What is Christian pacifism?

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #A.1

[Published in Christian Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds., A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 1-21.]

What is “pacifism”?  It all depends on who you ask, and when, and in what context.  Let’s start, though, with a simple working definition with the intent of ultimately arriving at a fuller, more adequate understanding.  For now, we may say: “pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare.

“Pacifism” has the connotation of a complete rejection of involvement in warfare, and usually other forms of violence.  However, beyond that simple assumption, the term pacifism is used in many different kinds of ways.  John Howard Yoder’s classic analysis, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, describes twenty-nine different types of religious pacifism.[1]  Given this variety, no one is in a position to make claims for all pacifists because “pacifism” is an essentially contested concept. My intent in this essay is to argue in favor of a particular, contestable understanding of pacifism. It will be helpful to begin with some examples of what I consider to be misunderstandings of pacifism, and then go on to a give a short case for what I will call Christian pacifism.

Pacifism according to its critics

Pacifism is evil.  Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist.  Pacifism for them is seen as a refusal to take responsibility for the necessary use of violence to stop evil people in our rough-and-tumble world.  Popes Paul VI and John Paul II expressed views equating pacifism with “a cowardly and lazy conception of life” and “peace at any cost,” respectively.[2]

The right-wing American pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  In that essay, he asserted that, in relation to the war on terror, “American pacifists…are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans.  They are objectively pro-terrorist.” Pacifists do not want the U.S. to fight back and neither do the terrorists. Therefore they are on the same side. And since terrorism is evil, he concluded flatly that the “pacifists’ position…is evil.”[3] Kelly did not give examples or specify whom he had in mind in his characterization of pacifism.  It would appear that he defined pacifism primarily as principled opposition to the use of American military might, including opposition to going to war to resist the obvious evils of “global terrorism.”

So, according to these two Popes and to Michael Kelly, pacifism seems largely to be understood as the refusal to fight back (or even to support fighting back) in the face of evil.  As such, it is directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil.

Pacifism is irrelevant.  The great American theological ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr in many ways shared elements of the “pacifism as evil” perspective.  In 1940, in the interim period between the beginning of World War II in 1939 and the United States’ entry into that war in 1941, Niebuhr wrote his most direct critique of pacifism, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.”  In this essay, Niebuhr differentiates between “heretical” and “non-heretical” pacifism.

According to Niebuhr, the “heretical” version, characteristic of many liberal Protestants in the years between World War I and World War II, naively assumed human goodness, rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin, reinterpreted the Cross so that it stands for the idea that perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory in the world, and rejected all other profound elements of the Christian gospel as hopelessly “Pauline.”[4]

While viewing this “heretical” pacifism with contempt, Niebuhr respected what he termed “the pacifist that is not a heresy.”  This pacifism, characteristic of the early Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, does not present the effort to achieve a standard of perfect love in individual life as a political alternative.  This approach disavows “the political problem and task.”  For non-heretical pacifists, setting up “the most perfect and unselfish individual life as a symbol of the kingdom of God” can “only be done by disavowing the political task and by freeing the individual of all responsibility for social justice.”[5]

This “non-heretical” pacifism “is a reminder to the Christian community that the relative norms of social justice, which justify both coercion and resistance to coercion, are not final norms, and that Christians are in constant peril of forgetting their relative and tentative character and of making them too completely normative.”[6]

Pacifism is worldly.  Guy Hershberger, a Mennonite contemporary of Niebuhr’s, believed that Jesus forbade all of his followers from using violence, especially in warfare.  However, he echoed many of Niebuhr’s analyses concerning what Niebuhr called “heretical pacifism,” the pacifism characteristic of many mainline Protestants that was influenced by the Social Gospel and that sought for political influence in moving the world in a peaceful direction.  Hershberger, though, rejected the use of the term “pacifism” for the faithful Christian rejection of violence. He preferred the term “nonresistance.”  When he refers to pacifism, he has in mind Niebuhr’s “heretical pacifism.”

