Why I’m Not a Pacifist

Earlier this week, writing in response to my discussion of chaplains on the 700 Club, a reader made the following comment:

[Y]our concluding statement is stunning: “religious liberty and faith is a critical part of the warrior ethos.” Even in the just war tradition (which I don’t hold, but assume you do), how can you defend this? Perhaps I’m foolish to try and engage in dialogue with you, since your “about the French Revolution” description shows me that my sentimental pacifist regard for the Jesus ethos probably won’t get very far.

While his reference to pacifism as the “Jesus ethos” was likely calculated to get a rise out of me, his comment does require a thoughtful response.  To begin, I’ll go to the same source that inspired Nancy’s Corner post this week.  I’m speaking, of course, of the 1980s sitcom, Family Ties.

Last night, during our nightly family viewing of Netflixed classics, we ran across an episode where the Keatons are robbed and reach the gut-wrenching (for them) decision to buy a gun.  My kids, who are used to a heavily-armed household and have shot rifles and pistols many times themselves (we’re thoroughly prepared for the zombie apocalypse), laughed at the Keatons’ inability to handle the small pistol they bought.  The episode was hilarious, and it ends — predictably enough — with a chastened Steven Keaton renewing his pledge never to hurt another human being and returning the gun.

It was a great show, and I appreciated Steven’s reluctance to harm another person, but I couldn’t help thinking, “How would his kids feel if the worst happened, and he refused to effectively defend their lives?”

Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a pastor friend of mine. My friend explained that — despite a personal interest in military history — he was becoming increasingly pacifist. I eventually challenged his pacifism with the ultimate trump card: “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t pacifism have doomed even millions more? Wasn’t misguided European pacifism that inspired appeasement largely responsible for the millions of deaths that did result?”

Interestingly, he didn’t respond with a defense of American or English pacifism in the face of the German threat, he responded with the statement that Brits and Americans had to fight because German pacifism failed. Had German pacifists had the courage of their convictions — or had they existed in sufficient numbers — Hitler would never have been able to initiate wars of conquest or implement the “Final Solution.”

But is this true?  His response brought to mind numerous examples of massive social change brought about by nonviolent protest movements — Gandhi and Indian independence; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement; “People Power” in the Philippines and the end of Marcos’ reign; and, most recently, Bishop Tutu and the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, for each of the examples above, you’ll note that the nonviolence worked because the powers in place were civilized enough that the protestors were given the opportunity to make their case and change the hearts of nations.

By contrast, imagine a nonviolent protest movement in Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China, or Kim’s North Korea, or, yes, Hitler’s Germany. Would Gandhi have lived even for ten minutes after the SS discovered his sedition? For an example taken from the very year that Steven Keaton first expressed his pacifism on national television, Syria’s Hafez Al-Assad responded to rebellion in Hama by calling out the army, circling the town with troops and shelling the city until 20,000 Syrian protestors lay dead. Thus ended Syria’s first protest movement. Saddam Hussein was known to pave over bound and gagged protestors with hot asphalt. In Southern Iraq, there are streets in Shi’ite towns where you can literally drive over the entombed bodies of dead families.

When Neville Chamberlain triumphantly proclaimed “peace in our time,” he did not do so out of malevolence or out of any sympathy for Hitler’s anti-semitic evil. He did so because, frankly, he could not bear the thought of another war. We in America still weep for our 58,000 Vietnam War dead. Imagine Britain in 1938. They were exactly 20 years removed from a conflict where they lost more than a million men — an entire generation of young people.

World War I was supposed to be the event that exposed the futility of “national greatness” wars. A great wave of pacifism swept the western world. Pacifist-influenced isolationism was so strong in America that we were happy (grateful, even) to sit on the sidelines as Hitler’s panzers blitzed across Europe and as first thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered.

