A pacifist Christian perspective on war and peace

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.2

[This essay is based on a paper presented to a conference on World Religions and Peace, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, April 11, 2005]

As a pacifist Christian 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 discuss a Christian perspective on war and peace today 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.[1]

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;[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

However, Christian pacifists – who believe that Jesus’ life and teaching is the center point of the Bible, the angle for reading the rest – see in Jesus sharp clarity about the supremacy of love, peacableness, compassion.  That is, Jesus embodies a broad and deep vision of life that is thoroughly pacifist, even if he did not explicitly address participation in warfare.[5]

I will mention four basic biblical themes that find clarity in Jesus, but in numerous ways emerge throughout the biblical story.  These provide the foundational theological rationale for Christian pacifism.  They include first and most basic, the love command that Jesus gave as a summary of the biblical message.  The second theme is Jesus’ vision for love-oriented politics in contrast to the tyranny of the world’s empires.  The third theme is Jesus’ optimism about the human potential for living in love.  And the fourth theme is the model of Jesus’ cross that embodies self-suffering love and exposes the nature of the structures of human culture as God’s rivals for the trust of human beings.

Jesus’ love command

(1) One of Jesus’ most famous sayings may be found in Matthew 22.  Someone asks Jesus, which is the greatest of the commandments, and Jesus responds: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:34-40).

Mark and Luke also report this assertion (though Luke puts the actual words in the mouth of Jesus’ questioner) – as does Paul, in a slightly modified form, (Romans 13:8-10).  I see three keys points being made here that are crucial for our concerns.  First, love is at the heart of everything for the believer in God.  Second, love of God and love of neighbor are tied inextricably together.  In Jesus’ own life and teaching, we clearly see that he understood the “neighbor” to be the person in need, the person that one is able to show love to in concrete ways (not to be an insider over against non-neighbors who are “other” and whom we are not expected to love).  The third point is that Jesus understood his words to be a summary of the Bible – that is, what Christians now call the Old Testament.  The Law and Prophets were the entirety of Jesus’ Bible – and in his view, their message may be summarized by this double love command.  He quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus directly in making his statement.

In his call to love, Jesus directly links human beings loving even their enemies with God loving all people.  “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his son rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45).  These words of Jesus, of course, are part of his lengthy manifesto on faithful living known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Near the beginning of this manifesto, he makes it clear again that his message of peace follows directly from the Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Just as the double love command comes directly from the law and prophets, so too the call to imitate God’s love for all people (with its implication, as Jesus asserts, of loving even enemies) comes from the law and prophets.  Of course, the Old Testament gives a wide variety of impressions of God’s attitude toward the Hebrews enemies.  However, Jesus’ message has deep grounding throughout the biblical story, and he provides a hermeneutic for understanding the peace message (shalom) as the core message of the Bible.

From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for human beings – for all human beings.  And, crucially, God’s means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s election of them as a people of the promise.[6]  The story makes it clear that this election is pure mercy – God’s persevering love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies.  Time after time, the story makes clear, the people turn from God.  Yet, as the prophet Hosea reports, God ultimately does not respond with violence and wrath, but with healing love.

The original calling of Abraham and Sarah and the gift to them of descendants in spite of their barrenness (and their unfaithfulness), the saving work of God to bring the Hebrew people together and to free them from slavery in Egypt (again, as the story makes clear, saving work in spite of the Hebrews’ unfaithfulness), the gift of Torah to guide their lives as the people of the promise (a priestly kingdom mediating God’s love to the entire world), and many more gifts, including the gift of new life even after the fall of the Hebrew nation state (a fall that Hebrew prophets attributed directly to the people’s unfaithfulness) – all of these gifts clearly portray God’s love as unearned, even undeserved.

The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people, the story that he understood himself to stand within, may be summarized in Jesus’ words as reported by Luke:  “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

In articulating the centrality of love in this way, Jesus makes clear that he reads the Bible this way.  The love command summarizes the law and prophets and provides the fundamental way that his followers should orient their lives in the world.  That is to say, if we understand pacifism as the placing of the highest priority on love, Jesus provides here Christians’ central grounding for pacifism.

Following after Jesus, we find in later New Testament writers a parallel portrayal of the centrality of love, even for enemies, as a reflection of the way God loves.  I will only mention Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In chapter five, Paul writes of God’s immense love for us that reaches out to us in Jesus’ life and death, “while we were still sinners,” “while we were enemies” (Rom 5:8,10).  A little later, Paul (who also understood himself as, like Jesus, capturing the core message of the Bible [i.e., the Old Testament]) echoes Jesus’ summary of the core message of Torah: “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” (Rom 13:9-10).

So, the first and most basic biblical theme grounding Christian pacifism, finding clarity in Jesus but reflecting the biblical story as a whole, is the centrality of the love command.  The love command provides the central building block for Christian pacifism – both in the positive sense of establishing love as the highest ethical standard that can never be secondary to some other possibly violence-justifying ethical value and in the negative sense of providing the basis for rejecting the participation in war as a morally acceptable choice.

