a total compromise of Jesus’ message and mission. I’ve always been in the minority with my pacifist views, but scholars like you, Wright, Hays, Gorman, and Hauerwas have been a valued biblical and theological resource and encouragement. Thanks for speaking out.

  • Jason Shambach

    Hi Ben, thanks for the post. I’m sympathetic but I’d like to challenge. The Nazis come to your door and ask if you are hiding Jews. If you lie, they will take your word for it and leave. If you tell the truth, the Jews will be killed. What would you do? It seems to me that either way you break a moral law by your own agency: either you make an exception to the rule against lying or you make an exception to the rule to uphold the innocent by (indirectly) causing their death. If you are not going to protect the Jews, why hide them in the first place? Why give shelter to victims that would be safer without your “help”? Is it just to turn the Jews away (or heal on the Sabbath)? But maybe you would lie to protect the Jews. But then I’m interested in why it is okay to make certain exceptions for lying, but not for killing. Thoughts?

  • Ben Witherington

    Clearly you need to watch the movie The Hiding Place where this very situation came up, and the Ten Booms had an answer that honored God and protected the Jews. BW3

  • David Warkentin


    Thanks for sharing your personal story on this serious matter. In your role, such openness comes with risk, so your courage is inspiring.

    To those who question the practicality of Christian pacifism (important to note BW3 is promoting pacifism rooted in Jesus, not social policy), in many ways you’re right with your criticism from a practical standpoint. But from a Christian perspective we need to critique pacifism through the grid of Jesus’ example: suffering servant. Pragmatically, the cross was the biggest failure. But living in the light of resurrection, we recognize how through suffering Jesus brings victory over the cycle of death and violence. This is the way of the cross to which we are called (Mk. 8:34). Social policy? No. Spirit-empowered way of life? Yes. Does this create enormous personal tension as live as citizens of war-endorsing nations? Absolutely!

    At the same time, however, this does not mean all pragmatic value for pacifism is lost. But instead of a sound theory, we get stories. As BW3 as illustrated with his own story, I think the value of peace and nonviolence is best understood through storytelling. I recommend these stories:
    “Old Radicals”
    “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” -Philip Hallie.
    “I Shall Not Hate” -Izzeldin Abuelaish

  • Percival

    Move to Switzerland? Ha! In Switzerland there is mandatory military service and by law you must keep an automatic weapon and ammo in your house. Switzerland is not a pacifist nation by any means.

  • Ben Witherington

    Yes Percival but it is peaceful, and they don’t fight wars. BW3

  • Ladye Rachel Howell

    Thank you for your post, we are with you. My husband and I are 34 years old and were introduced to the pacifist heritage we didn’t know we had by Lee Camp ten years ago, and we have found it a difficult subject to dialogue with people about.

    I think eschatology plays a huge role in this discussion – when we see our task as announcing God’s kingdom that is already here/still coming, a kingdom that trumps all other allegiances, a kingdom in which we will all be raised again with newly remade spectacular bodies on a newly remade earth, how can we take up violent arms against another of God’s creatures?

  • Justin Bronson Barringer

    I feel like that at Asbury Seminary fairly often. Thankfully there are a few like-minded folks willing to speak up, and even better some who model nonviolence for me with their entire lives. Not to add in a shameless book plug, but that is precisely the reason I put together A Faith Not Worth Fighting For. I was hoping it would not only answer some serious questions Christians have about nonviolence, but that it would also encourage more people to be confident in their convictions about nonviolence precisely because they are confident in the resurrection of Jesus, and in his return.

  • John

    My number was 195 but they only took to 192 that year. I had had a ‘college deferment’ up till that didn’t matter any more. I was scared stiff about going, mainly because I was afraid of dying. I have struggled with ‘war’ too but I grew up playing soldier and killing Germans/Japs. My favorite program was Combat! I thought we had to fight the communists and keep them from taking over the world.

    But I have come to the same conclusion as you – that killing in any form is not condoned anywhere in scripture. Even in the Old Testament where Israel was commanded to wipe out a nation – it was done in the context of God’s judgment upon that Nation. Never done just for the fun of it or indiscriminately.

    I had shared this sentiment with my FaceBook friends and was met with deathly silence… I would have thought that my saying that soldiers are not hero’s would have gotten some kind of response. Nothing. I did mention that those who suffered from their participation in the wars should be cared for and helped… but to say they are hero’s was a bit too much.

