Reconsidering Pacifism – Definitions and Positions

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war ca...

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries (at that time the US had not yet entered the war). First published in The Masses in 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past several weeks I have been engaged with the related concepts of pacifism and discipleship in a number of ways. One, in reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a guided study in my doctoral work I have obviously been dealing with a theologian who had to struggle with the concepts of pacifism and militarism in a way in which few of us can even fathom. Second, in the same course of study I have been reading David Lipscomb, a third generation leader in the American Restoration Movement and a voice who helped shape the southern Churches of Christ as perhaps no one else did. Finally, over the past several months I have read various other authors who have advocated the view the disciples cannot follow Christ and take up the sword. As I have read, studied and mentally debated with these giants of my faith I have been forced to think, and to rethink, my understanding and my conclusions on this subject. Over the next few posts I will share with you my convictions, and the Scriptural and theological foundations which underlie those convictions. While I do not expect anyone to adopt my position simply because I hold it, I do hope that I will raise the right questions, and perhaps lead the right discussion that will allow a person to come to a more informed decision regarding this critical and far too often neglected aspect of our Christian walk. I do not offer these opinions as binding on anyone – except, of course, as that person may find them based solidly in Scripture. The Word is binding, my understanding and interpretation of that Word is not. I pray my journey will be valuable, whether you ultimately agree with me or not. As I usually say as I begin my classes (with my tongue firmly in my cheek) – if you do not want to agree with me you do not have to; if you want to be wrong I am more than happy to let you.

Here is the outline of my thoughts (at least as I have them formulated at this time. As I put pixels onto my computer screen this outline might change) –

  1. Definitions and positions
  2. Old Testament foundations
  3. New Testament clarifications
  4. Summation: The Disciple and the civil government

To begin with I must provide you with the definitions with which I will be working. If you do not understand how I am using a word or phrase you will not be able to follow me, and you will think you agree with me when you do not, or you think I am a heretic when we are actually in total agreement. So, to begin in the most pedantic way possible, here is how I understand and use these terms.

Pacifism – the conviction that God’s divine presence is preferable to his unbearable absence, and the process by which Disciples of Christ are supposed to reveal the reality of God’s presence in this world. Peace has two dimensions. One is the reality that at its most fundamental level, mankind cannot create peace. We can only accept the peace that God creates and then offers to us. However, the other dimension that needs to be stressed is that peace does not simply float down from heaven as some ethereal cloud. The work of pacifism is the labor that first must prepare someone’s heart for God’s peace, and then must offer that peace to those who are willing to accept it. I consider my self a pacifist in the sense that I want God’s peace to be with all people – beginning with myself, but extending to my family, my nation, and the world I call home.

Absolute pacifism – There is a branch of pacifism that is, to pardon the paradox, militaristic. Individuals who are absolute pacifists are so pacifistic that they get angry and react strongly when their viewpoint is challenged. They also tend to be anti-nationalistic. They cannot stand to see anyone in a military uniform and will leave if anything even remotely patriotic is said. I must say that I do not understand these people. If they are Americans, they live in a land where virtually every single freedom they enjoy, especially the freedom to criticize the government they claim is too militaristic, has been bought and paid for by the blood of soliers. When I write about the strand of pacifism that I disagree with the most fervently, it is this group to whom I am referring.

Isolationism – Another aspect of pacifism that is seldom discussed but is a major component of many people’s understanding of pacifism is isolationism. This is the view that no country should ever be involved in the affairs of another country. Pacifism and isolationism are not synonymous – you can be (and I will argue you must be to a certain degree) a pacifist and not an isolationist. However, I believe it is philosophically impossible to be an isolationist and not be a pacifist. Pacifism is a required first step toward isolationism.

Peace – I hold the Old Testament conviction that shalom (peace) means far more than an absence of conflict. The word shalom is rich with many different shades of meaning, but I feel that I would not be far wrong to suggest that shalom carries the meaning of an all-consuming surrender of one’s heart and mind to the will of God. If God’s presence is real and active in a person’s life, then shalom is present, whether conflict exists or not. Of course, in a perfect situation this shalom should lead to a cessation of conflict, but this world is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, shalom does not depend upon one’s outward situation, but only upon one’s inward relationship with God. One can be horribly conflicted and at war even in solitude, and in the worst of battles and/or conflicts a person can be utterly and completely at peace. While the image is harder to communicate in a communal sense, I believe this is also true of nations. I hope to be able to illustrate this later.

Passivism – This is a concept that all too many people confuse with pacifism. Pacifism as a lifestyle demands hard work. I will get into both Old and New Testament passages in some detail later, but let me say here that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace makers”, and the process by which peace is created in this world is both laborious and dangerous. It is no accident that Jesus goes on to state in the next beatitude, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted.” I believe it is absolutely critical that we separate the concept of passively sitting on the sidelines, watching and hoping that something good happens, from actively being down on the field working to promote and create peace. Pacifism requires enormous amounts of courage. Passivism is sometimes the result of laziness, but it is also very frequently the result of a consuming cowardice.

