Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans

Ted Grimsrud—September 29, 2014

From time to time, I like to return to the core motivation that led me to start this blog. This blog is a place to think and converse about pacifism. I always wish I could find more time and energy to write, because I am thinking about pacifism all the time. But when I look back, I see that I have managed to squeeze out quite a few words over the past nearly four years—and have probably repeated myself numerous times.

To keep my thinking current, I like to write posts when I can where I articulate convictions off the top of my head without going back to what I have written before. This is how I think about pacifism now. The other day, blogger extraordinaire Rachel Held Evans (who I greatly admire) wrote a short comment on Facebook that asked some hard questions about pacifism. These provide a good stimulus for me to take a moment to talk again about Christian pacifism. Is it a serious option for today in the “real world”?

This is what Rachel wrote: Truth: So I’m a terrible pacifist. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not a true pacifist at all. When I hear people preach about nonviolence, and when I read the Sermon on the Mount and Shane Claiborne, I find myself nodding along – convicted and resolved that we can never overcome evil with evil (or killing with killing) but only overcome evil with good. I dream of a world where there is no more war, no more senseless bloodshed, no more child refugees, no more revenge. But then…life happens. And I have to admit I have a hard time saying that the British, when they were being bombed on a daily basis during WWII, had many other options. I have a hard time saying that the woman getting pummeled by her husband shouldn’t fight back in self-defense. And lately, I’ve been watching all this news about ISIS, and I gotta say, I’ve got mixed feelings about what the U.S. and other nations should do about it. It’s like, on the one hand, I believe non-violence is the posture Christians should cultivate and practice. But on the other, I have a hard time saying non-violence is the right response in every situation. Is this a lack of faith? A lack of understanding? Does anyone else struggle sometimes with ideals and practicality?”

I appreciate Rachel providing this concise statement that raises core issues and has stimulated me to produce a response. [September 30 update: Rachel has linked to this post and elicited a lively conversation in response to what I write here.]

Two complementary strands in Christian pacifism

I find it helpful to think of two types of reasoning in relation to Christian pacifism, two complementary strands that both need to be part of a rigorous account of Christian pacifism: “principled pacifism” and “pragmatic pacifism.”

(1) Principled pacifism—This strand is saying that “pacifism” is, essentially, short hand for Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus is asked about eternal life, elicits the response that it requires loving God and neighbor, and proceeds to illustrate this love by telling a story where the model for neighborliness was a person his listeners would have assumed was their enemy. Pacifism says that love is our most basic human calling—to love God, certainly, but with a love that encompasses love for each human being, friend and foe. That is, pacifism is saying that nothing is as important as love. No value, commitment, or responsibility trumps the call to love each person. One consequence of this belief is that it precludes killing other people—and, as follows, it precludes supporting other people killing human beings and it precludes preparing to kill people or supporting such preparation.

(2) Pragmatic pacifism—This strand is saying that “pacifism” is, essentially, the best way to go through life. It is saying that based on evidence, violence is a bad idea, especially the organized, devastating violence we call war. One way to think of pragmatic pacifism is that it involves the rigorous application of just war criteria with the assumption that when a war does not meet the criteria for being “just” it should be opposed. Then, we realize that when we apply these criteria to war after war, we discover that it is very difficult (impossible?) to find a war that passes muster. We conclude that based on the evidence, you will reach a certain point in examining the justness of particular wars (maybe it would be after ten wars or after one hundred), when you realize that since every actual war you look at is unjust according to a rigorous application of the just war criteria, you are warranted to conclude that there simply can’t be a just war. According to the assumption that one should oppose a just war, at the point you conclude that there can’t be a just war, you have a moral obligation to oppose all imaginable wars (i.e., become a pacifist).

To bring together these two strands, a rigorous Christian pacifist would use the presumption against war as an analytical tool to demand that any attempts to imagine that any particular war might be okay require very strong evidence—and expect that such evidence will not be forthcoming. And, also ask how do we carry out our obligation to love our enemies? These two questions actually reinforce each other. The thing is, it doesn’t take a blind pacifist ideology to see that all particular wars are morally and practically disastrous. I am putting the finishing touches on a book about the moral legacy of World War II from the perspective of the United States. What I do in this book is simply apply just war principles and stated governmental claims to a moral account of that war and its aftermath. There is no pacifist special pleading in the book. At the same time, it strikes me that it may well be that only a pacifist would think to write such a book.

What about when “real life” happens?

I would like to respond to Rachel’s challenging questions from both angles, the principled and the pragmatic.

As a Christian, I think the way to think about principled pacifism is to ask a simple question: How seriously do we take Jesus’s teaching—starting with his response to the lawyer’s question about how to inherit eternal life that is recounted in Luke 10:25-37? Now there are many ways we can lessen seriousness with which we take and apply his teaching here, some surely more defensible than others. But it seems like the text itself means to be taken quite seriously.

The question Jesus is asked by the “lawyer” (apparently a term used of those who were recognized in Israel as qualified teachers of the law), meaning that this is a question meant to be taken quite seriously. As it obviously should be. What could be more important than this query (“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”—that is, how might I live in harmony with God?)?