    Anyway, thank you for expressing this in the way that you did.

    God Bless,


  • Stephen

    This all sounds very nice and is no doubt Christ-like, but the reason you can choose to be pacifists is because others choose not to be and protect you. I trust the Lord will watch over me and I’m certainly not a violent person, but if someone on the street walks up and attacks me or my family I’m certainly not just going to stand there and watch it happen.

    As for Switzerland, it’s true they don’t fight in wars but I bet if someone attacked them they wouldn’t just roll over. And if they did, they would expect someone (non-pacifist) to save them.

  • Owen

    While I definitely respect pacifism’s general stance and tone as well as your specific conviction, Dr. Witherington, since pacifism does stand in response to the violent and overly pragmatic bend that people can tempted to too easily take, I have to difficulties with extrapolating that Jesus was a staunch, rigid pacifist.

    While a blog is not the place to get into a fully fleshed out thesis, I am often curious as to the role of concept of wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount. Both Matthew and Luke record versions of the sermon, and both also emphasize wisdom in their gospels (with it being even an implicit identifiction of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew). While that may be merely a coincidence, many of Jesus says in the sermon have a wisdom-like character, such as Matthew 7:2, or the inductive reasoning that is prominent in wisdom in Matthew 5:45. Old Testament Wisdom (or Biblical wisdom for Jesus) embraced tension and saw exceptions, such as the famous “There is a time for X, there is a time for Y” in Ecclesiastes.

    Does Jesus imagine the Sermon on the Mount as taking on universalizing qualities (while trying to avoid anachronism, it is much akin to Formal Reasoning in modern day Piagetian psychology)? Or as something to be highly emphasized and important but doesn’t deny the Biblical paradox about violence and allow for exceptions (similar to Postformal though in modern day Piagetian categories)? We see when Jesus is battling the Pharisees over the interpretation of the Sabbath in the Torah, Jesus rejects the categorical approach that the Pharisees have regarding the Sabbath: one can do work on the Sabbath day that is good (noticeably, Jesus uses an inductive argument in that episode). Is Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees (which is explicit at points in the Sermon on the Mount) a conflict between simply what is righteous, or is a conflict between the very way the Pharisees and Jesus interpret and apply the moral imperatives of the Torah? If it is the latter, I would suggest we not read Jesus words with a universalizing tone, because that simply repeats what the Pharisees would often do. Instead, I suggest Jesus is creating a different paradigm of interpretation, enacted in his own cultural context, that embraces the tensional nature of Biblical wisdom along with Torah: so Jesus isn’t concerned about create universal rules that are meant to be a categorical rejection of all violence, but rather explicating the deeper wisdom of God that speaks against the self-centeredness of people in our conflicts with and in our own piety.

    Apologies is this is too much to write in this comment: I have condensed down my opinions. I would love to hear your respond, Dr. Witherington.

  • Patrick

    Personally, I am not a pacifist.

    I tend to see Jesus’ calls on the sermon on the mount as parallels to His calls pre Incarnation for Israel to avoid combat because “I am not with you” due to their apostasy levels. They always ignored Him as they did in 70 AD again and they always got the snot knocked out of them.

    Lamentations 3:30 is almost a parallel type of “turn the cheek” thought, I know there’s an Isaiah verse where Yahweh orders Jews “not to gloat over a fallen enemy” and Jeremiah was ordered to tell Judah not to resist Babylon’s invasion because it was Yahweh’s pre determined plan to punish Israel with Babylon. But, there was tons of warfare Yahweh did order, so it was based on Israel’s relationship with Him and the paradigm it seems to me.

    Having said this, IF I had it to do over again, I would advise my children not to volunteer to serve in the US military( I did the opposite as a young father). We go to war for frivolous and often dishonorable causes and have since early on. Only if we are invaded is it valid to make war on another people group, IMO.

    Most our warfare cannot be rationalized away using any Christocentric logic. We have to be willing to dehumanize humans who God loves and kill them for selfish nationalist interests often having squat to do with our freedom, then convince ourselves that pleases God and they were really cockroaches and deserved it.

    Here’s a weird comment that will upset everyone. Of all the warfare the USA has voluntarily entered, the Vietnam war might be among the better ones. If you check every conflict, that one had less selfish motives than most. Not discussing tactics, we’ve always been willing to kill non combatants.