An alternative politics

(2) Our second biblical theme compliments the love command.  Jesus articulated a sharp critique of power politics and sought to create a counter-cultural community independent of nation states in their dependence upon the sword.[7]  Jesus indeed was political – he was confessed to be a king (which is what Messiah, or Christ, meant).  He was executed by the Empire as a political criminal.  However, Jesus’ politics were upside-down politics.[8]  Jesus expressed his political philosophy in a nutshell when he responded to his disciples’ angling for status.  “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

In making this contrast between the politics of the “Gentile nations” (such as, of course, the Roman Empire, the one Gentile nation Jesus knew about) and the politics of the followers of God, Jesus was not comparing apples and oranges.  He was not saying these represent two totally different realms of life.  He was, to the contrary, saying these are competing visions for the ordering of social life among human beings.

When Jesus accepted the title “Messiah,” when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as present and normative for his followers, when Jesus organized his followers around twelve disciples (thus echoing the way the ancient nation of Israel was organized) – he established a social movement centered around the love command, a movement focused on supporting people living transformed lives in the here and now, a movement that witnessed to the entire world the ways of God, the ways meant to be the norm for all human beings.

Jesus, however, very directly rejected the notion that this new movement he initiated would seek to imitate, even replace, Rome as the dominating Kingdom (Empire) based on its military might.  He rejected Satan’s offer at the beginning of his ministry to spearhead such a dominating kingdom.  Various times during the months that followed he turned from temptations to galvanize his growing following into a direct rival to Rome based, as Jesus alluded to at the end, on his ability to call down legions of angels to do battle for him.

Rather, Jesus spearheaded a movement meant to operate within the nations and empires of the world as an independent society operating according to the word of God rather than the rule of the sword.  The community Jesus founded actually modeled itself after the pattern established as long ago as during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah’s words may have served to help the ancient Israelites survive as a distinct people.  He encouraged people of the covenant to seek the well-being of whatever society they were part of while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah.[9]

In light of Jesus’ message, and how that message lifts up Jeremiah’s prophetic word, the entire Old Testament may be read as a cautionary tale.  This tale concerns the failure of nation-state-centered, sword-oriented politics to be a viable vehicle for sustaining the people of God as people who will bless all the families of the earth.  The call to be a blessing, first given to Abraham, was later reiterated when both the prophet Micah and the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when the nations of the world would come to Zion to learn the ways of peace, turning their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  In light of Jeremiah and Jesus, one can see this prophecy of the spread of peace being carried out not through the violence of the standard nation state, but through the peaceable witness of counter-cultures scattered throughout the world in various nation states – counter-cultures that center their lives on the consistent embodiment of the double command to love God and neighbor.

Read this way, the Old Testament tells how the people’s original calling – articulated to Abraham and Sarah – to be a distinct community and to bless all the families of the earth ultimately headed down a dead end.  When the elders of the people of God choose to structure their common life in imitation of “the nations,” they undermined the intended blessing.  The story told in 1 Samuel 8 of the movement toward kingship reflects the ambivalence within the tradition concerning this choice.  The great prophet, Samuel, speaking for God, warns the elders that if they choose the kingship route their society might well be transformed from a Torah-shaped society toward an Egypt-shaped society.  Samuel warned that the king would simply take and take, build weapons of war, centralize his power, and leave the people once again crying out in their sorrow and suffering – just as they had generations earlier amidst their slavery in Egypt.

What follows in the Old Testament story is an account of the Israelite nation-state heading precisely in that direction.  The prophets offer critique after critique – Elijah challenges the land grab of King Ahab; Amos emphasizes Israel’s departure from Torah in its unjust treatment of vulnerable people; Hosea challenges Israel’s descent into violence.  Finally, Jeremiah actually accompanies some of the Israelite defeated leaders into Egypt (Jeremiah 42–44), symbolizing that Samuel’s warnings of Israel’s fate had been vindicated.

The story does not end, though.  The survival of the people of the promise did not require the assumed pillars of identity – the king’s palace and the temple.  These pillars lay in ruins, the nation-state fell, crushed by the Babylonian empire.  But the peoplehood, the promise to Abraham and Sarah, the call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth remained, even after the Israelite nation-state bit the dust.  Through this failure, the true nature of God’s promise became more clear to prophets such as Jeremiah, with his exhortation to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city wherein they were living.  This was actually a call for the people to embrace their existence in diaspora – an existence that did indeed continue for generation upon generation separate from any kind of Israelite nation-state.

So, Jesus actually followed in close continuity with the Old Testament story with his message calling upon his hearers to embrace once again their vocation to spread the message of God’s love, making “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), a vocation most decidedly not dependent upon the centralized, coercive political power of a nation-state.  The power of the sword-wielding state proved not only to be unnecessary for the carrying out of this promise, it actually almost corrupted the promise beyond recognition.

