Tension redeemed: Pacifism

Tension redeemed: Pacifism July 27, 2011
Inconceivable! (Image from obscureprotest.com)

War, war, what is it good for?

…I don’t really know.

I’m opening up my series on tension and doubt (read the intro here) with the subject of pacifism. I consider myself a pacifist, but I can’t answer all the questions people ask me when they find out that I am a supporter of non-violence.

So, here’s what I know:

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”

Killing a person isn’t very loving.

Violence almost always leads to more violence. 

Paul told us to “overcome evil with good.”

Until Constantine, the early Christians were mostly pacifists.

Love wins.

But, here’s what I don’t know:

Is there such thing as a “just war?” Though I’m a pacifist, I must admit, the criteria for “just war” seems pretty reasonable- all nonviolent efforts must be exhausted, innocent lives must be at stake, the goal of the war must be to bring peace. Sometimes I wonder, is belief in a “just war” a sign of one’s doubt of the power of love? Or is “just war” really necessary to defend innocent lives in a fallen world? Does love sometimes have to be tough to the point of violence? I don’t know.

If God controls governments, does that make it okay for governments to go to war? God set up governments to punish the wicked and reward the good. Does that include war? And if so, does that mean Christians should be okay with war? I don’t know.

Why does God command the Israelites to go to war in the Old Testament? I’ll admit, it’s difficult for me to reconcile in my mind the violent Old Testament stories with the peaceful love of Jesus. I could write a whole post on that topic (and I probably will for this series). God tells the Israelites, not just to kill, but to completely wipe out their enemies in the Old Testament, then he turns around and says, “Love your enemies,” in the New Testament. Why? I don’t know.

Should a Christian who feels “called to protect” join the military? I’ll be honest- I can’t even fathom how a Christian could join the military without feeling guilty. But Christians do it all the time. And many say that it is God’s calling for them. They don’t do it out of hatred or a desire to kill. That would obviously be wrong. They do it out of love for their families and their home. Can I argue with that? Can I really speak for another person and say that he/she is not really doing God’s will by joining the military? And how can I complain when the only reason I can even be a pacifist without suffering persecution is because others have fought for my rights? I don’t know.

And most importantly…

If someone broke into my house and tried to kill my cat and rape my grandmother, would I really react non-violently? I wrote about pacifism last week and one commenter brought up an excellent point. She said, “pacifism is an exercise in academics.” None of us really know how we would respond in every situation. I know how I’d want to respond: I’d want to distract the attacker and sacrifice myself so my cat and grandmother could escape. I’d want to disarm my attacker, or throw him/her off guard with a crazy act of love.

But I also know how I have reacted in the past.

I grew up in Sunday School. I heard about Jesus telling us to “turn the other cheek.” And I always thought I would. But when I got into an abusive relationship at age 16, I eventually got tired of turning the other cheek. I gave up on non-violence for awhile. I fought back. That usually only worsened the violence and made my abuser angrier, but that’s what I did.

I’d like to think that I learned my lesson from that relationship- that violence leads to more violence. But have I? Would I really be able to respond non-violently in every situation? I don’t know.

There you have it, folks. My doubts and questions about pacifism, exposed for you all to read. I don’t know everything.

But I do know that no matter how much dissonance I have in my mind because of this topic, one day everything will resolve. One day we’ll beat our swords into plowshares and live in peace. Somehow, someway, no matter how much apathy or violence tries to get in the way, love wins.

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  • Beth

    The fallenness of the world makes life so confusing sometimes… I hate war and violence too, but we’re stuck with it until Jesus comes back, I think. That’s why I respect the military; for the most part, I think those who join do it to protect the innocent. The sick downside is that they have to kill so often in order to do it because we haven’t yet found a better way…. such a tough issue. By the way, I think you’re brave to be so honest about your beliefs. I know you’ve been blasted for it sometimes, but I find it very refreshing, and it has helped me come to grips with some of my own questions. Keep it up!

    • I respect the members of the military- not so sure that I respect the government’s military decisions. The military could be put to much better use (and it is sometimes, like when they provided relief to Haiti. What if the military was ALWAYS used to help and not to hurt? That’d be cool!)

      I’m glad you enjoy hearing my beliefs! It’s encouraging. I shall keep pressing on!

  • You have a good mind, quite smart, and are very articulate. But more than all of those is you ask good questions.

    “I’d want to disarm my attacker, or throw him/her off guard with a crazy act of love.” Reminds me of a news story from 2005 out of Atlanta. A man escaping from the court house got hold of a gun shot and killed a guard, a lawyer, and another, if i remember correctly. Fleeing he took a hostage, a young mother, Ashley Smith. They ended up in her apartment with the man holding Ashley hostage threatening to kill her. She began to talk to him. Began to talk to him about Jesus. She even read to him from Purpose Driven Life. That made all the difference. He surrendered and Ashley and her kids were unharmed after the ordeal was over. So, a crazy act of love can be disarming, love can overcome violence.