  • Ben Witherington

    Owen, thanks for that. The long answer is in my commentary on Matthew and in my book Jesus the Sage. You are right about the wisdom character of the material in general, but that doesn’t in any way lesson the force of the imperatives. This is an ethic for a specific community— followers of Jesus. It is not intended as an ethic for everyone. As for Stephen’s comment, I have to ask a question— do you really think the Amish in Penns and Ohio are protected by the local police, or that they want that protection? I can tell you they don’t. They would say that God is watching over them, and if they should have the honor of dying for their convictions, then they are prepared to die, rather than harm another life. I personally realize that even within the Christian community there are various opinions on this subject, but if Paul didn’t have a problem with both saying that Christians should not harm others (and not become soldiers as an implication of that) but he allowed that pagan governments have the right to bear the sword, then it seems clear he not only doesn’t want to impose pacifism on everyone, but he does not expect the world to hold his Christian values. He expects Christians to bear witness to a better, higher, more holy way of living. That’s what he expects, and he expects Christians to be prepared to die for what they believe—– and they did. And guess what? Far from snuffing out Christianity, ‘the blood of the martyrs was seed for the faith’ as Tertullian, I believe, put it. BW3

  • Owen

    Dr. Witherington: Thanks for that response! I have two questions in response:

    1) Is the ‘force’ of the imperatives regarding the exclusion of all forms of violence, or exclusion of the way of Biblically ‘justifying’ various forms of violence towards others? I myself am inclined to contextualize it to those who would justify indiscriminate violence which responds to very specific types of violence for our own behalf who we feel have wronged us, but not to the entire question of violence itself. I don’t feel that Jesus would be addressing the abstract question of violence in its totality, but would be speaking more to the common form of violence the audience would know of and be inclined to participate in.
    2) Is Jesus giving a finalized ethic of community of faith? Or to go back to my question I am entertaining, is Jesus providing an alternative way of *doing* ethics (‘ethicizing’) for the community of faith? In the former, ethics has been finally determined and the sermon on the Mount is Jesus simply pronouncing what is righteous. In the latter, ethical knowledge is generated by moving towards a specific goal: God-likeness (5:48) by Christ-likeness (implied from 7:24) in growing towards peacemaking and willingness to allow yourself to be persecuted (the progression of the Beautitudes). But the latter takes God-likeness as the universal, and all ethics stems from that reality. My suggestion is that Matthew 5:21-48 is Jesus taking specific ethical ‘dilemmas’ to develop the center of the Sermon ethics. It is teaching people how to ethically reason, not what simply what the ethics of God’s People must always say.

    It seems to be consistent with Paul’s brand of ethics, that is by the leading of the Spirit and the imitation of the *mind* of Christ (which would allow for more dynamic understanding rather than simply the actions of Christ).

    If your answer is addressed in your commentary on Matthew and in Jesus the Sage, my apologies. I will try to look at them in the future when time allows.

    BTW Central is looking forward to your visit to Meridian in the near future!

  • Jason Shambach

    I appreciate the movie recommendation, but was hoping for a more substantial response. As Christians who participate in a fallen world, not all our choices have the consequential purity that we would like or want. Are there times when even Christians are presented with a choice between the lesser of two evils? I think so and meant to illustrate one. I’m not trying to undermine the goodness of Christian pacifism but to argue against its being construed as rigorously categorical. Therefore, I am keenly interested in a rebuttal, if you’re willing to offer one.

    As a side note, the book of the same title has none of the ambiguity which I assume (by your suggestion) is portrayed in the movie. Corrie Ten Boom lied to protect the Jews they were hiding and I tend to believe the account given that she wrote the book. Peace.

  • Stephen

    Fair enough Ben. But I still have a hard time believing that if you and Mrs. W were out taking a stroll and someone attacked her, that you would just sit on your hands.

