Truly caught on the horns of a theological dilemma

Truly caught on the horns of a theological dilemma March 2, 2012

When it comes to Christian social ethics I have two heroes, but the problem is they are widely considered antithetical. John Howard Yoder and Reinhold Niebuhr. Much of Yoder’s reputation is gained from contradicting Niebuhr. And of course, much of Niebuhr’s reputation was gained from contradicting pacifism. Admittedly, the pacifism Niebuhr was against was not Yoder’s. He even tipped his hat to Anabaptists as a needed witness. He was against the liberal Protestant pacifism of the social gospel movement (people like Edwin Dahlberg). Nevertheless, insofar as Niebuhr thought ALL pacifism is wrong and Yoder thought pacifism (Christocentric like his or liberal) is right, they are opposites on that and many other issues.

Yoder has in recent years enjoyed a revival of interest, probably mainly through Hauerwas. Niebuhr’s influence continues, of course, as he is almost always named as “the most influential Christian thinker” by politicians. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama have so identified him.

Of course, I don’t see how a Christian COULD be president and NOT appreciate Niebuhr’s approach to social ethics. It would certainly be difficult to be president and have Yoder as your social ethics mentor.

My problem is that when I read Yoder I find myself saying “Amen” a lot–to almost everything he says. I am convinced that he was right about New Testament, original Christianity and especially the teachings and example of Jesus and how they ought to apply to Christian living today. The church is supposed to be that light set on a hill, living by a different set of values from the rest of the world (not that they can’t sometimes overlap). For example, the way of the world is coercion; the way of Jesus is love. I am convinced that Jesus would not want his followers to engage in deadly force.

Yoder’s social ethic is focused on obedience. Obey Jesus and let the chips fall where they may. Obedience is our calling; effectiveness is God’s business. We are not called to manage history; we are only called to live as Christ instructed us to live. Amen.

When I read Niebuhr (e.g., An Interpretation of Christian Ethics or his essays in Love and Justice) I also find myself saying “Amen” a lot. Niebuhr believes it is irresponsible for Christians to abdicate responsibility for the world and he equates pacifism with that. He doesn’t justify war as good, but he believes it is sometimes a necessary evil. He agrees with Yoder that Jesus taught and modeled radical love. They basically agree on the Sermon on the Mount–it must not be watered down or glossed over. Niebuhr thinks it is possible for the individual Christian to live by it somewhat consistently. And he agrees that we OUGHT to live by it perfectly consistently. But he also thinks this is a fallen world where Christians must sometimes hold their noses and do things contrary to the Sermon on the Mount. Effectiveness matters and sometimes requires compromise. That’s where Yoder disagrees.

John Stackhouse (Regents College) wrote a book a couple years ago entitled Making the Best of It. I reviewed it for Books & Culture. It’s an excellent evangelical re-statement of Niebuhr’s social ethic. I found myself agreeing whole heartedly.

On the other hand, reading Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference, convinces me Yoder was right. War is something Christians ought to oppose and never participate in or support.

Well, you see my dilemma. I’m divided within myself. I agree with Yoder that the Christian life, including the life of the church, is one of radical obedience to the love Jesus taught and modeled including “Resist not evil” and “love your enemies.” I also agree with Niebuhr that effectiveness in abolishing injustice is part of the Christian’s calling (including the church’s calling). When Hitler was rampaging through Europe our duty was effectively to stop him. I also agree with Yoder that the church’s main duty is peace making by being a peaceful witness to the Lamb.

Is there a way to reconcile these two impulses-one toward radical, uncompromising obedience and one toward Christian effectiveness and responsibility for society that sometimes requires compromise (e.g., to abolish injustice using coercion if necessary)?

Occasionally I look to Bonhoeffer as a guide. Not as a guide in the sense of “Here’s a check list to go through at the end of which you’ll know what to do.” Bonhoeffer was no advocate of casuisty. But a guide in the sense of feeling resigned to the fact that occasionally in this world an evil arises so great that one has to set aside perfect obedience to the new law of love and hold one’s nose and do what it is necessary and trust God to forgive.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist–until he was handed the opportunity to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler. I think he remained a pacifist through that. I don’t think his participation (he volunteered to pull the trigger) was due to a policy of putting effectiveness over radical, uncompromising obedience Niebuhr style. Rather, it had to be something like Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

IF we think Bonhoeffer made the right decision, even if it was in another sense wrong, then it seems our involvement in World War 2 was justified in the same sense–not due to some policy of just war but due to having no alternative except to allow a madman to take over much of the world and commit genocide against many groups he hated.

The problem, as I see it, is that AFTER WW2 most previously pacifist Christian groups dropped pacifism altogether and embraced war as good (something to be celebrated).

That example, Bonhoeffer, doesn’t exactly reconcile Yoder and Niebuhr, of course, but it gives one instance of a person who, while holding fast to pacifism as the norm, embraced violence as the exception (as a necessary evil). Let’s imagine that the Allies liberated Bonhoeffer before he was hanged. (That almost happened.) Would he have then been a Niebuhrian defender of war? I don’t think so. I think he would have remained a pacifist and simply appealed to the exceptional circumstances to justify (not make righteous) his decision to participate in the plot to kill Hitler.

My point is, the only way forward I can see, to get off the horns of the dilemma, is to stand with Yoder as the norm but remain open to exceptions when circumstances absolutely require them. Some evils are so horrendous that they need to be overcome quickly and the only way to do that is coercion and sometimes even violence. The response is not to create a justification system to prepare for them, but to be the kind of persons who know when they arise and how best to respond. Bonhoeffer was that kind of person.

As a general rule, I think it is true that God does not call Christians or the church to manage history. He calls us to obedience to the law of love. Coercion using deadly force is always sin but not always wrong. I realize that’s dialectical, but I don’t know any way out of that.


