Ted Grimsrud (January 2010)
As a young adult in the 1970s, I found a strong sense of clarity to realize that I could never participate in war. Then I discovered Mennonites—Christian pacifists with a strong tradition to back them up. Then, I discovered surprising ambivalence about pacifism among Mennonites, even to the point where some Mennonites have charged that the church has made pacifism an idol.
What is in mind in this linking of pacifism with idolatry? I think at least some of the following points may be present. Pacifism could be seen to be an ideology, a human-centered, rigid philosophy similar to, say, Marxism or Libertarianism—and as such actually in competition with God as the center.
Or pacifism could be understood to be at best something we add to the core message of the gospel, perhaps valid in an optional kind of way but a problem when it is seen as too central. When pacifism becomes too central it almost certainly will distract us from the main concerns of the gospel such as personal evangelism and the call to holiness.
Or pacifism could be seen to have become a badge of Mennonite identity, something that separates us from and elevates us over other Christians, an occasion for pride.
Or, finally, pacifism could be seen as making a human philosophy the basis for limiting God’s sovereignty. With pacifism we may be telling God what God may or may not ask us to do.
I believe, though, that properly understood, Christian pacifism can never be an idol.
Let’s define “pacifism” carefully. “Pacifism” means, I suggest, the belief that no value or conviction or cause ever makes it morally acceptable to act violently toward another person. Pacifism has to do with basic respect for others and the kind of compassion and concern we call love.
Pacifism insists that we never place boundaries on what kind of people deserve this respect and love. Other ways of thinking allow for some kind of boundary, under some circumstances, regarding to whom we owe love—like, maybe we don’t always owe love to our nation’s enemies or to people convicted of crimes. A pacifist simply says that every person under every circumstance retains their value and humanity—and thus must not be treated with violence.
Now, it could be, I suppose, that one could understand this kind of pacifism as an idol—if one discovers something more important than love for each person. Pacifism might be an idol if our pacifist commitment causes us to minimize something that is more important to God than love. But is there such a thing?
Let’s look at a few texts from the Bible. Exodus 20:1-7, at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, may perhaps be the most fundamental statement about idolatry in all of the Bible. The commands do tell us about God being supreme, a jealous God, in fact. But, we must remember this is not a God above and separate from life on earth. You listen to and offer God your basic loyalty because God liberates you from slavery and takes the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.
The very first command God gives, “You shall not make idols,” tells us that the problem with idols is that they compete for loyalty with the God who liberates and brings healing to brokenness. We learn as the story goes on what the competing gods are like. They underwrite kings’ land grabs that drive people off the land. They stand with the rulers of empires who conquer and dominate. They—ultimately—transform Israel itself into a place imitating all too closely the injustices of the surrounding nations. We see the problem in the book of Amos—when the people go to worship, they sin (4:4). They can’t worship the true God and oppress the vulnerable at the same time.
With the Old Testament commands, first, God brings salvation, frees slaves, gives them Torah to guide their lives, gives them the land where they may embody the healing work of God among humanity. Then, in response, the people offer this God their highest loyalty. They prove their loyalty when they follow the commands to care for vulnerable ones, and to maintain a society that practices genuine justice for all.
When Jesus comes onto the scene, he does not turn away from Torah and proclaim a new beginning. For example, Luke 10:25-37 makes clear that Jesus understood himself to be firmly in line with Torah and the prophets. However, he clearly interprets Torah and the prophets in terms of love.
What’s the greatest command? How do we avoid idolatry and follow the true God? We love, God and neighbor. The greatest command includes both the call to love God and the call to love neighbor.
The lawyer who questions Jesus here zeroes in. He knows that to love God means to love the neighbor and that how one does so determines one’s salvation. So, he asks, who is my neighbor? That is, how might I commit myself to God and not to an idol?
Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor to be loved is the person in need, the victim of violence, the vulnerable person. And the model of this kind of love is a Samaritan, the enemy of faithful Jews.
Jesus insists that nothing matches love for the neighbor in importance. And the neighbor includes the enemy. This is the command upon which salvation rests.
Let’s go back to our definition of pacifism. No boundaries mark off who deserves our love. First-century Jews and Samaritans believed there was a boundary; loyalty to the truth about where and how God is to be worshiped took priority over loving those who disagree. Jesus’ response to the question about the greatest commandment undercuts that kind of boundary.
Paul also insists that the greatest command centered on love of neighbor. In Romans 13:9-10, he zeroes in on the part that matters most: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
The clearest and one reliable criterion that tells us when we cross the line into idolatry is when we fail to love. We may think something takes priority over the call to love. We may think some loyalty justifies placing boundaries on what kind of people toward whom we show kindness, compassion, and respect. But when we do, we cross the line into idolatry, giving loyalty to something other than God.
Paul, like Jesus, denies the possibility that pacifism can ever be an idol. Pacifism, in fact, when we understand it as meaning simply that we don’t place boundaries on who deserves our kindness and respect, may be seen as our most helpful and clear criterion to help us understand idolatry.
Let me add one more voice. Words from 1 John 4:18-21 make the same kind of point we have seen in Exodus, Amos, Luke, and Romans.
“We love because God first loved us.” Exodus 20 begins the commands with the affirmation that first God loved the Hebrews enough from liberate them from slavery. Everything stems from that first love of God.
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their neighbors are liars.” We cannot separate the call to love God and to love neighbor. Any claim or desire to love God that allows one to practice disrespect, violence, or even disregard toward our fellow human beings is actually an act of idolatry. We may claim to love God but our actions and attitudes show that we do not.
“Those who do not love a neighbor whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.” This is why we need to recognize that Jesus’ love command states that we love God by loving our neighbors. God as simply an unseen spirit, an autonomous God, is an abstraction, a principle. We cannot love this kind of God. We love God when we love our neighbors who we see.
“The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their neighbors also.” And Jesus insists this is the commandment we have from Moses as well. The antidote to idolatry is to love God—the way to love God is to love the neighbor.
So, is pacifism ever an idol? I think not. In fact, pacifism should be the Christian’s measure for discernment concerning idolatry. If we seek to worship the true God, we find ourselves with this basic choice: Will we see this worship leading us directly to love of others, without boundaries, recognizing the value and worth of each person? Or not?