Grandpa and Pacifism: A Veteran's Day Meditation

I think of my grandpa a lot on Veteran's Day, and on Memorial Day and on the 4th of July. He fought in World War 2 and was wounded in France. He was lying down, facing the enemy lines, when a bullet entered his hip, ran the length of his leg, and exited near the foot. He survived, convalesced in France, and came home with a Purple Heart.

When I think about my grandpa I often ask myself questions about pacifism. I do think John Howard Yoder is right. The grain of the universe goes with the pacifists. Theologically, I get that. I know that non-violence is the Christ-like ideal.

But psychologically, I tend to identify with Reinhold Niebuhr. In my heart I'm a realist. I think, like grandpa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that if I had a chance to kill Hitler I would have tried to kill the son of a bitch. If I saw a man raping a child and I had a baseball bat in my hand I know I'd hit him with it. And if I had to hit him in the head to get him to stop I'd hit him in the head. And if I had to kill him to get him to stop then I would kill him. I know myself, despite my intellectual sentiments and pontifications I know how I'd act in that situation.

Mainly, if you care to know, it has to do with how I feel about bullies. I cannot abide a bully. And when I see someone hurting someone weak and vulnerable a rage takes over. Psychologically, I'm not a pacifist. I hate, I despise, bullies.

But this makes me very sad. Because I know that in trying to kill Hitler or hitting the rapist with a bat that I'm sinning. It's wrong. And I'm guilty. Again, I know Yoder is right. Violence isn't going with the grain of the universe.

In short, and I think Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer would agree with me on this point, the issue of pacifism isn't an ethical issue, as it is often framed. For me, it's a theodicy issue. The world is evil. And I'm stuck in it. And to fend off these evil people, to protect the "least of these", I also commit evil. It's a shitty situation.

But to be clear, I believe in turning the other cheek. My rage isn't self-interested or self-protective. It's other-directed, protecting the weak and small. Hit me all you want. Just don't hit other people, particularly those who can't defend themselves.

But I strongly believe there should be pacifists. As I've argued before, I think communities of pacifism must and should exist. They are like monastic communities in this regard. The pacifist is an eschatological person. Pacifists show us the Day. They show us the grain of the universe. As such, pacifists don't fit in or function well in this Present Age. They will look irrational, paradoxical, inconsistent, immoral and irresponsible. Why? Because pacifists don't belong here. This is not their time. They come from Heaven. They are forerunners of the eschaton.

In short, I think there are Christians who will fight bullies. There are not a whole lot of other options in this broken world. Evil to fight evil. The best you can do is fight mightily within yourself so as not to become a monster in the process. But on this side of heaven we are all monsters. Struggling to hold on to our humanity.

And at the same time I think there are Christians called to pacifism. They walk with the Lamb Who Was Slain, carrying crosses with the grain of the universe. They show us a time to come.

Is this position paradoxical? Yes it is. But it's the only way I can reconcile the tensions in my own heart. I think both Yoder and Niebuhr were right. I embrace them both.

I hope there is never another Hitler. But if there was I think I'd join up. I can't abide a bully. And yet, I'd love and agree with my pacifist brother or sister who called me a sinner. They would be, of course, exactly right about that.

Thinking of you grandpa.

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32 thoughts on “Grandpa and Pacifism: A Veteran's Day Meditation”

  1. I'm with you on most of this, but I don't think anyone can escape guilt by choosing not to act. If you choose force, you're guilty of using force. If you refuse to use force, you're guilty of allowing the abuse to continue. This has unpleasant implications for an all-powerful deity, but oh well.

  2. You have summarized the reality of this issue, it seems to me, nearly perfectly. What seems unacceptable is for the pacifist to deny the need to choose the "lesser of two evils" in a violent act against a greater evil, and the righteous violent-doer with denying the fundamental evil of their violence. Mutual humility and lament seem the appropriate postures for both.

  3. I agree with Matt that there is also guilt in allowing abuse to continue. However, I do not think that violence and being completely passive are the only two choices we have. I think we could do well to reevaluate our options sometimes.

  4. Cody makes a good point. I didn't intend to imply that force would always be necessary. Obviously, if there are non-forceful ways of stopping the bully, you ought to prefer those.