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  • David

    I appreciate your entire dialogue with Yoder and Niebuhr, but I have a question that I know you have thought about. I agree that Yoder’s perspective should be the Christian norm (and maybe even that there are exception to that norm), but don’t you believe that the Hitler could have been stopped by the United States without the aid of Christians participating in the military?
    Also, didn’t Hitler believe that God’s providential care protected him from that assassination attempt? I remember hearing that his secretary observed Hitler solidifying his confidence in everything he was doing, seeing it as the will of God with even more clarity and purpose than ever before.
    In that case, I can see how Bonhoeffer’s actions may have been positive, but in this instance they may have distorted the Christian witness even further.

    • rogereolson

      I wasn’t saying Christians OUGHT to participate in a necessary war (like WW2) but that I can understand why some where were otherwise pacifists (e.g., many Pentecostals) did. And I don’t think they were wrong. Bonhoeffer’s action was worthwhile even if ultimately it failed and even boosted Hitler’s misguided confidence. Many righteous and holy acts have unintended consequences.

      • Terry Craghead

        I would submit that leaving the door open for violence closes the door of an alternative non-violent path. Every conflict becomes “justifiable” because those in the know, the experts (The President, CIA, Pastor, etc..) give us the information from a slanted perspective. We trust the experts regarding the “necessity” for war because we are ignorant of the threat. To place our trust their judgement is naive.

        To counter the idea of Bonhoeffer being the best/appropriate/only response to Hitler, I submit the Rosenstrasse Protest,
        These women prove that nonviolent resistance was not only possible, but effective against Hitler’s regime. It’s not to say that if it caught on it would have toppled Hitler, but just to say that our imaginations limit our responses. Only God knows what is possible. To say that violence is allowed in certain situation predicts that nonviolence will not be pursued because we’ve set the boundary not at obedience to Jesus, but to “necessity.”

  • Sam

    In summary, sometimes you see acts of violence as a nessecary evil. Or that sometimes we do have to against Jesus teaching. The only problem this line of thinking is not there in scriptures. Rather we see that God is control of the situation, all situations, including second world war.

    Just for some hisotry. Even if the US did not enter 2nd world war, the Soviet Union would have still defeated Germany. It would have just taken longer. Even before Normandy happened, the Soviets were making progress on the eastern side. In fact most of 2nd world war, or the highest number of casualties were in the Eastern Europe. In short, the war that most people think was just for the US to fight, was still not a nessecity for defeating evil, the Nazis. The communists were as evil as the Nazi’s and they are mostly gone without actually fighting a world war.

    • rogereolson

      Just for some history. I recently saw a documentary about Hitler’s nuclear program. According to some historians, German scientists were close to creating a nuclear weapon in 1944. They had some setbacks–mostly from British and American commando squads (e.g., in Norway where they blew up a heavy water plant). I think there is little doubt that the U.S.’s entrance into WW2 seriously weakened Germany’s ability to win. And led to an earlier end to the war than otherwise would have been the case. We may also have contributed greatly to preventing Hitler from having nuclear capability.

      • Sam

        You just demonstrated a problem. The line of when war becomes nessecary can easily change.

        • rogereolson

          It does anyway. Leading Christian ethicists have recently been proposing changes to the traditional just war theory to make preemptive war just.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Sam,

      As I see your scenario teased out to its conclusion, the Soviet Union would have defeated Germany and occupied most of Europe rather than just the Eastern portions. If we think that Stalin was at least as terrible as Hitler (which I do believe), I think the world would have turned out quite a bit worse than it actually did. And what do you think would have happened in the Pacific?

      • Sam

        I agree with you that Stalin was as evil as Hitler. Yet the world survived with another world war to remove Stalin. I am not sure what would have happened in the pacific. But if you are arguing that the war was still nessecary to get the pacific under control .. well it ends up being another demonstration of the problem of shifting lines of when war is nessecary.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Great word Roger. I find myself in a similar spot and I agree with you. In some ways, it is a troublesome position because once you allow for an exception you open the door to interpretaion of what qualifies under the rule of exception (which is why the neo-cons are able to claim Neibuhr in support their imperial agenda and the Iraq war). Ultimately though, I think that you agree with Jesus, as is shown in his teaching on (for example) divorce. It is a necessary evil, given because of the hardness of human hearts, in order to protect the weak. Yet the exception is always prone to abuse, as is shown by the example of the Pharisees in the gospel stories.

  • Have you considered another options (arguably) advocated by Yoder: nonviolent intervention/conflict resolution? Yoder’s recently (posthumously) published work, The War of the Lamb, discusses this option extensively, drawing on the social scientific work of Gene Sharp as well as the examples of Gandhi, King, etc. At Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, folks like David Cortright and John Paul Lederach have been exploring these possibilities for years. At Fuller, Glen Stassen would be someone associated with this movement as well. This approach is not without its difficulties, but it might provide a better “synthesis” to your “dialectic.” In other words, it might be possible to be both faithful and effective, rather than being necessarily involved in a sinful action (which is paradoxically the “right” thing to do). Your proposed solution above seems to be a slightly nuanced restatement of Niebuhr, whereas admittedly nonviolent peacemaking actions lean more in the Yoderian direction (where my sympathies lie).

    • rogereolson

      Oh, yes, of course (to nonviolent intervention/conflict resolution). But my dilemma has to do with violence.

      • Right, but this suggests a way out of that dilemma: a truly third option. It is neither violent (so Yoder) nor irresponsible (so Neibuhr). To say that the dilemma is about violence and then to solve the dilemma by endorsing (some) violence only seems to perpetuate the dilemma.

  • Zach

    I think you’re right and this is a big one for me, really tough issue. I would just utilize two points: the first being that Jesus was mos def against hypocrisy, and I don’t know a more hypocritical theologian than Hauerwas. Hays is right (Moral Vision of the New Testament) when he says that his logic ought to compel him to be a Roman Catholic; to my mind he ought to establish himself some sort of alternative community.