And Jesus does take the question seriously. Here, he turns it back on the questioner. In effect, he says, “I respect your sense of this given your qualifications, what do you say?” And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus responds, indeed, this is exactly right. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40), underscoring just how important this answer to the most important of questions is.

In fact, I believe that we were to boil Jesus’s message down to one statement, this double command may be the best we could do (I have written a book, Theology As If Jesus Matters, that articulates a comprehensive set of Christian convictions centered on the love command). We are called to love God wholeheartedly, but we can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. What makes this story particularly challenging, and relevant to our understanding of pacifism, is that “neighbor” here is defined so broadly. The lawyer accepts Jesus’s affirmation of his answer to his own question about eternal life—but then he adds another question: Just who is my neighbor?

I believe there are two important aspects to this second question. The first is that the lawyer recognizes that love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked. He zeroes right in on the call to love neighbor as the heart of the command. The second is that the lawyer seems to want to limit the application of the call to love neighbor. To ask “who is my neighbor” likely implies that of course there are those who are not.

It is ironic how this story has been used in Christian history as a way to undermine the call to love everyone. Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who probably did more than any other to articulate a non-pacifist theology, argued that the call to love neighbor could actually be seen as a call to use violence when the neighbor is being attacked. He seemed to miss that the story in Luke 10 actually anticipates this attempt to limit the scope of his command. What is the lawyer doing except the same kind of move—surely love of neighbor doesn’t mean love on enemies does it?

Jesus’s story of the Samaritan precisely insists that indeed, love of neighbor does include love of enemy. He makes the point in a powerful way by having the hero, the one who displays what neighborliness means, be a member of the people group Jesus’s kind of Jews would see as enemies—the hated Samaritans. To drive this point home, Jesus forces the lawyer to state this reality explicitly: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy”—that is, the Samaritan (10:36-37).

To emphasize even more how important this call to love the neighbor is in the New Testament, we see it stated explicitly in two other settings that represent entirely different traditions—Paul at Romans 13:9 and John at 1 John 4:21.

This call to love neighbor (a call that includes loving enemies) is the heart of the principled pacifist conviction. And, in response to Rachel’s comment that pacifism is a nice idea until “life happens,” I would suggest that it is precisely when “life happens” that Jesus means for his command to be taken most seriously. The call to love matters most when we have the hardest time loving—we show mercy, forgiving 70 times 7 times, when there is a problem, when there is wrongdoing, when we must go beyond simply loving those who love us to exceed the actions of “tax collectors” and be like God and love our enemies (Matthew 5:46-47).

Contrary to the implication in Rachel’s comments, the call to this radical kind of love that equals pacifism is not a call to passivity. In fact it is an acceptance of the challenge to strive mightily for alternatives to her implied either/or of fighting or doing nothing and allowing evil to go unchecked. Walter Wink’s work, most comprehensively articulated in Engaging the Powers, provides profound guidance. He starts by insisting that our call is to resist evil, but that we must seek ways to resist evil that do not add to the evil (or, the way Nietzsche said it, to fight against monsters without becoming monsters ourselves).

The message of the gospel is at its heart the message of this call to resist evil without adding to evil. In a nutshell, that is the life Jesus lived and the life he called us to. It might well lead to our suffering. This is the meaning of the cross Jesus asks us to take up. The gospel, though, is that Jesus maintained his commitment to the path of love all the way. In doing so he exposes the false gods of nation, religion, and culture that rely on domination even as they claim to represent God. And it is precisely this commitment that God vindicates when God raises Jesus from the dead. (I develop the argument of this paragraph at great length in my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness [Cascade Books, 2013]).

Does pacifism “work”?

 In Rachel’s brief comments, she gives three examples of how “real life happens,” with the idea that each of these argue against Christian pacifism. On one level, I believe that the convictions of the principled strand of Christian pacifism I have just described withstand the challenge of those examples. Those possibilities should not cause Christians to weaken their commitment to all-encompassing neighbor love based on the teaching and ministry of Jesus (including cross and vindication through resurrection). However, I also think her use of those examples might be challenged on pragmatic grounds as well.

The first example is the British going to war against the Germans after 1939 in face, she suggests, of Germany bombing Britain daily. The second is the example of an abused wife “fighting back.” And the third, likely the catalyst for her reflections, is the current effort of the U.S. military to retaliate against ISIS through a bombing campaign that will hopefully end the terrible violence of those “terrorists.”

First, the British war against Germany in the 1940s. Did they have “other options”? My forthcoming World War II book tries to address this question mainly by suggesting that the path the British (and, more to the point in the book, the Americans) took was a terrible moral disaster that has not served the cause of peace. In the conclusion (excerpted here) I speculate a little how things could have been different—that is, what other options there were.

I’ll just say here that one big “option” specifically for the British would have been to abandon their empire. The conflict between Britain and Germany actually was mostly initiated by the British through their treaty with Poland that required them to go to war if Germany tried to take Poland by force. This treaty did not originate in Britain’s commitment to humane, democratic values (ask Indians and Kenyans during the colonial era about those values), but in the fear that the on-going viability of the Empire required it. Germany did not attack Britain because the Nazis wanted to conquer Britain and make the British Empire part of the Third Reich. The Nazis hoped the British would be their allies in a fight against the Soviet Union, and only attacked Britain through the air (with no intention of trying a ground invasion) to buy time until they turned east for the Soviet war.

