Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—October 2, 2014

Christian pacifism seems to be an issue that people care about a lot, even if they aren’t always very sympathetic toward it. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about it and talk about it, and I’ve been working on that for a long time and with a lot of energy.

I appreciate the stimulus to thought that the exchanges concerning Christian pacifism this week have provided. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for her initial brief but stimulating Facebook comments that pushed me to write the blog post I put up on Monday (“Is pacifism for when life happens? A response to Rachel Held Evans”). And thanks to her for putting up a link to that post on her Facebook page, to those who commented there, and especially to those who commented directly on my blog and my Facebook page.

As always, when this kind of thing happens, my mind races. I have a few thoughts that seem like new thoughts for me that I would like to add to the conversation.

The meaning of “Christian pacifism”

In my “Is pacifism…” post I tried to make two main points—that (1) Jesus does call Christians to pacifism, which is for all times and places according to his teaching, and that (2) since the United States military is not an agent for genuine justice, Christians should not look to it as a possible answer to the question of what to do about ISIS (which is what I understood to be the trigger for Rachel’s original Facebook comments last week).

This is what I mean by Christian pacifism: Basically, in my mind, thinking of myself as a Christian pacifist is the same thing as thinking of myself as a Christian. Not because I want to add a pacifist ideology onto basic Christian faith. Rather, I believe that “pacifism” is simply a shorthand way to say “Christianity as if Jesus matters.”

I explain this in the other day’s post where I use the story of the Good Samaritan as the central image for summarizing Jesus’s teaching (and his living). What matters the most? What is the ultimate “salvation issue” for Jesus? It’s the call to love God and neighbor. And who is the “neighbor”? Anyone in need and anyone who cares for someone in need—even if one or the other might be considered an enemy.

The term “pacifism” is useful because it reminds us that the kind of love Jesus calls us to is love that does not allow for exceptions. It is love that does not allow for killing, preparing to kill, or supporting those who kill others (that is, it does not allow for warfare). However, it appears that at times this term can be misunderstood. The point for Christian pacifism as I understand it not to insist on the necessity of the term “pacifism” but to remind Christians of the core message of our faith.

How this fundamental commitment to Christian pacifism works (again, “Christian pacifism” as shorthand for Jesus’s teaching in response to the question about eternal life and his understanding of the message of the law and prophets, and how that teaching is summarized by Paul in Romans 13:8-10 and John in 1 John 4:21) is like this: We start with a self-awareness of Jesus’s love command as a core conviction and then we address possible “scenarios” where “real life happens” in light of that conviction. [I develop these thoughts further in an essay, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism”; here’s a link to a list of my writings on pacifism.]

Bracketing Jesus’s teaching

What Rachel (and many others in the comments) seem to do is start with the sense of the appeal of pacifism (“when I read the Sermon on the Mount”) but then turn to “real life” on its own terms. It’s like we have Jesus’s life and teaching, but when we need to figure out how to respond to scenarios such as Germany bombing England, domestic violence, or the horrors of ISIS, we bracket that teaching. It’s as if we say, the burden of proof is on those who share Jesus’s convictions about love to show how that can “work” in “real life” instead of saying the burden of proof for Christians is on those who assume Jesus’s teaching is not our norm.

What Rachel wrote was (leaving out a lot of words to sharpen my point), “When I read the Sermon on the Mount … I nod along, … But then … life happens” (emphasis added). Most of the comments on her Facebook page that were critical of my blog post seemed to focus exclusively on the “life happens” issues without struggling with the “Jesus’s teaching” framework, as if “life happening” occurs in a different sphere than what Jesus had in mind with his teaching.

What I believe that Christian faith has to do with, as much as anything, is affirming Jesus’s teaching as our guide at all times—not in the proof-text, blueprint sense but in the general framework sense. So when “life happens” we shouldn’t use a “but” in relation to Jesus’s teaching. Rather, we should use a “so” and begin the struggle by applying his core message—how to respond to muggings and enemies and wars and rumors of war in light of this message.