  5. Dr. Beck,

    Yoder's point was that being a sign of the eschaton was the calling of the whole church. That is what the church is - the inbreaking of God's kingdom into the present. You cannot outsource that responsibility onto a few people and call it good. The full arrival of the kingdom actually depends on the day that every person hammers their sword into a plowshare.

    I think you do a disservice to pacifists by suggesting that it is unrealistic or impractical. Nothing is more practical than preparation for nonviolent resistance. Our choice is not binary. It is not kill or be killed. Pacifism is really a call to imaginative problem solving. With millions of options at your disposal the pacifist has rejected only one - violence. Those who refuse to reject this option tragically choose it over and over, even when far better options present themselves.

    Pacifism is emphatically NOT "passivism". It is not doing nothing in the face of evil. It is refusing to return evil for evil. It is actively returning good for evil. It is basic christianity.

    Defense of innocents is unfortunately just another excuse to beat someone's head in. How many wars has the US initiated in the past century supposedly in defense of innocents? How many innocents were killed in those wars? Even more poignantly who gets to decide who is an innocent and who is a bully? Beating up bullies just makes you a bully.

    Finally, I understand the emotional side of your article. Pacifists are not people who have no violent urges. Pacifists are people who know full well how violent we are in our heart and who therefore determine to resist it. Hauerwas famously said that he advertises his pacifism so much so that someone will stop him from someday murdering some son of a bitch.

  6. A few clarifications and additional comments...

    I wasn't trying to put pacifism in a bad light. In fact, my hope was to try to put it in a very good light. The best light. My sentence that pacifism might seem irresponsible and immoral was not a statement about my feelings, but about the kind of charges leveled at pacifists, unjustly in my view because, as I said, the pacifists are right.

    In short, this post is less about theology and ethics than it is a personal and biographical meditation about my ambivalences about this issue.

    Let me be clear that I believe in the literal intepretation of the Sermon on the Mount. I believe deeply in non-retaliation. I will turn the other cheek. I will love my enemies. I will pray for those who presecute me. I will do all I can stop violence without using violence.

    Where I get queasy is when I'm called to stand in between the bully and the victim and if the only way to stop the bully is by using violence. Where if, in the final and nth degree, it's either let an innocent be killed or kill the sociopath. Someone's going to die. And my choice determines who. And I know what choice I'll make.

    Of course, when is that situation going to take place?

    Finally, when I say I'd "join up" to stop another Holocaust I'd probably be a medic or something. But I'd try to stop another Auschwitz. I would. And I know it's wrong.

    Finally, the main thrust of this piece is an attempt at a reframe. To see the pacifism debate as less a normative debate than a theodicy issue. Less a post about what a Christian should or shouldn't due and more, as Jeff said, a lament. The post is a lament.

  7. > Defense of innocents is unfortunately just another excuse to beat someone's head in.

    I think quibbling about "innocent" is a red herring. The issue is power. We can imagine a scenario in which a powerful person is violently abusing a weaker person, and in which violence is the most effective means for ensuring that the abuse ends. That's all that's necessary for the dilemma to have teeth.

    > Those who refuse to reject [violence] tragically choose it over and over, even when far better options present themselves.

    I'm not willing to grant this as a blanket statement, but it gets at the critical question for me. Should I allow for violence as the method of last resort, or should I reject it entirely?

    And I'm not terribly interested in the eschaton or what the church does. I want to decide which way I think is the best way for people to live, right now.

  8. Matthew,

    Violence has never been the method of last resort. It has always been the beginning, middle, and end of problem-solving techniques for the powerful in society. The US has been in one constant stream of wars for virtually the entire 20th century and into the 21st.

    If you want to talk about red-herrings "last resort" is a red herring. Who gets to decide when we have arrived at "last resort"? What does that even look like? I'm willing to wager that you can't come up with a situation in which there is truly only one option available and that option is violent. We constantly talk about this point where all options have been exhausted the same way we talk about ticking-time bomb scenarios.. they are not real. There is always gray area. Always opportunity for discretion. Furthermore, if everything else fails you have the option of self-sacrifice remaining. Take the bullet. Stand in front of the innocent being attacked. Make a human chain around Auschwitz and refuse to let it continue. You might get killed. But it is never the case that violent retaliation was your only option. Telling yourself that is just assuaging your conscience.

