Reconsidering Pacifism – A Personal Journey

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan

After taking an admittedly all too brief survey of both the Old and New Testaments and what I believe to be one of the over-arching themes of the Bible, I came to the conclusion that what was missing in my re-evaluation of pacifism was the context of my own story. So, although I had originally intended this series to only have four parts, I am going to have to alter that somewhat, and address a couple of issues I had not originally planned to discuss. So, in this post I will share my own journey as it relates to the subject, and then hopefully my next post will focus on what I consider to be a real crux in the matter of pacifism vs. militarism.

I came of age politically during the dark days of the Nixon presidency and the even darker days of the Carter debacle. Nixon was morally challenged; Carter appeared to be morally sound yet was vacuous when it came to leadership skills. Nixon taught us that power without morals was disastrous; Carter taught us that morals without power was no better. Enter, then, Ronald Reagan. I was truly a Reagan believer. When I heard Reagan I felt America had the leader it needed – one with firm moral convictions and yet had the power and the will to lead. It was heady times. America was to be blessed with a new dawn. With the right guy at the controls everything would be straightened out. How could it not be?

Except, it wasn’t. Reagan (and his understudy, Bush) left and we had eight years of Bill Clinton – a lying, promiscuous opportunist who had all the charisma of Reagan with all the moral failings of Nixon. The country veered sharply back to the right and Bush’s son George W. By this time politics had utterly demoralized me. I came to realize that power, regardless of whether it had a moral foundation or not, was not to be trusted. Barack Obama was the final nail in my political coffin. Whether the nation swings back to the right and elects Mitt Romney is, on a fundamental level, inconsequential. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I see no political solution to our problem. Our problem is moral. Our problem is not liberalism nor conservatism. Our problem is SIN.

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was exactly during this period of time in which the political pendulum was experiencing such radical swings that I was introduced to the writings of Barton Stone, and more importantly, David Lipscomb. I read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and was transfixed. I had never read, or heard, an explanation of human government such as Lipscomb’s. But it fit. Lipscomb explained the late 20th century perfectly, even though he was writing at the end of the 19th century. I experienced a second transformation that was every bit as liberating as my first. But, come to find out, I had not arrived at my final destination.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Sometime during all of this “metamorphosis” I was introduced to yet another theologian, this time a young German Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I read Bonhoeffer another light bulb came on. Something just clicked. Here was the “yang” to Lipscomb’s “yin.” Where David Lipscomb provided a correction to my one-sided and dangerous views of American politics, Bonhoeffer gave correction to Lipscomb’s one-sided (and just as dangerous) spiritual isolationism. It was not that I decided Lipscomb was wrong. Far from it. I believe Lipscomb was closer to the heart of Jesus than any theologian since the apostle John. I just believe that Lipscomb, as are all of us, was a child of his times and he did not stop to consider the extremes to which his position could be taken. In brief, Lipscomb never could have imagined an Adolf Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood Hitler. And, as I read Bonhoeffer I see a man struggling to want to believe what Lipscomb taught (although Bonhoeffer never read Lipscomb), but was also struggling to deal with the personification of evil itself. Bonhoeffer realized that to do nothing was, in effect, to give free reign to evil. But, the only solution that eventually was open to Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators was assassination. Bonhoeffer’s most anguished writings concern this very question – not right vs. wrong, but is it ever acceptable in order to achieve some measure of good to do an evil act.

You see, the biggest problem I have with the whole “pacifism vs. militarism” question is that we have created a false dichotomy. The greatest danger is not that we are pacifists or militarists, the greatest danger is that we believe that these are the only two choices. A position of absolute pacifism denies the ability to engage the world exactly in the place it needs to be engaged – where evil seeks to destroy that which is good. On the other hand an absolute militarist does not seek to engage the world either! The militarist only seeks to exercise brutal power to achieve his (or her) goals. The absolute militarist annihilates, the absolute pacifist capitulates. Neither one truly engages the world.

