Why I Am No Longer a Pacifist

It wasn’t like I grew up being a pacifist. I was weaned on John Wayne movies, the television series “Combat,” and the generation of parents who sacrificed so much to thwart the very real attempts of world domination by Hitler and Hirohito. And of course, in our early days, we faced the ever growing threat of communism and the atomic bomb. The idea of pacifism never entered the discussion.
I grew up playing army with my friends, killing and being killed in our make-believe world. I had toy soldiers and toy guns. War was just a part of reality.

But our baby boomer generation (at least my part of it) also went through cataclysmic changes as we questioned authority, lived through social upheaval, and struggled through the morass of the war in Vietnam. I went to college in the fall of 1969 following a summer marked by the moon landing, Chappaquiddick, the Manson family murders, and Woodstock. The times were certainly changing, and with it, my views on war.

But the biggest factor in my changing position on war was the fact that I had become a Christian just two years before. Now, like most people of my generation, I had been raised in a church. But as much as I may have believed in God, religion was not a major factor in how I lived day to day. That all changed when I finally heard the story of Jesus as if for the first time and turned my life over to him. From that point forward, everything in my life was different. I wanted to give my life to Him and dedicate my life to living as He wanted me to.

When you couple that enthusiastic and radical commitment with a youthful society that was questioning their parents’ society, it put many foundational principles up for grabs. And among those foundational principles were the ideas of war, self-defense and killing. In the spring of my freshman year in college, many university campuses across the United States were filled with student protests against the war in Vietnam. Once the tragedy at Kent State happened, the protests became almost universal.

At our college campus, as a student strike began with sit-downs in the academic quad, those of us in the fledgling Christian fellowship wrestled with how we should get involved with the protests. After all, wasn’t Jesus the Prince of Peace? Didn’t Jesus stress non-violence? Weren’t we supposed to turn the other cheek? As our fellow students rejected the religions of their parents, couldn’t we show them a relevant, radical Jesus to follow? A Jesus who was calling them to a radical discipleship, and who could transform their lives?

As we struggled with what we should and could say, we also struggled with how we should live. I grew my hair long, I dressed in the acceptable counter-culture style, and I read and thought deeply, or as deeply as an introspective self-centered twenty-something could.

The point of this paper is not to show you all the arguments about why, as a Christian, one should be a pacifist. It’s not to walk you through the progression of my journey to being a full-fledged pacifist. But let me assure you that I was there. Not because it was rational, or loving, but because I believed that theologically, it was the position that God was calling me to take. It was the position that I believed that all Bible-believing Christians should take.

This wasn’t a superficial position. In later years, I studied under Hauerwas. I read Yoder, including unpublished manuscripts. I even wrote my dissertation on the incoherence of the New Christian Right’s national defense policy with respect to their (and my) evangelical theology. I adopted an Anabaptist perspective on church/state relations and rued the so-called Constantinian shift.

As a professor, I have certainly influenced my Religion majors toward Anabaptist positions regarding the state and war (For how could the church refuse to use violence in defense of itself, but then end up using lethal violence in defense of the state, even against other believers?) And I have shown my ethics students the horrors of war. And horrors there are.

So, how, after all of that, and being so adamantly opposed to the use of lethal violence even in defense of myself, or my own family, have I now reached a position in which I now support the justified use of lethal force?

It’s certainly not connected with a higher view of the state. Because of my view of human nature, I am still skeptical of government, maybe even more so. I have become convinced that an evangelical view of human nature logically leads one to a position in support of limited government. But that’s a topic for another time.

My transformed position is due to a realization of the real and present danger of true evil in our world and just how much pain and suffering that such evil can and does inflict on other humans. And when you or I have the power to stop that evil from inflicting that pain, and we don’t use it, then we cannot say that we are loving, caring people. (And yes, I realize that we cannot stop all the pain, suffering and evil in the world. But we also can’t moralistically “keep our hands clean” and claim that we “did no evil.”)

I teach my students that there are two types of pacifists in the world. The first, which I think are illogical, are those who see pacifism as a potential foreign policy as well as an individual stance. Whether they are leftover hippies from my generation who really believe that if we stick flowers in the guns of invading armies that they will all lay down their weapons and study war no more, or if they are just idealists who have an overly optimistic view of human nature, these folks expect everyone to be a pacifist, in response to their own pacifism. (In my experience, too many of these folks are not very peaceful and loving to those who differ with them politically.) I don’t see this position as one which is coherent logically, nor has it shown any evidence of being practical.

The other type of pacifism is what I called Separatist Pacifism, it is the position of the historic Anabaptist churches, and it is the position I used to hold. From this perspective, adherents don’t really expect people outside their community to either hold their position, or really understand it. Apart from accepting the larger worldview which Anabaptists hold, such a pacifist position doesn’t make a lot of sense. And they don’t expect others to respond in kind to their peaceful stance. They know that they live in opposition to the world, and the world will reject them. They may be persecuted for their beliefs, and they are willing to die for those beliefs, but they are not willing to kill for them. They put their lives in God’s hands.

I respect that position. I held that position. I felt that it was the radical position that God was truly calling all Christians to be in. Were we not supposed to be a community set apart? Were we not supposed to live differently from the world? Were we not supposed to turn the other cheek? Was our Lord not the Prince of Peace?

Look at the first century church. The early church responded to Rome’s persecution without violent resistance, and the church persisted, while the Roman Empire disappeared. And look at the corruption and damage that entered the church when the Empire and the Church joined hands. Surely, the church community was never meant to be so entangled with the state.

And while I agree with the assertions above, those simple statements cannot be asserted outside of a larger theological and historical context.