  • Ben Witherington

    You’re right Stephen. I would get in the line of fire and tell her to get the heck out of there. There is also a difference between using force and using violence or even lethal force. Pacifism does not mean a person has to be passive :) So, I don’t mind tackling the dude or getting in the way. That doesn’t cause death, last I checked. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Actually Jason, Corrie’s father had asked the Jews if they would be willing to be honorary Christians for a few days and they said yes. So when Corrie spoke, she spoke on the basis of that agreement. I wouldn’t actually call that an outright lie. I am assuming that there are actually lesser of two evils situations. But when you choose the lesser evil you still need to repent and ask for forgiveness of your sins. Evil is still evil, even if you think it is justifiable in some cases. Lastly there is the issue of a hierarchy of values. Is saving a life a higher value than telling the truth to a Nazi? Of course it is. Some people you do not owe the truth to. Some people can’t handle the truth. Some people ask questions with malice in mind. You will notice that when that happened to Jesus, he often answered the question with a further question. It’s a good rhetorical practice. Were I to by asked that question by a Nazi, namely are there any Jews in your house, I might well respond, ‘Is there any Christianity in your heart?’ BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Owen Jesus was not simply offering a way of doing ethics. He was offering specific commandments he expected his disciples to obey and practice. You seem to be mistaking Paul’s ethic in regard to adiaphora, or things indifferent, with the rest of Paul’s ethic. Paul suggests that in regard to things that are not specifically demanded or prohibited by ‘the Law of Christ’ a person should only do what they can do in good faith, which means responses would vary, for example, about eating pork barbecue :) Neither Jesus nor Paul have a problem with offering ethically specific commandments to be obeyed by their disciples in general, and regardless of circumstances. They also had advice for specific circumstances. It’s not an either/or situation. It seems clear to me that while Jesus is not opposed to the use of some force (see the temple tantrum episode), he is certainly opposed to the use of lethal force or violence entirely. Nothing in the temple episode suggests that any animals were harmed (don’t worry ASPCA), nor was any real damage done to humans either. So, I don’t think you can use that episode to suggest Jesus allowed for violence or lethal force in some situations. To the contrary, when that happened, he repaired the damage to the high priest’s slaves ear. BW3

  • Jason Shambach

    Thank you for that charitable response. And because of it, I think we probably agree on much.

  • David Smith

    Dr. Witherington, I’m a very late comer to the party. Having for all of my adult life attempted to justify just war, I arrived at the place you speak of here only a couple of years ago. And the reason for my arrival is due largely to you, and believers like you, who carefully, candidly, consistently, courageously, and in a Christ-like way, challenged my thinking and called me back to the Christ of Scripture. “Thank you” is not nearly a strong enough expression, but it must suffice. Grace and peace.

  • Keith Pavlischek

    Prof Witherington,
    I want to be clear about the basis of your pacifism. As I understand it, you are convinced that Jesus prohibits Christians (at least) from ever threatening or using lethal force for any reason whatsoever. This command is binding (at least) on all those who claim to be Christians. To threaten or use lethal force then is to commit a grave evil, and is disobedient to the demands of Jesus. Is this accurate, thus far?

    Am I right to assume that Christ’s command that Christians never use lethal force is what some of our Catholic friends call an “unexceptionable moral norm.” By that they mean that there can never be any good consequence that would result from threatening or using lethal force that can be used to justify it, at least by Christians. That is to say, your pacifism is not based (as other forms of pacifism are) on a utilitarian calculus of any sort, but is simply based on a moral norm articulated (for Christians at the very least) by Jesus, who because of Who he is, has the authority to make such demands. Would this fairly characterize and summarize your position?

  • Eric John Sawyer

    Ben, you say: ‘I wonder how many of you out there feel this way….’ I feel you brother!
    Rather than start a pixel land war about the pros and cos of war, I’ll just say that I was a real marine trained to kill without hesitation, but the spirit of Jesus made sure that I never went.

  • Ben Witherington

    Keith while I think I am talking about an unexceptional moral norm, the issue is not so much the norm as the modeling of Christ’s character. We are to emulate his character, which is a positive command in various parts of the NT including in Paul (‘be imitators of Christ’). This does not mean that there are not some good reasons to do this like: 1) everyone is created in the image of God, and attack on the image is an attack indirectly on God, or at least, an attack on a Christian is an attack on Christ, as Paul learned on Damascus road; 2) the deeper issue is— do you believe in a hierarchy of moral values. I think this is what the NT teaches (see Hays Moral Vision of the NT). This means some things are more important than others and if it is true that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, then life has got to be one of the highest norms. I would say love is a higher one— you can give up your life for love’s sake. You should not give up your love, for life’s sake. I could go on, but I would suggest you read the ethical sections in my The Indelible Image, both volumes and see what you think. BW3

  • Keith Pavlischek

    I understand the emphasis on character, but whatever you say about character is predicated on doing or forbearing from actions that form our characters in either virtuous or vicious ways. I don’t want to dwell on these finer points of moral theology, but it is easy enough to translate an ethics of commands into a virtue ethics. If rape is wrong, and Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to going around raping people, we can say on the one hand that “it is wrong to be disobedient to the teachings or Jesus” or we can say, “our characters will be formed in vicious ways if we go around raping people.”