    My (2) second point would be that I agree with Peter Gomes when he says we aren’t called to be Jesus; we’re called to follow him. He also holds up Bonhoeffer as an example. I’m married; Jesus wasn’t. Does that mean I’m not following Jesus? I think the logic is similar. To my small mind, this “cloud of witnesses” (from Yoder to Niebuhr to MLK) all make sense of what it might mean to follow Jesus. I’m still trying to figure it out.

    • rogereolson

      I disagree with Hays and think the basic impulses of Hauerwas’ theology are toward the radical Reformation. Regarding Jesus and marriage. True, “WWJD?” is not a good ethical guide. But “What did Jesus command?” is. Jesus never discouraged marriage; he did command non-violence.

      • Zach

        But what does Jesus command us to do? No one, not even Yoder takes all of the commands of the Sermon on the Mount literally. Likewise, as far as I know people doing like Origen and castrating themselves (if your eye causes you to sin etc) are pretty rare. Still a good conversation to have, though civilly (i.e. not like Hauerwas who says Niebuhr wasn’t Christian).

  • Phil

    Loved the post, but in my mind we’re still left with as much of a dilemma as the one we started with! Even if we agree that violence is the exception rather than the rule (and who, really, would argue with that premise?), we are never going to come close to agreeing with one another on the coercive “exceptions” that supersede the rule. I’m still waiting to hear how this all moves us further down the road toward a more biblical understanding of war and peace.

    • rogereolson

      I realized while listening to Hauerwas last night that I left out an important point. My point was that a church is what makes the decision about whether a war is necessary or not. Then it says so in a resolution. Churches need to start stepping up and making these declarations to fellow Christians and maybe to the state as well. There will always be a “minority report,” of course, but the fact of inevitable disagreement shouldn’t hinder bold statements.

  • Thanks for this piece. Coincidentally, students at the seminary where I teach (Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan) were supposed to evaluate Yoder this week and one of them (Paul Tillman) spotted this piece today. Excellent help!

  • I see this dilemma as closely related to your questions about God-directed violence in the Old Testament vs. Sermon-on-the-Mount pacifism in the New Testament. I also think there is an analogous dilemma with natural evil, whether God designed competition for good or it was not His original intent. If competition is good (survival of the fittest leads to specialization and the apparent good of species diversity), then God would be disingenuous by not allowing us to compete, for example by resisting a dictator such as Hitler. If competition was not God’s original intent, and is instead a feature of fallen creation that He is working to eliminate, then we should by wary in following our sinful inclination to compete and instead look to God for instruction. And He says, “Vengeance is mine” (Rom. 12:19). God Himself is in competition with evil, and we are told to resist the devil, but our fight is not “against flesh and blood” but spiritual rulers of darkness (Eph. 6:12).

    Putting down the physical sword is an act of faith; it’s certainly contrary to our instincts and becomes more difficult to “not resist evil” (Mat. 5:39) as danger approaches. But we are not defenseless; God will fight for us when we ask for His help in prayer. I’m thinking of the Israel’s many battles won by God’s hand and not the sword, the mountain full of spiritual horses and chariots that became visible with Elisha’s prayer, the deliverance of Peter from prison, and many contemporary stories of deliverance wherein God’s people pray and their oppressors are blinded or made able to see God’s protecting angels. An extreme example, and one I’m not sure what to do with, is the work of Rees Howells, who lead a team of prayer warriors to intercede against Hitler’s forces and was assured of victory in the Spirit before the outcome of several major battles. Rees Howells is an interesting counterpoint to the debate between Yoder and Niebuhr, since he was physically a pacifist but spiritually a warrior.

  • Joshua Penduck

    My own lecturer in Christian Ethics, Robert Song, has recommended figures such as Brian Wicker (especially: ‘Studying War – No More: From Just War to Just Peace’) and Glen Stassen (‘Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War’), both of whom may be able to cross the boundary between Yoder and Niebuhr (or, increasingly as it’s known these days, between Hauerwas and O’Donovan), by rather than emphasising Just War, striving towards Just Peace (which seems to take most of the benefits of Christian pacificism, without neglecting the need for responsibility). They are a bit more detailed that I can be at the moment I don’t know whether you’ve come across either, but if not, it might give room for a glimpse beyond the dilemma (which I suffer from as well!).

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I know Glen Stassen and have heard him speak on the subject and talked with him about it. I respect his approach. What I am tentatively opposed to is any absolutistic stance on violence.

  • Praveen

    Hello Brother Roger
    I have had these few thought that I got this morning,
    I will post it on Good Friday, on face book (I have friends who are Hindus etc.)
    I wanted to share with you first.

    Why Good Friday?

    Some of you all might be wondering what all this fuss about a Friday is. After all it is just a Friday – Just another TGI Friday, right?
    You would probably say- After all every religious experience and practices have many things in common right? Like for instance prayer, kissing your wonderful old grandma, fasting, alms-giving, helping your neighbor, making the world a little better, a little happier …I mean basically being a reasonable person, and not being a jerk right?

    Yes, my friend, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Every religion has some good to offer to the world, and the world is much, much better place with religion than without – I mean look at what Nazism did…look at what communism did…look at what capitalism did….heartless, ruthless.

    Then you might still want to press me for an answer……why prefix a weekday with ‘Good’, after all who is good except God, right?

    Precisely my friend.

    Let me tell you a true story- I will be brief, and truthful.

    God: if you don’t repent you will die (repeated over hundreds of times over hundreds of years)
    Silence for roughly 450-500 years.
    God became man – Jesus Christ – the God-Man
    God-Man: if you don’t repent you will die. (Repeated over 3 years or so)
    At the end
    God-Man on Good Friday: I have died for you my friend. It is finished.

    PS: that’s not the end of the story my friend, wait for a few more days and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

    Easter posting:
    The God-Man has risen.
    That’s why Christians call this Good news
    The intellectually foolish, obscenely gruesome, and agonizingly painful death on Friday and the glorious fact on Sunday is called the good news for us.

    Why? Go find out.

  • Andy W.

