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.

What Christian pacifism can do is challenge all Christians to be more self-aware. If we name ourselves “Christians” and if we understand that identity to mean taking Jesus seriously as our moral guide, we should make an effort to apply his moral teachings to our lives. Such an effort may not necessarily lead to pacifism (the issues are complicated). However, the standard dynamic where pacifism has not even been seen as something to consider seems problematic. Most Christians never give pacifism any consideration. When we pacifists articulate the reasons for our pacifism, we can challenge all Christians to be more attentive to the message of Jesus.

From the beginning of Christianity, followers of Jesus understood that many other loyalties competed with loyalty to Jesus as the center of Christian faith. The emergence of the blank check fairly early in the story (by the 4th century) has had the effect of blinding most Christians to the main rival to loyalty to Jesus—that is, how nations demand loyalty to themselves. Nothing encapsulates that demand more profoundly than the call to take up arms.

It may be that the main reason Christians have marginalized Jesus’s message is that they have not even been aware of ways that the nation shapes their moral consciousness. Probably just about all Christians would say that they believe in the centrality of love and that they are in favor of peace. However, by not being aware of the pacifist implications of Jesus message (that is, that it rejects warfare), Christians tend not to question the messages about war that they get from their nations—messages that actually contradict what Jesus stood for.

How Christian pacifists have hurt their own cause

Christian pacifists have not always embodied their antiwar convictions in the best ways. Of course, these are difficult convictions for anyone to embody in a world that values violence and warfare so highly. In face of the challenge of affirming pacifism in an unfriendly world, it seems important that pacifists be open to self-criticism. Here are some issues:

Pacifism has all too often been a matter of moral purity in the sense that what matters is the avoidance of imperfection or impurity, more than the practice of love and more than clarity about which human practices are hurtful and destructive. Similarly, pacifism has all too often been framed as a matter of following rules. A friend of mine who grew up in a pacifist faith community talks about “don’t hit back fundamentalism.” As a child his sense of what pacifism was about could be boiled down to never retaliating when ill-treated. There was little life or creativity associated with pacifism for him, only the rigid adherence to rules that came down from authority figures and often were enforced with punishment.

For many Christian pacifists, the emphasis has been placed on personal ethics—don’t hit back, don’t get angry, don’t go into the military, don’t think ill of people you don’t like. They were not educated in an awareness of the political dimension of pacifist convictions. The first conscientious objector I met, back during the Vietnam War, told me that he was grateful to live in a country that allowed him to follow his conscience while it engaged in a war that would keep America free. My sense was, and still is, that this seemed hypocritical. It struck me that if I wanted to say war is wrong for me, I should also say that it is wrong for everyone and that, as a conscientious objector, I would object to anyone using violence to defend me. And it matters that the Vietnam War was profoundly unjust.

Another angle has been for some Christian pacifists to understand a pacifist commitment actually to go against human nature (which they see to be innately violent). Pacifism then becomes a heroic ethic that is extraordinary, mainly for people whose profound commitment to the way of the cross might empower them to go against the grain of normal life. It is difficult to see how such a perspective would be very relevant to the non-heroes of the world. Also, Jesus seems to have presented the way of love as a genuine possibility for normal people—albeit likely a costly one. The path of love is a joyful and creative way for anyone who chooses it in this life.

Many Christian pacifists, while being clear enough about their convictions to refuse to fight in war, have been willing to defer to the state in other ways. During the thirty-year heyday of American conscientious objection (from 1941–1973), many COs (especially from the Historic Peace Churches) seemed to see their turning away from the military as a routine choice taken with the full blessing of the warring state. I believe it was good that the CO option was allowed, but I also think there was a tendency to fail to recognize that even under those conditions, saying no to the military was a radical act that did involve defying the pro-war message of the American empire. So, this deference led to a long-term effect of remaining comfortable with the warring state and not having the courage of their actual convictions in order to build on the no to military induction with a broader and more challenging no to warism. Then, when the draft ended in the early 1970s, comfort with the Empire became even more pervasive in pacifist communities.

Finally, Christian pacifists have tended not to understand how just how contrary to the Christian tradition their convictions have been. The vast majority of Christians, at least since the 4th century, have uncritically accepted the call to war. This acceptance has shaped every aspect of mainstream Christianity. While Christian pacifists should want to have positive relationships with other Christians, if they see the mainstream as the norm of what Christianity should be, they risk undermining their own core convictions.

Pacifism as an aspiration

If we understand pacifism to be centered on love, we may embrace it, we could say, mainly as an aspiration. It is not a state to be achieved or a rigid principle to be enforced so much as a direction to seek, a goal to move towards. Thus, when we find ourselves in real life with imperfections or failures, we don’t throw ourselves against some kind of unyielding wall of discouragement so much as simply keep trying to do better and recognize that we can always move forward at least a bit. The fruit of a pacifist life will be joy and connection with others.

Pacifism is an aspirational conviction that applies to all areas of life and that sees links with peaceable dynamics in the natural world. It thereby works as a lens for viewing the world, a key starting point for discerning how to understand and act. Seeing the world through pacifist eyes will lead one to question conventional wisdom that has so many pro-violence assumptions, such as: might makes right, for security our society needs to spend vast amounts of money on the military and violent policing, and the way to respond to wrongdoing is with punishment.

Simply to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, and to be suspicious toward the taken-for-granted aspect of our society’s default acceptance of coercive social dynamics will make a difference. It will open up possibilities for alternative, life-enhancing policies and practices. A pacifist way of knowing will place a priority on discerning our connectedness, on the centrality of cooperation, and on creative power of collaborative processes in all areas of life. (See my essays, “A pacifist critique of the modern worldview” and “A pacifist way of knowing.”)