    As for the eschaton it is all about the best way for people to live, right now. The kingdom is at hand. It is within our power to choose God's peace, now, even if the consequence of that choice is death.

  9. Dr. Beck,

    I apologize if my comment was strident or out of keeping with the purpose of your post. Perhaps I am overly defensive or used to pacifism being regarded as irrational or impractical etc...

    I DO think you could move your practical stance closer to your intellectual one, regardless of your emotions about bullies. Nothing is more pacifist than trying to prevent another Auschwitz, and there are a million good ways to do that - none of which involve violence. Violence actually increases the likelihood of another holocaust.

    You also point to the problem with your statement about knowing your behavior in hypothetical situations involving violence... "when is that going to happen?" Not, when are you going to be a bystander to violence - that could happen anytime. But when is it going to happen that literally the only option available to you is a violent one - worse a fatally violent one? Isn't more probable that there are dozens of ways to intervene or mitigate or prevent violence that are nonviolent? Furthermore, even if such a terrible hypothetical possibility were to become reality how could you ever know in the moment that you'd exhausted all your options, that your adrenaline clouded decision was the best available to you, that there really was no nonviolent solution? Wouldn't you have to question for the rest of your life if you might have jumped the gun?

  10. Violence has never been the method of last resort. It has always been the beginning, middle, and end of problem-solving techniques for the powerful in society.

    Actually, I'd say the preferred method of the ruling class is to make the oppressed think it's for their own good. No need to take people's money from them by force if you can instead convince them that giving it to you will somehow cause a "trickle-down effect" that will benefit everybody. No need to beat your wife into submission if you can convince her that disobeying you is a sin. No need to violently rape your girlfriend if you can convince her she owes you sex.

    Funny thing is, a church committed to avoiding physical violence can be really good at helping them out with that.

    Hope that doesn't drag the conversation too off topic, but I couldn't resist.

  11. > If you want to talk about red-herrings "last resort" is a red herring.

    I didn't communicate this well, but what I meant was that I don't really care to argue about whether a person is able to ascertain the innocence of another person.

    More importantly, I should have communicated that I don't care to argue about scenarios. Yes, many conflicts could be resolved by creative, non-violent solutions. Granted. And we should look for these creative non-violent solutions. Granted. And war between nations destroys the lives of innocents. Granted.

    But I am also convinced that I might find myself in a situation where I cannot come up with any reliable nonviolent solutions and where the most effective, immediate means of ensuring the safety of another person is through the use of violence.

    Another way of putting this is that I see the pacifist as trying to convince me that non-violence is the /only/ value. That when I am trying to resolve a conflict, violent options must be rejected categorically. And that just seems like a stretch ... but at the same time, I kind of want to believe it.

    So humor me and suppose that the value of non-violence could, by some absurd conspiracy of the universe, come into direct conflict with another value, like protecting a child. Why should I decide, today, to always pick non-violence?

  12. OP: You said, "Hit me all you want. Just don't hit other people, particularly those who can't defend themselves."

    Yet, if you saw them beating you, you'd stop them. See what I mean?
    You stop evil, whether it is against others or yourself.
    But if you can tolerate it and you think the toleration will lead to be better outcome, then THAT is the time to employ the "turn the other cheek" philosophy.

    I think you need that nuance to your theory.

  13. Sabio,
    I see what you are saying. But the post isn't really a "theory." It's more of a bit of self-reflection along with a little "I can see both sides of this debate."

  14. Richard,

    To aid our discussion, I made a simple 5-level spectrum of harmful action below. It is more nuanced than a yes-or-no model. Theory or self-reflection, your post made a statement that puts you in class 2A and makes you sound "holier" than you perhaps are. I was trying to help explore the nuances of the simple yes-no model, because the nuances really matter. Sure, you want to see "both" sides of the debate, but there are more than two sides if one is careful to explore the underlying important nuances. I think these nuances are critical in thinking about future real actions -- having been in many violent situations myself. With this schema, where do you stand? Or would you want to offer a C, D or E? Or is this just too analytic and you'd rather keep it fuzzy and everyone feeling good about themselves and the dialogue. But remember, some of us actually end up in real situations where the nuances have deadly implications, from spouse abuse to robbery to war to office disputes. I personally hold 2b. I disagree with Gandhi who held 1 -- Martin Buber also disagreed with Gandhi even if his sacrifice accomplished so much. In this life, I will not be Gandhi.

