What Are the Moral Limits of Pacifism?

What Are the Moral Limits of Pacifism? September 25, 2020

Pacifism with Trump?
Pacifism with Trump? / Image by Grégory ROOSE from Pixabay

May God grant us insight to both discern the moral limits of pacifism and actively listen to one another in these dark days. 


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues with no end in sight, 200,000 people are dead. And our servant-leader, Donald Trump? He toys with refusing to leave office should he lose the 2020 election. 

His supporters? They may be willing to fight (and kill?) to support his ambitions. Among the supporters are Catholics, convinced they are fighting for life. Among them, priests, insisting without censure that being Democrat effectively cancels what Baptism does. Some even claim being Democrat guarantees damnation. This ignorance pools into a dangerous cocktail we’ve seen before in other countries with Catholic majorities, such as Rwanda.

Was Jesus a Pacifist?

What should a U.S. Catholic of good conscience do? Remain passive with thoughts and prayers? Maybe keep to social media rants and other fluff? After all, Christ calls us to be pacifists.


Except he didn’t. Pro-gun Republican Catholics often remind us that sometimes arms must be used to safeguard life, property, and the common good. In other words, there are moral limits to pacifism. When the stakes are high enough, when the occasion becomes so grave, opting for pacifism becomes evil. Evil is the deprivation of a due good.  

So Christian ≠ Pacifism

So neither “Catholic” nor “Christian” means being a pacifist, even if pacifism and Christianity have often united beautifully. Yes, nonviolence is inexorably tied to the Way of Jesus. However, Jesus’ nonviolence was not identical with the later pacifism of Gandhi and King, as good as such pacifism was in these two heroes. In contrast, Jesus’ nonviolence was about “canceling the honor debt.”

Jesus’ society was agonistic. So rightly understanding his Middle Eastern cultural context, offenses against honor demanded death as a response. 


Therefore, removing our spurious familiarity, Jesus says, “Waive your right to vengeance—cancel the honor debt.”


Note that recognizing the circum-Mediterranean cultural assumptions in the Gospels, all foreign to Americans, requires the humility of dropping spurious familiarity and actually listening. In the Mediterranean cultural world of the Gospels, the one who shames or dishonors deserves death. Jesus, Mediterranean, gets this. But he says, “Cancel the honor-debt anyway.” That’s not what Gandhi says. That’s not what King says. And that is not our pacifism, my friends. But that was Jesus’ brand of nonviolence.

Pacifism Has Moral Limits

We don’t live in Jesus’ cultural world. Therefore there are problems in the American Christianese expression, “WWJD”? American Christians, lacking time machines, come to Jesus sacramentally, indirectly, as Americans. There really is no other way for us. Consequently, there are many things Jesus would do that simply can’t directly apply to our vastly different 21st-century Western cultural world.

Please understand that I am neither dismissing nor denigrating pacifism. Thank God for the later pacifism of Gandhi and King! It does work in many situations. Many times, to great tragedy, it is left untried. 


Sadly though, it would not have worked in Hitler’s Berlin. Disagree? Go ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer and why he was executed. It wasn’t for pacifism. As horribly unjust and murderous those in power were in the British Empire and the Jim Crow South, they wouldn’t stoop to the genocidal evil of the Third Reich. This was because they were checked from falling that evil by fear, not goodness.


Regardless, pacifism could not work against Hitler. Again, there are moral limits to pacifism.  

Civil Wars & Game Theory

Horrifically, we may reach those limits again soon. We are not there yet, thank God, but we may be soon enough. At least many seem to think so, among them Mike Selinker, who uses game theory to work out possible war scenarios. Last week, Medium published his piece entitled “A Wargame Designer Defines Our Four Possible Civil Wars.” If you think the title is unsettling, wait until you read his article.

Say Selinker’s worst fears prove correct, and civil war comes. What will we do? Should we prepare, and if so, how? War is hell! I don’t want to hurt anyone, much less wage war. Who wants to wage war against anyone, especially fellow American? I sure don’t! But could a scenario happen where we are morally obliged into such actions? 


Some believe that American Christians who oppose Trump should arm themselves and learn about responsible gun use and care. Remember, there are moral limits to pacifism, and many Trump supporters are armed to the teeth. Some Trump supporters have even cheered about possible civil war. Because some are, does this force us into the uncomfortable moral obligation to take countermeasures?


Should we arm themselves? Form militias? Would doing so be effective? Read Selinker’s piece.

What About Active Listening?

Others insist we must dialogue. But is dialogue even possible? Here is what some catechists, youth and young adult ministers, Church employees, Catholics and other Christians on social media were observed saying today—


“Breonna Taylor got what she deserved! That’s what happens when you hang out with the wrong people!”

“Don’t want to be killed? Then don’t fire on policemen!”

“All lives matter!”

“Her boyfriend shot at the police she got what she got. Screw her.”

“President Trump is a great defender of life! President 4 Life! Its got a ring to it!”


News shows clamor tonight with talk of civil war. The Atlantic published an article describing what could very likely happen should Trump lose. It rhymes with Selinker’s “wargames” piece. Read the terrifying possibilities here in an article meant to be published by Mid-October in “The Atlantic.” The magazine claims, “because of its urgency,” they decided to publish it posthaste.

