Should Anabaptists be in Afghanistan?


Anyone who paid attention to the debate preceding and immediately following the invasion of Iraq was familiar with the term.  It was a slur – coined by the Left – describing those conservatives of military age who were beating the war drums but not actually willing to enlist.

I describe the phrase as a “slur” because it was obviously intended as an insult – a shaming tactic – not an argument.  In fact, it was utterly irrelevant to the wisdom of the war itself.  The war was the right or wrong decision regardless of the willingness of any conservative pundit or activist to enlist.  In 2003, there was no shortage of volunteers willing to fight – and, if necessary, die – on Iraqi battlefields far from home.

Hidden within this insult, however, was a searing truth: While irrelevant to policy, it raised troubling personal questions.  Why don’t more young people serve?  Why were so many advocating war without even the thought of joining themselves?  Was there a personal moral obligation to offer yourself to your country if you believed so strongly that your peers should fight?

These are questions I struggled with, almost from the moment the airplanes hit the World Trade Center.  Finally, after four full years of rationalization and self-justification, my conscience could bear it no longer.  I could not continue to support a war that I wasn’t willing to fight myself.

So I volunteered, passed my physical, got an age waiver, and two years later found myself in Iraq doing what I could to serve the heroes of 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment as we chased al Qaeda across 17,000 square kilometers of Diyala Province, Iraq.  It was the most difficult (and even though I was just a JAG officer, the most terrifying) year of my life.  I lost friends who had grown as close as brothers and saw horrors that more than 99% of my fellow citizens will never see.  I did what I could and serve still, as a captain in the Army Reserves.  Compared to thousands who gave their lives, the tens of thousands of maimed and wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of front-line soldiers who braved bombs and bullets daily, my service was nothing special.  But at least I have an answer to my future grandchildren’s question:  “What did you do when the terrorists attacked America?”

Why bring this up?  Because of this video:

I saw it last week and frankly found it silly. While true pacifism can be courageous and inspirational, much of what passes for pacifism in the progressive evangelical Left is more political posturing than true pacifism.  For one thing, it’s often dominated by both a false moral equivalence and an almost willful misunderstanding of our enemies. If America would only lay down its arms, peace would break out.  If only Israel would cease its self-defense, the inherent virtue and glory of the Muslim world usher us all into the era of shalom.

In reality, this isn’t “moral equivalence” because the argument is presented one way: against Americans (and Israelis) only. The Sojourners’ “War No More” video has no intended audience outside the U.S. and would have no effect at all on the Taliban, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, or any other truly jihadist organization.

But my problems with contemporary pacifism go much deeper than the false moral equivalence and the often-sappy and naïve utopianism.

Reading through the very interesting blog of fellow Patheos contributor Kurt Willems, I came across this statement of Anabaptist theology and nonviolence:

10. Belief that the gospel includes a commitment to the way of peace modelled by the Prince of Peace.
Here Anabaptists differ from many other Christians. Anabaptists believe that the peace position is not optional, not marginal, and not related mainly to the military. On the basis of Scripture, Anabaptists renounce violence in human relationships. We see peace and reconciliation – the way of love – as being at the heart of the Christian gospel. God gave his followers this ethic not as a point to ponder, but as a command to obey. It was costly for Jesus and it may also be costly for his followers. The way of peace is a way of life.

As I read, I came to the sudden realization: The overwhelming majority of American pacifists are, well, chickenhawks.  In other words, their pacifism is exactly as costly to them as militarism is to the civilian pundit.  They are bystanders to the pain of others — mere commentators as hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens risk everything.

Our progressive civilian pacifists sit in the midst of the most prosperous society in human history, enjoying the fruits of the sacrifice of literally millions who came before them – the millions who stopped fascism, the millions who bled and died to end slavery, the millions who stood on the wall guarding against the dark night of Soviet communism – and they offer what?

At most they offer an argument.  Usually, they merely offer a complaint.  Sometimes the argument is delivered with humility and grace, while the complaint is typically delivered with condescension, self-righteousness, and scorn.  But at the end of the day, while war rages, they offer words — words heard only by one party of a multi-party conflict.

I spent a year in Diyala Province and roamed up and down IED-infested roads.  There were no Anabaptists risking their lives, pleading with al Qaeda for peace or placing themselves between innocent civilians and the long knives of their jihadist oppressors.

Others soldiers have spent far more time in the war zones than I have.  They’ve been in Baghdad, in Anbar, in Kandahar, and have shivered in the mountain passes of Eastern Afghanistan. They don’t report seeing Anabaptists, either.