The second example, of the abused wife “fighting back” against her violent husband, is certainly emotionally evocative. However, the implied advice given her seems pretty problematic. To encourage someone in this situation to “fight back” with violence (which is what I understand Rachel to be hinting at) might be to encourage her greatly to increase the likelihood of even more severe injury by escalating the violence.

The best options seem more likely to be to find nonviolent alternatives—escape, developing skills at de-escalating conflict, learning better to detect danger signs that could prevent the violence from happening. Christian pacifism properly understood, I would argue, is precisely a call to learn how to resist evil (but through creative nonviolent tactics), not a call to do nothing in the face of violence as Rachel seems to imply.

The real issue

I could be misreading Rachel, but my sense is that this third example is what triggered her sharing her thoughts: What should we as Christians do about ISIS?

This is obviously a terrible situation. The horrors of the violence happening right now are almost overwhelming. It seems right to be morally aghast and to have a visceral reaction that, yes, something must be done. But the automatic move by American Christians that we think in terms of American military actions seems profoundly problematic.

Why would a Christian, even in understandable frustration at the seemingly unchecked atrocities occurring in Iraq and Syria, think that American military action could possibly be part of the solution? In my World War II book, I recount a litany of American military actions since 1945 that have virtually always been enormously destructive and taken the side of unjust tyrants, often against more humane and relatively just forces (just to mention a few of the most obvious: the overthrown of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile that ushered in generation-long vicious dictatorships; the massive and utterly illegal wars against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq that left millions dead; and the nuclear arms race that has continued apace even after our main rival quit).

It is difficult to see any reason for any one who cares for humane values to see the U.S. military as a possible agent for the furthering of those values. It’s almost as if American Christians think, well maybe in all these other examples the U.S. military took the side of injustice, but because it is our country it must be possible that this time will be different.

I’m a big fan of the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn. His early career took an overtly Christian bent. His religious convictions have become more ambiguous over the years, but he has continued to be a voice for justice and shalom in the world. Thirty-some years ago, he released a powerful song, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (here’s the official video he put out of the song). He expresses here some of what I imagine Rachel to be feeling when she wrote her comments. Anger at terrible injustice and a desire that there be retaliation.

The differences, though, are instructive. The operative word in the song is “if.” The fact is that Cockburn doesn’t have a rocket launcher—and likely never will. He is angry (in his case, based on first-hand observation of the violence the American empire was visiting on Central American refugees in the early 1980s wars), but he does not call for the violent intervention of a more powerful military force. Rather, as the video hints, he sees his “weapon” to be his guitar and his words.

Cockburn’s response seems much more Christian. Sure, feel the anger and cry out in protest. Maybe even seek nonviolent responses that could help things. But don’t let that anger make you vulnerable to manipulation by forces of empire to offer your support for an escalation of terror. Of all people, Christians should stand against such manipulation.

The call to love God wholeheartedly, especially when understood in the broader biblical context, includes a call to resist all other “gods” that make claims for our loyalty. For example, in our contemporary context, to “love God” should mean, among many other things, that we operate with a moral framework that applies a rigorous definition of terrorism that repudiates all expresses of terrorist tactics—and recognizes that U.S. bombing that inevitably is, to a significant degree, indiscriminate and aims to intimidate entire populations is one of the worst forms of terrorism.

The biblical message includes, from start to finish, a call to “question authority,” especially the authority claimed by empires and their top leaders. I don’t think one needs to be a pacifist to heed this call, but I do think it helps. When we allow for violence, we become much more vulnerable to the siren call of nationalism and manipulation by the profoundly powerful propaganda machine of empire.

The biblical call to “question authority” is the flip side of the call to love God wholeheartedly. Jesus makes it clear that that call to love extends to the call to love even enemies. Saying yes to that call is the best antidote to temptations to accept the necessity of imperial violence. As such, it seems like a marvelous resource for understanding and responding in life-enhancing ways when “life happens.”

[Here’s a follow-up post with further reflections]

36 thoughts on “Is pacifism for when “life happens”? A response to Rachel Held Evans

  1. This post gives me a lot to think about. I, too, struggle with the practical implications of pacifism. What if someone were attacking someone I love? I don’t think I’d be able to not get involved, and, depending on how things went, fighting to make my loved one safe. I fear true pacifism might be beyond me.

    The one thing I take issue with is your advice about abused wives. It betrays a lack of understanding as to what domestic violence is. You offer three options: Escape, learning to de-escalate violence, and learning to avoid the triggers. The first is good and would hopefully be an option. The second two, though–abused wives go through their lives attempting to pacify their spouses and avoid triggers. Put simply, it doesn’t work. The abuser cannot be pacified. Attempting to do so may actually worsen the situation. I agree that striking back with violence isn’t a good idea and could get a woman killed, but you really do need to learn more about the dynamics of abuse.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree about the difficulty of coming up with perfect answers concerning the possibility of a loved one being attacked. I certainly don’t think “not getting involved” is an option nor do I think noninvolvement reflects “true pacifism.”