War should never be celebrated like it was in August, 1914, when festive crowds gathered in the streets to drape soldiers with flowers and celebrate the dispatch of millions of young men to history’s (then) greatest bloodbath. We should never fight simply for “national greatness.”  Yet how many times can we see genocide coming and do nothing to stop it? Rwanda. Bosnia. Kosovo. Sudan.  Can there be any doubt that the hearts of men can be very dark indeed? Can there be any doubt that some cultures learned the wrong lessons from Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s gas chambers, Mao’s famines and Pol Pot’s killing fields? In the words of Hitler, as he planned the Final Solution: “After all, who remembers the Armenians?” It is our responsibility to remember the Armenians, and the Jews, and the Ukrainians, and the Chinese, and the Cambodians, and the Tutsis, and the Bosnians, and the Kosovars, and the South Sudanese. It is our collective responsibility to swear the same oath sworn by Jewish nation in 1948 — “Never again.”

Many Christians draw such bright distinctions between the Old Testament and New Testament it’s as if they’re discussing two different Gods. While there are two testaments, there are not two Gods. From the dawn of time, there has always been, in the words of Solomon, “a time for peace and a time for war.” In the immediate aftermath of September 11, I heard a prominent evangelical Christian note that it was not the place of the American government to punish Osama, that vengeance belonged to God. He quoted Romans 12:19 “It is mine to avenge, I will repay.” Yet he neglected to read into the next chapter: “[R]ulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

I believe God is able to change the hearts of men in response to prayer, to bring peace when war seems imminent. The story of the Philippines’ People Power Revolution is nothing short of astounding. Yet God himself also recognized there is a time for war. A need for the sword. Our responsibility is to attempt to accurately discern the times — to ensure that the sword is unsheathed only when it must be unsheathed.

The distinction between the Islamic radicals we fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and Hitler’s SS lies not in intent, but in capacity.  Hitler’s evil was supported by the full weight of German industry and Prussian militarism.  He commanded — at that time — perhaps the single-most powerful army the world had ever seen.  Islamic terrorists have no such force, but they wield the force they do have with terrifying brutality.  And we now face the looming specter of jihadists in Iran possessing a weapon Hitler never could obtain.

For the pacifist in the face of horrific danger, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” The wounds are serious. The lives of millions of God’s children hang in the balance.

I’ve prayed for the Iraqi people. My friends and brothers lay down their lives for Iraqis.  I’ve prayed for peace in the Middle East. But did Christians not pray for the Bosnians? Did Christians not pray for Rwandans? How many millions must die while we pray? Can we not pray and act decisively? Or do we watch tragedy unfold and then one day — amidst the smoking rubble — lament the failure of the Iranian pacifism?

When Jesus commanded individuals to turn the other cheek.  He was not commanding the government to turn my cheek, to expose my family to the horror of jihad.  While there is ample biblical precedent for self-sacrifice, I see no precedent for willingly abandoning others to the will of evil men.

So, my pacifist friend, you may choose not to defend yourself.  But — please — don’t try to stop me from defending you . . . and your family.

  • Greg McLean

    I have a little experience in this area; as a Troop Commander in Iraq. Before we departed, I had a soldier who tried to convince me he was a pacifist and due to his beliefs could not possibly go and fight Al Qaeda in Iraq. I tried hard to learn his side, but he was never able to convince me that he was in fact a pacifist, but I left him behind as he went through the legal system to prove it to the Army. He was not able to convince them either, but that is not the interesting part. Once he arrived in Iraq, he began to see the evil and darkness that truly did exist in the world and had so infested Iraq. I made the decision not to send him outside the wire until he made the decision for himself, that he wanted to be involved in missions outside the wire. After a few short weeks of working inside my operations center, he was amazed at how Iraqis were dying constantly due to Al Qaeda and how his comrades were willing and were giving their life for the freedom of Iraqis and America. He began asking questions and we would talk about his beliefs, he slowly starting to understand turning the other cheek is not always what we need to do. Someone has to stand up and say enough is enough. He witnessed his buddies die and realized he could not sit on the sidelines anymore. I remember it vividly when he came to me and asked to go out on mission, I asked “why do you want to?” I thought you did not believe in killing and defending yourself with violence? He said with conviction “Sir, I have thought long and hard about our conversations here and back home. After seeing what Al Qaeda is capable of, I want to help make things better, and if that means killing. I don’t think Jesus will think wrongly of me, do you? I quickly said, no I do not, Jesus loves us and understands that sometimes we have to use violence to save and free those who are unable to free themselves. Thanks for Sharing David.