    1. I will never (try to) harm others

    2. I will sometimes harm others

    A. I will harm someone only to stop them from harming innocent people but will always let them harm me even when I am innocent

    B. I will harm someone only to stop them from harming innocent people but will only let them harm me even when I am innocent but only if I think I can bear their violence to the degree I am comfortable with how it will serve all in the long run.

    c. I will harm someone only to stop them from harming innocent people including myself

    3. I will harm others whenever I want


  15. Matthew,

    I like the way you formulated this question. Here is why I try to always pick non-violence:

    Violence takes a degree of certainty I think is impossible to have in the heat of the moment. In reality I don't know how I would behave when flooded with panic and adrenaline in the face of violence. I might well choose to lash out, and I would have no way of knowing if that was a wise choice. If I train myself mentally to reject violence always, I may come up with a non-violent solution in the heat of the moment. It could still end in tragedy, I do not deny that. But if I prepare myself to accept violence as an option I am far more likely to choose that path when my body is full of endorphins telling me to do just that. Whereas nonviolence could end in tragedy, a violent choice is almost guaranteed to end in tragedy. Because even if I succeed in killing the person I regard as the bully and saving the person I regard as the innocent, someone's son or daughter, father or mother just died - a tragic result.

    On the other hand, if my "last resort" option is self-sacrifice - literally throwing myself in front of the bullet or whatever, this is significantly less tragic, because it would be my choice and a fulfillment of Christ's command to me that I give my life away in order to receive it.

  16. @ Aric

    I have practice Aikido for years in several different dojos. Some teach NO violence -- no inflicting damage -- only deflect. Some teach dual techiques where you can opt for severe/deadly damage or deflection -- you learn two variations of the technique.

    I have found that having the inner ability to protect oneself while culturing peaceful options in ones heart (and practice), leaves someone more powerful than only practicing peace without exploring the strong defense options. It is rather ironic. Perhaps this is a bit of a tantric path and not best embraced by all personality types, but it allows what you speak of -- culturing peace so it is a more ready option and part of the imagination, while preserving the good with strength when needed.


  17. "Wouldn't you have to question for the rest of your life if you might have jumped the gun?"

    If my non-violence permits the death of another human -- if my passion for personal holiness causes me to allow another to die -- how am I any better than the legalist who for the sake of his own purity ignores the plight of others?

    Either choice will keep me up nights questioning -- I think I'd rather have the blood of the aggressor on my hands than the blood of the victim.

    This side of That Day, believing you can engage with the world and keep your hands clean is blind self-justification.

    How does the picture of Jesus in Revelation 19 factor into the church's second incarnation of the Christ? That's not *his* blood all over him -- justice is not a clean business.

  18. Whew, what a post, and great comments.

    First off, I want to make clear that I am no expert. I've read some hauerwas, yoder, Bonhoeffer, and others (lee camp was actually who I read when I realized that I was wrong about justified violence)

    I live in the inner city with my wife and we are very open with our neighbors. I make sure to talk to anyone, put myself in what many would consider vulnerable positions with regularity. I believe that non violence is the way that Christians should respond to violent situations. I don't know how I'll respond when that day comes (it surely will) but I pray daily that the spirit will guide me in my response. If nothing, I've seen since living here, that "justified" violence just creates more and more violence. And Because of the resurection, I'm willing to put my life on the line for even those I don't know. I tell myself that daily, and am intenional in not running from what could be a dangerous situation (such as when I had a beer with a homeless man who in the course of conversation told me he was institutionalized because of schitzophrenia that resulted in violent rages). I was scared as he'll to even be out there talking to him, but I trust that in that situation, the spirit will guide me, and know that what that person needs more than any amount of therapy is someone who loves and accepts him and I'm not going to let fear change that.

