Pacifist apologetics

Ted Grimsrud—June 20, 2012

Christian pacifism faces an uphill climb in contemporary America. Since 1940, our country has embarked on a massive effort at world domination based on military firepower. This could be seen as the logical progression for a country whose founding rests squarely on warfare and other forms of violent conquest. And the Christian churches have, as a rule, joined enthusiastically in this project. Hence, today in the United States people self-identified as Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support war and the death penalty.

And yet, American Christianity has always produced, or at least tolerated, counter-voices. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established themselves in colonial Pennsylvania in a remarkable effort to try to operate a political system heavily influenced by pacifist convictions. The results were mixed, to say the least. One clear achievement, though, was to establish a haven for religious freedom that drew other Christian pacifists to Pennsylvania—most notably Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.

In the nineteenth century, some of the world’s first peace societies emerged in Antebellum America, and these often linked with abolitionist efforts. The Civil War more or less put an end to such activist pacifism, but that war also saw pioneering efforts by the state to accommodate conscientious objectors. Still, part of the reason the state could be open to tolerance of pacifists was because their numbers were so small.

In the twentieth-century, in face of terrible, unbelievably destructive world wars, the numbers of Christian pacifists grew significantly, and well beyond the Historic Peace Churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren). However, when the United States entered an enormously popular war against Germany and Japan in 1941, the numbers of legal conscientious objectors totaled about one per 1,000 young men who joined the military—and the large majority of all of these soldiers were Christians.

From the start, Quakers worked hard to convey their convictions to the wider world—one term they used of their work was “publishers of truth.” Other pacifists in more recent generations have also taken up the challenge to try to present attractive and persuasive arguments for their convictions. And some fine literature has been produced. But we always need more.

So this new collection of essays, Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Peaceable Kingdom) (Cascade Books, 2012), is to be welcomed. I am not aware of any other single, relatively short, volume that tries to address as many challenges to pacifism. Several of the essays make particularly excellent contributions to the task of defending pacifism, and all the essays are well worth reading. Continue reading “Pacifist apologetics”