On Christian Pacifism

Halden at the blog Inhabitatio Dei has posted a a very thoughtful piece concerning Christian pacifism, a piece that caused me to begin to articulate some of my long-held but little-articulated feelings about pacifism in particular and Christian morality in general.

This is a part of a comment I left on Halden's blog:

I’m in full agreement with your post. But I’ve always felt that there is no coherent warrant for pacifism.

Let me explain. I ground this assessment in my feeling that being a Christian is an inherently paradoxical thing to be. Based on my reading, the position I think I’m articulating is close to Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in Paradox. (But I could be misreading Niebuhr here.)

Let me be more concrete. The logic of pacifism is basically this: I would die before killing. But why stop this analysis at issues of force? Wouldn’t a Christian apply this logic to their house and food intake as well? That is, should I not give up my house if there is a homeless person? Or give up my last meal if someone were hungry? Isn’t this what Christ would do? Is this not what we are called to do?

Most would agree that this kenostic impulse is the Christian witness. But pushed logically kenosis entails (free & loving) self-annihilation. Thus my conclusion: To exist as a Christian is inherently paradoxical.

And if you step back and look at all the debates about pacifism or simplicity they all reach this point: “If you make that contention about pacifism/simplicity then where do you stop? Self-annihilation?”

I guess I’m arguing that to be a Christian is to exist as an antinomy. That is, I agree with your post and I claim that it is Christian. But in my view that means I also embrace its paradox and know that any defense of pacifism (or the defense of anything Christian) will end in paradox.

To summarize, I think I've come to the following conclusion: To exist is to be morally compromised.

At some point your existence will be used against you, effectively, in a moral argument. At the nadir of the discussion your choice will be framed thusly: Your life or theirs? If you answer Christianly you'll not exist at the end of the thought experiment. You'll have allowed the killer to kill you (in the pacifist discussions) or given away your last morsel to save someone from starvation (in the poverty discussions). The point is, the Christian ethic implies seeking your non-existence.

But, you might counter, we aren't called to actively seek out our non-existence. Of course, when presented with a terrible choice we should choose heroic self-sacrifice. But we are not called to actively seek out those situations.


Why aren't we giving away our things while people are dying of hunger?

But if we start giving it all away where do we stop? Let's say we reach the bottom, the point of minimum sustenance. Still people will be dying. Have we not reached, by sheer logic, the very nadir scenario presented earlier? Isn't the Christian moral vision driving us to that outcome?

But does this analysis apply to pacifism? Not as cleanly, but I think the parallel is close. Like hunger, there is violence in the world. And we can either participate in fending off that violence or withdraw and let others do the dirty work. Either way, you are morally compromised. The only way to maintain moral coherence is to directly confront the violence as a pacifist. To find the violence and lay down your life in front of it to stop it. Again, the logic of the Christian witness leads to non-existence.

In short, if you exist you are morally compromised. Consequently, if you are a pacifist or someone committed to Christian simplicity then, at some point in the argument, the paradox of your existence will be used as moral leverage against you. And, as far as I can see, the leverage is legitimate. My mere existence means I'm compromising something, morally speaking.

Now don't get me wrong. I am a pacifist. (Well, let me clarify. To date I'm just a theoretical pacifist. I argue for pacifism. How I'd actually respond in some of these "a killer is hurting my child" scenarios I have no idea. My suspicion: I might not be a pacifist. Just being honest here.)

My point isn't an argument against pacifism. It's an argument against arguments for pacifism. I don't think you can argue a pacifist position that isn't compromised by your mere existence. If you are not compromised I'm assuming, at the very least, that you are riding with policemen tonight with plans to throw yourself in front of the bullets during any gun fights. You are either throwing your own life into the line of fire to stop the violence or letting other people do that work for you. If the former, you won't be around long. If the latter, you're compromised.

So here are my conclusions. If pacifism is paradoxical and morally compromised then what can we say?

#1. I think pacifism cannot be argued for. Rather, I think pacifism is a calling. You don't argue for it. Those arguments, as I've suggested, will always lead to an impasse. No, you don't argue for pacifism. You evangelize. You seek people who feel called to it.

The implication, as I see it, is that we see pacifism as less a moral issue than one of vocation. I'd compare it to monasticism or celibacy. To choose the cloister or sexual purity isn't more moral. It is higher, but not more moral.