    So I do think that nonviolence is essentially the godly response to injustice. Shoot, if anyone could have done violence right to bring just outcomes, it would have been Jesus, but even he, in loving his enemies, acted faithfully by making himself weak to show us all the results of the idea that violence ever can create justice or righteousness.

  19. Matthew -
    perfectly introduces the reality of time/urgency/immediacy in the decision process:

    "But I am also convinced that I might find myself in a situation where I cannot come up with any reliable nonviolent solutions and where the most effective, immediate means of ensuring the safety of another person is through the use of violence".

    Nick Gill -
    "Either choice will keep me up nights questioning -- I think I'd rather have the blood of the aggressor on my hands than the blood of the victim."

    I believe all here in this blog would hope never to find ourselves subjected to such an urgent predicament, forcing ourselves to deploy violent resolutions. However, some of us have not been so fortunate to avoid such situations.

    Gary Y.

  20. Richard,
    Have you read any Walter Wink? I prefer his approach to some of Yoder's, personally. I think Aric got close with his discussion of "creative problem solving." Wink's exposition of certain of Jesus' teaching as a third way is excellent. 'The Powers That Be' is a much more accessible condensation of his three-volume works on the subject...

  21. Great discussion. The readers on this blog are amazing.

    Here's my 2c:

    I like to think of history as being on a redemptive trajectory where violence is concerned. By that, I mean, that the ancient world may have been extremely violent and certain sorts of violent reactions to violence were "justifiable" (I use the word loosely) within that context. Then, along came Jesus, announcing another way - a way of nonviolence that is ultimately exemplified on the cross.

    Like a great many other things, this way of nonviolence then became our vision, our call, pointing toward the future. It was obviously not realized at the time, as a great many things were not realized. But Jesus' resurrection signaled the beginning of the end of that sort of world.

    We now find ourselves on a trajectory that is leading inevitably to that world. The question for Christians becomes, how can we encourage our leaders to act, in humility, grace, love, etc. in such a way to bring that world closer to reality? Sometimes, perhaps, it becomes necessary to get hands bloodied (I'm thinking here of Richard's sentiment about bullies). But that act should always, on some level, be viewed as tragic; a consequence of failure - necessary, perhaps, but the result of our inability to find a way to realize the way of nonviolence.

    In this context, the trajectory of nonviolence should always factor into discussions of whether nations ought to fight particular wars. Furthermore, it is the duty of the Church to stay centered on this message. In a time of war, we don't advocate or cheer for war, nor should we participate in its glorification. Instead, we articulate a vision of a future in which lion and lamb lie down. We encourage leaders to find peaceful resolution in the way of Jesus, even offering to make political and material sacrifices of our own to maintain it, if necessary. We pray for our troops in one breath, and for the enemy's troops in the next.

    [Greg- I want to read Walter Wink sometime, but haven't yet.]

  22. This an excellent article - thought provoking. We need to be careful about forming a theology on something that is driven by hypothetical situations. "If" is then used a lot to develop the argument and the result will tend to be weak. Beck admits to what he sees as right: following Jesus is not likely to be easy. If it is we might be taking the path of least resistance, which is not the Jesus way.

    Don T.

  23. Dr. Beck,

    I used to be a generic Christian, but a year ago started on an anabaptist path. Your piece expresses exactly how I felt and would have said prior to that (it's still something that I struggle with). With that in mind, I have a few comments:

    1) You sound like you put pacifism on a pedestal, which is one thing I think Aric was trying to point out. Saying that pacifists are not of this world, but from heaven sounds like you are trying to negate your Christian responsibility to pursue peace now (if only I was Christian enough...). Say that you admine them, but that they should be relegated to monastic communities isn't much better. What good does it do the world at large if pacifism is segregated? Again, does the fact that knowing someone else is being pacifistic ease my burden to do seek peace?

    2) You are right that it's a problem of theodicy, but it's a matter of reversing your thought process. You wrote:

    >But to be clear, I believe in turning the other cheek. My rage isn't self-interested or self-protective. It's other-directed, protecting the weak and small. Hit me all you want. Just don't hit other people, particularly those who can't defend themselves.

