01. Introduction: Defining Pacifism

This book will make a case for pacifism. I will describe and illustrate what I mean by “pacifism” throughout the book. I will argue that the term “pacifism” itself is useful, probably the best term for a vision for resisting evil and transforming conflict that in principle refuses the use of violence. However, this term is notoriously difficult to define and is used by many different people in widely divergent ways.

Let’s start with a simple working definition with the intent of ultimately arriving at a fuller, more adequate understanding: “Pacifism” is the in-principled unwillingness to engage in lethal violence, including most obviously the unwillingness to participate in warfare.

Pacifism according to its critics

What follows are examples of misunderstanding pacifism.

a. Michael Kelly—pacifism is evil. Some non-pacifists are strongly anti-pacifist. Pacifism for them is seen simply 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. (Cited in Yoder, Nevertheless, 161—see bibliography below)

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. He asserted that, in relation to the “war on terrorism,” because the terrorists do not want the U.S. to fight back and pacifists also do not want the U.S. to fight, “American pacifists, therefore, are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.” Even more, he concluded flatly, the “pacifists’ position…is evil.” (Kelly)

Kelly did not specify whom he had in mind in his characterization of pacifism. 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.

b. Reinhold Niebuhr—pacifism is irrelevant. The great American theological ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr in many ways shared elements of the “pacifism as evil” perspective. In his most direct critique of pacifism, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” Niebuhr differentiates between “heretical” and “non-heretical” pacifism.

The “heretical” version, characteristic of many liberal Protestants in the years between World War I and World War II, according to Niebuhr 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.” (Niebuhr, 5)

While viewing this “heretical” pacifism with contempt, Niebuhr respected what he termed “the pacifism 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.” (Niebuhr, 4-5)

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.” (Niebuhr, 5)

c. Guy Hershberger—pacifism is worldly. Hershberger, a Mennonite contemporary of Niebuhr’s, believed that the message of Jesus forbade all of his followers from participating in warfare. However, he echoed many of Niebuhr’s analyses concerning the pacifism characteristic of many mainline Protestants that sought for political influence in moving the world in a peaceful direction. Hershberger rejected the use of the term “pacifism” for the faithful Christian rejection of violence. He preferred the term “nonresistance.”

Like Niebuhr, Hershberger charges “liberal Protestant pacifism” with an unduly optimistic view of human possibilities in the social realm. For pacifism, he asserted, human beings are inherently good, hence they are not in need of personal salvation. Their only salvation is a social salvation. According to this view, Christ is not the redeemer of humankind, but rather simply our example. (Hershberger, 209-10)

Along with this unwarranted optimism about the character of social life in the real world, Hershberger also believed that pacifists are way too accepting of “nonviolent coercion” wherein the one who is wronged places the emphasis on a demand for justice. (Hershberger, 217) In contrast to Jesus’ message of turn the other cheek and do not resist evil with coercion, nonviolent resistance is still resistance. Its purpose is to compel the enemy to give up. (Hershberger, 221)

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.

d. Walter Wink—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 not possible in the real world. He affirms the appropriate use of nonviolent resistance by Jesus’ followers. So he does not reject pacifism because it is too optimistic or too interventionist.

Rather, 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.” (Wink, “Can Love;” also Kurlansky, 6-7)

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. As nonviolence advocate Mark Kurlansky acknowledges, “nonviolence” is not a proactive word. It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else. (Kurlansky, 5) This 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

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 (Yoder, Nevertheless, cites 29 varieties), 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” in English, dates back perhaps only about 100 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 a version of the French word pacifisme, used to express opposition to war. (Teichman, 1) 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. I suggest that 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. It also includes the conviction that peace stands higher than any other commitment that could justify the use of violence.

The biblical framework

Christian pacifists—believing that Jesus’ life and teaching are the lens through which we read the Bible—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.

I will mention four 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.

(1) Jesus’ love command. Which is the greatest of the commandments, someone asked Jesus. He 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” (Matthew 22:34-40).

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. Third, Jesus understood his words to be a summary of the Bible. The Law and Prophets were the entirety of Jesus’ Bible—and in his view, their message may be summarized by this command.

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” (Matthew 5:44-45).

(2) An alternative politics. 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. Jesus indeed was political; he was confessed to be a king (which is what “Christ” meant). The Empire executed him as a political criminal. However, Jesus’ politics were upside-down. He expressed his political philosophy concisely: “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).

