[This lecture was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]
I want to start with a hypothesis that you may or may not agree with: A clear convictional commitment to pacifism is very helpful for opposing torture and capital punishment. I’m not going to make an argument for this hypothesis. I merely state it in order to tell you why I am giving this presentation on Christian pacifism as part of an abolish the death penalty event. Non-pacifists certainly may—and should—oppose the death penalty and torture under all circumstances. But it’s probably easier to do so as pacifists. At the least, pacifism may provide one angle for advocating abolition.
What is “pacifism”? Let’s start with a simple working definition: “pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare or to support the death penalty. “Pacifism” connotes a complete rejection of warfare, and usually other forms of violence. I will suggest, though, that pacifism understood theologically, is a broader, more positive conviction than simply saying no to violence.
Some examples of those who oppose “pacifism”
Let me start with several examples of what I consider to be misunderstandings of pacifism, and then go on to present the case for Christian pacifism.
Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist. They see pacifism as a refusal to take responsibility for the use of violence that is necessary 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.
Pundit, Michael Kelly, wrote a widely circulated op-ed essay for the Washington Post shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. 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.” 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 seen as directly complicit in the furtherance of said evil. Continue reading