    In any case, I’ll take that as a yes. You believe that the threat and use of lethal force is always without exception WRONG. It is ALWAYS, without exception FORBIDDEN by Jesus. It is always disobedient to his command and his teachings. It is always, if you prefer to put it in the terms of virtue ethics a vicious act that forms our characters in vicious ways.

    However you phrase it, what seems perfectly clear is that your position rejects a utilitarian or consequentialist justification for the threat or use of lethal force–that’s what it means to say you believe in nonviolence as an unexceptionable moral norm. This means, of course, that you are not willing to do “evil” (threaten or use lethal force) so that good (prevent or rescue people from genocide, slavery or any other grave evil) may come. Nothing, not even the most wicked and evil thing imaginable, can justify the use of lethal violence to prevent it. Jesus tells us not to do it, period.

    Now, if this is the case, then it seems that you would prefer any state of affairs in which Christians refrain from using lethal force to one in which they used lethal force. For example, if a Christian police officer were to confront a gang of Klansman about to lynch a black man, you would prefer a state of affairs in which the black man were lynched and the Christian police officer did not use lethal force to a state of affairs in which the black man were not lynched and did use lethal force.

    If confronted with a situation in which a wise and prudential Christian statesman determined that an impending genocide could be prevented by threatening and/or using lethal force and also that other “nonviolent methods” such as diplomacy and so forth, would be ineffective, you would morally prefer a state of affairs in which the Christian statesman did not threaten or use lethal force and genocide occurred to one in which the Christian used lethal force and the genocide was prevented. After all, your norm–the command of Jesus is WITHOUT EXCEPTION.

    Of course, we would all prefer a state of affairs in which Christians and other honorable people don’t have to threaten or use lethal force and in which black people are not lynched and there is no genocide. But, as you have already indicated, you know quite well from both history, experience, and Scripture that there is that kind of evil in the world. You do defend your pacifism on the basis of the optimistic humanism of late 19th century liberalism.

    Have I captured or have I distorted in some sense your pacifism? I have more to say, but I want to be perfectly clear that I understand your position first.

    To give you a heads up on where I am heading, however, I need to ask whether you think the most loving thing to do when a Christian is confronted with hard situations (such as when the black guy is about to get lynched, or when my diplomats and intelligence experts tell me that I can prevent genocide by sending in the 82nd Airborne) is to refrain from using lethal force to prevent the lynching or to prevent the genocide, come what may?

    In any case,

  • Keith Pavlischek

    typo on last post=should read “You do NOT defend your pacifism on the basis of the optimistic humanism of late 19th century liberalism.”

  • Owen

    Dr. Witherington:

    First off, I feel I should clarify: I did not mean to paint Jesus giving an ethic versus Jesus teaching how to do ethics as mutually exclusive. In teaching how, Jesus must also teach what. But if Jesus is teaching how, he is setting the foundation for which people should think ethically. That is, ultimately, in being complete/holy as the Father is complete/holy.

    I think Paul’s ethic in the sections you refer to adiaphoria (such as Romans 14) are actually the practical outworkings of Paul’s theology of ethics as being lead by the Spirit in certain situations that seem more ambiguous. Granted, not all ethics are ‘indifferent’ and the Law/Torah does have a voice in reveal what is righteous, but Paul seems to ground the Christian life ultiamtely in the ability to walk by the Spirit (Paul mentions that more than the mind/law of Christ). If we embed that within a patron/client structured relationship, the Spirit coveys to the ‘client’ who has recieved the ‘patron’s’ grace what the patron would ask in return. And I would say that way of understand God’s righteousness is critical even for the new Christians (as Paul mentions the Galatians being begun in the flesh). I would suggest Paul’s ethical fight over justification is about over the proper source of Christian ethics: namely the (strict) letter of the Torah, or direct ‘conversation’ with the same Spirit who was given to Christ, and gave Him life from death, and who now makes righteousness known to us (as also in John 16:8-9)

