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.”

Unlike “peacemaking,” “peacebuilding,” “justpeace,” “cooperative power,” and various other similar terms, it retains the connotation of a principled refusal to countenance the use of violence.

The root word is “paci,” or “peace.” If we take the word “pacifism” literally we could define it as love of peace, or devotion to peace. We might best think of “pacifism” as the conviction that no value that could justify the use of violence takes priority over the commitment to peace. Hence, “pacifism” is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do; it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment—and that violence always violates that commitment.

For Christian pacifists, a key virtue of the term “pacifism,” then, is that though the word itself is of recent vintage, by making “peace” as a positive concept central, it links with the deep-seated biblical message of shalom (Hebrew) and eirene (Greek) as central rubrics describing God’s intentions for human life. “Pacifism” could then be understood as an affirmation of the high value the Bible places on “peace” between God and humanity, peace between human beings, and peace between humanity and the rest of creation. That is, “pacifism” has biblical resonance lacking in many other commonly used near synonyms.

Obviously, these matters continue to evoke much debate and remain unsettled. In this essay, I want to focus on the use of the concept of “pacifism” in Christian theology. Most Christians, of course, reject pacifism and hence would not see it as having much theological significance. Many Christian pacifists understand pacifism as what we could call a “secondary Christian conviction,” a stance that derives from other more fundamental convictions (such as the character of God, acceptance of biblical authority, and Christological doctrines). As a secondary conviction, pacifism is a matter of interpretation. These Christian pacifists could affirm that non-pacifists’ beliefs about God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ could be wholly adequate—the shared core for all Christians. The differences concerning pacifism are differences of interpretation that do not reflect fundamentally different ways of understanding God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ.

I will be looking at a different option—the belief that Christian pacifism is “a core Christian conviction” that plays such a central role in theology that all convictions are shaped by it and likely will tend in significant ways to be different than non-pacifists’ convictions. My intent is simply to think carefully about how such an approach to pacifism might work—not to develop a thorough argument for why such an approach should be taken.

What is “Pacifism (properly understood)”?

When I make the claim that “pacifism” should be understood as a core Christian conviction, I need both to explain what I mean by “pacifism” and by “core Christian conviction.” As alluded to above, “pacifism” has many meanings. John Howard Yoder’s important book, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, discusses 29 different types of pacifism—and these are all positive affirmations of the term. Many who reject pacifism define it in other ways as well.

The “pacifism” I have in mind needs to be defined carefully. It is not simply a political ideology, a personal preference, or, even, a principled stance against violence. I understand “Christian pacifism” to be a term that captures a broad belief about ethical priorities that stems from a commitment to a certain understanding about God and God’s will for humanity.

“Pacifism” means, I suggest, the belief that no value or conviction or cause ever makes it morally acceptable to act violently toward another person.  Pacifism has to do with basic respect for others and the kind of compassion and concern we call love.

Pacifism insists that we never place boundaries on what kind of people deserve this respect and love.  Other ways of thinking allow for some kind of boundary, under some circumstances, regarding to whom we owe love—like, maybe we don’t always owe love to our nation’s enemies or to people convicted of crimes.  A pacifist simply says that every person under every circumstance retains their value and humanity—and thus must not be treated with violence.

For Christian pacifists, this priority on love in all relationships has its origins in our creator God. God created us out of love and in order to love. The basic vocation that all believers in God share is the call, first given to Abraham, to live in such a way that “all the families of the earth” shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Amidst all the ambiguities of the biblical story, the core plot involves God’s faithfulness to the people God has called to be a blessing, expressed most centrally in the gift of Torah (which at its heart places the priority on living peaceably, united mercy and justice). Christians believe the message of Torah finds its clearest and most definitive expression in the life and teaching of Jesus, the pacifist extraordinaire.

So, when we talk about “pacifism,” we are talking about a way of life that sees an inextricable link between loving God and loving neighbor, and understands the neighbor to include each and every person. Each human life is seen as precious. The human vocation involves refusing to do harm (no violence) and working actively (and nonviolently) to prevent and resist harm doing wherever it arises. And this vocation involves creating and sustaining communities centered on the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. With this approach to life, there can be no legitimate values, convictions, duties, or aspirations that would involve compromise the commitment to love and nonviolence. None of these can trump the way of peace. There are no “ends” that can justify “means” that involve violence.

What is “A core Christian conviction”?

Before thinking about how pacifism works as a core Christian conviction, let’s take a moment to specify what we mean by “core Christian conviction.” One way to think of core convictions is to see these as the (few) convictions that constitute the baseline definition of what Christianity is. If you remove a core conviction, you lose something essential from that baseline definition.

