Pacifism became a bit of a hot topic a few weeks ago when Mark Driscoll equated pacifists to pansies. Of course, when anyone, particularly someone relatively famous, resorts to such overblown and derogatory language the internet becomes abuzz with anger and responses. It led to some interesting blog posts on pacifism soon after, both from pacifists and those who aren’t.
It’s not that I can’t appreciate the pacifist position. I’ve never been big on violent resistance, unless you considered fights with my brothers. I didn’t get into fights growing up. I rarely even argued with people too much. I wasn’t considered too aggressive and I was probably considered weak. For that matter I considered myself weak. I’ve gone through most of my life with very little, if any, violent opposition to the world around me.
Going larger than just my own actions, I enjoy peace. I believe that the world would be better if we all experienced peace. I don’t think that violence and war is really part of how this world was supposed to be. However, while I say that, I also realize that there are those who are very happy to break peace, to fight and conquer for their ideals or for a position of power. There is a real tension here that we can’t deny and one that I don’t think most pacifists or non-pacifists would deny. However, it is also the existence of this tension that causes me to wonder if pacifism is the position we must have in following God.
Before I start to explain why these tensions do not lead me to pacifism, I want to make clear that I’m just being honest to where I’m wrestling with. As I said I do have an appreciation for the pacifist position and realize that pacifism was largely the position of the early church after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You may disagree or have good points to make regarding the areas I struggle with. Feel free to leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear from you and get a wider viewpoint. Anyhow, here are the areas and issues that I wrestle with in regards to pacifism. Some of the issues may not be directly related to pacifism for some people, but I tend to think they’re all related.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first, war. Now, war is a complicated matter. Do I like war? No. Am I some warhawk that is always wanting to bomb another country off the face of the earth? No. I don’t like war and I don’t believe in starting wars for the expansion of empire and just because we don’t like a particular country or ruler. However, what happens when another country does just that?
Let’s take a look at an overused war to make this point, and that war would be World War II. Germany decides to invade Poland in 1939. This started one of the largest wars in the history of the world. Would it have been better to hold to pacifism in this case, and let Nazi Germany conquer whatever they want no matter how many people they decided to kill anyways? There was little indication that Germany would have just stopped if everyone around them made peace. After all they invaded countries that remained neutral, Germany even broke a non-aggression treaty with the USSR during the war to invade their country. What do we do in cases like this?
I guess I wonder that because war affects so many more people than just those who are fighting in the military. To those who have had their countries invaded by hostile forces for little to no reason just because you weren’t in the military doesn’t guarantee safety. World War II was an example of this too, it gave us the Holocaust, Japanese led deaths of Chinese which resulted in the death of 3-10 million civilians, and even the American led nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I guess I’m not always so certain that peaceful resistance in a setting like that would be enough. It such situations fighting for peace may be the best path, despite the potential paradox of that idea.
Now how this all plays out today, I wish I knew. I don’t always think that we get into some conflicts for the right reasons, but I’m not always even sure I know all the reasons in the first place. I don’t think war is ideal and don’t think that we always have to go in guns blazing for every circumstance. However, I’m also reluctant to say that war is never the answer either. I guess you could say that I think peace is the best state of the world, but what we should do becomes unclear to me when others start war, are unwilling to negotiate, and cause innocents either their own people or an occupied people harm.
I’ve come to view police officers as soldiers in the war of law and order. Maybe that’s a bit of an odd way of putting it, but in some parts of the country they are literally walking into a war zone every day. When I think of pacifism and police officers I think this thought, “If I accept pacifism am I then forced to say I must reject any and all forms of violence by these men and women when they seek to uphold the law and protect the innocent?” That to me is something I find very hard to do.
I know we can point to all kinds of incidents where police use force in situations that they shouldn’t have. Those are horrible incidents. The ones that happen because of accidents and/or a lack of communication are tragic. The ones that happen because of potential prejudice and racism are sickening. Does that mean that police shouldn’t protect themselves or those who may be victims of crime? That when criminals who may very well use deadly force on the police, am I then to say there is no room for them to use force? How then can we expect them to effectively keep the law upheld if they are unable to use violent resistance at all?