    This doesn’t preclude making confident commandments to what is right for most or all situations. But I would think regarding violence, Paul does see there being justified form. I know you have a different take, but I would suggest Romans 13 see violence as justified in what might be classified in our terms as a 3 party conflict: victim, oppressor, and rescuer. The government acts as a God ordained a rescuer of the victim by the ‘sword’ (where I know you disagree) so that the victim does not seek retribution themselve (“yourself” in Romans 12:19) is one form where God’s wrath is displayed when the believer gives room for God’s wrath.

    And pulling that back to Jesus, I think Jesus’ sermon on the mount is implicitly a two party conflict, where we are acting as the victim/the persecuted. That is part of the thrust of the Sermon on the Mount, to endure persecution for Jesus’ sake. But so, the sermon is embedded with a specific goal in mind, emulation of Jesus’ own (future) persecution, not simply a blanket statement about violence in the context of everything such as in case of justice where there is a third, outside party. It is contextualized to Jesus’ response to HIS persecutors and ‘enemies,’ but not on behalf of the defense of others.

    As for Jesus’ response in the temple, I think the cleansing is a prophetic, symbolic action of judgment on the temple that will then be fully enacted by God in the 70 AD. As such, you can not easily separate the sign from what it symbolizes; it is the endorsement of the very violence and wrath of Jesus’ Father. Except, beyond being merely a prophetic action like Ezekiel did frequently, it is to act much more like the first prophet Moses acted (except with a delay in time for Jesus) in symbolically raising the staff as the waters divided and then extending his hand out and the waters tend came back together and kill the Egyptian army. God tells Moses to do those things specifically so the sea will change, as if Moses is participant in this act. While God ultimately participated in the act to destroy the Egyptian army, Moses was a participant in that act. In other words, Jesus is himself complicit with His Father’s wrath that inevitably comes down upon Israel in 70 AD in his own cleansing of the temple. In which case the very Father we are called to imitate and the very human Christ we are called to imitate have not acted with the same law of pacifism.

    As for the repairing of the ear, I would embed it against the expectations others had of a Messianic revolution versus Jesus’ own messianic plans. He wasn’t leading a violent revolution, and Peter’s violent act might could have potentially sparked a violent conflict, hence Jesus’ Wisdom “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Violence would be reciprocated and the violence that categorized other would be messianic movements could do the very same here. It was a healing response to subdue the potential retribution of the one who lost his ear. Jesus was saving his present mission from degrading into violent chaos, not making a universal commitment against violence under all circumstances.

    I do think it is important to emphasize after all of this, that I do think Jesus does have a rigorous pacific virtue, as that the very nature of God who is very gracious, mercy, loving, patient and whose wrath is not easily provoked. But just as the Old Testament stories see boundaries where God’s wrath overcomes concerns of love, and where he mandates human acts of violence, and has Moses as a participant in God’s acts and violence against Egypt, a sermon on the Mount ethic that call the people of God to love their enemies because that is what God does can not so easily declare that violence is entirely prohibited in all types circumstances. If the very ground of Christian ethics is the emulation of Christ who is the full image of God, then we have a difficulty explaining away God’s violence, except by appealing to a extrabiblical logic of “there are some things we are never to do that God does.” That statement, is, however, curiously lacking from the New Testament ethical talk when it refers to the righteousness of God, the law of Christ, the mind of Christ, etc.

  • Owen

    BTW Let me apologize for the length of that last comment! I was writing it in a word processor and copied and pasted it. I didn’t realize how long it got! Thank goodness you are a pacifist, so I know no retribution will come as a result. :)

  • sean carlson

    I am a non-interventionist, but not a pacifist. This is more a political philosophy (I believe rooted in our Founders) than a specific Christian viewpoint. Pacifists always end up being protected by the non-pacifist.