Like Niebuhr, Hershberger charges “liberal Protestant pacifism” with an unduly optimistic view of human nature and human possibilities in the social realm.  For Social Gospel pacifism, he asserted, there is no sinful world to be renounced.  Human beings are inherently good, hence they are not in need of personal salvation.  Sin is not a personal, but rather a social evil, for these pacifists.  Their only salvation is a social salvation.  According to this view, Christ is not the redeemer of humankind, but rather our example.[7]

Along with this unwarranted optimism about the character of social life in the real world, Hershberger also believes that pacifists are way too sanguine about the use of force in trying to implement their social ideals.  He characterized pacifism as fully accepting of “nonviolent coercion” wherein the one who is wronged places the emphasis on a demand for justice.[8]  However, in contrast to Jesus’ message of turn the other cheek and to not resist evil with coercion, nonviolent resistance is still resistance.  It is a form of coercion or compulsion.  Its purpose is to compel the enemy to give up.[9]

Hershberger, then, rejects pacifism because it is too conformist to a violent world.  In its optimism about human possibilities, it minimizes the depth of sin and violence that inevitably characterizes this fallen world.  And, it ends up being too comfortable with accepting worldly tactics of coercing others—these tactics ultimately contradict the message of Jesus.

Pacifism is passive.  Theologian and activist Walter Wink does not reject pacifism because it is anti-war or anti-patriotic.  Nor, contrary to Niebuhr and Hershberger, does he believe that social justice compatible with the message of Jesus is possible in the real world.  He does not accept their characterization of the message of Jesus as being the basis for separation from social justice concerns or incompatible with the use of nonviolent resistance.  So he does not reject pacifism because it is too optimistic or too interventionist.

To the contrary, Wink rejects pacifism because he defines it as more or less the same phenomenon as what Hershberger would call “nonresistance.”  He writes, “pacifism must go.  It is endlessly confused with passivity.  In the nations in which Christianity has predominated, Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence has been perverted into injunctions to passive nonresistance, which is the very opposite of active nonviolence.”[10]

For Wink, pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active.  Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.  Gandhi had utter contempt for nonactive pacifism.  He regarded such a passive stance as cowardly, calling inaction “rank cowardice and unmanly,” and said he would rather see someone incapable of nonviolence resist violently than resist not at all.

However, the term “nonviolence,” preferred by Wink and others of like mind, has its own problems. Nonviolence advocate Mark Kurlansky, who shares Wink’s critique, nonetheless admits that “nonviolence” is not a proactive word.  It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else.[11]  Kurlansky’s recognition opens the door to a reconsideration of the term pacifism.  Is it possible that this despised term might actually be able to do the work needed so we can convey in a positive sense our commitment to making peace in our broken world?

Defining pacifism

Pacifism: A brief history. The word “pacifism” has the virtue of being a positive term, connoting the affirmation of peace more than simply the opposition to violence.  However, as we have seen from our survey of people who do not like the term, and as we would see were we to survey various ways the term is used by those who do like it,[12] there are many “pacifisms.”  I will not argue for one definitive or normative understanding of pacifism here.  Rather, I simply want to articulate one proposal for understanding pacifism as a positive and attractive perspective over against the negative associations summarized above.

The word “pacifism” is quite recent in English, dating perhaps only about a hundred years.  It was not listed in the 1904 Complete Oxford Dictionary.  According to the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1982, the first occurrence came in 1902 at an international peace conference as an English version of the French word pacifisme, used to express opposition to war.[13]  However, the French term originally had the meaning of “making peace,” not simply “opposing war.”

The root word is “paci,” “peace.”  If we take the word “pacifism” literally we could define it as love of peace, or devotion to peace. We might best think of “pacifism” as the conviction that no other value or necessity takes priority over the commitment to peace.  Hence, “pacifism” is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do); it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any commitment that could justify the use of violence.