#2. Since pacifists are, as I've argued, morally compromised (as we all are) they cannot make the the claim that they stand on morally superior ground. Rather, in this world, pacifism must be dialectical. Those called to pacifism stand in critique of the Powers and the violence that supports them. But a dialectical pacifism grants that pacifists benefit from and are even complicit in the violence. No one is uncontaminated. Rather than pretending that there is no paradox in the pacifist position, dialectical pacifists grant the paradox. They fully recognize that they are staking out an untenable position, by some accounts. They are, rather, living out among us a calling they have embraced. I would grant that the pacifist calling is a higher calling, more spiritual but hard to say if more moral. For pacifism only works, as all would agree, in the perfect world. As such, pacifism is less about moral perfection in this world than about pointing toward a wholly other, more perfect world. Pacifists are living out the resurrection in our midst. Their arguments do not, will not, "make sense" this side of the eschaton. How could they? Pacifism is a paradox. It doesn't belong here.

Consequently, all Christians should stand in solidarity to rejoice that many are called.

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18 thoughts on “On Christian Pacifism”

  1. I like what you said but I want to get a little into the practicing of this idea.

    "To choose the cloister or sexual purity isn't more moral. It is higher, but not more moral."

    These callings really take daily commitment. What commitment (practically speaking) does the pacifist calling require for someone hanging out in the middle of the US? I don't consider myself a pacifist but I haven't been out performing acts of violence either.

  2. I'm definitely not with you here, though I think I understand some of where you're coming from. The problem is that the moral imperatives that you present are all absolutes. I think this is the legacy of Enlightenment moral philosophy emerging, which is understandable, since that still defines our moral discourse in this culture at least.

    What we've lost is the sense that to be moral is also to seek to follow the mean - that is, the balance between vicious extremes. You can see this in many traditions, including that of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Buddhism and so on. But I think we lend ourselves much more to extremisms at present.

    Oddly, this connects deeply with a talk I gave today (now yesterday) on virtue ethics. I won't go into it here, but you might want to look at virtue ethics as an alternative to the absolute moralism that we've sort of culturally inherited. Its basically what dominated Christian moral philosophy for about fifteen hundred years, and is currently making a strong resurgence. Maybe worth the time to check it out, and maybe not.

    The fact also remains that Jesus did not give up all of his possessions/means/etc. He clearly had the means to travel around as an itinerant teacher, support his students and close followers, occasionally buy things and so on. Even if he lived entirely on donations and others' largesse, a pastor of a church isn't that different - they're also paid from donations. He also lived in a culture where itinerant teachers were respected and supported, so he was making use of a social support system that was already in place. That sounds a lot like having a 'job' in the way we think of it.

    So if Jesus didn't live this extreme life that you're describing, one of self-annihilation, why should we?
    I mean, it was the authorities of the time that attempted to annihilate Jesus - which is sometimes the cost of moral agency. But he didn't self-annihilate, and there's no good reason that we should do so IMHO.

    But I definitely disagree that pacifism can't be argued. *Absolute* pacifism can't be argued, but really moral absolutes are pretty darn hard to argue in any situation. Seeking some kind of balance, however, between the self-annihilation you describe, which I would say is morally wrong (love thy neighbor as thyself at the very least), and self-centeredness perhaps on the other end, which is also morally wrong - that's what I would (and do) argue for.

    I think that making this about absolutes is perhaps the easy way out of the conversation.

  3. Connor,
    That's why I was trying to make a parallel between pacifism and simplicity. What I'm arguing is that they each involve a continuum of choices. Generally, in discussions of each, the choices get more and more extreme until you reach some final choice where one is forced, through the logic of the position, to choose death.

    Obviously, we don't live in these extreme scenarios. We draw some lines. But are we justified in drawing those lines? I know, personally, that I always have this lingering guilt that I could be doing more, giving more, fighting harder for peace. I wake up every day facing a desire to radicalize. Yet here I am, typing away about abstractions on a computer, while people go hungry today. But if I radicalize I think I see where it will end: It won't end. There will always be one more step to make.

    So I guess one of the things I'm trying to get at in this post has less to do with Christian ethics and more to do with the pervasive sense of guilt I find in the Christian experience. The only ones not guilty are the martyrs.

