Why I’m Not A Pacifist

I want to be a pacifist when I grow up.

But I’m not there yet.  And as we stop for a day to remember and thank the men and women who have risked life and limb on my behalf, I thought I’d spend a minute thinking about why I just can’t get on the pacifist bus quite yet.  Unfortunately, this won’t be a logical post –  because I’m pretty sure that all of the logic falls with the pacifists.

Christian advocates of “just war” come pretty close to what sounds logical, at least to my ears.  I mean what could be wrong with saying that you can’t go to war unless it meets certain very reasonable criteria, like: the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.  But whenever the just war advocates are done explaining their position, I’m always left with a troubling, “But what about …?”  Whether it’s all of those pesky quotes from Jesus, or a suspicion I have that they really want to be pacifists but at some point no longer  think God can have his way without our counter-insurgency tactics, something always falls apart for me when I listen to or read just war philosophy.

No, it’s the pacifists who win the consistency of thought prize.  At least the Christian pacifists who’ve thought out their position for more than a few minutes.   I think Ghandi was the bomb dot com, but his version of pacifism makes no sense to me.  He believed that in the end, humanity would do the right thing:  “If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces.”

That sounds good, but it’s not my experience of the law of human beings, especially the human being I know best.  So I can’t buy Ghandi’s kind of pacifism.  And I don’t mean some kind of boo-America, down-with-governments kind of pacifism.  That was a younger version of me, one where I asked my Air Force veteran father to take down the American flag from our house because it was a symbol of our horrible military.  He ripped me a new one, saying, “Six million of your ancestors died because they couldn’t defend themselves!”

Nope, I’m not into any kumbayah, soft-thinking version of pacifism.  The one that makes sense to me is one that says that Jesus simply would not take up a weapon against an enemy, and so we can’t either.  Period.  We can lay down our lives in front of a violent oppressor, but we can’t fight back with violence.  Period.  If it looks like catastrophe to us now, God knows better than we do.  In the end, he will put all things right.  Period.  It’s not up to me to decide the fate of history, except to play my part by walking in the way of Jesus.  The early church fathers would never have conceived of Christians waging war, and neither should we. Period. Of course, the Christian philosophers say it much better than that, but you get the picture.

It makes so much sense.  And I want to sign up.  I want to teach Nafisa and the boys the way of pacifism so that they never participate in any war.  Period.

The problem is that I don’t believe it.  At least not in any way that matters.  Sure, I can ascribe to it intellectually, but I don’t really live that way.  If I could wave a  magic wand and disband the US military, I wouldn’t do it.  If I could make my husband promise not to kill someone who was trying to kill our family, I wouldn’t do it.  If someone was hurting my kids, and I could knock them out with a shovel or shoot them in the head with a gun,  I think I would shoot them in the head.  Just so they couldn’t get back up later.

So maybe I’m not a pacifist after all.  Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I know that sometimes killing is justified.  But maybe it just means that I’m a coward.  I don’t want war and violence, but I don’t want to die for that belief.  That’s the difference between me and my dad, between me and everyone who has ever put on a uniform.  They’re willing to die for it.

But like I said, I’m not done growing up.  So either I’m gonna become a bona fide pacifist, or a less cowardly just-war believer.  Either way, thank you Daddy, and everyone else who served and fought and died so I can take the time to figure it out.

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  • I wanted to be a Marine when I grew up. And I was. Now I am a Christian pacifist.
    As citizens of God’s Kingdom, Christians are called to be the light of the world, not the sword of the LORD.
    The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds, 2 Cor. 10:4.
    Too many Christians are lost in the morass of their ethical calculus and have abandoned the imitatio Christi.

    • Larry Ebaugh

      Christ the Savior is behind us. Christ the Redeemer is ahead of us. In the way he’s described in Revelation, does he look like your typical pacifist or a man of great strength and power? If he told you to pick up arms to fight a Holy War the way the Israelites did in the days of old, would you not do it?

  • Sorry, don’t see a contact link. If you would be interested in reviewing Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914, I would be glad to send you the pdf. This is a refection on the Christmas truce of World War I.


  • Pssst!! It’s “Gandhi”, not Ghandi.

  • I liked the dedication that P. J. O’Rourke penned to one of his books years ago, dedicating it to the person who, after P. J. dodged the draft, had to go Vietnam in his place. He wished him all sorts of worldly comfort and joy. “And in 1971, when someone punched me in the face for being a long-haired peace creep, I hope that was you.”

  • Tom

    Excellent article! I really enjoyed it.

    The Bible is so full of talk about war; fighting the good fight, enduring to the end, putting on the full armor of God, being strong, courageous. Yet it’s also full of love, which makes it difficult for people who believe fighting is all about hatred to reconcile the two. Fortunately, we have good and courageous and loving soldiers that help exemplify what Christ fought and died for. I don’t believe God is a pacifist either, because he fought and died for us!

  • Alex

    Christian pacifism is much more than simply not using violence. It’s about using radical Christ like love to disarm the hate of our enemies. The reason that I believe most people don’t think that it works is because they are not disciplind enough to gain the self-control needed to live it out fully. Or even to trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts to make it possible. It jsut seems like a crazy idea as well give the violent history of the world. But so is the idea of the Almighty God sending His Son to die so we may live, just because He loves us.

    • Alex, I spent a whole year in Iraq and saw not one single pacifist trying to use “radical Christ like love to disarm the hate of our enemies.” I would respect the heck out of anyone who did that. As it is, that kind of talk is largely just that — talk. Ron Sider said it very well:
      “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.”