    Being Christian isn't supposed to be a thought exercise of belief and unbelief, it's a matter of practice. Christ doesn't want you to believe in pacifism, he wants you to practice it. It's a matter of rebuilding self from the old to the new; as my old self is the evil in the world. By practicing turning the other cheek it becomes muscle memory and instinctual in your new self. If every Christian did this, there would be no evil in Christian community and might actually convince others to join us (voila! The Kingdom!).

    3) Being a Christian shouldn't be hoping that there isn't a new Hitler, it's making sure that we don't get to that point. If you had a time machine you could go back and kill Hitler, but wouldn't going back and be an image of Christ in his life?

    Sorry if this sounds self-righteous, as it's not my intention. As I said, I struggle with this too.

    Many thanks for your site. As Mortimer Adler said, you have to read people smarter than you if you actually want to learn something. I'm learning tons from your site.

  24. I want to thank everyone for all the thoughtful comments and especially those pushing back and calling me (and all of us) toward the vision and life of non-violence. You've affected me profoundly. I'm with Matt, I'm grateful for the people who take the time to comment. How often are blog comments spiritually uplifting?

    Thinking more about the post and your comments I'm not sure what I'm trying to say:

    Am I saying that violence is sometimes justified?

    Am I simply making a confession that I don't think I'm strong enough to be a pacifist?

    Am I saying that when it comes to violence the Christian witness needs a diversity of communities mutually critiquing each other? A dialectical situation?

    Maybe I'm saying a bit of all of this. Regardless, I'm glad the post provoked some thought. I've benefited from sharing it an reading your reactions.

    And I just want you to know I'd never hit any of you in the head with a bat...

  25. For all I really know, Christian pacifists are right. And for all I know, they’re wrong. But another for-all-I-know-possibility is that God calls some to be pacifists, and some not to be, and each ought to act in accordance with their own calling. I don’t know that that last option is right, but I think it’s the one I most lean toward, at least right now, and I don’t see it as at all paradoxical.

    My reason for being attracted to that last possibility is *not* that it means everybody is right, at least about what they themselves should do. Even if what we ought to do is person-specific as that last option says, it’s still perfectly possible for individuals to mis-discern what their own calling is.

    Here’s an interesting possibility (and that it’s possible is all I’m claiming), Richard: Maybe if the situation arose in which you responded with violence, you would think that you were sinning (& maybe you’d even say, as here, that “of course” you were sinning)*, while in fact the situation would be like that of Huck Finn, when he thought he was acting wrongly by not turning Jim in, while in fact he was doing the right thing, and was correctly acting in response to his true duty. (The difference would be that you'd be acting rightly because of a person-specific calling, while, I believe, Huck was responding to the duty *anyone* would have in his situation.)

    *Looking back up at the last paragraph of the post, I see that what you really say is that of course you’d be a sinner, not that of course you’d be sinning in connection with the violent act in question. So I’m not sure how to understand that—whether you were just saying that, like all of us, you are a sinner, whether or not this action would be a sin, or whether you’re agreeing that the violent action in question would of course be a sin.

  26. So far neglected in this discussion is the third way.
    The holocaust was possible because American Christians refused to grant access to immigrating Jews. Many, many were turned away at the port. Where did they have left to go? The Zionist movement was not really strong enough to support militaristic activity among Jews, but shoved off the shores of freedom, they scrapped for Lebensraum (Hitler's "Elbow Room") in Palestine. Scofieldian eschatology and the desire to assuage guilt developed into a Zionist American policy.
    Most often the opportunity to placate the bully comes long before they have an innocent under their thumbs. How can we help the politically oppressed around the world? Give them green cards and invite them to live with us. Lutheran Refugee Services has been involved in this effort for a long time, and does a relatively good job of it, though they are dependent upon government funds for much of their operation and are constrained by unjust immigration quotas.
    Nathanael Snow

  27. Great post. I'm not sure that Bonhoeffer was actually a realist in the mold of Niebuhr though. He viewed his involvement with the assassination attempt as something he needed forgiveness for even at the end. That sounds more like the kind of thing that you're arguing for.

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