    So, my move here is to reframe the issue as one of calling and dialectic. Those who feel called to modes of holy living should be embraced, not debated with. They serve a function of critique and will call more and more to that mode of living. But these modes of living are, I'm arguing, "pure," they are "end times" modes of existence. Which means there will always be these fights between those who are living as pacifists and those who opt for what is called Constantinian Christian living. What I want to allow is for the pacifist to heartily critique the Constantinian norm to prevent its abuses and complacency while protecting the pacifist position from the requirement to be ethically coherent to be heard. Framed another way, it isn't pacifism that is incoherent. Pacifism is a means of pointing out that the world is incoherent.

    I'm very much in agreement with you. The absolutist and situationalist tone of the post is mainly my attempt to sketch out the logical problems and tensions as typically seen in these discussions if one seeks to give warrants in these ways. In the end, I think the point of the post converges on your analysis: Discussions framed this way tend to go nowhere. One way is to see my post is as a kind of Reductio ad absurdum.

    Yet I don't think virtue ethics is a panacea. Ethics is fundamentally about offering to the community warrants for our actions. And this is a good thing. If you hit me on the nose I'll be wanting an explantion. As will society. And those warrants, to be plausible, must seek to be as universal as possible. Hence the common appeals to the Golden Rule, impartial spectators, categorical imperatives, veils of ignorance, and so on. It is the universalizing impulse (which is a legitimate one) which tends to keep moving us to these extreme situations in search of the principle/warrent that gives the greatest coverage. But as we and all students of Ethics 101 know, there is no final principle.

    But, you know Doug, let's keep the hypothesis alive that I might not even know what I'm talking about.

  4. Richard,

    Wonderfully thought provoking! Thanks.

    "...pacifism is less about moral perfection in this world than about pointing toward a wholly other, more perfect world."

    I believe you're correct in thinking that "Pacifism is a paradox," when seen from "this side of the eschaton." Your final two lines could, however, be framed as at least a nod towards a ratonale from the side of faith: "Pacifism is a paradox [because it] doesn't belong here." I think it's important to divide the faith perspective as an ideal from the faith perspective as it is actually experienced "in the world." But of course you are pointing to the paradox of trying to live out faith in a world that makes the ideals of faith paradoxical...

    Here's a thought, albeit one that I have not sorted out properly yet. Perhaps a Christian ought to be willing to sacrifice all for the Kingdom of God, but nothing for moral nihilism (a sheer affont to right conduct).

    Here's what I have in mind. By faith--but certainly not empirically--we can believe in a real moral ideal. Thus, we could make sacrifices for "the Kingdom of Heaven" in a way that adds clarity to our (attempts) to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Here's an example of how to remove the devil from the details.

    Case One: A terrorist lowers his gun's sight on a Pacifist Christian out of a sense of great injustice that Western society has perpetratred on his non-Western society. The Pacifist calmly faces his assassin with palms outstretched, thereby visually entering into a dialog with the terrorist to the effect that she (the Pacifist) cannot be seen as a representative of "the injustice that justifies" the terrorist. Thus, the terrorist is confronted by the specter of becoming the perpetrator of a great injustice at the very moment that he justifies his terrorism on the basis of the perpetration of a great injustice.

    But of course, the injustice which motivates the terrorist still exists (and please do not think that I in any way am arguing for terrorism--I am just tracing the internal logic of the situation!). Therefore, the only way out for the terrorist, in this hypothetical situation, is to side with the Pacifist. I think that Jesus/Thoreau/Gandi/Dr. King saw this dialectic--a dialectic that elevates the analysis of moral response beyond the empirical facts in which it is embedded. (But I should be very careful when speaking for my vastly superior examples!)

    Case Two: A pedophile is trying to kidnap your child. In this case no pointing toward the Kingdom of God is accomplished by Pacifism. In fact, by stopping the pedophile in the act of abducting a child you confront an act of sheer moral affront--an act that cannot be reconciled with engaging the perpetrator in an inner moral dialectic that points toward "the Kingdom."