In a sense, core convictions are like primary colors. They provide the content for the entire set of convictions that constitute Christian theology. There are several simple elements of the core for Christianity—the reality of God, belief that God reveals Godself through the Bible, the affirmation of Jesus as definitively revelatory of God. A few other core convictions are necessary, as well, to provide shape to these simple elements. The Bible itself teaches that there are many “gods” (or “idols”) that compete for human allegiance. What are the core aspects of the Christian understanding of God and God’s revelation that allow people to discern which of these “gods” is the true God?

Here is where our sense of Christianity’s core convictions becomes especially important. What is it about the God we trust in and this God’s message to us that convinces us that this is indeed the God we should trust in? For Christian pacifists, I want to suggest, one of the key elements of our very understanding of God and God’s message that convinces us that this is indeed the true God is the call to pacifism—as a reflection of God’s very character. Without pacifism at the core, the picture of God and God’s message changes, in every respect.

The “Good Samaritan” story and pacifism

We could pursue various paths to justify this claim about the centrality of pacifism for Christian theology. Perhaps one of the most straightforward is to look at Jesus’ teaching. Here I presuppose that Christians will understand Jesus to be our most reliable source of information about God and God’s message. And that our best access to Jesus is the gospels. Christian theology is first of all based on the story of Jesus’ ministry. Doctrines, creeds, and confessions are best understood as efforts to illumine that story, not as developments that take precedence over it.

We find an explicit expression of the centrality of what I am calling pacifism in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus uses an encounter with a religious leader as an opportunity to express what he seems to have seen as the most important element of his message. As happens throughout each of the gospels, in the encounter described in Luke 10, Jesus made himself available for conversation and debate with a teacher of Torah.

The question the teacher raises is fundamental: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus shared with the lawyer the same sense of where one goes to answer such an important question: Torah. The answer the lawyer gives gains Jesus’ affirmation: Love God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer, with Jesus’ implicit approval, makes clear that these are not two separate commands. He zeroes in on the heart of the one command: Who is my neighbor? That is, I recognize that I show I love God by loving my neighbor. So, who must I love? We are not yet to pacifism. It all depends on how you define neighbor. It could be that I love my neighbor, in part, by doing violence to my enemy. Perhaps this is what the lawyer is wondering about.

Jesus, though, closes the door to that understanding. The “neighbor,” he makes clear with a powerful story, is a term for “my fellow human being”—including those I might call enemies. Jesus shows this in two ways. The story recounts a person being beaten and robbed by highwaymen and left for dead. Several “righteous” people pass by. But finally someone does stop and attends to the bloodied victim. The “neighbor,” it would appear, is the person in need, even when they may be “unclean,” even when attending to them is costly. But there is a second, even sharper point. The person who stops, who—the teacher grudgingly admits—models what a “neighbor” is a Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us what the Jesus and the lawyer and all observers would have known: this Samaritan would by definition have been the victim’s enemy based on his national identity. Samaritans and Jerusalem-centered Jews hated each other.

Now we have arrived at pacifism, properly understood. One of the most basic theological questions, how do we gain eternal life, is answered ethically: we make love our highest priority in life, showing costly love even to our enemies. This is how we put into practice our love for God that requires our wholehearted commitment.

Of course, this story of the Good Samaritan is far from the only place where Jesus makes the point about how fundamental love of each person is. Most obviously, he states explicitly that the following of Torah will imitate God by loving enemies in the Sermon on the Mount (recounted in both Matthew and Luke).

How does pacifism work as a core conviction?

I suggest we take Jesus’ words with utmost seriousness when we reflect on our core Christian convictions. If God is understood to be our model in loving enemies, this says something fundamental that should determine our doctrine of God. If gaining eternal life is linked inextricably with loving enemies that should determine our doctrine of salvation. If Jesus puts loving enemies at the heart of his own theology, that should determine our Christology.

We could go on and imagine any possible Christian conviction—and see that in each case pacifism shapes how we understand and implement those convictions. That is, we wee that pacifism itself is a core conviction, not a secondary conviction. There should be no Christian conviction that would be the same for pacifists and for those who ignore or reject pacifism.

Another way we might characterize our convictions is by distinguishing between ultimate convictions and penultimate convictions. The latter are derived from the former. The latter are not necessarily going to be the same for all understandings of Christianity. The latter are going to be seen as optional or variable. The ultimate convictions are those that will be seen as making up the criteria for what determines what makes Christian convictions Christian. I suggest that pacifism is an ultimate and not a penultimate conviction.

