This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pacifism 6

A lot of objections to pacifism boil down to very similar themes.  Pacifism is just a way to justify doing nothing.  Pacifism is just a moral cover for cowardice.  It may be true that some pacifists have been guilty of both.  But pacifism as a Christian ideal is none of the above. 

Pacifism is not a way to justify doing nothing.

Pacifism is not about doing nothing, it's about doing something different.  Christ didn't merely condemn one course of action, He introduced an entirely different program for engaging evil in the world. 

"Love your enemies." (Matt 5:44) 

"Bless those who persecute you." (Rom 12:14)

"Overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:21)

Rather than simply contribute to the evil already in the world, i have a new mission, a new strategy--to take evil out of circulation.  Tit-for-tat just won't cut it in Christ's kingdom.  But Christ, by no means, allows me to do nothing.  i'm called to do something much more difficult than tit-for-tat.  When people seem unloveable, i'm called to love them.  When people do things that seem unforgiveable, i'm called to forgive.  When people clearly seem to deserve bad treatment, i'm called to be kind to them.  i have to love, forgive, bless, and be kind to people that do not deserve one drop of it. 

Why?  Isn't it obvious that some people just need shot?  Isn't it obvious that some people just need the crap beat out of them?  Isn't it obvious that some people just deserve to be slandered and ostracized?  Isn't it obvious that some people need a taste of their own medicine?  So why shouldn't i be the one who gives it to them?  Why should i have to treat people completely differently from the way they treat me and others? 

that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:45-48)
i may feel like beating someone's brains out because they're such a jerk, but do i deserve any different?  i may think that people should get what they deserve, but am i ready for God to give me what i deserve?  God loves me, forgives me, blesses me, and is kind to me even when i don't deserve any of it--even when i clearly deserve the very opposite.  And, in fact, God showers such goodness even on people who will never change their ways or love Him.  So am i better than God?  God has every right to give people what they deserve, yet He chooses to shower them all with love, kindness, blessing, and forgiveness.  How can i do any differently?

Loving someone, being kind to someone, blessing someone, and forgiving someone--these hardly constitute "doing nothing."  When i'm being attacked, pacifism doesn't obligate me to do nothing.  It obligates me to turn the other cheek, to love, to feed and clothe my enemy, to pray for him, etc.  When my son is being attacked, pacifism doesn't obligate me to do nothing.  Christ sacrificed Himself for my sake.  i can certainly take a bullet or a beating for my son's sake.

Pacifism isn't about doing nothing.  It's first and foremost about being willing to do something much harder than simply falling back on tit-for-tat.  And it's also about the much more difficult work of finding imaginitive ways of overcoming evil with good. 

Pacifism is not a cover for cowardice.

Violence and hatred is a cover for fear if anything ever was.  When people have big muscles and big guns and big mobs and big armies and big amounts of anger and adrenaline coursing through their system, should we seriously conclude that their violence and retaliation is about courage and bravery?  It's easy to be a "brave" man when you're on the "good" side of a gun barrell. 

Take away the gun and how "brave" will that same person be?  Strip it all away.  Put yourself in a country with either a weak or non-existent military and police force.  Suppose you neither own nor have access to any defensive weapons.  Suppose you have no hand-to-hand combat skills and poor physical strength.  Now, ask yourself, why would you choose violence and retaliation? 

The root of this thing is fear.  Fear of being powerless.  Fear of being helpless.  Fear of losing control.  Fear of getting hurt.  Fear of disrespect.  We fear not having control over a situation.  We fear things not turning out the way we want them to.  We fear what other people will think of us.  We fear suffering pain whether physical or emotional.  Fear, fear, fear!  But what did Jesus say?
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)
Peter taught his readers to have no fear of people who mistreat them (1Peter 3:14).  Paul taught Timothy that God has not given us a spirit of fear (2Tim 1:7).  And Proverbs says: "the righteous are as bold as a lion" (Prov 28:1).  [i love that last one.]

So, again, put yourself in that police-less, military-less country with no personal weapons or combat skills or physical prowess.  It would be easy to think that what you need are weapons and fighting skills.  And you could even pray, "Lord, please give me the means necessary to defend myself." 

But what if this was God's answer?: "Sure.  Here are your weapons: prayer, love, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and My word." What if that's all God gave you to face the dangers of the world?  Now ask yourself, does it take more guts to rely on a machine gun to win your battles?  Or to rely on prayer to win them? 