Certainly, this is only the beginning of the struggle. The framework does not give us all the answers. But that is not a reason to sideline the framework. Rather it’s an acknowledgement that that’s when our work begins. I don’t think a Christian should criticize the love command for being unrealistic, but instead should work and work at figuring out how indeed it is realistic. Embracing the call to such work is precisely what I understand Christian faith to be about—and I find using the term “pacifism” helps make this embrace more self-conscious.

The “what works” aspect

At the same time, I believe it is important for us to engage the “what works” issues. That’s why I say that principled pacifism (applying the love command to all situations) is complementary with pragmatic pacifism (discerning what works). A principled pacifism that ignores “what works” can become an otherworldly ideology. If Jesus’s message is not for this world, we’re in big trouble. But, at the same time, a pragmatic pacifism that ignores the principle not to compromise on love is likely doomed to endless debates about the kinds of examples Rachel raises as what emerge when “life happens.”

It seems important to me to recognize that violence rarely if ever can meet a very rigorous burden of proof. The reason we tend to believe in violence is not because the evidence supports its effectiveness but because of what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.” This myth that violence “works” and “is necessary” is one of the most powerful elements of our current culture’s way of viewing reality even though it is not based on evidence.

I mentioned in my post that I have written a book about World War II. I argue that in fact that War did not “work” very well to serve the values it was allegedly fought for (democracy and self-determination “everywhere on earth” and disarmament “everywhere on earth”)—especially if we also consider the way committing itself to that war transformed the United States from the 15th largest military in the world in the late 1930s to the world’s one superpower a generation later (and how the incredible resources our nation pours into its military have not decreased even after our only comparable opponent, the Soviet Union, dissolved).

The War did not “save Europe’s Jews,” it didn’t even try. Instead, it sealed the doom of most of them. The trigger for the War, Germany’s invasion of Poland that Britain declared war on Germany as a response to, also sealed the doom of a full 20% of Poland’s population followed by a “victory” that left Poland dominated by Soviet totalitarianism.

There were Christian pacifists (and others) who did nonviolently save thousands of Jewish lives. It’s not like that’s a complete answer to the “what about Hitler” question. But it’s the kind of direction people who take Jesus’s love command seriously should move towards, along with recognizing the failures of the violent, warring approach.

Domestic violence and ISIS

My comments concerning domestic violence were meant simply to respond to what Rachel wrote. I interpreted Rachel to imply that the only two options for “a woman being pummeled by her husband” would be to “fight back” violently and lethally or simply to accept being pummeled. It’s as if the only way the abused spouse can exercise power is to kill. My main thought, perhaps clumsily articulated, is that there are logically other options (not thinking that I was “giving advice” to a person in such a situation or implying anything like blaming her in any way for what would be happening to her).

I was reacting against Rachel’s inference that pacifism should be abandoned in relation to war and the like because an abused wife of course is better off killing her attacker than allowing him to pummel her. I understand this to be a misuse of an emotionally evocative situation as a means to invalidate pacifism’s refusal in principle to accept warfare as legitimate. My operative point in my comment was the concluding sentence: “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.”

I read Rachel as building up to her final example, what to do about ISIS. I guessed that that issue was the catalyst for her whole statement. I find it troubling that a bracketing of the core belief of Christianity (as I understand it) seems to happen. Christians tend to struggle with the “what to do in face of wrongdoing” question as if Jesus’s love command is functionally irrelevant. This seems clear to me when American Christians move from what should “we” do to advocacy of U.S. military action (which I see as implacably contrary to the love command). That is, any sense that what “we should do” involves the American military seems like a blatant turn away from Jesus’s teaching.