    Great post here Dr. Olson. I have the same struggle and I found this very helpful. I think referencing Bonhoeffer is spot on. He lived this tension in a REAL way, not just some intellectual exercise, which is where I live this! I tell people I’m an intellectual pacifist (intellectually I agree with pacifism) but I don’t have a lot of confidence that I would hold to this conviction in the face of clear evil and injustice.

    • rogereolson

      That’s where I’m at, too. But there are some acts of violence I cannot justify for myself or other Christians–such as capital punishment. It accomplishes nothing worthwhile; it’s only effect is vengeance.

  • Charlie

    Mr. Olsen:
    RE: Sin but not always wrong – I’m a layman and a true amateur on these matters, but I’ve had a thought for some time that since we live in a fallen world, sometimes the lesser of two evils is the best we can do. As Paul said, we see through a glass darkly and these tough choices are a funtion of our fallen world. This idea is not a reason to be lazy in obedience not to cease to strive to find God’s answers in scripture. But I think it shows all the more the need for God’s grace (particularly extended to ourselves) and to wait all the more eagerly in expectation of that which is to come.

    Am I being to easy on us all?

  • What Yoder book would you recommend if I wanted I wanted to start on his most accessible work?

    • rogereolson

      Start with Body Politics. But The Politics of Jesus is his classic book. Many of his other books are collections of essays (some actually edited and bound together by his students after his death).

  • scotmcknight

    Roger, you are not far from the kingdom.

    • rogereolson

      Who told you I turned 60 the other day? 🙂

  • Lennart

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    Isn’t the Governmental view of the Atonement a model that might help us understand, and maybe even resolve the dilemma. On one hand God is a Father that extends forgiveness and grace freely without the demands of retributive justice. Yet, on the other hand God is the giver of the law, which is rooted in, and motivated by the purest of love.

    The dilemma being how to uphold the law of love be upheld, without compromise, while still be able to treat the law breakers just-as-if-they-had-never-broken-the-law.

    Aren’t we, as His followers, faced with a similar dilemma? We’re called to love, forgive, extend grace. Yet, we also have “governmental role”, sometimes as parents, other times as citizens, and for many of us in public/Gov’t roles as police officers, military personnel, or even as judges.

    In my mind understanding God’s dilemma helps me understand my role. I don’t take the law into my own hands (for example, I don’t support the execution of abortionists by private citizens even though I privately do think of abortion as a form of manslaughter).

    The other extreme would be that of total pacifism in which I completely abandon any public support for the law of love and refuse to participate in any activity requiring “violence” of any sort.

    In my mind both the extreme pacifist and the executioner of the abortionist suffer from the same root distortion of making no distinction between our roles as citizens and part of a community and our role as an individual. One has the role of extending grace and forgiveness. There’s a time for that. In the other role we might be called upon to uphold the law of love in which extending grace and pardon to the lawbreaker might actually increase violence, not decrease it.

    The pacific dilemma is that by refusing to participate in violence they actually end up causing an increase of that of which they are opposed. I am not sure the “Free Will” defense will work.

    God had a dilemma, why can’t we?

    // Lennart

    • rogereolson

      Shockingly, I agree that God had a dilemma and the atonement was its solution. I lean toward the governmental theory. I just don’t think we can create a policy of violence; we have to take each situation in which violence might be necessary and ask “Is it really necessary?” The answer will always be a risk. But we have to risk being wrong in life, otherwise we do nothing.

    • Chris W

      The first chapter of “Changes that Heal,” by Dr. Cloud, has a wonderful little parable that expresses this same dilemma. He describes it as the tension between grace and truth (which were never meant to be set over and against each other; they were united in Christ).

  • Chris

    Hey Mr. Olson,

    I just finished reading The Politics of Jesus per your suggestion in a different post and I loved it! However, some of his points were a little difficult for me to understand. I’m trying to wrap my brain around this book by summarizing what I think is the main argument. Is this a fair and accurate account?:

    The issue at stake is how humans are to obtain good ends. Yoder rejects any strategy that would use illegitimate means to gain control of history and bring about good ends because Jesus himself rejected this (genuine and tempting) option. Illegitimate means are any and all that contradict the life (ethic) of Jesus and the way of the cross. But Yoder doesn’t leave the discussion here; instead, he pushes beyond this point and challenges the assumption that is appropriate to for humans to seek ends at all. Jesus’ strategy was “really no strategy,” but uncompromising faithfulness (obedience) to the character of the love of God. Thus, ends do not justify the means, because the means themselves are the ends that mater to God (as revealed by Jesus and his cross). Insofar as we commit ourselves to that same uncompromising faithfulness to the radical (indiscriminate) love of God, we become part of a new humanity–we discover a new way to be human. We become reconciled to each other inasmuch as we are reconciled to God–and that is justification; that is the ultimate “triumph of the Lamb.”

    • rogereolson

      You got it! That’s a great summary of the book.

  • Rob

    This might be a lame way to reconcile pacifism with the possibility of just war, but what about taking the pacifistic impulse to be a counsel of perfection? Yoder admits that the purpose of obedience to these injunctions is not to achieve anything other than obedience to God. He does not think that pacifism is to be practiced in order to effect any change. So you might then ask, “If pacifism is not meant to be effective, what is it meant to do?” Yoder’s answer is that it is meant for the sake of obedience and also perhaps as an example of the difference between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world.

    Nothing in that justification requires that all Christians must be pacifists. The purpose of pacifism could be achieved even if only certain communities of Christians practiced it. The fact that part of the justification is obedience for obedience sake is a clue that pacifism is practiced for personal benefit. That sounds like a counsel of perfection. So maybe the requirement of pacifism can be fulfilled by particular communities of Christians devoted to perfection.

    Lest anyone deny that there are counsels of perfection but that all of Jesus’ commands were meant to be implemented by all Christians as straightforward moral duties, I point to the rich young ruler. “If you would be perfect, sell all you have and give it to the poor”. I don’t see any anabaptists doing that (most of the ones I have known live in homes that they own and have quite a few possessions). Moreover, it would be impractical for all Christians to do it for then they would become the poor and a burden on society. Of course it is not necessary to go to such lengths for Jesus clearly qualifies it with the condition “If you would be perfect”. Since the consequences of universal pacifism are analogous to the consequences of universal homelessness, it might be reasonable to take pacifism as a counsel of perfection too.