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  • Tanya

    Have a look at Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist.” It argues that one form of pacifism is heretical (the one which says it “works”) and another form is an important presence in the church and world. And yes, it lays out the rationale for why a Christian might hold another view. But it is nuanced, and challenging for anyone in this debate.

  • tara

    the christian pacifist has no answer to the question of hitler. that is, if the only answer must spell out how hitler would have been stopped, as your pacifist friend seemed to assume. perhaps, though, that is not every pacifist’s question.

    if a pacifist reads the entirety of scripture to say that, in this era of god’s redemptive story, we are to turn the other cheek, then the question is simply about whether or not we turned our cheek. how god deals with the evil of others is up to god to decide in his sovereignty. he may call on christians to provide support, to wage legal battles, to lay down their lives at the hands of a nazi. but he wouldn’t call on one of his children to shoot someone.

    at least that’s one line of reasoning, yes? one that doesn’t say the only way for god to solve this horror, whatever the horror of the time, is for me to solve it with violence. a pacifist would have to believe that god would ultimately right things in a different way.

  • Nathan

    Thanks for your thoughts, David, and Tara, tanya and Greg for your comments. This is a challenging topic for the believer who wrestles with what it means to “take up my cross and follow me,” and you make a cogent, well-reasoned argument. Thanks.

  • Harold

    While stationed at Great Lakes, had a student declare himself a pacifist and go through all the rigmarole to get out. Got into a bar fight the night before his final inerview/hearing. Didn’t get out like he was hoping…

    There may be some people, who after joining the military, actually and truly become pacifists. In 21 years of service, I never met one. Met quite a few who claimed it.

  • Brantley Gasaway (an Anabaptist)

    First, I’ll take the blame (or credit) for being the Anabaptist who made the comment that give rise to this post. I’m not sure why I didn’t own up to it initially (maybe pacifists are really just cowards? no…). And yes, my use of the Jesus ethos was a strategic choice.

    Second, thank you for taking time to respond in a thoughtful way–I just came back to your site and thus only now saw it. While I disagree with your argument, I respect it as a valid Christian interpretation.

    Nevertheless, what strikes me about your position (and most just war proponents I’ve read) is that the thrust of the argument is not primarily biblical but rather pragmatic–a form of Christian realism associated with Neibuhr. Yes, you get around to a few biblical references, but Rom. 13 tends to be the only New Testament one that you and others rely on. I do not think that saying that Jesus introduces a new ethic for his followers means that one is pitting the God of the OT and the God of the NT against each other.

    You seem to suggest that Rom. 13 and the affirmation of the government bearing the sword override Paul’s commandments in Rom. 12:17-21. How? Cannot God use governments to punish wrongdoers but not intend for Christians to participate in such governmental acts (or at all)? This is, of course, a radical thing to propose in modern America–but for those of us in the Anabaptist tradition, who see the merger of church and empire under Constantine as a tragic event, it is a distinction that seems persuasive.

    Finally, can you love another person–an enemy–and kill him? Back to the Jesus ethos I spoke of: did he not model nonviolence? I apologize if this seems a simplistic question, but it is an earnest one.

    Again, thanks for taking time to engage.

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  • mountainguy

    ok, I’m admiting you are making good points… except for your (aparent) idea that USA is never bad. Have you ever thought about the evils of western imperialism? Did you remember 1953 coup d’etat that apointed Reza Palhevi in Iran? If your criticism of pacifism is good, it should also work for your enemies.

    And no, I don’t need you to protect me, and I haven’t asked any USA marine to do that, so it is necesary to take usamaerican bases out of Latinamerica.

  • mountainguy

    “So, my pacifist friend, you may choose not to defend yourself. But — please — don’t try to stop me from defending you . . . and your family.”

    I hate guns, but getting armed to defend your family is still very diferent from arming a goddamn empire to wage “preemptive strikes”.