Pacifism and Holy Ingratitude

I've been reading Peter Leithart's book Gratitude: An Intellectual History. This post isn't review of this very informative book, but a thought I had about pacifism as I was reading about how the Romans considered the early Christians to be an ungrateful group of people.

A central theme of the story Peter tells in Gratitude is how the early Christians practiced what Peter calls a holy ingratitude.

Specifically, the Romans believed that Roman citizens owed a certain amount of gratitude toward the state. Romans lived in a great, prosperous and generally peaceful empire. Thus, Roman citizens owed the state gratitude.

But the Christians seemed to differ. Confessing Jesus as "Lord of all" and directing their gratitude toward God rather than toward the state the Christians busted up the cycles of gratitude that had kept Roman citizens bound to the state.

One way that Christians expressed this holy ingratitude was in their refusal to kill for the state. This refusal struck the Romans as hugely ungrateful. Christians benefited as Roman citizens. Yet they refuse to participate in the fighting that created and maintained all those benefits. Non-violent Christians in their refusal to participate in the Roman military were non-patriotic slackers and free-riders.

In short, the pacifism of the early Christians was experienced as shockingly ungrateful.

And yet, this was a holy ingratitude as Christians were obediently following the non-violent ethic of Jesus.

And it seems to me that nothing much has changed.

Specifically, the main criticism directed at Christian pacifists in the US (or in other nation states) is the same criticism Rome directed at the early Christians: ingratitude. How can you enjoy the benefits of the state that others have died for yet refuse to participate in the protection and maintenance of the state?

In short, in the eyes of the state pacifism has always seemed profoundly, shockingly and infuriatingly ungrateful.

This Christian ingratitude was the main reason the Romans hated, loathed and despised the early Christians and persecuted them so vigorously.

And this holy ingratitude continues to be the reason why the Way of Jesus remains so galling today.

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16 thoughts on “Pacifism and Holy Ingratitude ”

  1. Well, quite. And then there's that wonderful Orwell quote (bloody Orwell, always pointing out the inconvenient truths like a non-religious, chain-smoking Isaiah): "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." It's not gratitude per se... it's the fear that by being non-violent we are being hypocritical, in a way that only privileged people can afford to do, perhaps?

  2. Oops! Apparently that's one of those misquotes that get everywhere:

    A military version of "by all means preach the Gospel, and where necessary use words", if you will.

  3. Er -- thanks!

    In Benediction (2013), novelist Kent Haruf's stunning, beautiful finale to his trilogy on the place and people of Holt, Colorado, the recently relocated minister Rob Lyle preaches one Sunday (during the second war in Iraq) on Luke 6:26ff., daring to take our Lord at his word on enemy-love:

    "Afterward it wasn't clear what Lyle expected the sermon to accomplish. But he wasn't even half-finished when some of his congregation, men mostly, hurrying their wives and children with them, but some women too, began to rise up from their pews and glare at him and walk out of the church."

    One man says: "You're a damn terrorist sympathizer. He rose up in the middle of the sanctuary, ... A big heavyset man. We never should of let you come here. You're an enemy to our country."


    Empires will construe as empires construe -- and Christians will construe as Christians construe.

  4. Interesting that this came up today as it is something I have been discussing and thinking about in other contexts. It is a valid criticism, though, is it not? Pacifists rely on the rule of law that is provided and enforced by others. You previously brought up The Road (which I read btw after your discussion - highly recommend it) Could you effectively be a pacifist in that context? Although the go to for most pacifists is war and military, I rarely see much discussion of police. In modern societies the state holds a monopoly on violence and generally within the state it is the police, not the military, who wield that monopoly. Do pacifists think the police should be disbanded? Or non-violent? Or that they just should be police officers, and leave that dirty job to someone else? Has there ever been, could there ever be, a non-violent state? Can true Christianity only exist with the protection of a non-christian state?

  5. It's not only in the "eyes of the [completely dehumanized] STATE" that it seems shockingly ungrateful. It also seems shockingly ungrateful in the eyes of the pacifist's NEIGHBORS - flesh-and-blood humans, that is, with whom the pacifists otherwise share close community - who DO send their children, or even themselves, into harm's way for the sake of their pacifist neighbors.

    It's so easy to cast aspersions on a disembodied STATE and speak of it as something other than human so that demonizing it is fair game. But if I send my sons into combat to provide security for my neighbors, and yet they are unwilling to do so for mine, then we have a human-to-human problem. Seems to me you have spoken about non-transactional mutuality in the past on this blog. When we move from the subhuman STATE scale to the NEIGHBOR scale, the question of mutuality between and among brethren takes on actual humanity.

  6. This is a great point. Do pacifists not call the police if they are being attacked in the desire to avoid violence by proxy? Or is that OK?

  7. "We never have an example recorded in the gospel of Jesus witnessing acts of violence against innocents,"

    Such violence was the constant background of his life. You can claim that gospels ignore it, but you can't claim that a provincial non-citizen failed to notice it.

  8. Nor did I. But since it was not recorded we have no way of determining what his position would be.

  9. So none of his teaching about how to be a person had anything to do with the dominant social reality of his context?

  10. I think it all had to do with his social context, and the social context the gospel writers seem most keen for him to address was the role of oppressed people vis a vis their oppressors. It seems to me there is a lot of room between 'Pray for those who persecute you,' your Roman occupiers, and never use violence even in defense of the innocent. It seem to be an overreach that could only be made within the context of a group that relies on another group for their safety and security.

