How Does Pacifism (Properly Understood) Work as a Core Christian Conviction?

Ted Grimsrud—December 4, 2011

[What follows is an essay intended as a kind of thought experiment. It arises from many discussions and much thought in relation to how we best understand theological role of Christian pacifism. It is especially aimed at other Christian pacifists—though hopefully many other people would find it interesting as well. I don’t mean it as a dogmatic statement but as a invitation to on-going conversation and discernment.]

“Pacifism”—A recent and complicated term

The term “pacifism” has a rich if brief history. It was first widely used in English just a bit more than 100 years ago, based on the newly coined French word, pacifisme, that was used of “making peace.” The initial use in English focused on opposition to war, and one of the major ways the term has been used has been to refer to a principled opposition to all war, and more broadly, all uses of violence.

Interestingly, in Mennonite circles, during the short career of the term “pacifism,” its usage has evolved quite dramatically. Perhaps the first significant use of “pacifism” in widely read Mennonite writings came in Guy F. Hershberger’s classic text, War, Peace, and Nonresistance, first published in 1944 to provide American Mennonites with authoritative guidance for negotiating the life of faith amidst a warring society. While forcefully and comprehensively developing a theological rationale for opposition to war, Hershberger differentiated “biblical nonresistance” (the path he advocated) from “pacifism.” Hershberger associated “pacifism” with the non-Christian social change advocate Mohandas Gandhi and with liberal American Protestants who unwisely sought to effect wide-ranging social change. Both Gandhi and the liberal Protestant pacifists departed significantly from the biblical model of Jesus-centered nonresistance that turned the other cheek and refused to use coercion to seek justice for oneself.

Hershberger himself evolved in his views, by the early 1960s actually endorsing the Gandhian social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement. By this time, due to other factors as well, “pacifism” had begun to gain currency in Mennonite circles as a useful term that connoted a combination of nonresistance’s refusal to take up arms with a new openness toward political engagement heightened by opposition to the U.S war in Vietnam. The term “pacifism” was seen as a more inclusive term than “nonresistance,” carrying the connotation of a broader application of the anti-violence message of Jesus. Increasingly, Mennonites engaged broader peace concerns than simply assuring their own community’s non-participation in war—and “pacifism” seemed like a good term to capture this broadening of the peace position.

In time, though, the term “nonviolence” came to have increased attraction. “Pacifism,” ironically, came to be linked with the more withdrawn stance earlier connoted by “nonresistance.” Perhaps, in part, the word “pacifism” sounded too much like “passive-ism.” Also ironically, “nonviolence,” though negative in construction, came to be seen as a more positive, activist term than “pacifism.

Why “pacifism” remains a useful term

However, the term “pacifism” retains important virtues. Unlike “nonresistance,” “nonviolence,” and “non-retaliation” (a term that has never actually caught on, though it has been suggested by some as a more accurate description of Jesus’ meaning in the Sermon on the Mount), “pacifism” is positive in construction. It could literally read “love of peace.” Continue reading “How Does Pacifism (Properly Understood) Work as a Core Christian Conviction?”