Christian pacifism calls on me to stop being such a coward.  --to stop being so afraid of everything as though evil people truly have any power over me.  Christ is in control.  God is on the throne.  God will put the whole world to rights in the end.  And God will raise me from the dead.  Do i have the testicular fortitude to believe that or not?  Derek Webb sings, "There's got to be a love stronger than our fear of everything being out of control." (It's a fantastic song!) There most certainly is.  Christian pacifism calls me to be bold and courageous enough to believe that love is stronger than hate, that raising my hands in prayer is more powerful than clinching them into fists, that goodness and kindness really can overcome injustice and evil, and that Christ's way of doing things is superior to the world's way.  Thus, my job is to wage peace, to bring hate to its knees, and to never be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. That's hardly a cover for cowardice. 


Tim Archer said...

Great post. I think some confuse pacifism with passivism.

Someone accused me of being a coward for questioning whether or not Christians should be in the military. Funny thing is, when I was of military age, I wasn't a pacifist. That came later for me.

As I told them, some pacifists are cowards just as some who choose to fight are cowards. Even timid animals will fight when cornered. In fact, you are more likely to be attacked by a scared animal than you are by a brave one.

Keep up the good thoughts!

Grace and peace,
Tim Archer

Rance said...

Guy, well put. Thanks for your comments, I greatly appreciate them.

Rance Adams

Jack said...

Amen, brother! I don't know you but I'm so glad I came across your blog. I had lunch with three fellow christians to-day and this was the topic of conversation! I was alone in my defense of pacifism. I was challenged with the scenario of having to defend my family, and violence is the only option available to save their lives. Cowardly, I drew a difference between that type of situation and going and killing on behalf of the United States (or any earthly kingdom). Later to-day I realized I was drawing the line based on what would be challenging to me personally. I have no trouble arguing that a christian should not fight in carnal warfare, because for me personally, it would not violate my conscience in the least to refrain from killing on behalf of the United States, a servant of Satan who is in opposition to christian principles. However, when it comes to my family, I'm not so confident in my defense of non-violence. My problem, and I believe it is a major problem in the Lord's church as a whole, is that I'm not allowing myself to be challenged by the Gospel.

Did you happen to know Johnny Ramsey while at Brown Trail?

Jack Cadenhead

reborn1995 said...


Yes, Johnny Ramsey taught at Brown Trail while i was there. i don't know how he felt about violence in personal defense, but he made very clear that he thought it was sinful for Christians to participate in the military. (So much so that he referred to one student's military retirement check as "blood money.")

i understand that the intuitions become a lot less clear when we talk about defending our loved ones. But don't let anyone confuse and conflate the issues. Stick with one at a time. Even if it's true that you can use violent force in defense of your loved ones, that doesn't necessarily prove it's okay to kill nor serve in the military. One thing at a time.

No, i don't have any clear argument about the particular situation of defending innocents with violence. But all i know is to stick close to Jesus' life and teachings and those of His followers. How did they react in situations where people's lives were threatened? The only time someone came to Christ's defense with violence (Peter in the garden), Christ rebuked him. When Paul's life was in danger, those around him (his companions and local Christians) didn't defend his life with force. The point is that there's certainly no NT precedent for using violence to defend loved ones; so it's not scripturally "obvious" regardless of how clear our intuitions may be.

i think though that people present unrealistic situations when they put scenarios to you about defending loved ones with violence. Rarely is it the case that your *only* alternative to letting your loved one die is to engage the attacker *violently.* The real problem is that we don't take the time to be creative and think of non-violent solutions to problems.

anyway, i definitely want to write a great deal more on this topic, i just decided to give grad school my full attention this semester. But i only have three weeks to go, and then i'm definitely interested in blogging some more. Hope you stick around and keep commenting.


Jack said...

Thank you for the thoughtful response. I always respected and admired Johnny Ramsey and was sorry to hear of his passing. I have a couple of preacher friends who also went to Brown Trail and they have told me he viewed violence as sinful in personal defense as well. Your statement about the real problem being how we do not be creative and think of non-violent solutions to problems really conveyed my feelings lately, as many of my brothers and sisters in Christ are taking a concealed weapon carrying license course next week and talking so openly and proudly about it and even recruiting people in the church house to take it. Their reasoning is "protection."