I am conscious that some may be uncomfortable with this conception of peace. It may seem that I place peace higher even than God, effectively making peace into a God. I confess to being puzzled by this concern. To say that God is peace (or God is love or just about any other appropriate adjective) is obviously not the same as to say that peace is God (or that love is God and so on). When one reverses the nominative case, one loses narrative specificity, storied concreteness.

In saying “God is peace,” I mean to say that Jesus of Nazareth reveals to us that God is peace. By contrast, saying “peace is God” is unspecified and vague, so much so that we are not sure what is being said or what examples could show us what that would look like. I will need to flesh much more what I mean by “peace,” of course, but I believe that the Bible supplies us with a strong portrayal of genuine peace, and that as Christians we must begin our thinking about God and peace with thinking about Jesus of Nazareth.

Starting with Jesus of Nazareth. Christian pacifists—who believe that Jesus’ life and teaching are at the center of the Bible, the lens through which we read the rest—see in Jesus sharp clarity about the supremacy of love, peacableness, compassion.  Jesus embodies a broad and deep vision of life that is thoroughly pacifist, even if he did not explicitly address participation in warfare.[14]

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.

(1) Jesus’ love command. When asked what is the greatest of the commandments, some Jesus, according to Matthew 22, 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; note that Paul summarizes the Law simply as loving neighbor, effectively refuting any attempt to lessen the thrust of the second part of Jesus’ command), and John in his first letter (1 John 4:18-21).

We 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 makes clear, 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.[15]  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.

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).

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.  We 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.

(2) An alternative politics.  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.[16]  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.[17]  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) 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.

Rather, Jesus spearheaded a movement meant to operate within the nations and empires of the world as an alternative 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 wellbeing of whatever society they were part of while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah (Jer 29:7).[18]

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 (Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-4).

In light of Jeremiah and Jesus, we may see this prophecy 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.

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 corrupted the promise almost beyond recognition.

Later, another prophet, John of Patmos, also juxtaposed and contrasted the ways of empires and nations with the ways of God’s politics.  The Book of Revelation poses Babylon and the New Jerusalem as competing alternatives for followers of Jesus.  Thus, Revelation echoes the choice Jesus presented his followers—join uncritically in the social order where rulers lord over their subjects, or join in an alternative social order where 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.[19]  The final section of Revelation directly compares and contrasts the two cities (or empires or kingdoms).  First the angel shows John’s vision of Babylon, then of the New Jerusalem.  One is the way of power politics (and death); the other is the way of suffering servanthood (and life).  These two alternatives are about life in the here and now.

(3) Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness.  The third theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his approach to ethical exhortation.  Jesus displayed a profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives for life.  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.[20]

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.  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.

(4) The model of the cross.  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.  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 violent responses when people resist imperial structural violence.  This violent response led to stubborn 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.

The Bible, thus, provides a 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.

Core theological affirmations.

If we understand “pacifism” as a foundational conviction, one that shapes all our other convictions, and if we affirm that our pacifism follows from our Christian faith commitments, then we must recognize that pacifism links with our core theological convictions.  When we view Christian theologically through pacifist lenses, we will see that several key theological motifs naturally take a distinctly pacifist slant.

(1) Trinitarian cues—Jesus as God.  One of the distinctively Christian theological affirmations is a Trinitarian understanding of God.  God is a unity of three distinct “persons,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Insofar as Christians retain a commitment to understanding God monotheistically, they recognize that these three “persons” are not independent in will, but are three ways the one God is manifested in relation to human beings.

John Howard Yoder speaks for Christian pacifists when he asserts that operating from within a Trinitarian framework, Christians recognize that Jesus of Nazareth, in his concretizing of God’s nonviolent, persevering love, reflects the very character of God.  Jesus is confessed by Christians as “God Incarnate,” the second person of the Trinity.

