Is Pacifism Ever an Idol?

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?

5 thoughts on “Is Pacifism Ever an Idol?

  1. Gus Gordon

    The problem I have with this is the seeming assumption that if I save another’s life by the use of force I am ipso facto hating the person who is threatening another’s life. The question of pacifism it seems to me to focus on what my personal spiritual purity rather than the good of another or others. I might maintain my stance against violence but perhaps at the expense of others. Just to maintain this position based on scriptural authority, e.g., seems to me to be escaping the question.

  2. Barry

    It’s hard for me to imagine that ‘pacifism’ as defined in this article is about personal spiritual purity rather than the good of another. As defined, ‘pacifism’ does seek the good of everyone without exception (aggressor and victim, powerful and powerless). Does not the use of violence in self-defense or the defense of others make one choose one person over the other? Is there not a way to show compassion and concern for both rather than just the one under attack?

  3. John Tyson

    Ted, your thoughts on love, loyalty, and boundaries is really provacative – in a good way that makes one uncomfortable. If I may, I just want to string together some disjointed thoughts.

    You write: “A pacifist simply says that every person under every circumstance retains their value and humanity—and thus must not be treated with violence.”

    I agree with this every step of the way. Theologically speaking, Christ resurrected allows us to proclaim and practice this.

    Then, a little while later you write: “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.”

    There’s no contradiction here. This second thesis is written in the same vein as the first, but as I was reading this a tension was illumined that I’m trying to work out.

    I think the Latin American liberation theologians were right to claim “God’s preferential option for the poor.” I worry that although we agree with this, our committment to pacifism and love to easily ignores the role of judgement. More specifically, I’m not speaking of judgement in terms that we normally associate with the North American prison/state apparatus. I’m envisioning a judgement that does draw a boundary between good and evil. It seems, from what I have seen, peacemakers in Hebron and other places of conflict around the world have done this. I don’t think punishment has to follow judgement, or retaliation, or alienation. But I do think that justice involves a truth-telling – a judging of sorts. Who is the oppressor and who is being oppressed.

    Perhaps, what I’m struggling to articulate is that in political and social struggle, if we are lucky enough to have any, there are tiers. Of course, ultimately, no one is to have the authority of power over life, but, on a lower tier, can we take sides if that means taking the side the oppressed? Can we draw a boundary here?

    To return to the reason we are pacifist, Jesus, I think we see in the life of Christ a choosing of sides. Jesus lived under no ones law except in obedience to God, and this was embodied in fellowship with the oppressed. It seems like the only side Jesus took was the poor and oppressed. I think Jesus was pretty clear about whose side we are to take if we want to remain obedient to God. Of course this resulted in obedience to the cross, a reconciled humanity, and a universal grace for all the world, and we now live as an exiled people proclaiming this gift to the world, but it seems even in this time, we can still follow Jesus in judging good and evil, standing on the side of the poor, and still proclaiming grace to the oppressors all the while truthfully proclaiming that there life is not in accordance to the grace of God.

    Sorry if this became a rant, I must really miss your hour and fifteen minute discussions.

  4. Ted Grimsrud Post author

    Thanks for the thoughts, John — I miss the discussions, too.

    I really agree with what I understand you to be saying. I think biblical pacifism indeed takes sides. This is the problem I have with some Mennonite approaches (and maybe CJP-style “peacebuilding”), that it seems reluctant to take sides.

    The challenge is to take sides in ways that remain pacifist — including continuing to value the humanity of those we take sides against.

    I have an essay that’s coming out in the Conrad Grebel Review (this winter, I think) called “Convictions for Engaged Pacifism” that I think speaks to this tension. An earlier version is here.

  5. Michael Westmoreland-White

    Speaking of “engaged pacifism, I thought I’d pass on the information that John M. Swomley has died at 95. There’s a tribute on the F.O.R. website at the blog, FORpeace.


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