    So I guess I would ask whether there is any internal moral justification likely to be motivating the perpetrator. If so, the same logic that makes Pacifism paradoxical from a standpoint outside "the Kingdom," makes the act of violence against the Pacifist unjustified from a serious moral standpoint in the world. (More often than not, I think, we will hav e a pretty good idea of what motivates a person in such extreme cases.)

    In other words, a Pacifist can force a violent perpetrator to either elevate his empirically derived moral sensibility to an ideal perspective (beyond the empirical), or to give up any pretense to acting from a moral perspective. However, there are also situations where a Pacifist may be (passivly) accommodating sheer evil.

    You got me thinking...and I do not claim to have thought beyond the words written here. So I look forward to any "pushing back" that follows.

    Thanks for the great post, Richard!


  5. Yeah, this is interesting stuff, Richard. Like Doug, I see problems making the jump from "die before killing" to "give up your house to homeless." I don't think that your resultant paradox is thus so clean, but your explanations above do help me understand your desire for dialectic that stands in opposition to the Powers. Bravo for such an interesting post.

  6. Tracy,
    I've been thinking along similar lines today. My thoughts have been following Rene Girard, but that the analysis seems to converge on your own: That is, the pacifist aids in moral diagnosis, indictment and persuasion. The goal of pacifism is to expose violence and change the heart of perpetrator. But violence should, it seems, also be prevented, and sometimes only violence (or the threat of it) will do. But meeting violence with violence doesn't function as exposure. Thus, both prevention and exposure are needed to stop violence. But the same person can't do both (you can't be a policeman and a pacifist). So it seems you need both. The two approaches are not necessarily in conflict. They are partners in the same task.

    I'm also not convinced that it holds up. It's a weird post.

    I'm mainly trying to show that a simple ethic of Other before Self (the ethic preached from our pulpits) leads, when pushed, to radical outcomes (non-existence it seems to me). But to maintain existence, as a mortal and metabolizing creature, I have to, at some point, put Self before Other. This is natural enough, we all do it. The argument of my post is that when people claim to live by an ethic of Other before Self that, by just doing the things we do to live, people can point out that we are hypocrites, that we often are living by Self before Other.

    So it seems to me that Christians face an odd choice: Either radicalize and truly live out, to the nth degree, the Other before Self ethic (and people in each generation make this uber-radical choice) or admit that we don't really follow that ethic. At least not most of the time.

    So how are we to live? Put Other before Self some of the time, most of the time, all of the time? Where do you draw the line? We all draw the lines (we do so to spend some minimum time supporting our continued existence). But can we ever justify where we draw the lines? I don't think so. Why don't I give $10 more a week to the poor? How much violence is allowed to fight evil? You're right, of course, these cases might not be parallel. But I think I see a similar dynamic in play: My ethical stance in life is selected arbitrarily leaving me always open to accusations of being a hypocrite. (And, perhaps, feelings of guilt.)

    But like I said to Doug, let's leave open the option that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

    Hope you're having fun over there! Love to you and the students.

  7. Great post!

    I come from a military family, and was taught since childhood to value violence when done in service to the (Re)public. I'm joining up this summer, so it must have taken.

    That said, I have great love for pacifists. The funny thing is that I believe their pacifism is something worth fighting for.

    What I'm getting at is that something like military or police service could be seen as an outgrowth of the "self before other" aspect of Christianity. For example: Dave Grossman's "On Killing" explicitly puts military service in line with John 15:13.

    Does anyone see validity in that view?

  8. I have been thinking along these lines with regard to having children. Having children, it can be argued, is quite a selfish act (especially for a westerner). You would be increasing your already disproportionately high consumption. Considering that we live on a planet with finite resources, someone is going to have to go without or with less the more that you consume. Now very few people buy this argument in the case of 1 or 2 kids. But most people, these days can see having 10 or 12 kids as a problem.

  9. Richard, after going to a pacifist (Mennonite) church for a few years, I've had similar thoughts. Although they're inspired less by our inability to adhere perfectly to an abstract principle such as "self before other" as by the way Mennonites more commonly phrase it, which is taking the Sermon on the Mount as actual operating instructions. I remember a year or two ago I started asking people about divorce and remarriage. Jesus was pretty clear about forbidding it, so why do they seem to be OK with it? I usually got a response to the effect that the world is fallen and you have to make hard choices and yada yada, in other words the same sort of arguments Christians give for committing violence. I think you're right that for most middle-class Americans pacifism is theoretical, since they are rarely called upon to commit violence, whereas marriage is concrete. And the concrete world tends to bring out the fact that most of us are weak.