What pacifism can do

If we think of pacifism more as a stimulus to creative thinking than as a set of rules or a detailed blueprint for how to avoid sin, then we may imagine many dimensions of life where it has great relevance. What I offer here is a short list of ways that a pacifist imagination might help people of good will creatively embody the way of peace.

The most obvious area where pacifism has played an important role in recent decades is in the work of peace activism and advocacy. Obviously, many peace advocates are not overtly committed pacifists, but those who do understand their pacifist convictions to involve seeking to help the world turn away from war will be ready to be peacemakers, even when such efforts are not popular. An important example may be seen in the opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the antiwar movement grew to be large and influential, it was slow getting traction. For several years, about the only public opposition to the emerging war came from those affiliated with explicitly pacifist groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Quaker social action groups. In time, the movement grew well beyond the pacifists. However, as the Nixon administration—in large part in hopes to quell the antiwar movement—ended the draft and withdrew many American troops and relied more on bombing, the antiwar movement did shrink, ultimately in the final months of the war being again made up mostly of people from the pacifist groups.

One of the major developments in the 20th century was the emergence of nonviolent strategies of social change (note that Time magazine chose Mohandas Gandhi as one of the three most important people of the 20th century). For many of those involved in this work, nonviolence has been affirmed strictly as a tactical strategy seen to be more effective (at least in certain situations) than violent tactics. However, the two most important nonviolent practitioners, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., ultimately affirmed nonviolence in principle and rejected warfare in principle—that is, they both ended up as pacifists. This makes sense because their respective philosophies both affirmed at their hearts the commitment to love as the core energizing and guiding element.

Pacifism provides a default suspicion toward any suggestion that we should support or even accept military action by our nation. Of course, one need not be a pacifist to be suspicious of military actions, but it seems that with the powerful ways the forces of war have of setting the stage for warring policies one almost needs to have a principled commitment to nonviolence to resist the incessant pro-war propaganda.

Our society is profoundly shaped by what we may call the “myth of redemptive violence” —the sense that our most fundamental human stories tell us that violence is required for security and success in the world. Pacifist convictions counter that myth, revealing it to be a false myth. Careful scrutiny will reveal that violence tends to increase insecurity and often doesn’t even work very well; scrutiny that not many non-pacifists seem to apply.

Pacifist convictions, with their emphasis on loving others, reject the dynamics of stereotyping and Othering that seem so often to be a necessary part of creating and sustaining a war spirit. So much of our sense of ourselves as part of the American nation gets focus from a belief in negative elements of those who are not part of our circle—national enemies, racial or ethnic others, those we see as religious or moral inferiors.

The United States has at least since the end of the World War II been travelling on a long and destructive path of profound militarism in a quest for global dominance. Despite the obvious consequences of devoting so much of its wealth and human creativity to destructive policies, the country seems unable to come to its senses. A pacifist sensibility may be one of the only ways that people might actually see the consequences of US warism for what they are. (See my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II.)

A pacifist orientation will lead to questioning all forms of human violence. One widely accepted form of violence (even for many self-identified pacifists) is punitive retribution toward wrongdoers. The recent emergence of the approach called “restorative justice” is certainly not limited to pacifists, but important elements of the development of this approach dio have pacifist roots. (See my essay, “Rethinking God, justice, and the treatment of offenders.”) A Christian pacifist approach to child discipline also challenges many punitive assumptions and practices. (See my essay, “A theological critique of corporal punishment.”)

For those who believe that pacifism offers a framework for understanding the world, and that pacifism is a genuine possibility in history, an important question will be whether one can imagine a political philosophy that would enhance that possibility. Such a question may point a person toward anarchism. It is likely that most pacifists are not anarchists and that most anarchists are not pacifists. However, an anarchistic sensibility that places at the center both suspicion of coercive state power and affirmation of human potential for self-organization will tend toward pacifism—just as a pacifistic sensibility that sees possibilities in human beings actually living together in the world in nonviolent ways will tend toward anarchism.

Finally, a pacifist lens for understanding the world will also help one to perceive many of the peaceable dynamics present in the natural world. Increasingly, scientists are recognizing the centrality of cooperation as a driving factor in evolution and the adaptability of creatures in the world (the anarchist Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin [not a pacifist but inclined in that direction] noticed this aspect of the natural world well over 100 years ago; see his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902).

Dynamic pacifism

Pacifism is best understood not as an achievement or a state of being, nor as a doctrine or strict set of principles, nor as a boundary marker that separates truly faithful people from everyone else. Rather, pacifism is a perspective on life. It is a guide for discernment. An affirmation of pacifism should not set one up for a (hopeless?) struggle to approach perfection. Instead, it should be experienced as a gift of insight, an invitation to view other people and the rest of the world through the lens of love. Such a way of seeing will empower one to see through false myths that doom us to endless conflicts and to the ongoing enrichment of the masters of war. To look through pacifist lenses is to see other human beings, other forms of life, and even the physical world as entities to connect with and join with to enhance life. (Here is a link to many of my writings on Christian pacifism.)

Questioning Faith blog series

3 thoughts on “How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]

  1. Helpful article, Ted. Thanks. I submitted a long comment last night, but haven’t seen it show up. I didn’t think they awaited your approval, but maybe so… was just checking.

    1. Hi Howard. I just noticed this comment from last night. I am afraid your long comment must not have gotten through. I hope you still can post it. You are correct that comments are automatically posted without needing approval.

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