It’s not easy being a Christian pacifist. We make extraordinary claims (that war is never acceptable) on the basis of our faith convictions, even in the face of the reality that the vast majority of people who share many of those convictions reject these claims. It seems quite quixotic to argue for Christian pacifism when the facts seem to show that being a Christian makes a person less likely to be a pacifist.
Rather than quailing before this scenario, I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems. I think it is a terrible mistake for pacifist Christians to accept as normative the ways of reading Christian sources that ignore or actively oppose pacifism—no matter how widespread and institutionally embedded these non-pacifist readings are.
My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the “common beliefs” we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one will give examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically. And part two will give examples of pacifist readings of these sources.
Reading Christian Sources Non-Pacifistically
(1) One of the most common steps that immediately puts pacifists on the defensive is the acceptance of the assumption that the Old Testament is ultimately a problem for Christian pacifism. What matters most, it is assumed, in reading the Old Testament in relation to issues of violence, peace, and justice are the stories of God commanding warfare and exercising violent judgment. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and practices punitive, retributive justice.
With this starting point, the pacifist must explain away the obvious normativity of violence. This is a challenging situation, to say the least. Pacifists have tried various strategies to retain their pacifism, but in general they allow the assumption of the Old Testament as a problem to stand. At best, it seems, the Old Testament is “messy” and gives us mixed messages. We will have to ground our pacifism on other sources—a resignation that invariably weakens the bases for that pacifism.