    Like you I'm not inclined to give up on pacifism, but I agree that this makes it more difficult to occupy a place of moral superiority. As it happens, I'm very sensitive to pain (the dentist usually has to give me a double hit of novocaine), so I've long suspected that I would take a terrible martyr for any cause. I guess we can only pray that, should such a situation arise, God's strength will support us.

  10. Richard,

    A couple of thoughts about sorting through conflicting roles, situations, and rationales for a Christian considering pacifism.

    1. You say, "But the same person can't do both (you can't be a policemean and a pacifist)."

    If you mean that "...the same person can't do both at the same time in the same place while addressing the same situation" I agree. I assume that you do mean that, but think it would be helpful to make that explicit--either way.

    And 2. To Cole above you note, "I'm mainly trying to show that a simple ethic of Other before Self...leads...to radical outcomes..." Does that mean that you reject the idea that a core question to be asked when responding to violence is whether the perpetrator is acting from a supposed moral justification?

    I ask for this clarification because if you do not agree, then I see pacifism as enabling violence. That is, in the face of a violent person mistakenly believing that he is acting out of moral justification, the indictment/persuasion/education of pacifism functions like a Kierkegaardian "occasion" to discover a higher understanding that teaches one--here, the perp--that he is in error. Thus, a path to "salvation" is opened up for the perp by way of pacifism.

    But in the case of a perp acting with moral disregard--perhaps even delighting in it--no path of salvation can be postulated in the situation, no Kierkegaardian occasion presents itself, and this is no mere mental chess game: by not stopping the violence when an opportunity to do so is at hand, a pacifist might well be complicit in the violence s/he fail to stop--a moral Catch 22 for you to add to the mix.

    It is a Catch 22 that might well return a person to your original position, where the policeman and the pacifist perform seperate roles--that is, within society the two pieces that can't be reconciled in one person are both given their seperate, and valued, role. (And both could lead to self sacrifice on genuine moral grounds.)

    I don't know where Gary's question leads, but this might be the juncture where it applies.

    BTW: Would you stop putting up such compelling posts? I have work to do!


  11. Tracy,
    In your two cases above things seems pretty clear. But I wonder if a person--trying to make a choice about using violence in a particular situation--can be expected to know the internal motives of the people attempting to harm them. In many public and political confrontations we might have the time and enough information to sort all that out. That is, the public dynamic of the confrontation sets up a dialogical situation. But in quick, private encoutners, it seems that such issues can't get sorted out and the the pacifist just have to adopt a unilateral stance.

    But I agree that the pacifist could be in many cases be seen as supporting evil by refusing to stop it. But a pacifist could respond that it is not their job to stop evil. Their job is not to participate in evil. Even to the point of death. That seems wildly idealistic and less than pragmatic to most, which goes to the point of the post: Some people feel called to that life and, as a Christian, I can see it as a manifestation of the Kingdom despite it's "impracticality."

    There are lots of strong feelings on both sides of the debate. I routinely see blogs blow up where Christians in the military and Christian pacifists go after each other in very unkind ways. In many ways this post is an attempt to bridge gaps and open real dialogue.

    I had not thought about it that way, but see your point. I think this is a pervasive dynamic.

    I'm glad for your comment. It strikes the note I was trying to sound. BTW, I need to devote a post to the issue: Can a dentist be a pacifist?

  12. Could part of the problem be that we are pitting self vs. other? What if our starting point was community above both self and other? Then, the logical outcome is not necessarily self-annihilation. For example, Jesus did take money from patrons (women) in order to eat, however he did not appear to take an excessive amount. This might be because he was not seeking self-annihilation but justice. Not taking anything would not have helped the community, or brought justice. So, he used what was appropriate and sought to help the rest of the community have what is appropriate.
    Therefore, the real problem might be that we do not have a robust notion of community. If my wife acted violently towards me, I would not respond with violence. This is because she is part of my "us." However, I would not sit passively by because I am part of "us." Therefore, I seek to find ways to resist nonviolently to sustain our community as best as possible. So, the question is whether we can see all of humanity as part of our "us." Violence is primarily something that occurs towards "the other." If we seek to do away with "the other," then violence is harder to justify.
    I realize this does not make things crystal clear by any means. However, it might be a different starting point for how we view the legitimacy of nonviolent resisitance (not necessarily pacificism).