A couple of generations after Jesus, another prophet, John of Patmos, reiterated this basic message juxtaposing and contrasting the ways of empires and nations and the ways of God’s politics.  As one of its central themes, the Book of Revelation poses Babylon and the New Jerusalem as competing alternatives for followers of Jesus.  In this way, Revelation echoes the choice Jesus presented his followers – join uncritically in the social order wherein rulers lord it over their subjects, or join in an alternative social order wherein greatness is manifested in servanthood.  From start to finish in Revelation, the pattern of Jesus (the king of kings – a political leader) is presented as one of suffering love followed by martyrdom followed by God’s vindication.[10]

The final section of Revelation directly compares and contrasts the two cities (or empires or kingdoms).  First the angel shows John Babylon, then Jerusalem.  One is the way of power politics (and death); the other is the way of suffering servanthood (and life).  And these two alternatives are not about life in the hereafter, they are about life in the here and now.  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

So, we have two foundational themes at the heart of Jesus’ message that catch up enduring elements of the Old Testament story and find resonance in later New Testament writings, themes that provide the theological heart of Christian pacifism – (1) the double command to love God and neighbor combined with (2) the vision for an upside-down politics, an alternative to the sword-based politics of the nations and empires of the world.  The critique of the nations’ politics frees followers of the Way to commit themselves to the love command as their highest commitment – even if that means being “disloyal” to whatever nation-state wherein they happen to reside.

That is, these two themes of love and alternative politics assert a disjunction between God’s ways of working among human beings, on the one hand, and power politics on the other.  The king, the emperor, the president – these are not likely to be God’s agents.  More likely, they are rebels against God – the forces who persecute, even put to death God’s genuine prophets.  Christian pacifism rests upon this disillusionment toward the powers and this commitment to placing the highest loyalty on the community of faith and its counter-cultural politics.

Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness

(3) The third theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his approach to ethical exhortation.  I will discuss this more briefly.  Jesus displayed a profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives for life.  Certainly, Jesus spoke to human sinfulness, the corruptions of selfishness, blind ambition, domination, and deception.  However, when he said “follow me,” he clearly expected people to do so – here and now, effectively, consistently, fruitfully.

Perhaps Jesus’ most famous extended set of teachings, what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount, begins with a series of straightforward affirmations – you are genuinely humble, you genuinely seek justice, you genuinely make peace, you genuinely walk the path of faithfulness even to the point of suffering severe persecution as a consequence.

So, when Jesus calls upon his followers to love their neighbors, to reject the tyrannical patterns of leadership among the kings of the earth, to share generously with those in need, to offer forgiveness seventy times seven times, he actually expected that this could be done.[11]

Jesus’ optimism about human possibilities reflects a central theme throughout the Bible – a theme sometimes not noticed amidst the continual litany of human failures and disappointments in relation to living out of Torah.  The human dynamic, according to the Bible, reflects a great deal of alienation.  The Bible makes clear the incredible patience and mercy of God in responding to wayward human beings.  Nonetheless, at the heart of Torah and at the heart of the prophets’ exhortations we see the assumption that indeed human beings are capable of walking in the paths of justice and shalom.

The biblical problem is not so much that human beings are incapable of following God’s will for their lives.  The biblical problem is that in spite of their capabilities for faithfulness, human beings nonetheless all too often turn away.  And in turning away, in worshiping idols, human beings find themselves in bondage to social dynamics of oppression, greed, and violence.  However, from the start, the remedy is always at hand – simply turn back, repent and trust in God.  Faithfulness may then follow.

So, again, Jesus offers not radical innovation when he begins his ministry with these words: “Repent and believe in the good news.  The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  Everything that he said in the months that followed presupposed that repentance (that is, simply turning back to God) is all that it takes for people to enter into fellowship with God and live as people of humility, people who hunger and thirst for justice and peace, people who persevere even in the face of persecution and suffering.

When Jesus called his followers to make kindness and love, even for enemies, the kind of priority that can never be overridden by some other value (that is, when Jesus established the basis for pacifism), he expected that this indeed would be possible.

The model of the cross

(4) The fourth theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his willingness to persevere in the path of love even when that brought him suffering and death.  Jesus’ cross serves as a model for his followers.[12]  At the heart of his teaching stands the often repeated saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  He insisted that just as he was persecuted for his way of life, so will his followers be as well.

The powers that be, the religious and political institutions, the spiritual and human authorities, responded to Jesus’ inclusive, confrontive, barrier-shattering compassion and generosity with violence.  At its heart, Jesus’ cross may be seen as embodied pacifism, a refusal to turn from the ways of peace even when they are costly.  So his call to his followers to share in his cross is also a call to his followers to embody pacifism.

Jesus’ cross certainly puts the lie to the idea that consistent, lived-out pacifism is passive, safe, and withdrawn.  Jesus’ way of peace led to conflict – not conflict stemming from his own belligerence, but conflict stemming from deeply entrenched characteristics in the structures of human society that resist freedom and compassion.  Jesus’ cross besides pointing to pacifism in terms of his style of life, also points away from trusting in the swords and spears of empires and institutional religion – these are the very structures of human social life that killed Jesus.