As Yoder writes, “incarnation” originally meant that: “God broke through the borders of our standard definition of what is human, and gave a new, formative definition of Jesus.  “Trinity” did not originally mean that there are three kinds of revelation, the Father speaking through creation and the Spirit through experience, by which the words and example of the Son must be corrected; it meant rather that language must be found and definitions created so that Christians, who believe in only one God, can affirm that that God is most adequately and bindingly known in Jesus.”[21]

Yoder argues for the normativity of a thoroughly pacifist Jesus for all Christians.  If Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is God Incarnate, if Jesus is Messiah, if Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, “fully human and fully divine,” his way of life embodies God’s will for all humanity.  “I ask…that the implications of what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man, be taken more seriously, as relevant to our social problems, than ever before.”[22]  That is, pacifism as a core Christian conviction, as a commitment that shapes every conviction we have as Christians, simply follows from a “high” Christology that recognizes Jesus as part of the very being of God.

(2) God is nonviolent.  The Bible gives us mixed signals concerning the relationship between God and violence.  However, our above recognition of the relevance to Trinitarian affirmations for how we understand the centrality of pacifism to Christianity, challenges us to read the Bible christologically.  Insofar as the Bible presents Jesus as the normative revelation of God, and tells the story leading up to Jesus’ incarnation and following Jesus’ ascension as being in ultimate harmony with the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, we are charged to pay close attention to themes in the Bible that illumine the message of Jesus.

The challenge of making sense of various Old Testament and later apocalyptic portrayals of God being linked with violence certainly deserves our serious reflection and analysis.  However, if we do take Jesus as normative, we need not wait to resolve every point of tension before we lift up biblical themes that do make clear that the deepest, most profound, most coherent view of God (that recognizes Jesus as part of the Godhead) leads directly to the conclusion that the Christian God is best understood in terms of nonviolence.[23]

The beginning of the Bible, Genesis one, makes clear that creation itself reflects the peace that is at the heart of God (especially when we contrast the story of origins told here with other contemporary stories such as the Babylonian account that posits profound violence at the very heart of creation.[24]  Throughout the Old Testament, though indeed often violence is linked with God, the basic story line presents God more in terms of persevering love, an emphasis surfaced early on when following the retributive judgment of the Great Flood in Noah’s time, we see the rainbow, a weapon of war unstrung, and read of God’s promise to respond to human willfulness in a different way.

Jesus, most obviously, presents his Father as characterized by mercy in response to wrong-doing (see, for example, the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32).  Jesus turns to God as “Abba,” a God worthy of trust and affection.  He asserts that we best imitate the character of God, who showers life on the just and unjust alike, when we exercise God-like mercy, even to the point of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

Paul reiterates this last point in Romans five, when he emphasizes how God loves all of us while are yet God’s enemies.  This, remember, comes from the former zealot who himself had violently persecuted Jesus’ followers in service of the God he worshiped.  Only after his life-shattering meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road did Paul realize that the God he thought served with his violence actually was most definitively revealed in the thoroughly pacifist Jesus of Nazareth, in whose service Paul spent the rest of his days. 

Pacifism as vision.

The language of pacifism, then, is best understood as the basic language of our human vocation, our way of understanding creation and our place in it.  The foundational saving event of the New Testament, God raising Jesus from the dead, both vindicates Jesus’ own pacifist way of life and reflects in the most profound way possible God’s own pacifist way of responding to the worst imaginable human rebellion and violence.

Jesus embodies the pacifist vocation, directly engaging the Powers of evil (offering forgiveness to outcasts, healing to the Powers’ victims, establishing countercultural communities of resistance to the domination system).  Jesus’ engagement, while clearly confrontive enough to elicit an enormously violent response from the Powers, provides a paradigm both for perceiving the human situation (e.g., his critique of how the so-called “Benefactors” of the nations actually exercise their power in tyranny) and responding to this situation with creative and transforming pacifism (e.g., his “transforming initiatives” in his “Sermon on the Mount”[25]).

As we turn back to the critiques of pacifism summarized above, we may see that in each case, the criticism does not reflect an adequate understanding of authentic pacifism founded on the message of Jesus.