Certainly, in face of the evil in the world, and centuries of people committing atrocities on each other, the only way that one can coherently adhere to an Anabaptist position is to also believe in an all-powerful God who can and does intervene to save and protect. People can do unspeakable evil to other people. If the church is to be totally pacifistic in the face of such evil, then either the church will disappear from the earth, or the church must depend on other people to protect them, or God must miraculously intervene to protect the church.

The first possibility is not one which makes sense in light of everything else the Bible teaches. The church universal is not going anywhere until the Lord decides it’s time to bring this whole world to an end.

The second possibility is not acceptable in that it appears to depend on other people “sinning” and dirtying their hands with the use of lethal force while not soiling one’s own hands. That means that it only makes sense to be a pacifist if others are willing to do your killing for you.

The last solution was always the one I opted for. I actually do believe in the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention in His world. (I started to write “our world” there, but then realized that this isn’t our world at all, but His. Of course that means His intervention isn’t so supernatural or miraculous at all, but very natural and normal.) And if you are a pacifist, and hold to the Biblical view that the church will remain until the end of time, then you must depend on either God or other forces to keep you around.

“But can’t, and doesn’t, God often use non-believers to implement His will?” Of course. We can see numerous illustrations in the Bible of God using ungodly nations to punish His people. But when God wanted to liberate or protect His people, we see either His miraculous intervention (the Red Sea, crossing the Jordan, Jericho) or the directed empowering of His people to accomplish those ends. I don’t find examples of God’s people successfully relying on non-believers to protect them from other non-believers. And the one example of Israel trying to make alliance with Egypt to protect them from Assyria, didn’t exactly turn out so well for them. (II Kings 17&18)

“But this is the New Testament era now. The ethical demands have changed. The political setting has changed. The church is not to be a political entity like Israel was. The Kingdom of Christ is not an earthly kingdom. We have to beat our swords into plowshares. We have to turn the other cheek.”

However, there is no way to make killing, in and of itself, inherently evil when it is clearly sanctioned in the Old Testament unless you say that God commanded evil. In a perfect world, in the world that God will recreate, there will be no killing, and no need for it. However, we don’t live in that world, and we need to realize that.

I believe that one of the intrinsic issues with pacifism is an over-realized eschatology. That means living in this world as if Christ’s kingdom has been fulfilled. Instead, we live in the in-between times. As Pauline theology makes clear, we live in a kingdom that is here already, but is not yet fulfilled. We long for its completion, but until that day, we must realize that we are still in this world, and we have to deal with the realities of this world.

That does not mean that you lower your ethical standards to survive. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to sin because we live in a fallen world. But can all killing be called sin when God obviously commanded killing in the Old Testament? That makes no sense to me. God cannot command sin.

But my position did not change so much out of a concern for the survival of the church. I believe that God will complete the work He has begun. But my position changed because of the evil that has been done, and is being done, to powerless people across the world.

What do we say to the Kurdish people who face slaughter today at the hands of ISIS? We will pray for you? Would you encourage me to say that to the hungry person who comes to my door and asks for help and then send her away hungry? What if the answer to that prayer is you/us actually doing something?

When Hitler desired to wipe out the Jewish population, did the Holocaust cease because there were Christians and Jews praying? I believe that that is partly true, but I also believe that the Allied armies were the answer to those prayers. And if that is true, then it makes no sense to say that Christians cannot participate in that answer to prayer.

Now I realize that I may have opened Pandora’s Box here in regards to deciding when lethal force may be used. And I fully understand that any standards we try to develop will be inadequate at best, and susceptible to abuse. (I think that just war theory is no longer, if it was ever, a practical or useful tool for such decisions. But that again is a topic for another time.) But it is irresponsible to sit back and assert that the decisions are too difficult, the possibility of mistakes too strong, and therefore we must not take the chance of choosing wrongly.

Evil will not stop on its own. And evil people will not cease their brutalities, murders, and slaughters on their own. Force, miraculous or natural, must come into play.

When I see these barbarians in Iraq burying people alive, raping women and children, and beheading those that don’t adhere to their specific, and perverted, worldview, it angers and disgusts me. And I do pray for this situation. But if they bring this fight to the United States as they have promised, praying will not be all I will do. And I am fully in support of the United States and other nations using lethal force to stop this evil in its tracks.

This is a clear-cut example of a justified use of force, just as it was in World War Two in the face of Hitler’s evil empire. This isn’t a questionable land dispute, or the battle between two egotistical rulers trying to increase their wealth. And it is because of such cases like this, that I can no longer be a pacifist.

In Matthew 25 Jesus is recorded as saying: For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (NIV Bible: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2025&version=NIV; Accessed 8/26/14)

When I see the suffering caused by evil powers in the persecution and killing of some of the least of these, I think the Lord will say the same thing to us. “What, you wanted to keep your ethical ideals and your hands clean, so you turned away and let these people die? You let evil grow and triumph without regard to innocent life?” How is that not equivalent to the Pharisees devoting their possessions to God so they don’t have to help their parents? (Matt. 15)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been condemned by many in the church for participating in the plot to kill Hitler, instead of just preaching the gospel. In years past, I joined that throng. Now, however, I applaud him. It was not an easy choice. I guarantee that it was a choice that he wished he never had to confront. And I pray that he did it for the right reasons and was not overcome by the evil, by becoming evil. Put in his shoes, I pray that I would have made that same, courageous decision in an effort to save as many lives as I could. While I will still follow the charge to “turn the other cheek” if someone wants to personally insult me, I cannot stand by and ask the victims of evil to passively bow their necks as they are slaughtered by those who have no conscience.

I apologize to those whom I may have disparaged in the past for their “less radical faith.” And I hope that I have not insulted or denigrated those who will disagree with me now. This is not a simple issue. Let’s talk.