Again, we can see foreshadowings of Jesus’ path in the Old Testament story.  The first empire we learn about there, Pharaoh’s Egypt, embodies structural violence in its enslavement of the Hebrew people.  Pharaoh’s Egypt shows empire’s pattern of response to resistance to that structural violence in its hostility toward Moses and toward the fruit of Moses’ work of empowering the Hebrews.

Tragically, the nation-state ultimately formed by the descendants of Moses imitated Egypt both in its injustices and its violent hostility toward those prophets who dared to speak out against the state’s structural injustices.  The prophets’ message endured, though, even though they did not have coercive force to use to protect it or to impose it on their society.

After Jesus, we see his suffering servanthood lifted up as the basic pattern for faithfulness in the Book of Revelation – the basic pattern of Jesus is stated at the beginning of the book: “the faithful witness (or ‘martyr,’ the Greek word is martys), the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).  Jesus is portrayed as simultaneously the one who suffers violence without retaliation, the one whom God honors and exalts, and the one who serves as the true ruler of the world.

Jesus’ pattern is held up as the model for his followers – the ones who are healed by God are the ones who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4),” the ones who refuse to kill with the sword (Rev 13:10).  Those who “conquer” in God’s way in Revelation, conquer with suffering love.  Those who “conquer” in the Beast’s way, conquer with violence.

As we come to the end of the biblical period, we may see this fourfold basis for pacifism – the love command, the calling to give loyalty to the counter-cultural community of God’s people over loyalty to the Empire, the belief that faithful human beings can be empowered to follow Jesus in the here and now, and the model of the pattern of Jesus – suffering love even to the point of death with the promise of God’s vindication.

The persistence of Christian pacifism

For a number of generations following the time of Jesus, those who named themselves his followers indeed did generally express a commitment to pacifism.  The pacifism of the early Christians shows that those closest in history to Jesus did indeed understand his message calling them both to radical love that precluded violence and to resistance to the domination system centered in the Empire’s call to give it their highest loyalty.[13]

We may, thus, call pacifism Christianity’s original position, or, we could say, its default position.  Jesus was killed around 30 CE.  The first evidence of Christians serving in the Roman military date around 170 CE.  While this indicates that pacifism was not the absolute norm for all Christians by that time – nonetheless, the only reason we know about this incident is because of church leaders speaking against military involvement.  In fact, it is not until after the beginning of the 4th century that church leaders openly articulate an acceptance Christians in the military.

Of course, when this change from pacifism to acceptance of military involvement came, it came decisively – indicating that the way had been prepared for quite some time.  Probably the most central factor then, and in the generations down to our present day, in Christians turning away from their default pacifist position was a rejection of the distinction between loyalty to the community of faith and loyalty to the nation-state.  When Christians merge these two loyalties, the community of faith and the state seen as being in harmony, Christians understand themselves as appropriately accepting the state’s call to take up arms.  If, at the beginning of the fourth century, no Christians leaders were affirming involvement in the military, by the end of the fourth century, Christian leaders affirmed such involvement to the extent that only Christians were allowed in the Roman army.

Christian pacifism survived, but at the margins the church, as the conviction of just a tiny minority of Christians.  As rule, Christian pacifism surfaced among small groups that in some sense may be seen as restorationist movements, groups that tried to restore a more Jesus-oriented, Gospels-based approach to faith.  A few of these groups managed to stay in good standing with the Catholic Church – monastic movements such at the Benedictines and Franciscans to some extent championed a Gospels-oriented spirituality.  A number of other pacifist groups were considered heretical – the Waldensians in northern Italy in the 12th century, the Czech Brethren in the 15th century, the Anabaptists in the 16th century.  The Waldensians and Czech Brethren in time gave up their pacifism, but the Anabaptist movement spawned several direct successors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish, that have remained pacifist down to the present.[14]

All of these pacifist groups followed pretty closely after the four themes I have mentioned – understanding Jesus’ love command as the center of their ethics, privileging their faith communities over the state, believing that present-day faithfulness is possible, and understanding persecution and suffering to be the expected response of the wider world to their convictions.

A little more than one hundred years after the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, a British radical named George Fox led a movement in England that sought to apply Christian pacifism more widely.  Members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, not only shared the Anabaptist view of the genuine possibility of the Christian to follow Jesus’ love command in present life, they also had a sense of optimism about the possibilities of responsiveness to the love command in the wider world.[15]  For the first time, pacifism entered into the world of government with the establishment of colonial Pennsylvania, the “holy experiment” founded by the Quaker William Penn.