    • I love stories like that! They validate my non-violent position!

  • sara

    a few thoughts:
    we have always allowed “society” to do things for us that we are not allowed as individuals. even if you leave capital punishment and just war aside, if I take someone and chain them in my basement and don’t let them out for years on end, it’s a rather horrible crime, but as a society we imprison violent (and non-violent) criminals every day. do governments, militaries, etc., abuse their power and responsibilities more often than they fulfill them? yes. does that mean that they don’t have a responsibility to provide for our common safety, protection, and rights? it seems to me that where there is sin, there must be law, and where there is law, there must be the means to enforce it. See Psalm 72, and the sort of king that David prays that God will make him–one who judges with righteousness, defends the cause of the needy, champions those who have no helper, who redeems them from oppression and violence . . . and all this happens by his bringing the pagan nations around Israel in line.

    most of the cases for pacifism that I have encountered don’t really seem to me to hold up very well theologically. they tend to confuse the roles of individuals and society, but the great Eugene Peterson writes in defense of the position in “Tell it Slant.” I’d recommend it to you.

    I’d also recommend the Kathy Escobar’s blog to you. She’s a writer/pastor in Denver who founded a church called the refuge. She writes a lot about going against the status quo, being an advocate for the marginalized, and a host of other challenging things. Her series on the beatitudes (start here: http://kathyescobar.com/2011/04/15/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/) is a good entry point.

    • very good thoughts. checking out that website now!

  • TJ

    I thought your questions were good ones too. For the record, the Hebrew word for kill–as in, though shall not kill–is actually “murder.” It really means that we not murder someone with premeditation. If you look at the OT (Numbers 35), God set up several cities of refuge. People could run to such a city for safety from a revenging relative if they killed someone. If it was found that they had unintentionally killed someone, they could live in the city safely, but if they had murdered a person, they were handed over for justice. Eccl. 3:3 says:

    There is a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

    My son (whom I homeschool) and I are studying a book called “The Book of Jewish Values.” It’s a wonderful thought-provoking book about ethics. It includes chapters about the topics of killing/murder and just wars. Another good book about this issue is “Guns & Moses” by Dr. Jeffrey Seif, a Jewish believer.

    I believe that we have the right to self-defense and to protect others.

    • good points! Right to kill out of self-defense? Maybe that’s true. I’m just wrestling with whether or not Christians should do so when our goal is to make disciples. I feel like, if you take examples from Jesus and the early Christians, killing for self-defense doesn’t make sense.

      Maybe it’s one of those “all things are lawful” but “not all things are best” things.

      • TJ

        I wouldn’t kill in self-defense as a first response. I think we need to keep in mind that an unsaved person who is kiled is eternally dead with no chance to be redeemed. I would use every other option first, but if an evil person was attacking me, I hope I WOULD fight back. If someone was hurting others, I hope I WOULD defend them if I could.

        One thing that I’ve been learning is that people tend to think in “all or nothing” scenarios. For example, I know of some people who think that love means setting no boundaries, sacrificing everything, never standing up for themselves, never saying “no.” Others are so into standing up for themselves that they never submit out of love, never compromise, get in others’ faces, etc. I think neither extreme is healthy.

        I’ve been learning that it really isn’t so all or nothing. There is a balance to everything in Scripture and in life. I call this, “opposite truths” http://unexpectedroad.blogspot.com/2011/07/opposite-truths.html We are to love sinners AND hate sin (not love sinners AND sin, not hate sin AND sinners). God is sovereign AND we have free will. He chooses us AND we choose Him. Jesus is God AND man. The Bible was written by God AND man (who wrote in their own style, but God inspired them). We live in freedom AND are not to let freedom become a license to sin. Everything is balanced. Eccl. has this same sort of balance:

        A Time for Everything

        1 There is a time for everything,
        and a season for every activity under the heavens:
        2 a time to be born and a time to die,
        a time to plant and a time to uproot,
        3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
        a time to tear down and a time to build,
        4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
        a time to mourn and a time to dance,
        5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
        a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
        6 a time to search and a time to give up,
        a time to keep and a time to throw away,
        7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
        a time to be silent and a time to speak,
        8 a time to love and a time to hate,
        a time for war and a time for peace.

        I have tried to live in this sort of balance in my life, understanding that there is a time for everything. Sometimes I need to give in, other times stand firm. Sometimes I need to be silent, other times speak up. Sometimes love is gentle and giving, sometimes it is tough and confrontation. I would do everything I could to find peaceable solutions to disagreements or conflict. I recognize there are times when God calls people to lay down their lives for others, without fighting back. But I also recognize that there may be a time when to not fight back would allow evil to continue. For example, would I kill someone if I knew he had a bomb or virus that would kill many innocent people if I didn’t? I think I’d kill to save innocent people from an evil one.

        This is all academic, though, since I’ve never been in a situation where I had to decide such a thing. I have, however, had to make a decision to “kill” an abusive relationship.