Of course, as a few people pointed out in the Facebook discussion, simply to say that we should reject the idea that the U.S. military provides Christians with a possible answer to the “what should we do” question is not sufficient if we still believe that what ISIS does is horrible and should be resisted. Isn’t there something proactive that we can to in face of those atrocities? There is a certain sense, though, that I and most people who might read this post actually are helpless to do anything that might directly stop ISIS except support the U.S. military—which shouldn’t be an option in light of Jesus’s teaching. So, I think we probably have to accept that we can’t do anything directly about that issue.

What we can do is try to find ways to prevent future ISIS’s from coming into being as well as trying to find ways to help those who might be hurt by the violence in that part of the world through agencies such as Mennonite Central Committee and numerous others.

Even more, though, I believe we American Christians have a moral responsibility to address the dynamics where we might have a voice—American policies, the actions of the U.S. military, prejudices, and choices that helped to create the environment where ISIS could gain a foothold. That is, our illegal and extraordinarily immoral war on Iraq and our blind support for Israel are two huge factors that have contributed to an evironment where ISIS could emerge. It seems like our horror in face what ISIS is doing should stimulate us to challenge American imperialism so we don’t keep feeding the ISIS’s of the world. That’s something that would have more promise of protecting innocent lives than allowing our horror to make us vulnerable to being manipulated to support those very same death-dealing imperial forces.

10 thoughts on “Pacifism when “life happens”: Further thoughts

  1. Ted, with your very Christocentric, indeed Jesus-centric, rather than Theocentric post, you seem to be stating that this specific teaching on pacifism and this general teaching about the will and way of Jesus you offer are not simply principles or practices for Christians but are in fact a universal ethics. While the pre-Vatican II Catholics proclaimed, “Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salis,” do you really want to argue that outside of Jesus there are no ethics?

    If your answer is no then we who have a more Theocentric ethics are free to think differently and otherwise while listening to and learning from your contingent confession and your particular telling of the Jesus-story. If your answer is yes, are you not then calling us to a kinder, gentler Constantinianism, administered not by the emperor but by the theologians?

  2. Perhaps the operative term here, Scott, is “universal ethics.” I would say that what I am doing is moving from the particular—both the story of Jesus in the context of the whole Bible and my own experience and perception of the world—out.

    I’m not interested in making universal claims and of course repudiate any kind of Constantinianism (and, as a rule, I think “the theologians” are some our least helpful guides). But as I move out, I have yet to find anything that contradicts what I learn from Jesus and have confirmed in my own experience about the truthfulness of the love command, et al.

    So, I certainly do answer your question with a “yes.” But I am willing to enter into a debate in relation to any specific claim you would make that would justify violence—partly based on my particular telling of the Jesus-story, but also based on whatever source of authority you might want to rest your affirmation of violence on. In the end, though, I will do nothing to coerce you on your path to support violence.

  3. Ted, I suppose I’m wondering if between a yes and a no there might be a possible “middle” for a public ethics in a world of pluralism that according to the biblical witness is both blessed and broken? I’m really wondering about the possibility of what JHY taught us about the ethics of a “middle axiom” which while not the perfection of Christ can be appreciated as a social ethics that aims at reducing violence and is a middle point between the ideal of pacifism and a traditional eye-for-an-eye apologetic for justifiable violence. This is why Yoder could in good conscience lecture to ROTC classes at Notre Dame on the imperfect virtues and pragmatics of classic just war theories.

    1. I guess part of the issue for me, Scott, is whether pacifists might give up the one distinctive angle of perception that they could offer to “public ethics” if they bracket their pacifism. But certainly they should seek to be part of whatever discussion they allowed to enter into—and with a listening spirit.

  4. Hey Ted,
    I have enjoyed this and a number of your other posts; appreciate your focus on your Jesus ethic of love. Now, of course, if there weren’t about to be a “BUT” I wouldn’t have much to say except THANKS, which I do also say, but….. I have also been thinking about Christian pacifism for a rather long time, and JHY helped me see not only the value of a traditional Anabaptist approach and also that “middle axiom” S Holland refers to above. I am inclined to follow the early Anabaptist emphasis on the obedience ethic for followers of Christ also. So, I would like to suggest that your use of the “love command” mode is useful, BUT not compelling.