Colonial Pennsylvania pioneered many values and practices shaped by Quaker pacifism – such as religious toleration and attempts to live peaceably with Native Americans.  After a couple of generations, Quakers became a smaller and smaller minority within the colony, and ultimately under pressure due to what was called the French and Indian War of 1756, Quakers withdrew from leadership in Pennsylvania.  Their influence in United States history has been incalculable, however.[16]  Not coincidentally, it has been in North America that Christian pacifism has taken hold the strongest.

Pacifism expands

The gradual emergence of pacifism beyond the peace churches, Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren, may be dated to the first half of the 19th century with the formation of several peace societies in the United States, a few which became linked with the movement to end slavery.[17]  William Lloyd Garrison, an important abolitionist, remained deeply committed to pacifism as the best philosophy for fostering genuine social change – though when the efforts to end slavery ultimately led to the American Civil War, Garrison more or less remained silent, implicitly at least accepting that the abolition of slavery took priority over pure pacifism.

In the twentieth-century, massive violence and oppression, two world wars, nuclear weapons, colonialism and continual militarism brought forth a great expansion of the efforts of pacifists.  By the mid-20th century, two of the world’s most famous figures, a secular Jew Albert Einstein, and an atheist, Bertrand Russell, joined to author a manifesto that voiced the convictions of an increasing number of Christians as well: “Shall we put an end to the human race or shall we put an end to war?”  It is our choice, one or the other.

Pacifist opposition to the 20th-century’s first “Great War,” what tragically became known as only the first of two world wars, was muted, at least as measured by the small number of draftees who claimed conscientious objector status.  Opposition to the war in the United States, which was of course quite widespread, tended to be framed in political terms; as the title of a famous post-war book termed it, when Christians were faced with how to respond to the Great War, preachers presented arms.[18]  A peace church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, decided to withdraw from the newly formed Federal Council of Churches because of the strong support for the war expressed by the Council.

However, great disaffection came to be articulated about the Great War in the years after it ended.  A widespread, if somewhat shallow, peace movement emerged in the 1930s.  Ironically, though, when World War II began, most of the churches of North America again expressed strong support.  To illustrate this volatility, in the late 1930s, the Methodist Church in the United States issued an official statement vowing never again to support war.  Only a few years later, following Pearl Harbor, that same body pledged its full support for the American war effort.

Because of the clarity of political support the US military actions had, pacifists remained marginal and quiet during the war years.  However, whereas in World War I, just about 4,000 men served as conscientious objectors in the US, almost all from the peace churches, during World War II about 12,000 COs performed alternative service, only about one-half from the peace churches.[19]

It took an Indian Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, to demonstrate the potential of nonviolent action for effecting social change without bloodshed.  Gandhi, of course, drew deep inspiration from the life and teaching of Jesus – and, in turn, inspired 20th-century Christians to take more seriously the possible confluence between the quest for social change and pacifism.[20]

Following World War II, an increasing number of concerned people began to explore the application of Gandhian approaches to the need for racial justice in the United States.  A number of Christian pacifists who had been COs during World War II – such as Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, and A.J. Muste – worked at this application.  However, it took a younger Baptist preacher, who actually did not enter the Civil Rights movement as a committed pacifist, to establish the linkage between civil rights activism and nonviolence in a way that captured the imagination of millions.  Martin Luther King, Jr., did end his all too short life espousing a principled pacifism, but it was forged through on the ground experience more than a beginning point based on theology or philosophy.[21]

The twentieth-century saw tremendous expansion of Christian pacifism; surely a much higher percentage of Christians came to understand themselves as pacifists than had ever since the fourth century.

Besides simply the growing horror of total war, the belief that we must end war or perish as a species, and besides the unprecedented awareness of the usefulness of nonviolence as a strategy for social change, the twentieth-century also saw a flowering of intellectually sophisticated writing on pacifism by Christian theologians – from mainstream Protestant circles, from Quakers, from Mennonites – but also, amazingly given Christian history, from Roman Catholics.  A huge factor in the growth of pacifism among Roman Catholics was the life and testimony of Dorothy Day, founder and spiritual heart of the Catholic Worker movement and its hospitality houses and newspaper.[22]

Day is credited by many as the person most responsible for the growth of pacifism among American Catholics – a growth reflected in the fact that during World War I, it is known that there was one Roman Catholic CO, during World War II there were a few more than 100, and during the Vietnam War, there were more Roman Catholic COs than from any other Christian group – tens of thousands out of the total of around 180,000 US COs during that conflict.[23]

Inspired by Day, and then inspiring others in their own right, radical pacifist Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan gained wide notoriety as opponents to the Vietnam War and then as intense activists resisting the nuclear arms race.  Another important Catholic pacifist who, like the Berrigans, both wrote important theological treatises and put his life on the line as an activist, was James Douglass.[24]

As we enter the 21st century, Christian pacifism continues to expand.  The basically nonviolent ending of apartheid and of Communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe have inspired pacifists to continue to imagine how nonviolence can serve as an alternative to violent revolution.  As well, the influence of theologians of nonviolence such as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Walter Wink[25] reaches wider and wider, among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals.[26]

The “blank check” and critical just war thought

Of course, pacifists still remain a small minority among Christians throughout the world and in the United States.  The growth in influence of pacifist convictions surely has been dwarfed by the militaristic and nationalistic “Christianity” of the “Christian right.”  According to surveys, being self-identified as a Christian makes an American more likely than a non-Christian to support capital punishment or the war on Iraq.  We remain a long way from the default position of Christianity’s pacifism.

