Presented at Conference on Religion and Peace—James Madison University—April 11, 2005
As a Christian pacifist theologian, I find it more than a little ironic that many Christians in the United States compare Christianity to other religions, especially Islam and Judaism, by asserting that Christianity is more peaceful. They presumably base such a claim on the teachings of Jesus, who they affirm as central to their faith. However, looking at the message of Jesus only underscores how much blood we Christians actually have on our hands over the past two millennia, how far most Christians over most of Christianity’s history have moved from our namesake’s words such as “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “Father, forgive them” when it comes to issues of war and peace.
This is to say, as I write about a Christian perspective on war and peace I recognize just how tiny of a minority within the Christian tradition I represent. Most Christians are not pacifists; only a few have ever been, at least in the years since 300 CE. However, I will suggest that pacifism has strong grounding in the basic storyline of the Christian Bible, that pacifism is in fact the original (or default) position of Christianity, that pacifism has always existed as an option for Christian believers, and that following the 20th century, the century of total war, Christian pacifism has more relevance (and more adherents) than ever before.
I need to start with some definitions before outlining the biblical grounding for Christian pacifism. The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight. Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.
The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms.
My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.