Christians and Pacifism

The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense. The church knows no geographical boundaries and needs no violence for its protection…As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service. The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence. “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective”

The Anabaptist tradition within the larger Church is perhaps the most well-known body of pacifist believers, though the practice is not confined to these Christians. Pacifism, the refusal to engage in military action or violence in revenge or defense, is a radical practice. In the larger world of non-believers, Just War, and increasing violence, the refusal to visit violence on those labeled ‘enemies’ immediately sets one apart from the society norm and expectation. The radicalism extends to our physiological makeup; when we are about to become the victim of a violent act our body and mind naturally seek to act in self-preservation, even to point of exterminating the threat. The Christian who follows the path of pacifist action must strongly apply their allegiance to Christ alone at the expense of their citizenship in the state and more importantly, they must train their mind and body to submit to the suppression of its natural response to react to violence. Dr. Buschart records,

“Anabaptists were the most violently persecuted Christian movement of the sixteenth century, being pursued by both Roman Catholic and Protestant forces, in conjunction with civil authorities. Consequently, Anabaptists were were confronted by the demand to practice in the most radical ways this practice of nonresistance, and many practiced the principle to the point of suffering a martyr’s death.” Exploring Protestant Traditions

The source of the practice of Christian pacifism is deeply rooted in the Gospel. From the mountainside, Jesus said in contrasting the old and new ways  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist and evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39) Later in the garden he  cautioned Peter “Put your sword back in its place, Jesus said to him, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Mt 26:52). The Old Testament, often derided as being blood-soaked and hyper-violent, is not neglected either. Micah speaks eschatologically, pointing us forward to the era of the Christ  when he says “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Naiton will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4:3)

Over and above the words of Jesus, the pacifist follower will point to the life of the Lord as being completely non-resistant and peace seeking in His lifestyle. With Christ as our center and our revelation, believers are to develop their ethics, morality, and behavior from His example and teaching. These will often run counter to the demands of the state but we are called to be theological thinkers, examining the decisions that we must make in the light of our higher priority membership in the kingdom of Christ. It is to this that our primary allegiance is required teach the pacifists.

The early Church is historically pacifist and there is scant, if any, evidence of early Christians engaging in warfare. There was a gradual acceptance of military service through the centuries with noted objectors – such as the Anabaptist movement – here and there through the records. In our modern era we see the pacifism practiced in Martin Luther King who confronted the violence he encountered with an equally vehement non-resistance. King worked from five principles which fit human bio-social understandings effectively into the notion of Christian pacifism:

  1. Nonviolent resistance is not for cowards as it requires more strength to stand without retaliation.
  2. The non-violent resistance is not intended to humiliate the attacker but to establish love and understanding.
  3. Non-violent resistance is focused on evil, not the people performing the evil act
  4. You must be willing to suffer without retaliation.
  5. The external lack of violence is to be matched with an internal peace.

John Howard Yoder has a prodigious body of work that is rooted in this ideal. He says that we cannot kill other people for whom Christ died. We are to live the first commandment of the Lord, to love Him with heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor in the same way. Violence toward them for any reason is seen as contrary to this command.

Despite its inherent attractiveness, pacifism is not without its critics. Some say it is unrealistic in today’s world or that Christ’s words were hyperbole and not meant to be directly applied in this case. Theologians examine the word of Jesus in the light of Paul’s later commands that we be good citizens of the state in Romans 13, going so far as to see this as allowing military service as a part of this obedience. Another argument against the pacifist system is that our own non-violent capitulation may expose us and our neighbors to a greater violence. In this position, our refusal to act does not demonstrate an effective love for neighbor by the absence of our protection. In other words, Justice cannot be restored without the Christian’s action and ethics.

“Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  John 20:21

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