As I have gotten older, I have begun to see a lot more gray areas than I used to, but the New Testament teaching on violence is not one of them! It doesn't really get much more black and white than that.

Good luck with your last three weeks of grad school! That is a great accomplishment!


reborn1995 said...


Well, not my last 3 weeks of grad school, but just of this semester. But i'm very pumped for the summer break nonetheless!

Just curious--not sure of what CoC-ilk your church friends come from, but if they are of the persuasion that authority is required for what we do, i wonder if they believe that have specific authority from the Scripture for what they're doing. In other words, does the NT authorize violence of any kind?

Of course, they might not think authority is required for ethical behavior. A lot of CoCers no longer hold to any sort of Regulative Principle these days (i've been planning to write a post on how i'm somewhat ambivalent about it myself).

But whether authority is needed or not, it seems quite clear to me from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, from Paul in Romans 12, and from Peter in 1Peter 2 that we are commanded to treat our enemies in a way that is qualitatively different from the way they treat us. If that is true, it seems a very hard task indeed to show that violent retaliation toward an attacker is different *in kind* from the treatment he is showing you. That may be very counter intuitive. But however strong our gut feelings are in any given case, the real issue is what Christ would have us do. And it's not like hasn't ever expected someone to behave counter-intuitively before!

Alas, though, it's not about winning a debate. We're trying to win each other and win the world over to subjection to a kingdom. That may take patience. Not everyone learns the same lessons at the same rate or at the same point in their discipleship. It may take your cammarades a while to question their current stance. But pacifism is passive-ism. Prayer is a weapon. Peace is a weapon. Love is a weapon. Self-sacrifice is a weapon. Christ won the war using those weapons alone. Surely then we can use those quite powerfully to win each other's hearts. (i know, easier said than done; but surely changing our backwards thinking is the first step anyway.)


Jack said...

Oh mercy, these folks are definitely, or strive to be, of the persuasion that authority is required for everything we do, and I tend to agree with that. We would be placed "conservative" or "ultra-conservative" on the spectrum among churches of Christ (I honestly had no idea there was a spectrum or any descrepanices at all within the church until I left home for college and was labelled as such, however, politically I was labelled "liberal!"). Their response to you would be that it is indeed their "ethical" and "christian duty" to protect their families, or as one man put it in the case of war, protect the "weak and oppressed." I agree with that, but I believe that there are so many other means authorized by the New Testament other than violence through which we can carry out that "duty," and you named a few. And, if the worst happens, should we not trust in Christ and thank Him for the opportunity to share in His sufferings (I realize that is very easy for me to say seeing how I've never been in such a situation)?

I'm one to try and boil things down, and I've concluded that it really is just that rural southern mentality (which exists in all parts of the country) that many christians have, including much of my home congregation, and it made its way into the church through influential preachers like Foy E. Wallace, Jr. and the like 50-75 years ago. He preached meetings often at my home congregation (long before my time) and that disposition became the consensus among bretheren and it has remained so through to-day as far as I can tell. I'm sure you have compared Wallace Jr.'s writings on the Sermon on the Mount with David Lipscomb's. A total 180 from Lipscomb, from what I can tell, he preached that it was our christian duty to take up arms for our country and fight. I've read it argued that Lipscomb's view was motivated by his exposure to the War Between the States and watching the U.S. Army destroy his hometown, while Wallace Jr.'s view was motivated by what he and many folks saw as such a clear battle between good and evil in World War II. I tend to think that is just an attempt to discredit Lipscomb.

Wallace Jr.'s "patriotic" view was popular of course in his part of the country at the time and it appears that it still is to-day. I suppose it made the church of Christ a more "mainstream" institution in southern society. Biggest is best...

reborn1995 said...


Hmmm. i just wondered if their standards for what would constitute scriptural authority for instrumental music in worship was more stringent than their standards for what would constitute scriptural authority for using violence to defend one's family from bodily harm. Sounds to me like a double standard has to exist there.

Yes, i knew that Wallace was tenaciously opposed to Lipscomb's view. But Lipscomb wasn't alone. Prior to WWI, i understand the CoC was majority-pacifist. Wallace's campaign changed that quite a bit. However, Wallace also rallied far and wide for racial segregation among Christians. Very, very sad.

You might go over to Tim Archer's blog and read his pieces on tribalism. Their very, very relevant to the pacifism discussion and very simple yet provocative.


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