    • rogereolson

      Many theologians over the centuries have interpreted the Sermon in the Mount that way–as a counsel of perfection. That’s Niebuhr’s general approach. And he thought it was a good thing that pacifist Christian communities exist–as a witness to the perfection God asks of us. I take it that when Jesus said “If you would be perfect” he meant “complete” (as the Greek allows). He also commanded “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I think Yoder (and I heard Hauerwas say it last evening) would say that the ultimate purpose of obedience is the glory of God. We all agree, I take it, that our reason for being is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Our obedience glorifies God, not us.

  • Interesting thoughts Roger. Yes, Bonhoeffer is was the question that got me in Ethics class on the Pacifist side of things as well. I studied International Relations (Diplomacy) in grad school. We debated and discussed issues of isolationism and pacifism throughout the courses. A few thoughts to add from that perspective, though mine are non-theological in nature.

    1) It is difficult to be a pacifist in the face of great evil. It is fairly easy in a country in which peace is normative. In the case of the US, with fairly unthreatening neighbors to the north and south, oceans on either side, the country is often fairly insular in comparison to much of the world. As result, it fosters an environment that allows for pacifism.
    2) There are always issues behind the issues. It was fascinating to study FDR in the events leading up to America’s involvement in WWII. Rather than fighting for American church groups to back him in the war (as you said, many were opposed) he appealed to a greater idealism to motivate people to unite with him – and succeeded to a great degree in de-pacifying a large majority of those groups. In the hands of a different leader? Good question as to what might have been.
    3) Realistic vs. Ideal – any diplomat will tell you they go into the field with the hopes of preventing war and violence and to be honest, I feel that they do not get credit for all the potential wars that have been prevented through diplomacy. But wars never happen in a vacuum, there are usually so many intrinsic layers that it is difficult, very very difficult to be sure that there even is a “right” side.
    4) One of the greatest preventers of war is economic stability. This leads in turn to promotion of greed. Which brings up as a Christian, a whole new set of ethical questions. Ones to which I have no idea what the answer might be. Some of the evils that are loosed as a country pursues its own greed are at times greater than the cost of war. Which is the better choice then?

    I’d love a theological discussion to include some of the secular questions. Of course, I didn’t study at a Christian school, so perhaps they are being addressed? I don’t know.

    • rogereolson

      Interestingly (to me) Niebuhr worked tirelessly to get usually pacifist church groups on board America’s involvement in WW2. He even met with Roosevelt in the White House at least once to discuss strategy. As I understand it, he was a major factor in mainline Protestant denominations finally supporting the war. Of course, Pearl Harbor did more than anything else. Once that happened, not much else was needed. I do wonder sometimes about the economics of war. One side benefit of WW2 for the U.S. was economic recovery from the depression. I’m confident that’s not why we went to war. But I suspect some wars are for that reason. Also, its seems to me that in the U.S., at least, presidents are less likely to come under criticism during a war. If we are always and forever involved in some war, does that increase a president’s power? Of course, there have been exceptions (e.g., Johnson and the Vietnam war).

      • Pearl Harbor was definitely the catalyst, Roosevelt and others had been working for years to get America to be concerned about the threats from overseas, but wouldn’t push the people into war unless he had support for it. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the US, most of the people who had been on the fence realized they had to come to a decision. The groundwork had been laid before that though so they weren’t asked to do anything against their consciencious beliefs. Vietnam & Korea were in response to the Communist threat – the problem Communism was an early stage government experiment at the time – no one could predict what would happen and the Vietnam war at least limited the growth – it didn’t continue beyond Vietnam to engulf the rest of South East Asia. The problem was a nebulous enemy that wasn’t taken seriously. In retrospect, Kissinger’s containment policy in regard to Russia ended up being far better than actual warfare; but no one knew what the outcome of any of it would be.

        It is interesting to look back – after Vietnam, by doing away with the draft, the US government opened up the door for Pacifism to take root once again. I like Yoder’s idealism, and agree with much of it. One of my goals in studying diplomacy was the prevention of war. But my thought is that humanity has been given free will. With that free will, God knew it would run the risk of evil people rising in governments. There is freedom to be a pacifist, and there is freedom to resist.
        With regard to American pacifism however, I can’t get beyond the simple reality of the fact that the society and geographic isolation allow for it. It’s one thing to be a pacifist in the US, it’s quite another to be one in Rwanda or South Korea. I can’t help but wonder if we faced the same threats, how many of us would change our minds or adjust our theology?
        Taking it a bit further, my experience internationally has given me an appreciation for America. At least we a allow to choose. Many nations require mandatory military service from their youth due to the threats around them. A society that allows freedom to the point that people are given the option of whether or not they want to participate or even whether or not they believe it’s right – whatever else may be said of America, that is a rare find in the world today.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Hi Roger,

        You seem to be under the illusion that war creates economic recovery! It is also known as the Broken Window Fallacy. War only destroys, it does not create wealth! In 1946, Truman lifted the heavy burden of government regulation and the economy did wonderfully – but this was after the war and certainly not because of it.

        • rogereolson

          I didn’t say it creates wealth. I said it promoted economic recovery from the depression. Those are different things.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Let me understand you. Economic recovery can happen outside the bounds of wealth creation? That seems to be what you are saying, right? If you view price controls and supply limits (government taking from citizens of that generation), high debt (government taking from citizens of the future generations), and high inflation (government taking from citizens of previous generations) as economic recovery, I can’t follow that logic at all. The economic recovery link with the war is illusory, as I’ve tried to illustrate (only the government grew/recovered). It was the cessation of war and the demanded relaxation of government controls that promoted the general economic recovery. But alas, we disagree . . . .