  13. I really appreciate this post. As a severe pacifist myself, I am clearly aware of the paradox you illustrated in the last paragraph, where those of us who agree to vet the pacifist view dialectically discover that pacifism is quite logically complicity in the face of overt and systematic violence.

    You referenced H. Richard Niebuhr - Reinhold Niebuhr faced this tension in a theological culture where pacifism was a presumption.

    While this tension is certainly interesting theologically, I particularly agree with the conclusion, and I assume the point, of your post - that the tenuous nature of pacifism should give cause to caution in whether we demand pacifism of one another. And while I deeply admire this position, it also seems problematic, spurring this sincere question.

    I arrived at my pacifist position with NO instruction from "the church." The larger assumption within my community of faith - for my entire life up to and including now - has stemmed from a nationalistic view that war is, as long as we are Americans, a valid and even noble endeavor.

    Given the near extinction of pacifism in evangelical Christianity, and the problems illustrated in your post of the dialectical problem of demanding pacifism of the Christian community, hasn't the idea of pacifism figuratively sacrificed itself to "Christian" militant nationalism?

    I don't demand that others should be pacifists. I deeply appreciate and admire my brothers and sisters who choose to serve in the armed forces, and take a paradoxical pride in their service. I do, however, make it clear to the Christian community that I AM a pacifist (MILITANTLY so ;-) and that even those of our community who believe in just-violence NEED to ask the questions my position demands.

    I also want to echo Doug Hagler's perspective of aretaic ethics - virtue theory can, and I believe SHOULD, drive a community to eschew extreme positions for the sake of absolutism, and instead embrace the motivations behind Christ's active choices.

    WOW - that got to be a long comment - great post.

  14. Very intriguing post. It is quite clear that to follow the teachings of Christ, one must come to terms with a number of ideals that are paradoxical in nature, as with the "turning the cheek", self-sacrificing lifestyle (or death-style in this case.) It is completely contradictory to the inborn instinct of self-preservation, almost suicidal by nature. The more I study the words of Jesus, the more I realize just how revolutionary and paradigm shattering they truly are. I feel that in modern Christendom this "radical" Christ has been watered down to an easy to swallow doctrine so that things such as church attendance constitute the value of one's faith. In essence, I feel that much of the Church has decided to ignore, rather than come to terms these paradoxical ideals that have direct implications for what it means to be a Follower both individually and as a Body on a social level.

  15. Great stuff here. Pacifism can seem to be paradoxical, but then so is the vocation of a Christian generally. We are called to live out a Kingdom ethic now with the Kingdom still a future reality. We witness now, in the middle of a fallen world, to a redeemed one. So Christian behavior should be paradoxical from a certain vantage point.

    On the other hand Pacifism is very practical. There is nothing complicated or difficult about saying "don't kill people". It has been successfully lived out by countless saints and martyrs and though we often do so imperfectly, we can certainly be effective pacifists right here and right now. So saying that pacifism is paradoxical shouldn't be used as an excuse for not doing it.

  16. Don't think that's right. Jesus could have taken the last scrap of food he was given, ran to a different village, and given it to a starving person, and pretty quickly himself would have died of starvation. Of course, I wouldn't consider this sinful given, in the long run, it's better to try and stay alive and give most of your income away, rather than literally give all of it away immediately and die. You'll do more good that way.

    The thing is that, in a sense then, even Jesus was willing to do an evil in order to safeguard the good - he let poeple go hungry so that he could stay alive and ultimately save more people. Likewise, he got angry and shouted at the pharisees and insulted them - even though he says you shouldn't get angry or call people fools - for the sake of the greater good of rebuking people of sin and, hopefully, making the world a better place through that.

    The thing is that, once we accept that even Jesus was willing to do thins for the greater good which, in themselves, weren't especially desirable situations - unless if you think the pharisees enjoyed being insulted or that it's intrinsically good thing to call people names - then why not authorise occasional acts of violence? 

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