Being Realistic with Donald Trump

Would Donald Trump really refuse a peaceful transfer of powers? What would play out should he refuse to accept defeat?

Can you imagine the brutality of any of the four civil war scenarios Selinker describes? All happening in the COVID-19 pandemic. We say 2020 has been horrible, but it’s possible that the horrors haven’t even begun! Indeed, if Selinker and friends are right, 2021 could make us beg for the comforts 2020. Think about that, voting Catholics.


And where are the bishops? Right now, we sorely need genuine shepherds. But we don’t need costumed fops frequenting gala dinners and liquor lunches. And what good is the bishop who enables unbalanced priests?


Where is their moral authority? The best remedy for addiction, including the codependent dance of clergy and laity, is hitting rock bottom. Terrifyingly, 2020 may prove to be  just another continental shelf—rock bottom may yet lie leagues below. 

Pacifism Tried

Many U.S. Catholics claim to be pro-life, and they claim that Trump is also. Self-proclaimed patriots likewise imagine Trump to be a patriot. Trump says he wants to eliminate the mail-in ballots. How could such an action against the will of “We the People” be patriotic? How could the end of the United States favor life? 


Many argue that Trump will never concede defeat. As Trump himself suggests, should the election results not favor him, then it must be a scam. Many have argued that Trump is a psychopath. Maybe he is. But even more concerning than Trump’s actions is the blind loyalty of his followers. And when Trump is gone, they remain. And our society grows ever more tribalistic.

“Let’s keep the dialogue open!” But there has been no dialogue for the past four years. We seem incapable of it. So what do Americans do? Turn to violence? We must try harder to listen actively, in empathy.

“Thoughts and prayers” won’t suffice. Cowardice masquerading as piety won’t work. But neither will violence. We must try harder to listen and communicate effectively.

What If Civil War?

But let’s say our efforts are squandered and dialogue is impossible. What then? War?


“The U.S. military won’t let it get that far.” Really? Okay. How will the armed forces respond? Selinker realistically describes four different scenarios, each one more horrific than the last. And he lists the possible ways the military will react. Perhaps they’ll merely go along with der Führer Trump, as Selinker tells it. Or maybe Trump will go the way of dinosaurs, as Selinker suggests in one of his grim scenarios. 

But bullets don’t heal. Is a military dictatorship better than Trump? Hard as it is for some of us to believe, history teaches that societies exist far worse than Trump’s America. Our times are dark but can become far darker.

But is it then morally acceptable to placate a defeated POTUS illegally refusing to leave office?

Will Trump Concede?

Trump may legitimately win the 2020 election. But The Atlantic piece claims that he will never concede should he lose. And imagine a defeated Trump is forced to leave, or is exiled, or imprisoned, or killed. As long as he breathes, claims writer Barton Gellman, he will never concede. And should he die, is it crazy to think that many of his followers will proclaim him a “martyr”? Where do we go from there? We may have already gone too far, over the underwater cliff, down into the cold, crushing depths of unknown sea monsters without the faintest glimmer. 


Where is hope to be found, fellow Christians? Are any of Selinker’s civil war scenarios possible? Are they inevitable? And if so, what hideous regimes await our future? Some rank Trump to be the worst POTUS ever. Maybe he is. Conceivably far worse may follow him, as the pendulum swings wide, Right and Left, and we become more tribalistic. And there are moral limits to pacifism.

Even if no civil war comes happens directly because of this election, do you really think the way America is won’t lead to these horrors in the near future?

American Catholics

Since Catholics entered this United States experiment, we have wondered: how can we be both Catholic and American? Founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Thomas Hecker (d. 1888), addressed this. Said Hecker, “I have the conviction that I can be all the better Catholic because I am an American; and all the better American because I am Catholic.” Hecker anticipated the Second Vatican Council by roughly a century.

But how will Hecker’s dream be realized if we fail to understand ourselves? If we are to survive and prosper as a society, we better understand our culture really well. And we had better grasp the moral limits to pacifism. Long before reaching that grim threshold, we need to take our obligation seriously to informed, active participation as U.S. citizens. And we must never lose sight of the value of the Other, no matter how fiercely we disagree. 

Moral Non-Negotiables & Love

Tolerating a despotic regime costumed as “pro-life” Captain America is unacceptable. Celebrating it as such is appalling. But why would anyone do such a thing? To find that out, should we begin by calling the other “stupid” and “deplorable,” or “sister” and “brother”? Where is our starting point? Truth garbed in rough language ahead!

To move away from the brink, we must remember how to listen. We need to come from love, but not the wishy-washy acceptance of evil mistaken for love. As we’ve said, there are moral limits to pacifism. “Hit the road, Jack!” can be love. Tough love is love. And love can even be violent but always without ego. Love is like a hurricane, and hurricanes are violent, but without ego. Love can even put someone on the ground if need be. Hopefully, this won’t have to be how we love.

Love listens to the other with empathy. Love is free to disagree. But love strives to understand.  

Love can also vote. When love votes, love votes informed. And love listens. Love puts the other first. Love loves what is as hope loves what will be. But what will be, American Catholics? Only hope can see that, for just as faith sees what is, hope sees what will be. Don’t lose hope!

What will be? God help us. 

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