  • Harvey Cross

    Surely “an eye for an eye” was an advance from total slaughter and a lesser evil
    overcoming a greater is a moral action ? (Forsyth)

  • Scott Gay

    During the American Civil War, many Baptists in the South hedged on their foundations and opted for a Christian nationalism. During WWII many Church of the Brethren youth flat out upset their parents and tradition from the very beginning and joined the military. There is a difference between wanting to establish governing by religion and defending aggression.
    There is a plain incompatibility between Christianity and hydrogen bombs. It is perfectly true that Christians do not need law and sword for themselves and are not subject to them, but to the Holy Spirit. But before wanting to govern in accordance with the Gospel, busy yourself giving a world with “true Christians”. The world is actually full of people refractory to the Spirit of Christ, even those baptised and bearing the name. One can’t govern a single country, or hardly a small group by Christian principles. It’s as sensible as enclosing a farm yard with goats, sheep, eagles, and wolves and saying: ” feed together, the gates are open, the grass is abundant, don’t leave, live peaceably”. It was for very real reasons that most of our religious forbearers left Europe. Statemanship is an art badly needed, and not in the sense of nation building, but common sense not displayed by some in office or seeking today.
    Legitimately, the aggressor is always in the wrong, and must be resisted, even with force.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Scott,

      You point out the Baptists of the South during the American Civil War for hedging their foundations and turning to Christian nationalism? Could you please explain that more? Would the same be true of Northern Christians / Baptists who fought?

  • Sergei

    I think I am with Youder on this one. 🙂 I think that “the exeption” are somewhat a sigh on unbelief. Take Hitler, for example. We might think that he was such a horrendous evil that he requried an exception. But should we just obey the Lord and follow the way of low, who can tell how things could have turned out? We assume that things would have turned for bad, but are we sure?

    • No one can be sure what would have happened. But Hitler declared war on the US and had made his intentions pretty clear. The emperor of Japan ordered an attack on Pearl Harbor and had already wrenched the Philippines (at the time a US territory) away from the US. Empires at the time were just a fact of life. When the US gave Japan back to the Japanese people and pulled out of the country they were actually shocked – to this day (I currently live in Japan) the older people still make comments about that “not being what we would have done.” To resist, but not dominate after a war was a radical idea.

      The insular freedom that the US provides makes it possible for pacifism to flourish. It also provides grounds to believe that peace is normative. Not so much in places where freedom is constantly under threat. If there had not been resistance then what would have been? That is something we are never told.

  • steve rogers

    I’m in great sympathy with the dilemma as you have described it. Two quick thoughts: 1) To resist the impulse to preempt God’s working it out for his glory and act violently is akin to taking the fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden. God says don’t. A shortsighted consideration of appealing possibilities (good to eat and desireable to make one wise) says do. 2) Jesus’ statement that following him would require “hating” father, mother, etc. To allow an enemy to violently assault loved ones while making no violence in return to protect them could be seen as having a very low regard (if not outright hate) for ones loved ones. My point? I have a son and his family including two grandchildren in Israel. As Iran ratchets up its belicose threatening to remove Israel from the earth, I find my intellectual pacifism being pushed aside for the appealing fruit of a preemptive strike against Iran. I love my kids more than Ahmadinejab. God forgive me.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger: “Just for some hisotry. Even if the US did not enter 2nd world war, the Soviet Union would have still defeated Germany. It would have just taken longer.”

    I agree with the above statement–BUT–it must not be forgotten that the Soviet victories over Germany resulted largely from American supplied arms and equipment. Even if America would have chosen to pacifically avoid sending troops to assist the war effort, still, by sending arms, ammunition, etc., we probably would have violated Youder’s standard.

  • Phil Miller

    I guess the pragmatic side of me wonders how much energy we should spend on debating this particular issue when it seems that for most of us it’s little more than a purely academic exercise. What are any of our chance of being in the place of having to choose between assassinating a dictator or not? It seems pretty slim. I don’t have the reference offhand, but I’ve seen it cited from multiple sources that even in conflicts like WWII or the Vietnam War, the vast majority of soldiers never fired their weapon at an enemy combatant. Apart from some relatively few instances, it seems that most to most people these type of proclamations don’t cost them that much. Does is cost someone that much to proclaim himself a pacifist when there’s little to no chance he will be sent off to war?

    It just seems to me that it’s an instance of ethics being situational, and that is something that we don’t like to admit. Sure, we can have universal values that guide us in these situations, but it’s hard to predict how one will react in the heat of the moment. I do think that even we could get to a place where violence is truly a last resort, it would be a step in a positive direction. I think that means we need to reevaluate our entire attitude towards violence in things like movies, video games, etc. as a first step. It never ceases to amaze me how people will get so upset over something like a body part being exposed for a second or two on TV, but not care about a movie showing someone’s head getting blown off. To me, these are really more important first steps than having people choose between pacifism or some other option. Maybe once people start questioning these little things, they’ll be more ready to actually take a more serious look at the larger questions.

    • rogereolson

      As I’ve said here before, I think we (Christians, churches) need to speak out publicly against capital punishment. That seems to me a more manageable project than abolishing war. Still, with America now always involved in a war somewhere, I don’t think it would do any harm for Christians to speak out against war in general and then make an exception when one seems absolutely necessary (e.g., to prevent genocide).

  • ME

    I was heavily influenced by Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and the conclusion I’ve reached is to sell out to pacifism.

    There are so few people in the world, or lets say America, that actually try to follow Jesus. It’s certainly less than 10% of the general population. Because the portion is so small, the people trying to follow Jesus don’t need to worry about the necessity of government violence- the pagans and nihilist which dominate this country will take care of that for us and do a good enough job. We should focus exclusively on the Gospel, the necessary evil of violence and the complications it brings are not worth the distraction from the Gospel. I’m saying we should be pacifist not as a matter of principle (which maybe we should) but as a matter of practicality. It’s not practical to deal with all the confusion/distraction from the Gospel that violence brings when the nihilists and pagans are going to decide the matter anyway.