I have trouble thinking that one can effectively stop crime without some violence. Especially those who are committing violent crime. It seems to me that while again peaceful resolution may be best, there may be times to use force, even deadly force to reduce the danger in some cases.
The last area where I struggle is in the area of self-defense, or to better frame it defense of others. If I saw someone, my family or another person being attacked would I try to defend them using force? The truth of the matter is I have no clue. I certainly would like to think I would help someone in need in a situation like that, but one never really knows unless you’re in that kind of situation. However, I don’t think that it is inherently wrong to use violence to protect others and even ourselves in some cases.
If someone uses violence to protect themselves, their family, or someone being attacked, is that really wrong? Of course as with all of the instances I’ve talked about it would be nice if it never had to happen, but I can’t say with confidence that it’s a good thing to let someone be attacked or even killed because I’m opposed to the use of force.
At this point in the conversation, some Christians may be asking well what about Jesus? He was put to death and actively waved off those who would jump to his defense. Well my simple answer is this, Jesus was doing something special here. I’d even put it that his death was for a purpose. He was accomplishing something with his death that was more important than him just staying alive. So I’m not sure we can too easily use Jesus’ death on the cross to argue against self-defense.
What about the martyrs? Now this one is a trickier question, but I think a bit more relevant. My current thoughts are this. Dying the death of a martyr is a lot different in my mind than dying because someone broke into my house and attacked me and my family and I did nothing to prevent it (assuming I could). If I’m being persecuted and am set to die because I’m not renouncing my faith that’s one thing. It’s another thing that I chose pacifism when my family or another person may be in danger for uncertain reasons. I just can’t quite buy into the idea that it would be always wrong to defend yourself or those around you.
Tying it All Together
I’m hoping that you’ve maybe noticed a theme woven in and out of my issues here. It is the issue of what happens to the innocent and the defenseless when people do not fight back. What happens when an enemy country invades and kills civilians and nobody stands to fight against it? What happens when those who break the law are able to do so with no force willing to use violence against them? What happens when others are in danger of being attacked or killed and nobody is willing to step in to help defend them?
All three of the areas I’ve hit on can be misused. Wars can be used for expanding the empire and holding up their ideals at the expense of human lives. Police can use violence in unacceptable ways that hurt the very people they are supposed to be protecting. The idea of self-defense can become so extreme that we believe we should meet any stranger on our property with a loaded gun. However, to me it would be a grave disservice to view them all as fully negative and throw them away.
There is a quote out there that comes to mind when I think of my tension with pacifism. That quote is, “Evil will prevail when good men do nothing.” My worry in taking a thoroughly pacifist approach to life is that it could allow evil to prevail and innocents to suffer. Are there no causes worth fighting for? Is force never a worthy option?
With all this said I still believe that Christians are called to be peacemakers. After all Matthew 5:9 says “Blessed are the peacemakers” and Matthew 5:38-48 also talks about not always retaliating for personal grievances and about loving and praying for our enemies. Now to me this reads more like when people attack you and openly antagonize or persecute you don’t just simply hate them and do the same thing to them, you love them. Now this becomes more complicated for me when others are being attacked and threatened. What do you do? Is it more loving to not resist the attacker and let them attack the victim or to stand up and fight even violently for the victim? This is where I really struggle on a personal, legal (as in use of police force), and national level.
So there are my wavering thoughts about pacifism. Maybe in all that I’ve totally missed what pacifism is (that is certainly possible). However, I’m just giving my thoughts from where I am currently in both what pacifism is in my mind and where I have troubles with it. I’m interested to know what you think though. Are you committed to pacifism or not? Do you struggle with any of the things I’ve brought up or think I’m totally off base? I’d love to hear your thoughts and own struggles with pacifism and violence.