The decisive move away from the default position, of course, came many, many years ago.  Today’s militaristic and nationalistic Christians are in many ways closer to the actual Christian tradition than pacifists.  The emergence of Constantine the Great as the supreme leader of the Roman Empire at the turn of the fourth century often is seen as the key symbol of the end of pacifism as the characteristic position of Christianity.

Each of the fourfold bases for pacifism in the Bible discussed above were transformed.  The love command became more of an attitudinal than overt ethical concern.  The church as counter-culture in contrast to the Empire became the state-church.  Christianity became more pessimistic about human possibilities in this life.  The cross came to symbolize Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin rather than a model for politically dangerous compassion and dissent.

The fourth century provides us with the key symbols that provide a framework for understanding the general practical philosophy of Christianity toward warfare.  Constantine the Emperor at the beginning of the century and Augustine the Bishop at the end of the century may be said to reflect two poles within post-pacifist Christianity.

If pacifism is Christianity’s default position, then to move to post-pacifism, to accept warfare, required some kind of justification.  What become the bases for making this change?  As far as I know, we have no evidence of a careful debate presenting reasons for this change in the fourth century.  Rather, it would appear that the basic justification for acceptance of warfare emerged by osmosis.  This “justification” was simply that it is the responsibility of the Christian citizen to defer to the judgment of the emperor or king.  I will call this justification the “blank check.”

Constantine symbolizes the acceptance by Christians of the role of national leaders in determining the justifiability of war.  In deferring to national leaders and national interests concerning warfare, the large majority of Christians have essentially uncritically understood it to be their responsibility simply to obey their government when it calls upon them to fight – that is, to give the government a blank check.[27]

The other pole of the post-pacifist context concerning Christians and war may be called the “critical just war” approach.  I mention Augustine as symbolizing this approach because he is often considered the father of the just war tradition.  And we do find in Augustine’s writings many scattered comments alluding to criteria for just wars – both in terms of just causes and of just tactics and behavior in war.  These criteria provide material for a critical approach to warfare – bases for criticizing rationales for war and for saying no to unjust tactics.

However, we must also remember that Augustine never articulated a formal just war philosophy with organized, systematic lists of criteria that could actually function as a critical resource for Christian responses to warfare.  He was at most ad hoc and suggestive in what he wrote.  His actual approach in practice was much closer to the blank check – as seen in his core assertion that the ordinary Christian has no responsibility for discerning justifiable rationales or tactics.  The ordinary Christian is to defer to one’s leaders, to recognize that the leaders are accountable to God, ordinary Christians are accountable only to their human leaders.[28]

It is not until the 16th century that we have a systematic delineation of the just war criteria as a formal statement – and even that statement had no official status with any church or governmental body.  I would suggest that it is only with the 20th century that the critical just war pole among post-pacifist Christianity began to play a genuinely critical role.  For most of the past seventeen centuries, the fundamental approach to warfare among the vast majority of Christians has been the blank check – the basic Christian responsibility has been simply to follow the dictates of their government.  Only in this way could you have war after war where Christians take up arms against other Christians.

Nonetheless, just as the century of total war stimulated an unprecedented expansion of the numbers of Christian pacifists and the creative application of pacifist convictions to a wide range of issues, so also did the 20th century lead to an enlivening of the critical just war approach.

Enlivening of critical just war thought

During World War II, a prominent American Catholic moral theologian, John C. Ford, articulated an unusual critique of the Allies’ use of saturation bombing as going beyond the what the principle of just means in warfare would allow.  Ford’s critique was unusual in that it was expressed as the war was still going on – though he was also careful to make clear that he was not questioning the overall moral legitimacy of the Allied war effort.[29]

The events of August 1945 changed application of just war principles forever.  The use of nuclear weapons galvanized an outpouring of horror at the incredible level of destruction visited by those weapons.  Eventually a position called “nuclear pacifism” emerged – a view based on just war criteria that says, ahead of time, that a nuclear war could never be justifiable.  So, here, just war criteria actually become a basis for opposing real wars (and, implicitly, for opposing one’s government’s policies).  “Nuclear pacifism” among Christians received a tremendous boost with the 1983 pastoral letter from the United States Roman Catholic bishops that pointed strongly toward nuclear pacifism.[30]

Also as a consequence of World War II, a challenge to the blank check’s assumption that citizen’s must simply obey their governments (and leave moral accountability to governmental and military leaders) was articulated amidst the war crimes trials of Nazis.  The so-called Nuremberg principles asserted that each soldier has the responsibility to say no to unjust orders.  This responsibility could be seen as a personalization of the critical just war approach, where each person in a sense becomes a judge of justifiability – and accountable for how he or she behaves in relation to what is understood to be unjust behavior.