    And should one of us ever find ourselves in the shoes of Bonhoeffer… well, lets cross that bridge when we get to it.

  • Craig M. Watts

    Yoder does not oppose effectiveness in principle. He opposes effectiveness only insofar as it is given priority over fidelity to Jesus Christ. Nor does his disavow social responsibility or suggest that withdrawal is demanded by discipleship. Rather responsibility is shaped by the sort of love manifested in Jesus. If Bonhoeffer was concerned with effectiveness, his efforts where an utter failure and probably counterproductive, providing Hitler with justification to to lash out even more harshly at those he suspected of being disloyal to him. Yoder has a long view of effectiveness, realizing that not only can we cannot control consequences as we sometimes imagine we can but we end up with the opposite. The highest effectiveness is faith in the working of God and obedience to the guidance offered by the revelation of God in Christ in whom we find the end of history.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    When N. Chamberlin negotiated with Hitler, he said that the negotiations brought “peace in our times”. Of course, he was being duped. But he refused to stand up to Hitler because avoiding war was his highest priority. It betrayed him and his cause and millions of people.

    The question I have (for Yoder) is this: What is the principle behind pacifism? What greater good is expressed by not stopping evil people from committing evil deeds?
    It cannot be that violence is by definition bad – God used (uses) violence and made many requests upon His people (OT) to use violence. I can’t agree with you when you say that “Coercion using violence is always sin, but not always wrong.” If God does it – and commands His followers to also do so (in certain and specific situations) – how can it be sin?

    If I may summarize your musings in my own words it would be this: Christians are to be pacifists except for the (rare) situations that call for violence. This, of course, is not pacifism (similarly, one can’t be a part-time vegan!). Nor is it the opposite of pacifism – which might be “reckless or careless violence” (I can’t imagine anyone of conscience drawn to that). It is Neibuhr, not Yoder. It is Churchhill, not Chamberlin. It is peace through strength, not peace through appeasement.

    But just so I don’t get misunderstood, I will say that I don’t believe that Americans should have fought in many of the conflicts that we have been involved with – especially the Spanish-American War, the American Civil War, and WW1.

    • rogereolson

      I never claimed to be a pacifist, but I think Jesus was one. And most of the pre-Constantinian Christians were. Those things trouble me.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    OK, not sure where to go with this, but …. I totally get the horns of the dilemma context in which we ana/baptist, biblicist, radical followers of Jesus, find ourselves. WWII, and Bonhoeffer in the middle of it definitely bunch up our shorts (yeah, its wedgie time!).

    In for a penny in for a pound puts us right up there with the necessity of firebombing Dresden and all the rest: the only cure for terrorism is greater terrorism; which is to say, justified terror begets justified (Christian?) terrorism–massive firebombing of civilian cites, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, preemptive invasion of Iraq, targeted and mis-targeted drone assassinations, etc. Standing with Jesus (Yoder?) but accepting compromise just doesn’t wash because the circumstances almost always absolutely require exceptions to obedience. This is true I would suggest, in just about every moral situation and argument that are made to justify disobedience, no matter how minor the infraction may be: from lying to make someone feel better, to fudging on one’s taxes to keep more for the kingdom, to sexual accommodations for the sake of “love,” to whatever “uh, oh, this is kinda serious” situation you can imagine.

    BTW, the “law of love” is still the best basis for arguing for the most heinous of justifiably violent acts, those otherwise purely conceived as being the only just course of action “to protect the innocent,” like the violent destruction of the Nazi and Nisei regimes during WWII, or the shooting dead of a perp according to the finest rules of engagement by a police-wo/man.

    Is it ever loving to let brutal oppressors crush the life out of the less brutal oppressed? Well, God seems to have though so as Jesus and the Apostles called for a pacifist withdrawal from Israel after the founding of the cross-bearing way of Jesus in the New Covenant. So, perhaps God still thinks non-violent witness and pacific resistance to the normative exceptions required in a violent world are the best means of moving toward a more peaceful and just world.

    You know, God gave us an exception clause to allow for remarriage without adultery: “except for the reason of infidelity,” but nothing to allow for anything other than taking up our crosses and following Jesus. Perhaps all our equivocations are just that, ways to get around what God has told us to do.

    On the other hand, if he wanted to be definitive about it he could have been, as with the Roman soldier, for instance, where he didn’t say quite the army (though it was more like a police force in that specific context). This is where I start thinking about how God has not only tolerated but seems to have encouraged a church that not only didn’t maintain the normative cross-bearing way of Jesus but seems to have supported a church that has since the 4th C encouraged the taking up of the sword and justifying the violent conquest of non-believing peoples. There are “terror texts” in the OT and “terror theologies” in the Church Age. Most churches just see the necessary use of violence by Christians in “legitimate” governmental positions as a no-brainer. So, what’s up with that? Does God not have a definitive response to our being impaled by the horns of this dilemma? Or should we just back off and slack off and roll along with the panentheists, not even bothering with Niebuhr and Yoder?

    Ultimately, I think that if you stay close to Jesus, if you fix your mind on Jesus, you’ll see that the only faithful answer is to take up your cross as Jesus has commanded you to do and not imagine that “laying down your life for your friend” while trying to kill your enemy is the same thing under different circumstances.
    The evil in this world is always too great to be obedient to Jesus unless conquering evil by some other means than the cross is acceptable.

    • rogereolson

      What’s that about panentheists?

  • ME

    I wanted to share a link to the “Declaration of of Sentiments Adopted by Peace Convention” written in 1838. It is like a declaration of independence for pacifists. It’s short and radical. It isn’t perfect, but, to me it was divisive- do I want to be with the peace guys or do I want to be with the just war guys?