  11. Of course there never has been and never will be a nonviolent state, and of course Christians may well -- and do -- “benefit” from state violence. But then the charge of hypocrisy against Christian pacifists is nothing new either. Celsus was making the accusation in the 2nd century. But as Origen countered, the charge would stick only if Christians (a)
    were actually encouraging others to engage, rather than trying to dissuade them from engaging, in acts of violence on their behalf, and/or (b) were doing bugger all themselves to contribute to the wellbeing of the empire in other, nonviolent ways. Which does not mean that Christian pacifists should not feel profoundly disturbed at this state of affairs. But then, since when should any Christian expect the gospel to be other than a knife plunged into the heart of a good conscience? In any case, the distinctive call of Christians is to follow Jesus in practicing the arts of truth-telling and peace-making, and to behave in ways that governments and non-Christians cannot be expected to behave. Certainly it is not the vocation of the church -- the euphemism is, I think, “to make the world safe for democracy”.

    As far as domestic policing goes, here there is no consensus among Christian pacifists. Interestingly, Roman soldiers had a range of responsibilities that were nonviolent, infrastructural (e.g. fixing roads and delivering mail), yet the early church’s prohibition on soldiering was absolute. Conversely, the contemporary militarization of police in the US (the
    NYPD has bragged about being the 10th largest army in the world) -- it certainly raise issues that would make Yoder himself revisit the provisional distinctions he drew between military and police actions. In any case, the Christian pacifist should certainly be actively concerned about more just policing, while critiquing its increasing resemblance to an army, idolatrous collaborations with the state, and inherently violent systemic racism.

  12. I used to equate pacifism with weakness because it was simply taught as being 'good Christian behavior' and it was hard to equate non-violence with anything other then losing every fight so avoiding conflict became the best defense. Now I would see it more as the willingness to actively engage in conflict with the express purpose of pitting the other parties desire for vengeance against their compassion. Essentially you are sacrificing yourself as an atonement for whatever wrong the other person perceives and accepting the cost to yourself as the price which allows the other to feel peace via their sense of justice being fulfilled. There is something profoundly powerful about an opponent that freely allows you exact your vengeance upon themselves that tends to awaken compassion in most circumstances. In the worst scenario it satisfies the desire for blood and death, making the pacifist the payment required so that the blood lust is sated.

    There are some really good discussion points going on below I wanted to comment on too. For example the human cost for those that send their loved ones to war. I think I would agree that generally pacifists do not 'pay the price' for freedom because they exercise a lazy pacifism, they pretend that avoiding conflict is pacifism, whereas I think to be a peacemaker in the Jesus sense is to actively engage in conflicts. In places of extreme violence this cost becomes much more apparent and immediate then at the schoolyard, but I think if we are willing to send our loved ones off to kill in our name, we should be willing to let them go voluntarily die for the sake of a longer peace.

    In regards to policing and domestic conflict I would again say that a peacemaker in authority has the choice to deescalate a situation by accepting the danger and consequences of exercising their power in a way that allows them to accept the brunt of violence rather then society. In a practical sense this means that you will always be the one who shoots last, who responds with the least possible force, who accepts that in a riot situation it will be the police who are injured and killed and not the protesters. It is just a different mentality, that the power of the police is not to exercise violence but rather to accept upon themselves the violence of society and pay that price so that others do not have too. I know this is a hard sell which is why it is something people have choose for themselves, and we all have our limits at which we decide that the aggressors actions require vengeance instead of mercy.

    We all want to die a meaningful death but in this world a meaningful death is defined very differently then the way Jesus showed us. The problem is that no one else in this world will think you gave your life for a worthy cause because most of the time the world will simply label having compassion or love for those who mean you harm as foolishness because your enemy does not deserve to be treated as a person of any value.

    Honestly I don't know how ready I am to be a peacemaker or pacifist now, and more then that I don't even know if my family would understand because it isn't something we really talk about. But I think it is a good conversation for the church to have so we at least can honor and remember those that are willing to walk down that path, rather then allowing the world to dictate how our peacemakers are remembered.

    Thank you for making me think about it though, because I don't think being a peacemaker or a pacifist is something I could do without firmly choosing it beforehand out of love or compassion for those who do evil.

  13. Sunday Morning did a piece on Desmond Doss this weekend, thought it was germane to the discussion:

  14. According to Jesus, being despised is part of what we can expect if we choose to follow him through the narrow gate and walk the hard road. I have lost friends because of my position that Jesus commands non-violent response to evil. This makes me sad. The early church up until about 170 AD forbid any Christian from serving in the military. Even when the church Father's decided in the fourth century that a Christian could fight in a just war (and there was specific criteria), he or she was still forbidden to defend themselves in their homes or on the street. A Christian soldier who returned from a just war was helped as someone who had incurred damage to himself. There were rituals to purify him. I will concede for the point of the conversation that there can be a just war or a time to kill. However I do believe that according to the Christian criteria of what is required for a war to be just can not be met by any overt or covert actions my government has directed its soldiers to fight in that have taken place in my lifetime, from Vietnam on. I do not believe any Christian should serve in any unjust war or action except in a medical or chaplain roll. I think Christians should not sit back and ignore unjust wars or other actions but should find creative and imaginative ways to protest and put themselves in harms way to stop unjust actions. I agree with President Kennedy when he said, "War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."

  15. It is probably obvious but I just want to point out that Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector. His story is featured in the award winning documentary The Conscientious Objector.

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