In the 1960s, for the first time the United States engaged in an extended war that did not meet with overwhelming public support.  During the Vietnam War, a new category emerged, “selective conscientious objection.”  This category included people who objected to participation in this particular war – not because they were pacifists but because they believed that that particular war was unjust.  Selective conscientious objection was never accepted as a legitimate basis to gain legal conscientious objector status – though surely many of the unprecedentedly large number of COs during that war were closer to being selective COs than total pacifists, but somehow managed to convince their draft boards to classify them as COs.

Just war thought served a critical function in fostering a refusal to participate in what seen as an unjust war.  Just war thought served, as well, as a resource for those who actively opposed a was as it was being fought and not only after the fact.

Finally, in the run up to our current war on Iraq, widespread public opposition found expression in massive demonstrations and various articulations of dissent to government policies.  Even among pacifists, the arguments expressed in public opposing the war were framed, as a rule, in just war terms – this was not a last resort, there was not a legitimate authority (that is, the United Nations) declaring war, it is a war of aggression not self-defense.  Never before in American history has such an outpouring of opposition been expressed in advance of military action.[31]

So, what has emerged over the past sixty years with the Nuremberg principles, nuclear pacifism, selective conscientious objection, and pre-war opposition to military action, has been a revitalized just war tradition.

Christian pacifists should warmly welcome these developments among those who have used just war thinking in critical ways in recent years.  We may be seeing a confluence among Christian pacifists who have learned from Gandhi and King that nonviolence can be a force for social change and critical just war people who have learned from the events of the past century that we must find ways to end war or it will end us.[32]

I believe that Christian pacifism, nonetheless, still remains grounded in central theological affirmations, not simply a commonsense awareness of the folly of modern warfare.  Christian pacifism follows from the confession that love for all people (love, even, for our enemies) is our highest, never to be overridden, ethical commitment.  Such love forbids the use of violence.

For Christian pacifists, this confession of the supremacy of love is inextricably linked with our belief in Jesus as the normative revelation of the God who created the universe.  Jesus reveals God to be a God of love – and Jesus reveals the harmony with this God requires that we, in turn, be people of love.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1] For a classic introduction to the diverse expressions of Christian pacifism, see John Howard Yoder, Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992).  See also a short ecumenical statement of the central tenants of Christian pacifism, Douglas Gwyn, George Hunsinger, Eugene F. Roop, and John Howard Yoder, A Declaration of Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991).

[2] See Ted Grimsrud, “A Pacifist Way of Knowing: Postmodern Sensibilities and Peace Theology,” Mennonite Life 56.1 (March 2001), and “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 77.3 (July 2003): 403-415.

[3] Walter Wink, a proponent of Christian nonviolence, explicitly rejects the term “pacifism” for his work, affirming instead the term “nonviolence” (“Can Love Save the World,” Yes! #20 [Winter 2002]).  He appears to be averse to the association of “pacifism” with “passivity.”  I will be using “pacifism” in a decidedly non-passive sense.

[4] These cases of violence in the Bible have led an important advocate for Christian nonviolence strongly to emphasize the need overtly to reject the pro-violence portions of the Bible while affirming Jesus’ message as radically (and normatively, for Christians) nonviolent – Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001).  I sympathize greatly with Nelson-Pallmeyer’s critique of biblical violence and his affirmation of Jesus’ nonviolence.  However, I fear he gives the violent elements of the biblical story too much power by reading them in isolation from the whole – and that his excising of many parts of the Bible distances him more than necessary from the mainstream of Christian theology.

[5] In what follows, my approach to Jesus is shaped above all by John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).  Yoder’s theological writing drew me into the Mennonite Church over twenty-five years ago.

[6] See Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000), for a discussion of the Genesis 12:1-3 calling of Abraham and Sarah as the interpretive key for reading the entire Bible.

[7] Three biblical theologies that center on the motif of “community” and, at least to some extent, highlight this motif of the biblical community as counter-culture include: Paul D. Hanson, The People Called: TheGrowth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986); Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); and Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999).

[8] For Jesus and politics, see along with Yoder, Politics, also N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996); William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000); and Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

[9] John Howard Yoder first argued for the significance of Jeremiah for thinking of how counter-cultural, pacifist communities might live faithfully in his essay, “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 51-78.  This argument is greatly expanded in his posthumous book, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Michael Cartwright, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

[10] Two books that, in parallel ways, argue for Revelation’s core commitment of a Jesus-centered nonviolence: Mark Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation (Carlisle, U.K and Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003) and Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Tübingen, Ger.: Mohrr Siebeck, 2003).  For a more popular-level discussion, see Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987).

[11] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), develop their lengthy portrayal of Christian ethics as centered at its core on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which they see as a practical manifesto for present-day life.