      The way I think about that question is to think in terms mostly of preparation. How do I prepare myself to protect myself and others? Does it require getting a gun and learning to kill people? Or learning nonviolent self-defense techniques? I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t use some kind of physical force in a tight spot—or even that I think doing so is contrary to pacifism. But I can commit myself to preparing for “tight spots” in ways that are consistent with the message of Jesus.

      I wish I could take back some of my comments about the domestic abuse example. I was simply trying to respond to Rachel’s implied suggestion that using lethal violence vs. an abuser might be a good idea. Regardless of what you think of the language I used in trying to suggest that it might be possible to imagine alternatives to either kill or do nothing, all I was trying to say was what you say you agree with—”striking back with violence isn’t a good idea and could get a woman killed.”

      I wasn’t meaning to “offer advice.” I assume you must think that since neither “striking back with violence” nor allowing the abuse to continue are appropriate, there must be some other option. How would you articulate that “other option”?

      I should also say that my main argument about pacifism is that it is a call not to fight in or support wars. I think the personal issues are complicated, but all too often the implication is that if I can’t figure out how to be a “true pacifist” in relation to possibilities of personal violence, then I don’t have a basis for rejecting warfare.

  2. Could I ask you to write a follow-up regarding another issue? You mention the reason Britain went to war with Germany had less to do with their being bombed than with their need to maintain Empire. My struggle has more to do with seeing atrocities committed against our neighbors – how should we have respond to Germany invading Poland, subjecting them to harsh rule and killing their Jews, Gypsies, and even any Poles who didn’t submit to their rule? How should we respond to the horrible atrocities the Japanese were committing against China and Southeast Asia during WWII. I can get on board with no retaliation for offenses committed against myself; I don’t know what to do when I see horrible things being done against others. This is the problem I am seeing with ISIS. I don’t see ISIS being as large a problem as Germany or Japan was; those suffering have mostly fled, and our best options now are humanitarian responses to care for the refugees, But if feels like Germany and Japan would have continued to roll across nations with – especially Germany’s – policies of genocide until certain groups of people were entirely wiped from the face of the earth. How should those of us who operate from a Christian ethic respond, especially if standing against our government responding militarily is what our ethic requires us to do?

    This is my struggle. Thank you for any follow-up you can give.

    1. Good questions and ones I don’t have definitive answers for. The main agenda in my World War II book is to argue that what happened was a moral disaster—not that it’s necessarily obvious what could have been done instead to stop Nazism and Japanese militarism but that we must find other ways or we will destroy the earth.

      The thing is, in relation to the concerns you raise, what the Allies did actually made things worse for Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. The Allies did not enter the War in order to stop atrocities and they did not organize their fighting in order to stop atrocities. I address this issue in chapter 4 of my soon to be released book—rough draft here.

      There were at least two significant efforts to save Jews that were remarkably successful and were fundamentally nonviolent. One is the effort of the Danish people to save virtually all the Danish Jews who slotted by the occupying Germans for deportation to death camps (there’s a chapter on this in the book A Force More Powerful—and an episode in the film version). The second was the work of a French village led by a pacifist pastor (see the book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed).

  3. Ted, really helpful engagement. I am finding this is a key topic today, both in social media and in gatherings of Anabaptist (leaning) folks. I for one appreciate RHE saying very plainly, this is not easy.

    One thing I am wrestling with, even as a more principled pacifist, is the reality of the impulse to violence. One thing we as Anabaptist-y theologians and leaders have not done so well is acknowledge our own capacity for violence. Many of my Brethren friends are so principled in their pacifism that they cannot fathom that someone could do harm to another.

    We lack, maybe because of our duty driven theologies, a clear sense of human capacity for violence. Maybe because we lack a sense of a cosmological fall, we fear the parts of ourselves that could possibly, in a given situation, actually respond violently. (This also points to a lack of grace within that same duty based theology… but that is another conversation.)

    In these instances, I tell others that I do own a gun and yet that I choose to not keep it in my home. I simply know myself too well to assume that if the gun were handy, I would turn to it first in the “what if scenarios.” I also admit freely that there are parts of me that are ok with acts of violence against Boko Haram or ISIS. Though I know the arguments, and still choose just peacemaking as the right way, I still find myself frighteningly ok with the idea of a bullet or missile well placed a bit of a comfort. But in peace circles, naming that is certainly a faux pas, or outright forbidden.

    I find myself longing for an articulation of peacemaking and discipleship that acknowledges these very human questions… including the grace and restoration for those who, by whatever sets of circumstances, have used violence. Maybe there is something in between principled and pragmatic pacifism.


    1. Thanks, Josh! I hope I didn’t come across as implying that I think this is “easy”—or that I think my perspective is without problems. It was great for Rachel to bring this issue up and stimulate a lot of good thinking.

      I think you raise a crucial issue. Walter Wink has a great discussion of the need to feel the pull of violence in order to be nonviolent in Engaging the Powers—he, of course, refused to use the term “pacifist,” unfortunately but understandably in my view.

      I sometime ask my lifelong Mennonite friends if they could imagine getting into a fist fight. Often they say no. That is a little unnerving to me because (1) it seems like it could signal a lack of passion for justice and (2) it seems like it could signal a tendency to repress violent feelings.

      I fear that all too many pacifists think of it as a purity issue—which means one can’t acknowledge one’s actual feelings of the pull to violence. And the sense that if you do commit acts of violence you have committed the unpardonable sin.