    • “One thing that I’ve been learning is that people tend to think in “all or nothing” scenarios.” –Very true! I’m guilty of that, for sure.

  • My friend really like reading your blog, and has forwarded me some of your ideas. You’re a really deep thinker, Sarah, so I wanted to bounce some helpful ideas I read with you.

    In a book called “Kingdom Ethics”, the author points out that there is a difference between pacifism and passivism.

    Most people will misunderstand pacifism to mean “don’t do anything.” If a person is being mistreated, or innocent people were being persecuted, then they should just endure it, and let the violence continue.

    But true pacifism comes from the Latin ‘pax facere’, to make peace. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi, we are to be active in seeking ways to make peace. Jesus’ teachings are not mere prohibitions but are active, transforming initiatives (167).

    So instead of allowing the mistreatment or oppression to continue, Christians should stand up and not fight, but to bring awareness to the community. Parents, teachers, the police, the general public and the world needs to know that something unjust is happening here, and we need to stop it. We need to rehabilitate the offender, and bring justice back into the community. MLK and Gandhi are one of the few brave examples we have. Is it difficult? Yes. Will it stop the violence? Yes. Is it passive? No.

    Another point that the author made, that I like, was that nonviolence should not be judged as ineffective because sometimes it does not win. Military action works less than half the time, since for every winner of a war there is also a loser, and sometimes wars are so bad that both sides are losers. Nor should violence be judged ineffective because sometimes people get killed; far more get killed in military action than in nonviolent action (168).

    I like what you bring to the table, Sarah, and I hope that these additional comments help fuel your love for God and neighbor.

    Excerpts from Glen Stassen & David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 167-8.

    • Oops! Typo….

      “Nor should NONviolence be judged ineffective because sometimes people get killed; far more get killed in military action than in nonviolent action” (168).

    • I completely agree with that! MLK Jr. is one of my heroes. I hate when pacifism gets lumped with passivity. I’ll have to check out Kingdom Ethics. Shane Claiborne’s books- “Jesus for President” and “The Irresistible Revolution” have also helped me figure out a lot of what I believe in this issue.

      I think it’s sad that we hear so many stories of when violence worked to stop violence, but we ignore that those stories are usually the exceptions- not the rules. And we never hear stories like the one Paul DeBaufer shared in the comments above where nonviolent, ACTS (not passive!) of love stop violence.

  • TJ

    I absolutely agree with this, Joey. Sometimes nonviolence is more powerful than violence. What MLK and Gandhi did was very difficult, very peaceful, and very powerful–more powerful than violence would have been.

    I think like so many others, this issue is complex. There is no easy, simple answer. There might be times to fight and times not to fight. Whatever we do, I think it ought to be done prayerfully, and not lightly.

  • TJ

    I think, also, that there are different situations. Not every approach works in every situation. In the case of Gandhi and MLK, violence would have led to more violence. The only way to prevent violence was to not add to it. Many times, “a soft answer turns aside wrath.” If a person angrily revenges a wrong, the other person will repay the favor, and anger increases.

    But there may be times when I think it’s appropriate to fight, and maybe to kill. I don’t know all the appropriate times, and I’d use violence as a very, very last resort. But there are people who are evil, who don’t listen to reason or soft answers. I could see fighting against a rapist, a serial killer, a terrorist, or someone like Hitler, who was killing innocent people. Prov. 24:10-12 says, “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?”

    But, again, it’s a complex topic.

    • yes, very complex. every situation is different!

  • hah! I was the commenter! you quoted me on your blog!! *achievement*
    ahem. so 🙂
    thank you for your fourth and fifth points on this one. I don’t feel that I’m stepping outside of God’s will for my life by joining the military, and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I joined for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is money for college…so, it could be argued that the military is going to help me become my dream. if in the course of my service I can stand between the weak and the strong, physically or otherwise, look evil in the eye and say “You can’t have them”, then I’ve become something else– an opera singer who changed the world. that’s entirely up to God whether or not that will happen, but it’s something that helps confirm that He’s is in my decision.
    so thanks, Sarah Moon, it was a good post 🙂
    [and you quoted me!]

    • I was glad to quote you! You made me think!

  • I can relate to this tension and I nearly always wish I could find resolution.

    I’ve been studying, with my church, several aspects of (Jewish) Biblical Principles perhaps meant for modern Christians. Without going into much detail, I think that the tensest tension lies in our connection with this world and our unwillingness to disconnect.
    The more I study, the better sense this makes. I speak for (at least) myself when I say that I am far too invested into the systems of Americanized Christianity. As if demanding to be identified as a Christian-American rather than merely Christian.
    It may be that patriotism for the Kingdom of Heaven (on earth) directly disassociates us from American patriotism. Sometimes, this means doing the “right thing” is distracting us from Kingdom life. I might go so far as to say that even defending earthly freedoms is meaningless in comparison to abundantly living in the freedoms that Christ has already given.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts to color the tension. Thanks for the post.