[12] John Howard Yoder, in Politics, makes this claim as follows: “There is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament (e.g., celibacy, type of work, rural life, way of teaching)….There is but one realm where the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms.  This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power.  Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility.  Thus – and only thus – are we bound by the New Testament to ‘be like Jesus’” (130-131).

[13] Historians debate the meaning of the non-participation of early Christians in the military.  The general consensus seems to accept that a principled pacifism played a significant role.  See Jean-Michel Hornus, It is Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War, Violence, and the State (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990); Louis Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983); and Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).  However, John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), challenge this consensus, arguing that the early Christians were not necessarily pacifists, but rather opposed participation in the military strictly on grounds of the close association of such participation with idolatry.

For comprehensive surveys of Christians and the issues of war and peace over the past 2,000 years, see: Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960); John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to Bainton (Elkhart, IN: The Peace Resource Center, 1983); Marlin E. Miller and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds., The Church’s Peace Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994); and  Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and the Just War Theory (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

[14] For an introduction to these “peace sects” see two books by Peter Brock: Pacifism in Europe to 1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972) and Freedom From Violence: Sectarian Nonresistance from the Middle Ages to the Great War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).  Specifically concerning the Anabaptists see: James Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, second edition (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1976) and J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987).

[15] See Peter Brock, The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660-1914 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990).

[16] For Quakers in colonial America, see Peter Brock, Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968) and Meredith Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[17] Again, Peter Brock’s scholarship is essential.  See Freedom from War: Nonsectarian Pacifism, 1814-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991) and his much larger earlier volume, Pacifism in the United States: From the Colonial Era to the First World War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968).

[18] Ray Abrams, Preachers Present Arms: The Role of the American Churches and Clergy in World Wars I and II (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969).

[19] On World War II conscientious objection, see: Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip Jacob, Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940-1947 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952), Theodore Grimsrud, “Saying No to the ‘Good War’: An Ethical Analysis to Conscientious Objection in World War II (Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1988), and Richard C. Anderson, Peace Was In Their Hearts: Conscientious Objectors in World War II (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996).

[20] For Gandhi’s relationship with and influence on Christianity see Robert Ellsberg, ed., Gandhi and Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991).

[21] For the development of King’s thinking concerning nonviolence, see Taylor Branch’s volumes, two of which have so far been published with a third concluding volume promised: Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) and Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[22] On Dorothy Day and the Catholic pacifism, see Gordon Zahn, Another Part of theWar: The Camp Simon Story (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979); James Forest and Thomas Cornell, eds., A Penny a Copy: Readings from the Catholic Worker (New York: Macmillan, 1968); and William D. Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).

For the longer context of Catholics and peace see Ronald G. Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986) and Thomas J, Massaro, S.J., and Thomas Shannon, Catholic Perspectives on Peace and War (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

[23] On conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, see James W. Tollefson, The Strength Not to Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War (Boston: Little, Brown, 19933).

[24] See Arthur J. Laffin and Anne Montgomery, eds., Swords into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace, Social Justice (Marion, SD: Fortkamp Press, 1996).  James Douglass has written a number of books, among them are The Nonviolent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1968), Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age (New York: Crossroad, 1983), and The Nonviolent Coming of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991).

[25] Key books from Hauerwas include The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) and Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985).  Wink’s central volume is Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).  See also, Ray C. Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds., Peace, Justice and the Powers: Engaging Walter Wink (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, forthcoming).

[26] For a glimpse of various pacifist responses to the events of the 20th-century, see Walter Wink, ed., Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).

[27] I am largely following John Howard Yoder’s discussion in Christian Attitudes here – see pages 39-54, “The Meaning of the Constantinian Shift.”  See also his essay, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 135-147.  Yoder describes the “blank check” type in this way: “The ruler may for his own purposes be able to explain to himself his reasons, which may be principled, even idealistic, or simply selfish, but the rest of us (the citizen, the journalist, the diplomat, the moralist) have no handles and cannot call him to account” (Christian Attitudes, 82).

[28] For Augustine’s just war thought see Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963) and William R. Stevenson, Christian Love and Just War: Moral Paradox in St. Augustine and His Modern Interpreters (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987).

[29] First published in 1944, Ford’s article has been reprinted as, John C. Ford, S.J., “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” in Richard B. Miller, ed., War in the Twentieth Century: Sources in Theological Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 138-177.

[30] On the Catholic bishops’ letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” see Philip J. Murnion, ed., Catholics and Nuclear War: A Commentary on “The Challenge of Peace” (New York: Crossroad, 1983).  For an overt argument for nuclear pacifism see David Hollenbach, S.J., Nuclear Ethics: A Christian Moral Argument (New York: Paulist Press, 1983).

[31] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), declares himself a non-pacifist but presents a powerful argument for the moral obsoleteness of just about any conceivable contemporary war – largely on critical just war-type grounds (even though he does not overtly appropriate formal just war language).

[32] Walter Wink describes and affirms emerging points of confluence between just war thought and active nonviolence in Engaging the Powers, chapter 11: “Beyond Just War and Pacifism,” 209-229.

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