To be sure, there are many Christian pacifists in dangerous parts of the world, trying to bring peace and reconciliation (just as there are many “just war” Christians working side by side with them), but what about pacifists in the midst of actual wars?  Are they throwing their bodies in the way of the tanks, the technicals, the IED emplacers, and the JDAMs?  With the exception of very tiny Christian Peacemaker Teams that tend to place themselves firmly on the side of jihad, they are nowhere to be found.

And, no, I’m not talking about the “human shield” clown shows that exist at the whim of their despotic sponsors in Gaza or Saddam’s Iraq.  These human shields end up shielding only tyranny — secure in the knowledge that western militaries will do all they can to avoid targeting their own civilians while doing nothing to stop the reign of terror of their hideous hosts.  I’m talking about actual pacifists placing themselves between both sides of a conflict, trying to stop not just their own armies but the terrorism and genocide of jihadists.

Is it unfair to ask my pacifist fellow citizens to place themselves in harm’s way?  After all, I know better than most the likely consequence of going to a jihadist-dominated war zone not as a propaganda tool but instead as an actual opponent of both sides’ violent actions.

My thoughts are hardly original.  Here is noted Christian progressive Ron Sider:

Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.

Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said. We did, of course, in earlier times. In previous centuries, we died for our convictions. But today we have grown soft and comfortable. We cling to our affluence and our respectability.

And this:

Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.

I will say this in pacifists partial defense: We live in an era when – even during wartime – the vast majority of our citizens and the vast majority of Christian America lacks the courage of its convictions.  We are willing to go only so far, and no further, in pursuit of the truth.  We believe that we’re brave if we endure criticism and give ourselves points for standing outside a perceived mainstream, when in a nation of more than 300 million people you can almost always find a community.

And so pacifists go with the flow, like most of the rest of us.  No worse and certainly no better than the fellow Christians they so often hold in contempt.

I happen to think that thousands or even hundreds of American Christians standing together in the world’s darkest places could have a dramatic impact on the course of a conflict.  It’s conceivable that even some of the world’s worst regimes would think twice before extinguishing the lives of so many western civilians.  But such an pacifist intervention will never, ever happen — at least not in the face of an enemy as bloodthirsty as the Taliban or as vile as Hamas.

Why not?  Perhaps because Ron Sider was right — because the vast majority of pacifists never really meant what they said.  I think the explanation is a bit more charitable and a lot more human.  Pacifists don’t want anyone to die — themselves least of all.


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  • Thomas Quinn

    Nicely done, David. Pardon me if if I don’t hold my breath awaiting a mass pacifist crusade for peace to the Middle East. Reminds me of those wealthy progressives who complain that they are not paying enough taxes. I wager not a single one has cut an extra check to Uncle Sam.

  • Nancy Martin

    I have great respect and appreciation for those willing to die to do what they believe to be right whether I agree or not, and I hope, as a people, we can treat our military with respect and honor and also with truth. What will be truly sad is if people who read this op-ed make it into a left or right issue, which may be more likely because of the use of the term “Left” in the writing. That use colors the piece as political rather than strictly as a Christian looking for God’s direction in this matter. For Christians, war has nothing to do with the Left or the Right or taxes or progressives or any other man-made division. The only thing that matters is what God wants.

    That said, I don’t disagree with most of your point. It is easy to call for war or for peace and not be the one willing to do the hard work, not be the one willing to make the sacrifice, not be the one willing to give his/her life. There are “chickenhawks” on both sides. Christianity demands more than words. It demands action. It demands real sacrifice. Now, I disagree to some extent because I believe speaking out, writing letters, praying, etc. do involve action–perhaps not life-threatening action always but action. However, I also agree that a mass movement of true Christians ACTING in true faith would bring an end to war much faster than enlisting or paying lip service to pacifism.

    What I think is missing from your view and from the view of most people discussing this issue is that Christ was not a pacifist as we think of one but a true lover of peace. We are called to live in peace as much as we are able. From the beginning of time, God understood that we would not always be able, so He ordained civil governments and their laws and actions. He prescribed penalties for violating the sanctity of life–the forfeiture of one’s own life. Our own brokenness creates the needs for these things. In modern times, God doesn’t speak to us and tell us to make war on other nations. In part, I believe this is because we are not the nation of Israel, a moving, living organism chosen by God to be His people. Christians are everywhere–living around the globe in civil nations, geographically-bound nations, prosperous and poor nations. We are a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly one. Therefore, I think it’s impossible to argue that God endorses this war, and in fact, I think a study of scripture reveals that He does not. I think the reason is simple. We aren’t excuting someone who killed another. We don’t have two witnesses and all the other things outlined in His word. We fire guns that spew bullets in arcs that take out everyone in their path. We fire missiles from drones that drop in areas where we hope they hit “bad guys” who are, individually, pretty much anonymous to us. We accept the deaths of innocents as collateral damage, and we become as guilty as those we are fighting. We aren’t fighting a holy war anymore than the radical Islamists are. We’re just fighting a run-of-the-mill, earthly, nation-against-nation, nation-against-terrorist war. We defend an America I truly love, one whose freedoms and democracy leave me in awe, but not one I would prioritize over or confuse with the kingdom of God.