  • Ben Witherington

    Keith: In the first place, I am saying that no Christian, who like me, believes that Jesus says no killing, will ever be making decisions like sending in the 82nd airborne. Why not? Because they cannot, on principle serve in the military, unless they serve as a chaplain or say a medic. That’s all. So, your hypothetical could never occur for someone like me. I can’t serve in any capacity where someone may ask of me to use lethal force. Secondly, I do not accept your scenario in regard to a lynching. There are many ways you can intervene without using lethal force to stop something like that— say tear gas. One of the things that disturbs me the most in these kinds of discussions. is the rush to get to the point where lethal force ‘must’ be used— shoot first, ask questions later, when in fact there are many many things persons can do short of lethal force to stop all kinds of bad behavior, problems, even problems that arise of an urgent sort. When I was a life guard we were taught the principles— reach, row, throw… and then go. I am saying there are many things one can do and try, including giving one’s own life before one even gets to the possibility (not the certainty, only a possibility) that using lethal force may be the last resort solution. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Sean it’s possible you are right, but why exactly would that be a criticism of pacifism? Let’s say pacifism is a glimpse of the final future. Let’s say we need a significant portion of the populus who bears witness to that final future. Let’s say that until Jesus comes back there will always be people who are not persuaded that they should be pacifists, indeed many are convinced they should serve in the military. Fine. Let each one serve their country according to their conscience. It is not a criticism of pacifism to say that the pacifist is not serving by using lethal force. And it should never be used as some kind of knock down argument against pacifism that some people could be said to be protecting, say the Amish, say the state police. So what? The Amish are frankly protecting and helping the state police by praying for them, loving them, feeding them, building their houses. The question is why should we see people who serve their country in non-militaristic ways as somehow: 1) cowards, or 2) not being productive members of society, or 3) unfairly taking advantage of those who are prepared to serve in the military. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. They are simply helping other people in other ways, and God bless them. BW3

  • barobin

    Ben Witherington, as a combat vet who served in Afghanistan, I applaud this. My only wish is that the Christian mentors in my life taught me a real reading of the Sermon on the Mount instead of the often selective one—you know, the interpretation that says Jesus’ words on violence and killing were only for those individual bully like situations, not for family or country. Encountering your blog and your commentaries (along with others like Shane Claiborne and Hauerwas/Yoder), opened my eyes, and as a result I ended a nine year career (well partial as I was in the National Guard). My next step is seminary (probably Asbury this Spring), to hopefully build off of this awakening, in hopes of changing this grave error at some level in the Church. Thanks again for writing on this issue.


  • Awol

    Some have said here that pacifists are always protected by non-pacifists. That is not completely true. Sometimes they are killed. Sometimes they are protected in other ways-by divine intervention, etc.

    It is suggested that pacifism can’t work on a national level. Has a country ever tried it? Has a country every had as many persons devoted to full time prayer for protection as it has devoted to its military? I would suggest we can’t say it wouldn’t work until we have tried it.

    In the Old Testament, in various stories, God showed He was completely capable of protecting His people without them having to use violence. It tended to happen when they put their faith in Him the very first time in any given situation.

    I tend to agree with a non-pacifist who said he had more respect for pacifists who chose not to even call the police for help, since part of the power of police is their ability to use deadly force in some circumstances. That seems like it would be consistent for those who are pacifists.

  • Derek McGuckin

    With respect to a KKK lynching hypothetical there’s probably a failure of Christian discipleship and love way before the described situation. How many members of the KKK attended and were baptized members of a church?
    Most “situational” arguments already require an assumed answer like lethal force. Why the lack of creativity in the face of violence? Maybe one should draw in the sand and see what happens? In a lynching what might happen if one person of the mob’s groups identity said something like “let he who has no sin pull the rope” and placed themselves between the mob and the target? So many possibilities and Christlike obedience as well. It might not make a difference. The peacemaker might be pinched as well. Then again…

  • Ladye Rachel Howell

    If we are ambassadors of a coming Kingdom, which has already been inaugurated here on earth but hasn’t yet fully arrived, shouldn’t we be fully representing that King and that Kingdom? If in the fully arrived Kingdom of God we will be beating our swords into plowshares, and if that Kingdom has already been inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection, shouldn’t we as his followers already be doing that Kingdom work?

    I see the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus painting a picture of God’s kingdom that he is inviting us all into, and less of a list of rules. He was shattering other pictures of what is good and beautiful and blessed by showing us what Kingdom life looks like. I don’t mean that because I don’t see it as a list of rules that we shouldn’t obey it. I do mean that for a lot of us a beautiful painting, a beautiful description of God’s kingdom can inspire more love and desire and obedience than a list of rules.