Michael Kelly may be correct in seeing pacifism as opposing American imperialism, but for precisely the opposite reason he cites.  He claims pacifism is “objectively evil” because he assumes the interests of the American empire represent “objective good.”  Pacifism does not oppose American imperialism because it is American, but because it is imperialism.  Indeed we do have a responsibility to resist “evil people.”  However, we are called to offer such resistance in ways that do not simply add to the spiral of evil.  Pacifists argue that in fact their way of resisting evil offers the best long-term hope for actually healing the problems created by evil actions, breaking the spiral.

Pacifism, in contrast to Kelly’s caricature, does stand for objective good in opposition to evil doers.  This is why pacifists oppose all mass murder, be it the acts of those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 or the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis following the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Pacifism respects the “power of sin” at large in our world today.  We take human sin so seriously that we respect the likelihood that military and political leaders themselves are corrupted by sin so much that they can no be trusted to operate on behalf of genuine justice and fairness.

The only ultimately redemptive response to sin and how it profoundly distorts human social life is, as Jesus asserted, to seek to overcome evil with good.  The only way successfully to resist violence without simply adding to violence in the world is overtly non-violent resistance.

The pacifism being advocated for in this paper would recognize itself in neither of Reinhold Niebuhr’s caricatures of “orthodox” or “heretical” pacifisms.  It is possible to affirm human possibilities of living faithfully in response to God’s transforming love (which is central to biblical anthropology as reflected both in Torah and the Sermon on the Mount) without positing a naïve and superficial humanistic optimism.  For pacifism, our hope rests on God’s promises, not inherent human goodness.

It is also possible to be pacifist and affirm that Christian faith does lead us to political engagement that enters into human history in the “nitty gritty” of real life.  However, following John Howard Yoder, we affirm that the “politics of Jesus,” while directly involved in human social life, must not be reduced to a balance of power between competing egoisms that requires the use of the sword to be genuinely “political.”  Such a politics based on violence not only contradicts Jesus’ expectations for human beings living in the present world, it also misses the importance of cooperation, community, and mutuality in all healthy social dynamics.

The message of Jesus is directly relevant for life in the political realm.  Pacifism after Jesus helps the believer see that it is not the following of Jesus’ way that causes damage due to its neglect of Niebuhrian “rough justice.”  Rather, damage is much likely to be caused by those who fail to see that violence and militarism do not create a valuable if imperfect form of relative justice but instead only foster injustice and heighten the spiral of violence.

In contrast to Guy Hershberger’s dismissal of pacifism as unbiblical and based on unbelieving humanism, pacifism as understood in this paper bases itself directly on biblical teaching, as shown above.  From the Bible, we learn of a pacifism that does seek to transform the world and that overtly resists evil and evildoers (albeit nonviolently and with the goal of lovingly transforming the evildoer).

Justice is indeed to be insisted on—though not the retributive, abstract, and coercive justice of thinkers such as Niebuhr.  Biblical justice does seek to challenge evil, but not with the threat of punishment but with the possibility of genuine healing and the restoration of broken relationships.  Pacifism helps us keep in mind that true justice requires healing both for victim and offender, seeing past the lure of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.[26]

There is a place for nonviolent coercion in pacifism, though following Gandhi’s careful thought about coercion, it is used only in ways that do not violate the humanity of the one being confronted.[27]  Jesus himself expressed coercive tendencies, for instance in his sharp critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and his driving of the moneychangers from the temple.

Walter Wink presumably would affirm much of what we have been saying about pacifism, except he does not like the term.  Like Wink, we affirm that the follower of Jesus is called to seek social justice and to live as if social transformation is possible in history.  Our pacifism is decidedly not “passive;” it has nothing to do with passivity.

The focus of pacifism is positive, constructive, active, and engaged.  It is on making peace.  Hence, the term “nonviolence” simply is not adequate.  “Pacifism” encompasses precisely the vision Wink articulates of God’s domination free reign that Jesus inaugurated.