Militarism – I suppose I should also include here a description of what I am talking about when I mention militarism. Just as with pacifism, there are several different degrees of militarism. Some, like myself, believe a strong military is necessary for the defense of a nation, just as a police force is necessary for the safety and well being of any community. However, there are also those who are rabid militarists, and they believe there is no problem so small that a good dose of gunpowder and lead will not solve it. As the old saying goes, if you carry around a hammer all the time, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. I fear that America in particular has carried the hammer of being  super power for so long that every foreign issue has become a nail. This is one of the reasons I have begun to think, and to re-think, my views of pacifism and the military.

Evil/Good – These are not so much critical in terms of definition, but I must state that in order to adequately deal with the subject of pacifism we must deal with the underlying issues of evil and good. We cannot have the indwelling presence of God as long as we harbor evil in our life. We also cannot share God’s presence where evil is allowed to flourish. One basic premise that I will be working with is that evil must be dealt with in order for there to be any real, genuine peace. Sometimes this evil is relatively easy to confront, sometimes it is not. This is true of individuals as well as communities. Therefore, as we will note as we take our journey through the canonical story of Scripture, sometimes drastic action is required to achieve peace. In terms of nations this means military action at times. This is a fervently debated issue, and I respect those who hold a differing opinion, but (obviously) I believe that one of the themes of Scripture is that God expects his disciples to work with him in the eradication of evil in this world. This is a multi-faceted issue, however, and I hope that I will adequately explain my position in posts to come.

In response to a recent post on Pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount my good friend Tim Archer provided some good feedback and raised some excellent questions. I responded to him that this issue has kind of consumed me over the past few weeks, and that hopefully I would have something more constructive to say in the next few weeks. Well, for better or for worse I offer these next few posts as the fruit of my thinking. I obviously do not have all the answers. I am a pilgrim on the journey of faith – I am an apprentice in the art of theology and preaching. However, it is my belief that I have arrived at a point at which I do have something to add to the conversation. How much, and how valuable, is up to you, my good reader, to decide. I welcome your feedback, push-backs, and questions.

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on May 20, 2012, in Pacifism, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I especially appreciate the distinction between pacifism and passivism. So many people confuse the two.

    Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  2. I want to get your thoughts on one thing. You wrote:
    ” I must say that I do not understand these people. If they are Americans, they live in a land where virtually every single freedom they enjoy, especially the freedom to criticize the government they claim is too militaristic, has been bought and paid for by the blood of soldiers.”

    In my personal experience, this is WAY overplayed. They make it sound as if no one in the history of the world was able to express deep thoughts and as if people in other countries can’t discuss similar ideas. It’s interesting to me that the only real persecution of people in churches of Christ in the U.S. that I know of came because they were expressing pacifistic ideas!

    I’ve also found an almost religious tone to these expressions, “Your freedom was bought with the blood of soldiers.” No, my freedom was bought with the blood of Jesus. (Apparently the idea of calling war deaths “sacrifice” arose during the Civil War; it’s a helpful term to keep religious people supporting the war effort.)

    • Fair question, Tim. I was trying to speak of civil freedoms – the freedom to speak freely against my government, the freedom to congregate whenever I wish and for whatever reason I wish. The basic freedoms enumerated in our Constitution. It is these freedoms that have been defended at great cost, and yes I will maintain that without the “sacrifices” (perhaps not the best term, but what is?) of the men who fought and either came home or were buried for their efforts I would not have those basic freedoms. All Christians have the freedom that was purchased with the blood of Christ, as you mention. However, not all people share the same freedoms that I enjoy as an American. That does not make be a better person, but it SHOULD make me a more thankful person and a person who is able to both see and honor the freedoms that I do have.

      Perhaps we need to be more careful in identifying which freedoms we speak of when we say that these freedoms were “bought with the blood of soldiers.” But I do not see thousands of people lining up trying to sneak into China or Iran or Iraq illegally. People want to come to the U.S. for some reason – and it is not always economic. Why do they wish to come here, if it is not for our freedom, and how did we achieve those freedoms if it was not through the wars that we have fought?

      More to come!

  3. I honor the motivation behind the service of many who have fought, even if I don’t agree with what they did. I say that up front because I have often been accused of being ungrateful.

    I am, admittedly, anti-nationalistic, if we’re talking about the nations of this world. I feel it necessary to “forget what lies behind” and focus my eyes on the heavenly city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

    I have mixed feelings as I look the U.S., as regards this discussion. Churches flourished here in a time that they were dying elsewhere. Now, they’re dying here and flourishing elsewhere, so I’m not sure how much we should attribute to the civic freedoms.

    As for people coming here, it is the rare person who comes here because they feel they can worship God better. The primary motivations have to do with worldly things, be they material goods, political freedoms or vocational opportunities. Remember that Jesus said God abhors what is highly valued by men.

    What spiritual price are we willing to pay to maintain our way of life? Where will our treasure be? Which master will we serve?

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