Why Pacifism?

Ted Grimsrud—June 21, 2011

In many Mennonite churches, the first Sunday in July is designated Peace Sunday. In recognition of that important upcoming “church holiday” (more important to me than about any other), I am posting some appropriate reflections.

As I think about pacifism these days, often my dad comes to mind.  At one point in his life, my dad was a warrior.  In 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, he chose to enlist in the Army.  He certainly wasn’t a warmonger, but he felt a strong sense of loyalty to his country.

My dad spent four years fighting against the Japanese.  He was wounded, contracted malaria, and saw his best friend (whose name was Ted) killed before his eyes.  And he was proud of his service.

Only one time did he speak of the war to me, when I was 17 and facing the likelihood of being drafted myself.  My dad told me his Army experience had been good; he encouraged me to attend a military academy so I could go in as an officer.  I wasn’t tempted, he didn’t push me, and we never talked about it again.

As I reflect on this now, I find it interesting that my father grew up in a good Christian home—his father and one of his grandfathers were pastors.  Apparently, my father never saw a tension between being a warrior and being a Christian.  I think it never occurred to him that God and Caesar might be competitors for his allegiance….I wish it had.

I believe here we see one of the roots of pacifism.  Pacifism does not have much of a chance unless we can imagine questioning governmental authority.  I have a feeling that most Christians don’t realize how often the Bible portrays people of faith doing such questioning.

One key text is found in 1 Samuel eight.  The elders of Israel want a king “to govern us,” they say, “like other nations.”  Samuel retorts, yes that is what you will get.  This is what the kings of other nations do: they take and they take.  They build up armies and gather wealth and power for themselves. As Samuel foretold, that’s what Israel’s kings did too.

What does the Bible tell us about governments?  “Don’t trust in them!”  If a prerequisite for pacifism is distrust in governments, we find that prerequisite throughout the Bible.

Just a quick list of some of the highlights: Moses takes on the Egyptian king and leads the people to freedom, and God smashes the king’s horses and chariots in the Red Sea.

The law code rejects the power politics of the empire and calls for a society without huge gaps between rich and poor and without an elite class of kings and generals.

The prophets challenge kings time after time.  They are God’s agents for justice in the world, not kings.  We see this in many stories, from Elijah to Daniel.

Then we get to Jesus.  He describes the way people in power tend to work: “Those whom the Gentiles recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42).  And the state does act with tyranny in relation to Jesus himself, executing him on the cross.

Peter and Paul both faced arrest several times.  Both shared Jesus’ form of execution as political criminals.  Both asserted that they must obey God, not human authority.

And finally, the New Testament ends with a powerful vision of state power run amok.  In Revelation, John sees visions portraying the Roman Empire as a terrible Beast that persecutes, even murders, people of faith.  The final vision John sees of Rome concludes, “All the people were deceived by your sorcery and in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:23-4).

Of course, the critique of the state is not enough by itself to lead to pacifism.  What this critique actually does, mainly, is clear the ground. Cured of blind allegiance to state militarism, we are then free to hear Jesus’ central command, love God and neighbor—and to recognize this command as all-encompassing.  This command, the basis for our pacifism, is thoroughly grounded in the Old Testament.

For example, in the middle of Leviticus, we read the section called the “holiness code” that outlines Israel’s responsibilities as God’s people.  At the heart of the holiness code, Leviticus 19 describes what holiness is about.  Holiness here has to do with sharing with others, caring especially for vulnerable people.  This is summarized in verse 18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

So, when Jesus affirms the great commandment, stating that salvation follows from loving God and neighbor (Luke 10:25-28), he simply summarizes the message of the Old Testament—and, he lives it.

This is the heart of our pacifism: We follow Jesus’ teaching that love is the commitment that trumps all other commitments.  And we follow Jesus’ example. Love trumped all other commitments in his own life.  He turned away from wealth and power, refusing Satan’s temptations in the wilderness; he turned away from the possibilities of violent revolution for the sake of overturning tyranny; he turned away from protecting himself with force—and he turned toward love; servanthood instead of domination.

Our pacifism rests on suspicion toward human governments insofar as they tend to call upon us to commit, or at least support, violence, and our pacifism rests on the affirmation that a commitment to love each and every one of our neighbors trumps all other commitments.

Many Christians over the years have found it all too easy to focus more on Jesus as savior as if that aspect of his work could be separated from his life and teaching.  Jesus own life makes it clear that we cannot have a Christ without pacifism and remain true to the gospel message.

A story making this point is told in the book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch.

One of Martin Luther King’s mentors was a preacher named Vernon Johns.  In 1960, after nearly a decade of negotiations, white and black Baptist preachers in Baltimore met together to discuss the role of the church in a time of racial tensions.  Vernon Johns was chosen to speak for the black preachers.  First, the chosen white preacher spoke on the theme of Christian salvation, of being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”

When the white man finished, Johns stood up, not even waiting to be introduced.  “The thing that disappoints me about the Southern white church,” he said, “is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross.”

He then turned to the white preacher.  “You didn’t do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus,” he said.  “If that were the heart of Christianity, all God had to do was drop him down on Friday, and let them kill him, and then yank him up again on Easter Sunday.  That’s all you hear.  You don’t hear much about his three years of teaching that true religion is revealed in the love of other human beings.  People who say they love God and hate their fellow human beings are liars, and the truth is not in them.  That is what offended the leaders of Jesus’ own established church as well as the colonial authorities from Rome. That is why they killed him.”

Well, Vernon Johns offended a few people himself with these words.  But he captured well what I am trying to communicate.  Jesus’ teaching and Jesus modeling gritty, controversial, subversive, costly love for God and neighbor got him killed—and, when God raised him from the dead, God showed anyone with eyes to see that Jesus, indeed, is the son of God and that his way of active nonviolence is the way God wants all people to follow.

This is why pacifism.  We have been loved by God, and our identity as children of God rests most fundamentally in our choosing to live lovingly toward all others.

5 thoughts on “Why Pacifism?

  1. Hi Ted,
    “Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ modeling gritty, controversial, subversive, costly love for God and neighbour got him killed — and, when God raised him from the dead, God showed anyone with eyes to see that Jesus, indeed, is the son of God and his way of active nonviolence is the way God wants all people to follow”.

    Amen, Ted! I guess that this is standard fare for Mennonites, but I wish more Baptists in Western Australia would get it. Many thanks.

    John Arthur

    1. I appreciate the affirmation, John. I don’t think this is “standard fare” enough for Mennonites, I’m afraid. But at least among many Mennonites, one can say this kind of thing and not get into trouble.

      Actually, a lot of Mennonites still do believe that God wants all people to follow Jesus’ way of active nonviolence and shape their lives accordingly.

  2. What makes nationalism such a powerful force? I’m reading Adam Hochschild’s book To End All Wars. The international socialist movement was rapidly graining power in the beginning of the 20th century and pacifist socialist leaders thought they could draw on their international connections to stop the orchestrated movement toward WWI. But the tables were quickly turned when their respective countries declared war and European socialists quickly fell in line behind the war policy of their respective nations.

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