      I strive to think of pacifism as a direction more than a destination. Or, perhaps as a hermeneutic, a way to try to see the world and to find guidance—not a rule that must never be violated.

  4. I wish this answered every question for me, but I’m left with many. Would a “principled pacifist” carry a weapon as a prison guard or a police officer? In other words, is violence or the threat of violence ever acceptable? Would a principled pacifist simply not serve in such a role, or go so far as to say that a society should not have armed prison guards or police? What if we’re speaking of a psychiatric unit in a prison? The call to perfect “nonviolent tactics” may be meaningless if those threatening violence are psychotic.

    These are unusual circumstances to be sure, but I think they speak to the larger question of whether it is ever possible to use violence to protect the weak. An army, after all, can be understood and used as a large scale police force.

    Further, I understand that the Allies in the second world war were hardly motivated by pure concern for Nazi victims, and I completely agree that the US has acted in far too imperialistic ways and lost whatever moral authority it ever had. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, there has never been a good war. (Though he went on to defend both the civil war and WW2.) Police and prison guards are also fallen human beings. So is the point that flawed human beings should never be allowed to use the tools of violence?

    My problem with “principled pacifism” is that it seems to want it both ways. It wants to say, “no violence, because Jesus.” But then it wants to argue that pacifism is pragmatically the best method. (Your abused wife case.) I think principled pacifists recognize the horror of standing on principle in the face of bloodied children, and therefore want to believe that their methods will relieve the most suffering. I simply think that’s a case they have trouble making with certainty..

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tanya.

      I have a hard time seeing a pacifist as a prison guard or police officer in our present context insofar as those folks are trained to kill people and under orders to do so when “necessary.” I do believe it is possible to imagine a society that carries out its legitimate security function without lethal violence. I just saw something the other day about how incredibly (for an American!) rare it is for British police to use their guns.

      I would never use the term perfect in relation to nonviolent tactics. The point is not perfection so much as serving life as consistently as possible. I would tend to suspect that our society’s virtually unlimited access to guns makes us much more at risk of violence by “psychotic” folks than having unarmed prison guards would. And why would we be putting mentally ill people in our soul-destroying, violence-enhancing prisons to begin with?

      Part of my point in my post is that I don’t think the US military has acted to protect the “weak” during my 60+ year lifetime. We have almost always sided with the powerful against the weak. This tends to be the case of most militaries I imagine—they generally exist in order to benefit the rich and powerful.

      Actually, I work hard to make a distinction between “principled” and “pragmatic” pacifism. I see them as potentially complementary, but many would see the distinction as pretty fundamental. But, I think, if we are Christian pacifists we should be open to the idea that the God who is revealed in Jesus and who calls us to love our enemies even to the point of going to the cross is also the creator God whose Spirit encompasses the entire world—with the sense that there is ultimately coherence between Jesus’s commands and what “works” in God’s creation.

      Finally, I sense at the end of your comment a view that the burden of proof rests on pacifism. I want to challenge that. Of course we can’t make the case that pacifism “will relieve the most suffering” with certainty. But what about violence? What kind of track record does it have in relieving suffering?

  5. Pragmatic pacifism does not seem very pragmatic to me. I appreciate your theological reasoning, but I question your understanding of the dynamics of power, and violence especially as you appear to enjoy the perspective of a white male. The idea of pragmatic pacifism does not appear to accommodate the every day, real danger of living as a woman, a person of color, a child in this world. I believe your misunderstanding of domestic violence betrays a simplistic view of living in the midst of violence. I believe in pacifism and even the Biblical basis for it, however defending yourself and your family against violence, even if it require violence to do so is warranted. I am from a large drug trafficking area in Kentucky. I work to find solutions to the drug problem. I engage my neighbor in finding non violent solutions to the drug problem. However, if a person on drugs breaks into my house and is between me and my child with the intent and actions towards causing her harm, do I show my daughter love by picking up whatever item I can use as a weapon to stop him, or do I show him love and not harm him and allow the other neighbor (my daughter) to be harmed? As a woman do I allow myself to be raped which may not result in death or do I use a weapon to fight back? The fact is, I can prepare myself for peaceful problem solving but every day…every single day, people are faced with these dilemmas. Pragmatic pacifism may be logical on the macro level but with face to face evil and violence, it is more problematic than pragmatic… In my opinion. I liked the theological thinking, though.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rosanne. Actually, I’d say what you describe is fully compatible with what I mean by “pragmatic pacifism.”

      One works at “nonviolent solutions” and “prepares oneself for peaceful problem solving.” Then one does the best one can when faced with crises situations. If I were to face the scenario with the “person on drugs” and my grandchild, I would certainly “pick up whatever item I could use as a weapon to stop him.” I would not feel guilty or ashamed of doing this, most likely, and then I would go on trying as hard as I can to work at nonviolent solutions. I certainly wouldn’t think such an act on my part to defend my grandchild means I should support the US military bombing Syria and Iraq.

      I was not making general statements about “domestic violence” so I don’t know what you think I “misunderstood.” I was simply reacting to Rachel’s use of “fighting back” presumably with lethal violence as an example that invalidates pacifism in general. Her point seems to me to reflect a “misunderstanding” as if the only options ever are killing or being pummeled and as if the only way for an abused wife to exercise power is to kill.

