I haven’t always been a pacifist–I used to make fun of pacifists as weirdos, wimps, and unrealistic dreamers with their heads in the sand. But, I’ve been on a journey the last decade or so that’s led me to pursue peace over violence. Now that I’m one of the weirdos, I’m learning it’s not so bad. But I am increasingly wrestling with the realization that my pacifism isn’t just weird–it also makes me offensive to a lot of people who are really important to me. What do I do when my adherence to Christian non-violence causes conflict? (ironic, right?). But it causes conflict with my family, close friends, people in my church, and many others who have had a profound impact on my life.
When I don’t know what else to do, I write. I’m not writing to persuade you–I’m writing to start a conversation. Sometimes the hardest topics to discuss are the ones we’re most passionate about. But we all lose when that happens–sometimes silence can be a violence of its own. I’m hoping to start a conversation, not have the final word. I’m hoping we’ll continue to talk, continue to listen. I’m hoping this will bridge the gap between us, not widen it.
So–Why am I a Christian pacifist?
I start with Jesus
My pacifism flows from how I understand the life and teaching of Jesus. Wait, hear me out!! I’ll also be quick to admit that I don’t have a monopoly on Jesus! My point here isn’t to suggest that every Jesus-follower should end up as a pacifist. It’s just to explain how I ended up here. I believe Jesus described a life of non-violence when he told us to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile (for soldiers in the occupying army). I believe he meant it when he told us to love our enemies. And even more importantly, I think Jesus modeled a life of nonviolence when he told Peter to put away his sword and then submitted himself to the cross.
Here’s an important note: for me, it’s crucial to consider Jesus first, and potential consequences last. So, my pacifism doesn’t start where most of friends’ questions begin: what if me or my family is attacked, or what would keep the US from being conquered by Germany, Japan, Russia, or ISIS).
I believe we are called to follow Jesus into nonviolence, come what may.
I’m in good company
Every Christian pastor, teacher, and theologian for the first 300 years of the church’s existence taught a life of nonviolence. “No Christian theologian before Constantine justified Christian participation in warfare,” (Alan Kreider, historian). It’s certainly true that one of the issues at the time was idolatry: Roman religion was inseparable from the Roman army. But it’s also true Christian leaders and theologians consistently and regularly cited the prohibition against killing as the reason against military service. Prominent church fathers like Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athenagoras, and influential early church documents like the Apostolic Tradition ALL taught Christians should never kill, even in military service.
With that said, we understand that the influence of the early church is not absolute—just because they did it doesn’t mean we have to. But I think we can still draw at least two principles from the early church. 1) Christian pacifism isn’t a pipe dream—it used to be a reality. If the early church Christians could pursue nonviolence in a world far more violent than ours, facing far more persecution than we do, then we at least know it’s a realistic option. 2) While not every Christian has to be a pacifist, our history should make it so it isn’t shameful to be one.
I might be a bad patriot
This one is a really hard one for me. I was raised in an devoutly patriotic family. I grew up in Virginia Beach, home to the world’s largest military community. My adherence to Christian pacifism can be perceived as disrespectful to my friends and family who are part of the military family, to my friends who have sacrificed so much. To be honest, I’m still wrestling through how to handle this part of it. But in my core, I just don’t believe we are called to pledge allegiance to a flag—I believe Christians are called to pledge our allegiance to Jesus. The NT writers were clear that we have the responsibility to be good citizens, but they were even clearer that our loyalty lies with Jesus.
Jesus said we cannot serve two masters, and while he said it in reference to money, I’m beginning to wonder how much the concept also applies to nationalism and patriotism. I’ll be honest–I’m still not sure where this is part of my journey will lead.
I am grateful, and believe sacrifice deserves honor
Because patriotism is precisely where passions get stirred, please let me say a few things.
I have a deep appreciation and profound respect for the men and women in our armed services. I have repeatedly experienced their strength of character, integrity, and their selflessness. And I am deeply aware that many of the liberties I enjoy came at the cost of lives. And so I believe in honoring our veterans, showing gratitude for those who have sacrificed and are sacrificing, and to raise my children to respect our soldiers and veterans.
In addition, my gratitude and respect are also precisely what compels me to push for a better future. A future with less violence, less killing, less widows and widowers, less orphans.
Following Jesus makes me uncomfortable
I don’t want to be a pacifist. I don’t like being the one to strike a disharmonious blow to deeply held passions. I don’t like disappointing my friends. I don’t like being perceived as dishonorable. I don’t like being uncomfortable.
But, following Jesus creates lots of tension in my life. My belief that we should never end a human life, including through abortion, causes tension. My belief that acting on gay sexual desires is incompatible with the kingdom of heaven causes tension. And my belief that the US Evangelical church should talk more about greed than gay people causes lots and lots of tension.
I consider the potential consequences
This is where the uncomfortable gives way to the exhilarating. That’s because there are more consequences to consider than “What if Hitler won WW2?” Instead, I like to ask, “What if Christians abandoned violence as a solution to problems?” Fear and anger are powerful forces, which ISIS continues to deftly wield as its most powerful weapon. Violence will never diffuse fear or anger. Violence begets violence.
So why not try something new??? I believe that Christian communities are called to serve as a tangible foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. Following Jesus into a life of non-violence provides an indisputable opportunity to show the world a different way, a better way.
The first Christians considered the consequences. In a violent world, when persecution was a reality, the first Christians chose nonviolence. And many of them were attacked, beaten, raped, torn from their families, forced from their vocation, alienated from their community, and even murdered.
And yet, somehow, without throwing a punch, they were victorious. The Empire was subverted from within. The world was turned upside down.
Violence was defeated by love.
Where to from here?
This is a long post, and yet it still barely scratches the surface. Each of these sections could be a library of books on its own. I haven’t tried to exhaustively answer every potential question. I’ve tried to start the conversation. If you’re interested, here are a few books I’ve found helpful: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, A Farewell to Mars: A Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace, and The Politics of Jesus.
I hope we can talk about this further. I hope we can still be friends.
I hope we can turn the world upside down.