Pacifism and knowing

a. Seeing through pacifist eyes.  At its heart, the vision for pacifism we seek to articulate and embody emphasizes that pacifist convictions shape the way we see the world and our place in it.  Throughout the New Testament, right vision stands in contrast with blindness, idolatrous misperception, and willful distortions of reality and of God’s will.

So, better to understand pacifism in its fullest sense, we need self-consciously to reflect on epistemology, to reflect on how we know what we know and what difference pacifism makes in how and what we know.  Pacifists have not spent a lot of time in such reflection.  However, from what we have been saying above about the all-encompassing nature of pacifism, and about its link with the very character of God and God’s creation, we have a need to be more intentional in thinking through the implications of pacifist convictions for how we think.

We all see the world through some sort of perspective.  We cannot help but operate with some kind of epistemology, some set of values and convictions (even if unstated) that greatly affect what we see around us and how we see it.  Such a fundamental conviction as pacifism cannot help but play a major role in how we order our values and convictions.

All too often, pacifism can be seen as kind of an “add on” to more fundamental convictions (hence, some of the critiques listed above that emerge because of the superificiality of a great deal of thinking about pacifism).  However, we argue philosophically and theologically for the centrality of pacifism as one of the most fundamental of our convictions.  Pacifism, if it is truly to be pacifism, must stand at the center of our awareness as we reflect on how and what we know.

b. John Howard Yoder’s contribution.  John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, stands as Christian pacifism’s foremost academic voice of the last half of the 20th century.  Yoder’s seminal work, especially The Politics of Jesus, only grows in significance in the years since his death.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote several essays reflecting on epistemological themes.

Yoder understood pacifism as decisive in how followers of Jesus should understand their place in the world.  He thought long and hard about many of the implications of this understanding.  In the chapters that follow, we have gathered a number of these essays together in an attempt to bring to a broader audience Yoder’s sustained thought on how to think epistemologically as pacifists.

Supplementing Yoder’s gathered thoughts, several Yoderian thinkers draw on his writings to suggest how we might continue to learn from Yoder’s ground-breaking work.  This collection stands as a gathering of suggestions for how to push onward in pacifist theology more than a fully developed systematic statement.  At its best, it will stimulate the further work that must be done.  However, we will always be in debt to the brilliance of John Howard Yoder and his willingness to devote his abundant intellectual gifts to pushing us all to think as if Jesus truly matters.

[Master list of Peace Essays]

[1] John Howard Yoder, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism Second edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992).

[2] Cited in Yoder, Nevertheless, 161, endnote 3.

[3] Washington Post, September 26, 2001.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” in Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Scribners, 1940), 5.

[5] Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church,” 4-5.

[6] Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church,” 5.

[7] Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944), 209-10.

[8] Hershberger, War, 217.

[9] Hershberger, War, 221.

[10] Walter Wink, “Can Love Save the World?” Yes Magazine #20 (Winter 2002).  For a similar dismissal of pacifism see Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 6-7.

[11] Kurlansky, Nonviolence, 5.

[12] See Yoder, Nevertheless.

[13] Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War: A Study in Applied Philosophy (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 1.

[14] 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).

[15] 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.

[16] 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).

[17] For Jesus and politics, see along with Yoder, Politics, Marcus Borg, Jesus:  A New Vision (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988); 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).

[18] 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 posthumously published book, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, Michael Cartwright, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

[19] See two recent scholarly 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.: Mohr 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).

[20] 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.  See also, Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

[21] Yoder, Politics, 99.

[22] Yoder, Politics, 102.

[23] On God as nonviolent, see Ted Grimsrud, “Is God Nonviolent?” in Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 47-53.

[24] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13-16.

[25] See Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount and Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.

[26] For an argument of how “justice” and “pacifism” are complementary concepts, see Ted Grimsrud, “Violence as a ‘Theological’ Problem,” Justice Refelctions Issue #10 (December 2005), 1-25, and Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking Violence and the Treatment of Offenders,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35 (2002), 253-79.

[27] Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: Gandhi’s Philosophy of Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 9-11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s