  6. I found the opening of your post compelling in terms of the biblical and moral underpinnings of pacifism. I looked forward to reading your take on where the rubber meets the road in real life; i.e.: domestic violence, ISIS, Nazi extermination of Jews, etc. How do we engage the powers in an effective, non-violent way while protecting the innocent?

    I was disappointed in your response to these questions because you never really went there. There are, indeed, creative, proactive, humanitarian interventions that have been underutilized and sometimes even forgotten in our propensity to pick up the gun, but you didn’t give them any air time or develop any strategies of your own. What would you have had us do with the genocide of Jews during the Second World War? How would pacifism address the beheading of innocent journalists? Are the victims simply casualties of the gospel of peace, a part of the sacrifice of the lamb? Is so, you should say so.

    I believe in non-violent resistance to evil but, like Rachel, I want to know how to stop the killings.

    1. Isn’t the answer to your last question obvious? Sometimes, if not frequently, it will simply not be possible to stop the killing. The answer is that there is no answer. Indeed, trying to solve every problem and deal with every contingency is part of the logic of mastery and control that underwrites all justifications for violent premeditation.

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lyn. As I write in today’s sequel to my first response to Rachel, I think it’s a big problem when we Christians make the move she made—Jesus’s teaching is great but then life happens. We shouldn’t put a “but” there as if Jesus’s teaching don’t apply when life happens. If we believe Jesus, we should say instead that when life happens we get to work applying that teaching.

      Certainly there are “creative, proactive, humanitarian interventions.” I didn’t have space in my blog post to get into that, but I believe it. The point that is made even less often, which I did try to make, is that violence has a terrible track record of responding to these crises so the burden of proof should be on violence since it is so risky and costly.

      The “genocide of Jews” question is easy. The violence of WWII made things worse. There were people who intervened nonviolently and, even though minuscule in number, saved many more lives than the Allies’ bombers and tanks. I don’t know about saving “innocent journalists,” but it seems almost certain that the US bombing Iraq and Syria puts whatever journalists are still in the area much more at risk.

      By far the best thing for you to do “to stop the killings” (since you are asking for advice 🙂 ) would be to do whatever you can to get the US policies changed and to reduce our military footprint around the world. We have and are killing many more people, directly and indirectly, than ISIS ever possibly could.

  7. Ted, I found this post on RHE’s page. While I appreciate your thoughtful and logical analysis of the complex nature of pacifism, I was unsettled by your comments regarding spousal abuse. As a pacifist and abuse survivor, I would challenge you to dialogue with someone with a greater grasp of the conditioned mindset of an abuse victim. I realize that this is only a small part of your very well reasoned argument but I feel that as much as I appreciate this post I cannot share it publicly due to the possibility of an abuse victim feeling that in any small way they hold responsibility for their own abuse.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Naomi. The last thing on my mind in my response to Rachel was to imply that an abuse victim in any way “holds responsibility for their own abuse” because I don’t think that.

      All I was doing was responding to Rachel’s inference that the only way for such a victim to exercise power is to kill her abuser—and her use of that as a refutation of pacifism, with the implication that we might want to support the US bombing of ISIS territory.

  8. I appreciate your thoughts and agree with some of the fundamental principles of loving God and our neighbors. But I have yet to understand what practical steps you would support in critical situations. I’m fresh of the plane from Nigeria, where the appropriate means of handling the Boko Haram is a question looming over all. 200 innocent girls have been abducted, bombs kill Christians on a regular basis. If you were a leader in the country, what would you do?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Emily. Because I believe that everything that I do should be informed by the call to love neighbors (even enemies), I can’t imagine that I could ever be a political leader. If somehow I nevertheless was, I believe in principle that some humane option would likely always present itself if we were looking for it. These situations rarely if ever exist in closed environments.

      1. The question really is not about you being a politician. But to see it from a citizen’s view, would you oppose the military action taken to prevent the Boko Haram from taking control of more cities?

      2. I don’t know enough about the situation to say. In terms of a general approach, I could imagine saying that I essentially “oppose” what the military stands for and how it operates. But there could be occasions where I would mute that opposition and recognize that the situation is not one of my choosing and that there are greater and lesser evils. Sometimes a lesser evil is the best option.

        I did argue in favor of voting for Barack Obama in 2012, even as I expressed sharp opposition to his pro-war policies—because I thought the alternative was even worse. I wasn’t voting for Obama so much as against Romney.