I should also note that I am trying to describe how Christian theology might work for pacifists—not propose litmus tests or any kind of boundary-enforcing processes. I am not suggesting that non-pacifists or pacifists who do not see pacifism as a core conviction are heretics. I am simply trying to describe how I think pacifism might work as a core conviction for those Christians who affirm pacifism.

It would be another long, complicated conversation to reflect on how those who accept pacifism as a core Christian conviction might interact with those who don’t. First, though, we simply have to imagine what such an affirmation might mean for those who want to make it.

Addendum: Why “pacifism” and not “nonviolence”

I noted at the beginning of this essay many Mennonites—and certainly others who in principle reject the use of violence and affirm the call to consistent peaceableness—have tended to prefer the term “nonviolence” to “pacifism.” Two recent excellent books, neither written from an overtly Christian point of view, reflect this sentiment: Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World and Mark Kurlansky’s Nonviolence. Walter Wink’s epoch-shaping Engaging the Powers shares this preference as well.

A different kind of book, Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement also distains the use of “pacifism.” However, I think this is a problem, especially for Weaver, in trying to make the case (which I strongly affirm) for seeing what I call pacifism as a fundamental theological conviction that should decisive shape our understanding of salvation—both in our rejection of understandings of salvation that place violence as a necessary component and in our affirmation of other, thoroughly peaceable ways of understanding salvation. To label this core component to our salvation theology (as well, Weaver is currently working on what promises to be an important and enlightening book on the doctrine of God in light of his peaceable convictions) “nonviolence” is to use an essentially theologically empty term for what is an immensely theological concept.

I admit that “pacifism” has problems, too. It is not necessarily seen as an inherently theological term either. However, it has much more potential, and, I believe, it is worth the effort to try to claim it as a theological term. Biblically, “peace” (shalom in the Old Testament, eirene in the Greek Old Testament and New Testament—see Willard Swartley’s Covenant of Peace for an important effort to show how theologically crucial “peace” is in the New Testament) is one of the richest, most indispensable theological words.

“Pacifism,” if we define it as “love of peace that makes compassion and care for each person an uncompromising commitment, following from one’s commitment to love God with one’s whole being” can work much better than “nonviolence” as a term for this core Christian conviction.

7 thoughts on “How Does Pacifism (Properly Understood) Work as a Core Christian Conviction?

  1. Excellent convincing article, Ted, which I shall share links too. But what is so ironic is that at the end there is an advertisement, likely put there by WordPress (but allowed by you, I think) with a Roman-era gladiator brandishing a big menacing sword enticing people to play an online game called “Dominate the Colosseum!” -Clair

  2. Sorry for the late response to this essay. I just ran across it.
    Your definition of pacifism is one of the best I’ve seen Ted. And stating clearly that it is rooted in God’s character or nature is the heart of the matter. For if God is by nature not violent, then it is incumbent on all followers of Jesus to become not violent, for Christians believe that Jesus is the definitive revelation of who God is and what God expects. And it is beyond dispute that Jesus rejected all forms of violence for the preservation of self interests.( personal, familial, tribal or national ) The trouble with the word pacifism is as you state that it carries the connotation of passivism. The trouble with the word non-violence is that it is a negative expression for a positive way of life. Unfortunately language is limited when it comes to expressing a concept that we have little familiarity with. The native Alaskans have their 23 words for snow because snow is a very living reality for them. If gospel non-violence were more of a living reality in the life of Christians, perhaps the terminology would not be such a problem. The early Christians used the word ‘patience’ to denote what we mean by pacifism or non-violence. And indeed, patience is the virtue required to be willing to overcome evil with love alone.

  3. Hi Ted,

    I simply love this essay. Thank you.

    I even appreciate the need to state your case without implicitly challenging those who see pacifism as non-core, as you have defined both terms. However, I myself have relatively recently moved theologically to seeing pacifism as core. As a result I have changed church denominations despite my wife and children remaining at my former congregation (mainly because of their longstanding relationships). For me, the peace issue – and what it means for how we understand and worship God – takes precedence.

    I have also stated a blog, which is an unusual mixture of what ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical.’ I describe it as Biblical, Universalist, Girardian, Creationist and Partial-preterist. I am working my way to documenting a systematic theology, rediscovering a Gospel that the Church seems to have lost from the time of Constantine. Importantly, I propose a different soteriology, which contains no violent atonement and in which we are called not to imitate Jesus’ actions directly, but to imitate His faith, which is to say to share His view of God. Sharing His faith necessarily changes our view of many things, not least that great determinant of human priorities and actions, death. I hope you and your readers can find time to drop by… .

    God bless,


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