Rough Thoughts on Pacifism

Prompted by a Facebook conversation – these are pretty off-the-cuff thoughts, since I don’t really have a terribly well-developed position, but here we go:

In a nutshell, I’m a pacifist in the same way I’m a universalist – hopeful but not really committed to it. As far as theological arguments for/against, I’ve yet to be really convinced that pacifism is a necessary part of Christianity, and all too often it seems that a nonviolent ethic is made to be central to the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that the Christian message is even reduced to one of nonviolence.

As a matter of personal opinion/ethic, I don’t really have a problem with a pacifist position – keep in mind that pacifism doesn’t = nonaction, just nonviolent action. The issue I have is primarily the extent to which it’s commonly seen as central to the Gospel.

I do think that the defense of children, widows, women, the weak, etc, can, will and do at times require violent force.I also think that pro-violence is a pretty terrible attitude to have – especially seeing Jesus’ very clear opposition to violence done in his name (Peter chopping off that one guys ear, for example).

 Having said that, one can’t ignore various Old Testament passages where various men and even heroes of the faith are praised for the willingness to commit acts of horrendous violence – Phineas kills an Israelite/Midianite couple in the midst of the sexual act, for example.Phineas and the Levites were called to be set apart specifically for their willingness to do some pretty raw things. Which, while not an argument by any means, is something one has to keep in mind.
 
With regard to whether Jesus commands Christians to not participate in national/state sanctioned violence, I see a couple of issues:

1) textual evidence – I’m not really aware of any real statements in the NT outright forbidding Christians to engage in national violence (say, a war or something like that). So we have to look elsewhere:

(2) Jesus’ posture toward violence in general – Jesus has very little to say about national/state violence – the famous turn the other cheek saying, for example, refers to personal insult/injury. Jesus certainly opposes violence in a sense, as I said before – he makes it very clear that the Kingdom of heaven will never be brought about by violent actions, perhaps in direct opposition to the zealots who sought to bring about the Kingdom by national violence. In that sense, yes, Jesus does forbid it by both word and deed.

 

5 thoughts on “Rough Thoughts on Pacifism

  1. Kevin Davis September 9, 2014 / 3:31 pm

    all too often it seems that a nonviolent ethic is made to be central to the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that the Christian message is even reduced to one of nonviolence.

    Yes! And I would go a step further and remove the “seems.” This is exactly what nearly all of the “political theology” guys and gals do — often in the name of Barth’s “radical” gospel, which is particularly irksome to me — and it’s how you gain street cred in their circles.

    the famous turn the other cheek saying, for example, refers to personal insult/injury

    Yes again! While, like yourself, I come very close to pacifism, it makes the same false move that the Pharisees made, oddly enough. It depersonalizes the gospel ethic — in its personal I/Thou encounter (Brunner) and decision for obedience (Barth/Bonhoeffer) — and makes it into a law. Pacifism is curiously similar to a deontological maxim (Kant), even if its proponents would strenuously deny that.

    one can’t ignore various Old Testament passages

    But of course they do. They will deny any association with Marcion until they are blue in the face, but if it talks like a duck and walks like a duck….

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    • whitefrozen September 9, 2014 / 3:47 pm

      ‘Pacifism is curiously similar to a deontological maxim (Kant), even if its proponents would strenuously deny that.’

      That’s a good observation, one that escaped me. That’s definitely worth thinking on more.

      ‘They will deny any association with Marcion until they are blue in the face, but if it talks like a duck and walks like a duck….’

      Yeah, I mean, I don’t really like throwing out heretics/heresies, but it really does appear that you can’t arrive at a hardline pacifist position (like Greg Boyd or Brian Zahnd for example) without ending up fairly Marcionite. I guess I can go a bit further and say I don’t really see how you can arrive at the hard pacifist ethic without adopting some kind of Marcionism. Again, you can look at Boyd/Zahnd et al for the example – though they call it ‘Christocentric’ which is a whole ‘nother discussion.

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      • Kevin Davis September 9, 2014 / 4:26 pm

        Yes, I could go on and on about the misuse of “Christocentric,” especially when it attempts to bring Barth on board.

        I don’t have the pagination in front of me, but Barth has a marvelous discussion of “fear of God” early in II.1, where he unequivocally argues that we should actually fear God! Not merely reverence God. But straight-up fear! It is one of my all-time favorite portions of the CD, and he alludes back to it at various moments in the rest of II.1. Barth had no problem with being disturbed by God, at a far more profound level than most of his followers today.

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        • whitefrozen September 9, 2014 / 8:46 pm

          Well, the nonviolence crowd equates ‘christocentric’ with ‘throwing out everything that appears to not fit in with Jesus’ message of love and peace and nonviolence’.

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  2. Michael Snow September 11, 2014 / 10:19 pm

    C. John Cadoux in The Early Christian Attitude to War, summed up their viiew thus: “For the early Christian the warlike habits of ‘the great of old’ and his own peaceful principles formed two separate realms, both of which he recognized without attempting – or feeling any need to attempt – to harmonize them.” 1

    This was not a Mariconite view and neither is mine. If youi would care to take a look at my book on pacifism, I’d be glad to send the pdf.

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