This dichotomy has human legs. Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler and had the murdering little corporal sign a document that Chamberlain heralded as “peace in our time.” Chamberlain was, in one way, responsible for more deaths than Winston Churchill. And yet, and this is a part of World War 2 history that not many people know, Winston Churchill could have saved the deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of human beings if he had simply listened to the voices in Germany that were calling for his help. If he had simply responded, in a quiet and back-door method, to the conspirators in Germany that he would be willing to deal with the conspirators if they could eliminate Hitler then the war would have ended years sooner. It might not have even meant the assassination of Hitler, simply his arrest and eventual trial. But NO, Churchill was bent on the utter destruction of Germany. He got his wish. Germany was crushed. But the world lost one of the clearest voices for peace and pacifism that it has ever been blessed to hear. The world does not care much for prophets. Lipscomb’s writings have been all but expunged from the approved teachings of the American Restoration Movement. Bonhoeffer is viewed as a quaint, but somehow misguided and therefore dangerous, Lutheran misfit.

In my ongoing journey as a disciple of Christ I am becoming more and more convinced that Lipscomb and Bonhoeffer were on the right path. Neither was perfectly correct (as no mortal can be). But  these theologians, separated by an ocean and just a few decades in time, shared one deep conviction that brought them very close together. They both believed that as disciples of Christ we are to be pulled forward by our vision of the reign of the Prince of Peace. If the crucified one is the vision before our eyes, we cannot be ignorant of, nor uncaring toward, his mission to deliver this world of evil. Sometimes that means we love our brothers and sisters (who might temporally be called our enemies) to the point that we refuse to take up the sword (Lipscomb), and sometimes that means that we love our brothers and sisters so deeply that we have to take up the sword to defend and deliver them, even though the use of that sword brings us under the judgment of God (Bonhoeffer).

I am, and I must be, a pacifist, as I understand it in the biblical and New Testament sense of the word. I am not an isolationist, as I believe that to be “salt and light” in the world I must actively seek to replace evil with good wherever I find it. But neither am I an absolute militarist, as there is really very little that separates the actions of Barack Obama from a Saddam Hussein or an Adolf Hitler. Yes, that is harsh. But if we do not challenge Obama in his indiscriminate use of targeted assassinations and armed Predator drones, when will we challenge him? And at what cost? Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. I want Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945 to mean more than that. But, even his death is meaningless if we fail to learn the lesson of the death of Jesus the Messiah at the hands of the Jewish leadership and the Roman legions 1900 years before that.

So, you have my story, and I have but one more chapter to add to this discussion. Next up, the myth of the myth of redemptive violence.

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 24, 2012, in Christ and Culture, Pacifism, Spiritual Formation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You may get a late comment on that one; I’ll have very limited Internet access for the next week or so, but I’m very interested in all of this. Thanks for working through these ideas.

    Don’t know if you’ll work all of this in, but I see so many issues at play beyond the violence/non-violence question. I’ll lay out a few:
    • The idea of the Old Testament kingdom as a type of the New Testament kingdom. Almost all of the warfare authorized by God in the Old Testament had to do with obtaining and protecting the Promised Land. If we are now serving a kingdom that is not of this world, then our warfare will look very different from that in the Old Testament.
    • Along those lines, we need to see that, except for the cleansing of the Promised Land, God used the ungodly as instruments of punishment. Though Assyria and Babylonia committed atrocities on a scale like that of modern monsters, God never sent a holy hit squad to take them out. The closest was Jonah, who was sent to call them to repentance.
    • The question of allegiance has to be wrestled with. The root of the word (liege = lord) helps us see the meaning. What right have we to pledge allegiance to an earthly power? No man can serve two masters.
    • Because of this, the only “authorized” warfare I could imagine would be a Christian army, with no earthly allegiances, fighting evil wherever it be found, no matter the nation nor political leaning. (hmm… did I just call the Avengers to assemble?) But even that thought seems far-removed from our goal of peace.

    Hope you’ll wrestle with some of those in future posts. I’ve got plenty more if you need them! 🙂

    Grace and peace,

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