How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2023

My definition of pacifism starts with the conviction that no belief or commitment or loyalty matters more than loving all others. It follows from such a conviction that participating in or preparing for or supporting warfare would never be acceptable. A key element, then, of this kind of conviction is that it requires a break from the widely held assumption that we should allow our nation to decide for us when war is okay. This assumption I call the “blank check”—the willingness (generally simply assumed more than self-consciously chosen) to do what our nation calls upon us to do, to give it—in effect—a blank check.

I have studied the responses American citizens had to their nation’s all-in call for fighting World War II. Only a tiny handful refused to take up arms, and I would say that almost universally those “conscientious objectors” shared a sense of loyalty to some higher moral conviction than accepting the blank check—and those who weren’t COs did not share that loyalty. Those who went to war did accept that their highest loyalty was owed to their nation.

If I add the modifier “Christian” to the term pacifism, the basic definition remains the same, but it adds the source of the conviction about the centrality of love. “Christian pacifism,” I would say, is the conviction that loving others is our never to be subordinated moral commitment, and this is due to the message of Jesus. Christians who aspire to have love be their central moral conviction (that is, “Christian pacifists”) look especially to Jesus’s teaching that love of God and neighbor is the heart of God’s will for human beings.

Why self-consciousness about pacifism matters

The two main inter-related reasons for why it is so important actually to understand Christian pacifism are: (1) in the long history of Christianity, hardly any Christian groups have in fact been committed to pacifism despite it being so central to Jesus’s message and (2) in the long history of human civilization hardly any Christians seem to have seriously questioned the validity of giving the state a blank check when it comes to warfare despite war being so obviously a violation of Jesus’s core message.

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