When Jesus accepted the title “Messiah” and spoke of the Kingdom of God as present and 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. This movement witnessed to the entire world the ways of God meant to be the norm for all human beings.

(3) Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness. Jesus displayed profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives. When he said, “follow me,” he clearly expected people to do so—here and now, effectively, consistently, fruitfully.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, begins with a series of 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. When Jesus called 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 expected that these could be done.

(4) The model of the cross. At the heart of Jesus’ 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.

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.

(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. Yet, 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.

John Howard Yoder asserts that operating from within a Trinitarian framework, Christians recognize that Jesus, in his concretizing of God’s nonviolent, persevering love, reflects the very character of God.

“God broke through the borders of our standard definition of what is human, and gave a new, formative definition in 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.” (Yoder, Politics, 99)

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. 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’s pacifism. The Bible gives us mixed signals concerning the relationship between God and violence. However, our above recognition Trinitarian affirmations challenges us to read the Bible christologically. Insofar as the Bible presents Jesus as the normative revelation of God, and tells the story prior to and after Jesus’ life as being in ultimate harmony with the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, we are charged to pay close attention to themes in the entire Bible that illumine the message of Jesus.

The challenge of making sense of various Old Testament and apocalyptic portrayals of God being linked with violence 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 leads directly to the conclusion that the Christian God is best understood in terms of pacifism. (Grimsrud, “Is God”)

Genesis one shows that creation itself reflects the peace that is at the heart of God (especially when we contrast Genesis with other contemporary stories such as the Babylonian account that posits profound violence at the very heart of creation [Wink, Engaging, 13-16]). Though the Old Testament indeed often links violence with God, the basic story line presents God most of all in terms of persevering love.

Jesus 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 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 we 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, who Paul served 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.

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. 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.

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 in March 2003.

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 non-violent resistance.

Contrary to Reinhold Niebuhr, it is possible to affirm human possibilities of living faithfully in response to God’s transforming love without positing a naïve and superficial humanistic optimism. Our hope rests on God’s promises, not inherent human goodness.

Also contrary to Niebuhr, it is 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. We affirm, though, 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.”

In contrast to Guy Hershberger’s dismissal of pacifism as unbiblical, pacifism as understood in this book bases itself directly on biblical teaching. 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.

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. (Bondurant, 9-11) 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 I have said about pacifism, except he does not like the term. Like Wink, I affirm that the follower of Jesus is called to seek social justice and to live as if social transformation is possible in history. This book’s pacifism decidedly has nothing to do with “passivity.”

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



Bondurant, Joan. CONQUEST OF VIOLENCE: GANDHI’S PHILOSOPHY OF CONFLICT. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Grimsrud, Ted. “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.

Hershberger, Guy F. WAR, PEACE, AND NONRESISTANCE. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944.

Kelly, Michael. “Pacifism is Evil.” WASHINGTON POST, September 26, 2001.


Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist.” In CHRISTIANITY AND POWER POLITICS. New York: Scribners, 1940.

Teichman, Jenny. PACIFISM AND JUST WAR: A STUDY IN APPLLIED PHILOSOPHY. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Wink, Walter. “Can Love Save the World?” YES! MAGAZINE #20 (Winter 2002).


Yoder, John Howard. NEVERTHELESS: THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS PACIFISM, second edition. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992.

Yoder, John Howard. THE POLITICS OF JESUS, second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

1 thought on “01. Introduction: Defining Pacifism

  1. Gus Gordon

    This article raises a lot of questions for me. Is the assumption that the use of violence is “always” an evil? Does the use of violence always beget more violence? Did the war against Hitler merely produce more violence? Does the non-violation of the offender’s humanity trump, take priority over, stopping them, even if it involves armed violence, from violating other’s humanity? Would Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill Hitler be a case of violating Hitler’s humanity? Did Gandhi’s non-violence “heal” any offenders? Do we first need to await the healing the offender before securing the rights of others? Is there not a way of using power and the sword in non-egoic ways? Have you not merely reduced armed resistance to its lowest common denominator? How do you deal with “do not RESIST evil” of Jesus. Is this in fact a wrong interpretation as Wink suggests? What is the actual greek word used here and does it allow for various interpretations? These are just a few of my questions.


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