Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why I'm a Christian Pacifist: The Way Things Should Be

I've been about as blatant about my views on the use of violence by Christians while still tiptoeing around the "P" word as I probably ever could have. You can talk about Jesus loving people all day long and get hardly anything but praise. However, when you drop the word "pacifist" - people become uneasy. That doesn't mean I'm alone. I've shared many conversations with people who believe basically the same things that I do throughout the years and have been surprised in some ways. However, it yet remains a rather taboo word, and in part, for good reason.

I'm honestly not crazy about the word pacifist. To the generations before me, it even might bring up some negative images of hippies protesting the Vietnam War and throwing tomatoes at veterans returning home. Let me be clear that such behavior towards anyone is appalling to me, and is also far from the teachings of Jesus in my perspective. This is not about hating veterans or burning flags. This is about dealing with the words of Scripture in a meaningful way and really wrestling with what they say. There are also 20+ forms of pacifism out there, and so that does make it confusing. For this reason, I tend to also use terms like Christian Nonviolence, since the term is less culturally loaded, depending on my context. But, Christian Pacifism is what I believe in - specific pacifism that comes from reading Judeo-Christian Scripture.  

Desiring to be open and honest while wrestling with Scripture has prompted me to do a series of posts on why I am a Christian Pacifist. I want to start the conversation and challenge your worldview. But by all means, as we go through this, don't just believe everything I say. Study, have conversations, and only after diligently seeking, make any adjustments you feel you may need to. 

I want to first clearly define what I am talking about. Violence in and of itself is not easy to define. After all, it's not all about force. Slipping poison into someone's food is violent, but a surgeon cutting a person open with a knife is not. So, what we will go off of is the way that two ethicists named Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White define violence:

"Violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim's consent" (18).

That definition can be an important one, because I feel that there is room to still respond to aggression nonviolently (even if we still need to "wrestle" with it in our own minds to be sure we are in alignment with Christ). Do you know some sort of weird Jujitsu arm-bar-lock-hold-thing from your days in martial arts? Maybe there is indeed a way that such could be put to use yet. We call those things "nonviolent" means for a reason. Destruction is more specifically what we will look at.  

So, the first issue I want to address as to why I'm a proponent of nonviolence requires that we go back all the way to the beginning of Scripture - to a garden. Now, whether you take every detail of the Eden account literally or not, it still has truth to teach. One of those primary truths involves God showing the way things should be. The one word that truly summarizes this is the Hebrew word "Shalom" which is the word for peace, but carries the idea that nothing is missing and nothing is broken. Now, Eden is also on earth. Creation is good, and not something to be written off. We don't get to say "Ah well, we're just going to die and go to heaven, so what we do here doesn't matter." It does matter. We have too often anticipated heaven and yet have failed to live it out here on this earth.

One of the reasons that Jesus came to earth was to create a thinner space between here and heaven. The church is a divine institution that's primary mission is to continue and create this thin space, bringing God's kingdom to this earth. This is why we feed the hungry and heal the sick. We believe that one day, there will no longer be hunger or disease. We bring clean water to the underprivileged because we believe that there will be a day when living water is available for all. Many scholars even hold that Jesus did the miracles that he did in order to foreshadow God's kingdom. Andrew Root writes that the miracle stories of Jesus "are not stories of magic but [are] rather stories which preview God's future. Jesus proclaims in word and act the future of creation in the future of God" (141).

This brings me to this first and simple assertion: Peace is to be desired over violence. 

We live in a broken world. Violence is a very present reality in this broken place, but that doesn't mean that it should be what we want and desire. This is one of the most troubling things to me about how far some Christians have come in their view on violence. It truly seems as though some do not even see peace as being better. Rather, it is almost mocked as some "hippy" value. This cannot be our view, and I hope that we can share in this assertion together. Peace is more desirable. 

I once read a story about a Quaker (a group who are notably nonviolent in their beliefs) who was going around teaching his pacifist beliefs. After one of his talks, a man came up to him and said, "Stranger, if the whole world were of your accord, I'd gladly turn and follow." The Quaker replied to the man, "Then you have decided to be the last person to do good, I've decided to be the first and set the example" (Camp, 43) I hold that being a Christian means truly living out the good we want to see in the world, even if the world is not yet good. I've written about this before (See The Golden Rule). 

Our brains have not developed to a point where this comes natural. Our instinct is going to be to freeze, flee, or fight. However, I don't think instinct is always best. Paul very much contrasts the Flesh from the Spirit. In many ways, I feel as though this is a call to transcend our human experience. To fight and use violence against a perceived threat is definitely not out of line with our biology. However, the person who nonviolently chooses to love in the face of opposition transcends all of this. Part of becoming a mature human being (even according to our cultural norms) is to make choices that go against what comes natural. 

Now, I'm not saying that idealism is...well...ideal. Even some amazing Christian pacifists (or at least with pacifist leanings) have given up on their nonviolent beliefs in the name of Christian realism. Alot of this happened because of World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr are both examples of this. All of this to say, the idealism I speak of is not a hard and fast rule, nor is it without problems. However, it is where I choose to start.

On the topic of WWII and problems with pacifism, let me be clear that I'm still searching for some answers. 

Firstly, White Christian Pacifism has come under some scrutiny, and I feel it is valid to a point. To be a young, white, male, and American conscientious objector during WWII while millions of Jews are being persecuted and even dying can definitely mess with even the most convicted pacifist. I am, statistically, one of the least likely groups to ever experience any type of violence or oppression. It's easy to be a pacifist whenever you will likely never even be compelled to fight for any dire reason; I fully admit that. However, I would like to think that if I were of an oppressed group and knew what I did about Scripture, I'd still hold my beliefs. 

Second problem I must fully admit to is that I'm a single man with no children. I have been called out for this time and time again. I have not experienced what it is like to have a child or wife that you feel so compelled to protect at all costs. However, I do have family and friends who could not be more dear to me, and once again, my reading of Scripture makes me at least desire to maintain a nonviolent stance in such an unfortunate situation. 

Third problem: There is real evil in this world that makes this all more difficult. We can see that after this past weekend with the attacks all around the world. I do think that Jesus speaks to how to respond to such evil, but I do not for a second think that it is an easy answer.

I've come to this position very reluctantly.  I have not always thought this way, and instead probably thought along the opposite lines. However, I've been convicted by Scripture and especially by the words of Jesus that my thinking needed to change, and this is the result.

In summary, do you think that peace is better than violence? Then I challenge you to keep reading over the next several blogs, no matter what your stance is. At least engage these ideas and see what I believe Scripture has to say on the subject. We will hit it all - OT and NT. I truly believe this issue is vital to Christian faith because it is one of the very defining aspects of Christ, who I believe came to show us how God intended things to be...and how to live that out even when the world isn't playing along. I'll likely retouch on a number of things I've previously written about, but oh well, it's fun.

Got questions of your own? Hit me up either in the comments or in a message and I will do my best to either address your questions in subsequent posts or simply have a conversation if that is what's needed. 

Until then, Shalom Y'all. 

Author's Disclaimer: Much of my own thoughts come from other people, especially a guy named Preston Sprinkle. I suggest strongly that you read his book - Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Works Cited

Camp, Lee C. Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003. Print. 

Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, "Defining Violence and Nonviolence," in J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (eds.), Teaching Peace. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Print. 

Root, Andrew, and Kenda C. Deen. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011. Print. 


  1. Hey, we know Lee Camp. He and Scott were in grad school at ACU together. He has a Prairie Home Companion-esque radio show called Tokens that you can listen to podcasts of online.

    1. That is really cool! Mad respect for that guy.