    Even the command to “love your enemies” really isn’t definitive ethically without explicit affirmation of and focus on the command to “take up your cross” and follow me. The center of Christian ethics can be said to be various things I suppose, but each of us taking up our cross specifically as a believer in Christ and in the mode of Christ–versus the idea that Jesus went to the cross for us so we wouldn’t have to–may be a more helpful approach to the issue of violent or non-violent Christian engagement in dealing with evil. The command to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus is in each of the Synoptic texts immediately after the Apostles acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah; hence that may be more central to the Gospel than the love command, ubiquitous as that is.

    Many Christians involved with Ally decision-making in WWII believed they could love their German enemies and kill them too because LOVE compelled them to calculate that more people would benefit from firebombing German cities and nuking Japanese ones than if they didn’t. Love is fungible–taking up one’s cross is not, I think–one can’t bear one’s cross like Jesus and wield the sword of the state simultaneously.

    There are other issues you discuss that I would like to engage with you on also, but this is enough, if not too much, for one blog comment.

    1. Thanks for this, “RW.” Interesting point. I certainly believe that the notion of love I am suggesting is central to Christianity includes an unequivocal call to “take up one’s cross” as Jesus did. I have actually written quite a bit about this.

      My recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, in my mind develops this point at great length—though maybe not in the same language you might want to use.

      I also just did a paper on the book of Revelation, “There’s power in the blood: Revelation’s patience and creation’s transformation,” that also reflects the idea of the inextricable link between love and taking up the cross.

      What I don’t think I agree with the idea that “love” is actually what was operative in the bombing of German and Japan. Perhaps the language was used, but I think it was a perversion of Jesus’s love command if that’s what they said motivated them. After all, the notion of taking up the cross is also used to glorify warriors: “No man has greater love than this than he lay down is life for his friends”….

      1. I keep plowing through some of these issues, and perhaps providentially I ran across a summary of R B Hays thought in _The Moral Vision of the NT_
        (1) Hays argues that any focal image needs to find a textual basis in all the canonical witness. “Love,” according to Hays is not a central theme or ethical warrant in several important NT texts (Mark, Hebrews and Revelation, and Acts). According to Hays, the 3 metaphors he elevates well encapsulate essential claims in a much larger plurality of NT texts.
        (2) Love is itself not as much an image as it is the “interpretation of an image.” “Love,” in other words, is embodied concretely in the NT by the cross. Apart from the specific narrative context of the cross, “Love” loses any meaning. Thus, love in the NT is itself subsumed under the image of cross.

        I wasn’t thinking of Hay’s stuff when I commented earlier, but have to agree with this summary of his thought By Victor McCracken (Atlanta, GA USA) in an Amazon Review here:

      2. Thanks for the reference to Hays. His is an important book with many excellent insights. It’s been awhile since I read it, and I suspect I would like it a little less now.

        I remember him coming across as a little moralistic. I think any approach that separates the cross from the love command is going to tend toward a duty-based ethic in ways that may end up being problematic.

        I think Mark 12:28-34 argues against his (apparent—I’m basing this on the link you gave) idea that love is not a central ethical theme in Mark. I would also disagree concerning Revelation.

        I also think it’s problematic that, typical of specialists in biblical studies, Hays focuses more on the separate pieces of the NT (and Bible as a whole) more than the story the entirety of the Bible tells.

        I remember when I read his book that I had the suspicion that he felt the need to diminish the centrality of the love command because that would make it easier for him to make his anti-gay arguments.

        I would rather say that the cross is indeed an absolutely central motif in the NT (as I mention in my previous comment, it’s at the heart of my book, Instead of Atonement. But the cross only makes sense in the NT as completely linked with love—so it’s a big problem in my mind to say that “love itself is subsumed under the image of the cross.”

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