  9. First of all, I’d like to say that I appreciate Rachel’s candor as well as Ted’s responses. Both are honest and thoughtful. The only thing I have to add is that this discussion reminds me of what has been a consistent concern of mine since I tried to tackle it in seminary, i.e. the question of moral tragedy and moral failure. There is something wrong about the ways pacifist theologians have gone about reflecting upon these issues, one that is much too rationalist and moralist, for lack of a better terms. Why, for instance, do we sometimes assume that the admission of the necessity of violence in certain situations is incompatible with pacifism? I think it is because we no longer think in substantively Christian terms about sin, human nature, or God’s grace. We assume all to easily that following Jesus is simply a matter of choosing to do so, of having strength of will to a sufficient degree to act rightly in all situations. We too often overestimate human vision, human will power, human freedom, and human frailty. Why? Because the admission of these limitations is seen to undermine moral commitment. Why? Because we don’t really think that our obedience is a result of God’s action in the world, either because we don’t believe God acts, or because we have turned God into a moral principle, a neo-Platonic ideal of goodness. What we need, precisely as Anabaptist pacifists to to take a good long, hard look at the problems with Anabaptist “free will” and the ways in which it leads to deism and agnosticism, both practically and theoretically. We need to return to our roots in the Reformed tradition, appropriate a more classic Reformation anthropology, theology, christology, etc. in order to move forward. Ted will not agree, at least I doubt it. But this is the conclusion that I have slowly come to over the years. Anabaptism is limited in it’s ability to deal precisely with this issue, which is ironic because most committed pacifists in the pews see the hollowness of moral absolutism. Doubly ironic because not dealing with this issue undermines our commitment to peace, not to mention our practice.

    1. I’m replying to my own comment above just to make clear that I don’t think my comments are really a critique of Ted, except in my more Reformed perspective. It could be read that way, I realize in retrospect. But that was not my intention. It’s more of a generalized comment on the way this sort of discussion usually tends.

    2. Yes, or we need to read more Freud and Lacan and confess at church, “The unconscious is structured like a language.” One need not be a card-carrying Calvinist to see that consciousness lies and that the belief in the muscular pacifist will of the Anabaptist to produce pure and principled lives is generally a bad fiction, leading further to the conclusion that pacifism is the only moral absolute remaining in our late modern world. But I think you see, Daniel, that if the modern moral Anabaptist gives up his univocal and universal pacifism then GOD IS DEAD.

    3. Good to hear from you again, Dan. I would need actual examples before I would admit to the “necessity of violence” in any situation. Perhaps “inevitability,” and maybe that’s all you mean.

      Part of the issue here, it seems, is what we think Jesus meant when he said “follow me,” or what Torah means when it says “do this.” I read those texts as based on the assumption that people can indeed do these things. But I also think (maybe this is my Lutheran heritage, though I think I am simply finding it in the Bible) that the point of following is not to gain our salvation thereby or to fix the world by our action—but simply as the most joyful path for the one God has first loved.

      You’re right, that Reformed (Augustinian?) anthropology would not be a source I would put much stock in.

      1. Hey Ted! It is also very good to hear from you.

        You are right to call attention to my use of the word “necessity” in the phrase “necessity of violence.” I did not mean necessary in any ontological or logical sense. I meant something more akin to “difficult to avoid given our human proclivities to rash action,” or “difficult to avoid given our attachments to those we love,” or “difficult to avoid given how painful and terrified I was at the time,” etc.

        Also, and this may be in the back of your mind by pinpointing the word “necessary,” I do not want to imply that human nature or the natural world is essentially sinful or violent.

        What I would want to press you on, however, is that even with these qualifications to my language, there surely must be some way theologically to describe what is being experienced by someone, otherwise committed to pacifism, who when in extremis finds recourse to the use of violence practically unavoidable? I think this is an aporia in Anabaptist thinking on pacifism that needs to be addressed more openly and more robustly than heretofore. People like J. Lawrence Burkholder experienced and named this aporia. He dealt with it, unfortunately, with a combination of Troeltsch, Niebuhr, etc. Though I applaud his naming of the problem I am not satisfied by his solutions.

        What we need is a way to name the propensity to the use of violence given the inducement of fear, anger, etc. without implicating human nature as such. We also need a way to name how the limited use of violence for the defense of “the other” may indeed be the “lesser of two evils” without making the exceptional case the rule of behavior or the justification for the use of violence. We also need a way to name the ways in which our own sense of selfhood can limit our ability to not respond violently when we ourselves are directly provoked.

        There are, no doubt, many different ways to name all of these things. But a simple Pelagian approach to the possibility of obedience is probably not going to be sufficient. My answer, seemingly backward and hopelessly traditional though it may seem to some, is to draw (selectively) from the likes of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer (and a bit of Jungel) to articulate a theology of discipleship that names our sins of omission and commission, and our need, ultimately, to vest the possibility of peace in God rather than ourselves. Yoder does this so beautifully when he talks about how Christ “let go” of the need to control history; and so, I trust my hunch here is not too wide of the Anabaptist mark, so to speak.

        Please do respond. I’m more than open to critique or suggestions at this point. 🙂

      2. Thanks for this, Dan. I think you are setting out a crucial and challenging (and exciting) agenda. I think you are pushing me in a good direction to think seriously about how to think theologically about our “failures.” I like just about everything you say here.

        However, I have big problems with thinking that the resources we need are to be found in the list of folks you name (with a few partial exceptions). I don’t have time right now to think very carefully about where I would want to go. I would say, though, I would never accept that anything I say (or would want to say) takes “a simple Pelagian approach.” I tend to think the Pelagian debate is kind of a dead end—along with Augustinian anthropology more generally. Pelagius and Augustine aren’t our only alternatives. I sense that neither was very biblical.

        But you are exactly right that the issue of how to deal with failures in a theologically constructive way is a crucial task.