      Me again: As a non-pacifist, it’s hard for me to take seriously a belief system that demands a willingness to die but is almost entirely lived from a position of safety and comfort. “By their fruits ye shall know them” and the fruits of American pacifism is largely blog posts and conferences. Imagine what 10,000 motivated pacifists could do in Afghanistan . . . but we’ll never, ever see that.

      • Tara Edelschick

        Thank you, David. I love that Ron Sider quote. And I think you hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph. Cowardice is ugly – in myself and in others. I think it would be easier for me to join the pacifist movement if it were actually a movement, rather than a position. I hope you are wrong that we will never see it.

        My father died on Monday, a few hours after I wrote this post. As my family and I were looking at his obituary today, we noticed that every man listed had been in the military. I felt so much pride that my father was among that group. I think I would be just as proud if my sons would one day stand in pacifist resistance between guns and innocent lives. I’m going to start praying for a mighty Christian pacifist resistance movement would rise up to stand against oppression and terror. In the meantime, I’m going to pray for God’s protection for all who wear a uniform.

        • Karen

          Prayers for you and your loved ones as you remember well the life and death of a great man. May you know all know God’s grace as sufficient even in this.

  • Hard one. If hell is real, I don’t see how anyone could justify sending someone to hell for all eternity. On the other hand, not killing someone, and seeing innocent people die, is pretty disturbing too. Not sure where the balance is. I am also not sure if I believe in hell anyway.

  • oh man. i am right there with you. although i don’t like to say it out loud. 😉 loved this…thank you. 🙂

  • Mike

    Herod’s kingdom became a leper colony…Pharoh was overcome with water, a type of the devil who will be overcome with the brightness of His coming…these things I have been forced to believe…and the dump Jesus described as a place where the fires never go out, the bible clearly says sin and death are the last enemy to be defeated (I think 1 cor 15:51 or so)…but as far as being a low-down sword, I’d trade it all to be a family man. God bless our troops! (Ma’am maybe you ARE grown up instead)

  • Jen G

    I appreciate your honesty with us and yourself. I struggle with this too, as I do with the many places in the Old Testament where God not only justified war but also gave the Israelites victory in these battles where hundreds of people died. He used the soldiers to do the fighting, but Israel was a theocracy. I struggle with the idea that Jesus wouldn’t physically fight for the life or safety of an endangered loved one, and I believe that God is the one who put the instinct to do so in us. Yet He also clearly is a God of peace and mercy. God is good and there is an answer, but I’m not convinced that we’ll know it completely until we see Him face to face.

  • Larry Ebaugh

    Tara, so many opinions. We would truly have to have to have the mind of God to know how he thinks about these things. And who among us can say in all humility, “Only I speak for God?”

    But one thing I know from reading your article is that you have a good and kind heart. The kind that a courageous man would die to protect rather than let your life be taken in the name of pacifism.

  • Larry Ebaugh

    I’m not much of a student of history or anthropology, but from someone who is, a few questions please.

    What would our country, nay, the world, look like today if the USA would not have taken up arms against Japan and Germany during the WWII conflict, but instead we played the pacifist role? Would other countries have fought to protect us? Would our allies have had any chance of victory without our support? And if they lost, is it possible that gas chambers would have also been erected in our country like they were in others to extinguish those deemed “undesirble”? I’m truly looking for an honest view, no matter how ugly it might be.

  • Agkcrbs

    I have a great deal of respect for real pacifism. Real pacifism comes from one’s own heart as a refusal to do harm. It’s a personal conviction to be borne out in one’s own life. Real pacifists do not have responsibilities for others who will bear the brunt of their decision; a parent or a guardian of a young child, for example, is not morally allowed be a pacifist, and this very law is typically ingrained into a parent’s nature.

    What real pacifism is not, is a demand that other people adopt our decision of self-sacrifice, and give up their lives to the hatred of an aggressor, or give up the lives of yet other innocents that they might have saved — a demand that justice itself be abolished and absolute earthly power be surrended to whoever dares to shed blood, because no one is allowed to resist him. Pacifism that grows to encompass and bind down others, committing them to destruction to satisfy one’s own alleged willingness to be destroyed, is merely a new tool of compulsion. Such a belief is not only unsustainable, and not only cowardly, it’s in fact tyrannical, a way to morally sacrifice others, often from a distance, and reap the moral benefits for ourselves; and such people risk making themselves accomplices to the aggressors.

    Jesus offered his own life, not his neighbour’s. He restrained his disciple’s sword for his own sake, cautioning of war’s peril, but also warned his disciples to buy swords; and he strengthened them in valiance in other times for the sake of future generations. Though we may question a war’s validity, whether it is protective or liberative, or more of an outgrowth of greed or anger, we should admit that the fundamental right to exist that personal pacifism hopes to safeguard can also be threatened by overzealous or politically motivated pacifism. It’s no great ethical conundrum to recognise that “non-violence” is not a behaviour that can be lumped together as a whole. In one case, it may be holy; in the next, it may be criminal and damnable. If we fail to discriminate context and motive, dwelling in false absolutes, what we take as moral superiority is actually just moral lethargy. The identical priority of war and peace is not the specific behaviour, but the life that the behaviour aims to protect.

  • Larry Ebaugh

    Thank you for clarifying what real pacifism is. Someday if a madman is intent upon killing me, and you’re nearby and could lend assistance, does being a pacifist mean you would come between the agressor and me and take the blows that were meant for me? Or does it mean you would watch as I am struck down? If the latter, then the last thing I’ll remember seeing is your holy self-sacrificing, albeit cowardly, face as I slowly bleed to death.