    Should Christians be in Iraq spreading this message to all sides? Yes. But is it reasonable that we expect more of ourselves than of those who don’t know God? Absolutely. There’s a little speck and beam to that thinking.

    I think it’s fine to call out the hypocrisy of both sides of “chickenhawks,” but I wonder if someone who thinks a mass movement of Christians laying down their lives for peace would truly work might should lead that movement instead of criticizing those who aren’t.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    As an Anabaptist who has previously challenged your militarism on Christian grounds, I thank you for thoughtful and (mostly) charitable challenge to those of us committed to nonviolence. I do wrestle with what it means for me to follow Jesus’ commands to love our enemies and be a peacemaker in light of tyrannical regimes and violent terrorists. And I’m glad you recognized the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Ron Sider, who are showing one way of doing this.

    But I’d challenge your conclusion that Perhaps because Ron Sider was right — because the vast majority of pacifists never really meant what they said. That is a simplistic and even insulting conclusion that fails to take seriously the genuine confusion that many of us feel.

    Is your goal here to challenge pacifists to take their commitment to peace more seriously? If so, good. But avoid slurring us as “chickenhawks” simply because we are not all rushing to Afghanistan the way you did. I respect your decision to join the military efforts (even as I disagree with your theological interpretations that justify your choice.) But your service should not embolden you to use the same insult that you rightly identified in the beginning of your post. That won’t advance any dialogue we may have about what it means to be followers of the Prince of Peace in a world filled with evil.

  • David French

    Thanks Brantley and Nancy for your thoughtful comments. As I said above, I found the chickenhawk term to be quite personally convicting even if it was intended as a slur — almost like someone calling me a coward with no charitable intent but finding that the words struck home anyway. My goal in repeating the word in this context was similar, not to discredit the underlying pacifist theology — which I disagree with and have explained my disagreement in other posts — but to (hopefully respectfully) call on others to walk their talk, so to speak.

    I have many pacifist friends whom I respect a great deal, yet I’m troubled by the absence of true peacemakers in our world’s most dangerous places.

    By no means am I a model of anything. My service, however, has allowed me to observe up close true heroes and role models. Are their equivalent heroes of pacifist peacemaking? If not, shouldn’t there be?

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Yes, David, I agree that there should be equivalent heroes of pacifist peacemaking–and, of course, I think that is what Jesus calls all his followers to be. Again, your experience–and the examples of other Christians who risk their lives in military combat in order to work for peace–is indeed a challenge to us.

    I find it interesting that you acknowledge that some critical mass of American Christian pacifists could join together in witness and protest in ways that may undermine or even prevent war. What if all followers of Jesus, not just American pacifists, did so? What if we all refused to fight or to endorse war but worked together to in nonviolent resistance? From previous posts, I imagine you find this thought naive or unrealistic. But I’m persuaded that Jesus calls us–the church universal–to faithfully love our enemies and neighbors as ourselves and leave the results to God. Perhaps we would be surprised at how “successful” such radical acts would be.

  • John Haas

    Mr. French’s attempt to construct a moral equivalence between pacifists and the pro-war crowd lacks precision.

    If someone is advocating war–saying, in this case, “We need to get in Iraq and start killing people!” then, yes, it’s a legitimate question to ask them, “You seem pretty excited about this. Why aren’t you volunteering?”

    The parallel would be a pacifist arguing “We need to go to Iraq and serve as peacemakers on the front lines!” A legitimate question would then be, “Why aren’t you going to Iraq, then?”

    But if someone’s pacifist position is “We should not invade Iraq, because that’s not what Jesus would do,” then it seems they are acting consistently with their principles by abstaining from invading Iraq.

    In addition: Back during the run-up to the war, I also heard a lot from church-based groups about how wonderful the war would be as it would open up Iraq to evangelization.

    Perhaps I’ve missed them, but I haven’t seen many of these folk organizing mission teams to go to Iraq for some street-corner preaching.

    I look forward to Mr. French’s column on that.