        I’ll keep thinking and hopefully get back to you. And you are welcome to push things a bit more while I’m thinking (especially in this welcome more gentle mode!).

  10. Important conversations, Ted. This is an unusually fully-scheduled week for me so I must keep my comments brief. As one who has worked internationally and ecumenically with the WCC “Just Peace” projects and programs, I would suggest yet another paradigm.

    There is a growing ecumenical, and interfaith, consensus that the old doctrines of Just War have become obsolete. The emerging new paradigm is “Just Peace.” Central to the theology and politics of Just Peace is addressing the systemic origins of violence and embedded sources of injustice. Also central is the recognition of aggression in our communities (and in our psyches, souls and bodies) and the necessity of “just policing”, not with national armies but with those trained in conflict reduction and restraint. This is not a body of civilian pacifists but rather trained and armed peacekeepers. Note, policing in the United States in places like Ferguson has taken its lessons from the military. We saw an important shift there in the streets and in hearts and minds when Captain Johnson introduced something more like just policing and denounced the GI Joe style of policing that only increased aggression.

    In my experience, “principled pacifists” in North America have distanced themselves from the international conversations on just policing, but our ecumenical — and anabaptist — colleagues in Bogota, Beirut, Abuja and Jakarta have noted these same principled pacifists call the cops if a robber or rapist is on the prowl on College Avenue in Harrisonburg, Richmond or Goshen. This seems to them to be a screaming — and a privileged and purist — contradiction and failure of ethical nerve.

    If this general topic is of interest to enough in the USA I could throw a conference on many of these questions and concerns next year at my school. I have a budget to do so, but this cannot be a gathering of self-congratuatory pacifists who admire their clean hands while bloody heads roll in Syria, Iraq and Algiers.

    1. I never know, Scott, if you mean me when you talk about “self-congratuatory pacifists” or not. Is anyone who tries to think consistently in terms of pacifism “self-congratuatory” by definition?

      I, of course, would love to have a conference to discuss these issues and I could help you with a list of speakers. However, it appears that you might not want me there.

      1. Of course I would want you there!

        But I would hope we could together seek to answer Emily’s honest, eye-witness questions out of Nigeria.

        When I speak of self-congratulatory pacifists I’m calling into question any who might place fidelity to an absolute principle over the face of the other. I think you have a much more consistent biblical ethic of non-violence than that.

        I am struck, however, that neither your pacifism or my just peace seem to be providing satisfying answers to the real spiritual, political and human dilemmas presented by Boko Haram, which is still holding the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, or by ISIS, which was prepared to slaughter thousands of Zoroastrians, sisters and brothers of the Magi, on that Iraqi mountain near Kurdistan until force met force.

        Maybe there are no good answers, only tragic ones, whether one embraces pacifism, just peace or just war?

      2. Okay, Scott. I’ll consider this as an invitation to the conference!

        I do tend to agree that “there are no good answers,” at least to the specific moments when a series of flawed choices have created such an “impossible” situation—much like, maybe, the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

        I’m willing, albeit grudgingly, to say pacifism maybe won’t be able to speak meaningfully to every situation. To me, though, this argues more for working harder to speak when it can be meaningful and accepting that one must be silent about a few things than for ever advocating violence.

  11. Hello Ted. I think your second to the last paragraph on this nails it and I want to add this. I left it on Rachel Held Evans FB comment, but there are so many comments now, I don’t know that many would scroll to read it:

    If the US were an innocent entity we could have an innocent civil conversation about whether to get involved with ISIS or not. But the US is not innocent. It is clear on real journalism outlets that the US trained these guys and now that they’re strong enough, they decided they want a share of the oil pie. The instability in Iraq is our fault. We didn’t want to help Syria for any humanitarian reasons until we learned ISIS was there too. And now we’ve made the refugee situation even worse. Muslim scholars everywhere have decried ISIS, but I think its really just about oil and the violence is a front to get attention and get the US involved. And we proved their point exactly by bombing and killing people in the name of economic interests. The US hands are full of decades of blood for economic interests.

    Furthermore, Russia is actually a bigger problem then some group who wants to sell oil and kick the US out of the Middle East (how hard is it to realize that you sworn enemy just wants you out so they can sell and control their own resources? And who is really going to sit here and be against that?!). They’ve invaded Ukraine, we refuse to help Ukraine and now Putin is giving the same talk about defending Russian citizens and protecting their rights in the Baltic nations, which he did prior to his action in Ukraine. We think economic sanctions will stop him. But we have strong words if he attacks the Baltic nations because they’re NATO. Our government has long been an arm of hypocrisy. And here we are mulling over whether pacifism is the right response because a few Christians in Iraq tug on our heartstrings.

  12. Can one distinguish between a reactive pacifism and a pacifism that is a byproduct of the spread of the gospel/expansion of the kingdom of God?
    In his inaugural address in Luke, the threat of death to Jesus could be seen as due to his refusal to condone violence of prospective kingdom members. John the Baptist’s disciples saw Jesus doing the kind of things a Messiah would do, except declaring vengeance/violence against people to be evangelized. They were “scandalized”. Luke’s account of the disciples wish to call down fire on the inhospitable Samaritans could be bracketed with the Acts account of evangelisation of the Samaritans. Vengeance/violence impedes the spread of the gospel.

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