    Here are some excerpts-

    “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government; neither can we oppose any such government by a resort to physical force. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. We are bound by the laws of a kingdom which is not of this world; the subjects of which are forbidden to fight”

    “The history of mankind is crowded with evidences proving that physical coercion is not adapted to moral regeneration, and that the sinful dispositions of men can be subdued only by love; that evil can be exterminated only by good; that it is not safe to rely upon the strength of an arm to preserve us from harm; that there is great security in being gentle, long- suffering, and abundant in mercy; that it is only the meek who shall inherit the earth; for those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”

    “we purpose, in a moral and spiritual sense… to hasten the time when the kingdoms of this world will have become the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    “We expect to prevail through the Foolishness of Preaching… In entering upon the great work before us, we are not unmindful that in its prosecution we may be called to test our sincerity even as in a fiery ordeal. It may subject us to insult, outrage, suffering, yea, even death itself. The proud and pharisaical, the ambitious and tyrannical, principalities and powers, may combine to crush us. So they treated the Messiah whose example we are humbly striving to imitate.”

    “Our confidence is in the Lord Almighty and not in man. Having withdrawn from human protection, what can sustain us but that faith which overcomes the world?”

  • I’m very torn on this, too, and one of the options I’ve come to consider is somewhat in line with the comment of Rob, above, at March 3, 2012 at 1:35 am. This is an area where perhaps we can make use of the idea of different Christians having different callings, and seeing pacifism as a calling some, but not all Christians have? (Or groups of Christians.) As Rob put it above: “Yoder’s answer is that [pacificsm] is meant for the sake of obedience and also perhaps as an example of the difference between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. Nothing in that justification requires that all Christians must be pacifists. The purpose of pacifism could be achieved even if only certain communities of Christians practiced it.” There will be peace in the Kingdom of Heaven, I take it. Maybe pacifists are here in part to bear witness to that aspect of the coming Kingdom? I also share Rob’s worry that such reconciliations can seem “lame.” I will say that the position isn’t attractive to me because it provides a way in which “everybody’s right.” God’s requirements on us can be person-specific, and yet one can still get them wrong. In fact, such requirements seems to increase the chance we’ll get them wrong. So this is no way to shield yourself from error about what you yourself should do.

  • Clearly that position sounds great, and the world would undoubtedly be better off if all Christians (particularly American Christians) would trade in their bloodlust for this kind of violable pacifism. But I have two problems with it, one pragmatic and one theological.

    The problem with this position in practice is that people are fantastically pliable and hopelessly finite in their knowledge. It is easy to look at Hitler and have everyone agree that killing him was the kind of extraordinary circumstnace that might require a teleological suspension of the ethical. But what of Iran with their nuclear weapon? Surely that has the power to be more devestating in a single moment than Hitler was in weeks of systematic genocide. (After all, look how deftly America used her atomic bombs.) If you listen to the rhetoric, we are in no less an exceptional circumstance now than when Hitler was in power. Just like we were with Sadaam and his WMDs. I think you see where I am going. As a race, humanity loves to beleive it is standing on the brink and that the present is always exceptional. How can we be trusted to identify who is Hitler and who is just a plain old dictator?

    The other problem comes in trying to imagine this position in the voice or the life of Jesus. I realize that this is a thoroughly speculative way of doing ethics, but if we believe that the life of Christ is intended to act as formative in our ethical process it at least merits consideration. I struggle to put the words, “it is always a sin but it isn’t always wrong” on his lips or to see it playing out in his life. How do I justify acquiescing to the contingencies of an evil world when I have been pledged to obey one whose own radical obedience did not stop at death (not only his but the death of millions of his followers throughout history as a consequence)?

    • rogereolson

      Isn’t that what Jesus was saying about divorce? Isn’t it always a sin but not always wrong? That seems to be the biblical teaching about it to me. It is at best always only a necessary evil. My point about war was that Christians cannot faithfully create a policy of war, but I cannot condemn Bonhoeffer for what he did (or tried to do).

  • Jordan Bradford

    The moment you use the sword, no matter how “exceptional” you think the circumstances are, no matter how you try to justify a “necessary evil,” you’ve placed your trust in the sword and in your own power rather than in God. You’re saying you don’t trust God will work things out for good, and that you don’t trust God to make nonviolent actions effective. If your own life is being threatened and you resort to violence to protect yourself, you are placing the value of your own life above obedience to Christ, which I submit is akin to denying him. You’re saying that nonviolence is a nice ideal that’s sometimes unattainable, rather than as something you MUST obey even to the point of death because Christ commanded it.

    • rogereolson

      Well, that’s consistent. But I’m not sure how realistic it is in a world of serial killers and Hitlers.

  • Steve

    Perhaps the horns of the dilemma resides in the definition of evil. Is evil considered to be a mere act? Is an act apart from a perpetrator, evil? I think not. By omission or commission an act is evil by intent; by what is in the heart of the perpetrator. If this were not so, and acts themselves were evil, then God would have to be considered evil. However, we do not consider God’s acts of judgement evil because of what is at the center of God’s intent. God does not capriciously take life or pronounce judgement. God taking a life is not evil.

    Christian self- defense need not be evil even if entails taking a life. If a serial murderer who is genuinely threatening all of society, then it is not evil to stop him with deadly force, it is returning evil with good. It is a righteous act to take life in this case because it is preventing further evil. It does no good for a Christian to simply confront the serial killer and yell, Stop, in the name of Jesus! Not that this could not be effective. It may well be. However, if it does not work and immediately, then the Christian, if it is within their power must stop the killer by any means avaiable.

    Posing the problem this way is necessary because it is not a theological or philosophical construct any more. This is where faith meets life. How are we to defend the defenseless who have violence perpetrated against them (evil in act and intent) if we do not prevent the perpetrator from continuing on. There is no pacifist way to stop all types of evil. Stand in front of the gun- toting killer and you are killed along with the intended victim. And, the killer then moves on to the next victim because you failed to act appropriately. Do not return evil for evil cannot mean passivity in the face of evil and it cannot be referring to the mere act. It is referring to the inner motivation of both the one doing the evil and the one the evil is being done to. Do not respond in hate or anger with revenge as the intent. But, do respond and respond in a manner appropriate to the circumstances.

    • rogereolson

      That’s a new take on “turn the other cheek!”