Is Pacifism Returning?

Though many Christians including many Protestants have ignored the literally millions of Protestants who are Christian pacifists, and even considered them anti-American, their tribes keep increasing. There are whole denominations of them— various kinds of Old and New order Amish, and various sorts of Mennonites, and Brethren and Quakers as well.  And scattered among the many other more familiar Protestant denominations are quite a few as well.  An interesting read of related matters can be found in the book Moral Minority by David R. Swartz who chronicles what he called the Evangelical left, by which he doesn’t mean liberal theologically or ethically, he means totally pro-life— opposing abortion, capital punishment and war but they have not withdrawn from general society like the Amish.  But for most Christians, when they think of Christian pacifism they think of the Amish, and perhaps an excellent movie like Harrison Ford’s The Witness, or more recently Hacksaw Ridge.  Here’s a classic image from my time living in the middle of Amish country in the middle of Ohio, and visiting places like the country store in Hebron which among many curiosities sells self-composting toilets for those who will not use electricity.

When I’m talking about Christian pacifists I should first make clear that its: 1) not necessary withdraw from Western society; 2) not necessary to dress up like 18-19th century German folk, 3) not necessary to forgo things like cars, electricity etc; and 4) not necessary to be farmers or other more rural occupations like barn builders etc; 5) not necessary to abstain from American political life etc.   What I am talking about is personal pacifism.  What I mean by this will soon become evident.

In the first place a disclaimer.  Personal pacifism is what it says it is. It does not involve governments for example.  The NT is clear enough that governments have a right to exist, a right to tax people, and even a right to bear arms for defensive purposes.  Too often in American history we have made the mistake of assuming that our country was founded on specific Christian principles, and at best this is a half truth, which is also to say it’s half false.  Only in a very broad and general sense can one even say this to be historically correct.  While things were not set up to provide for a separation between church and state (despite modern readings of the data), it was set up to make sure we did not have a government sponsored church of a particular sort, whether Catholic or Protestant.   The blending together of patriotism for a specific nation, namely the USA, with Christianity is problematic in the extreme, especially when the assumption is that we  Americans are some kind of chosen people of God, something which the Bible nowhere affirms.   This is not to say that Christians cannot serve their country in various ways, and so be patriotic.   What personal pacifism of a Christian sort means is a commitment to ‘do no violence’.  So for example, a Christian such as a Seventh-Day Adventist who cannot in good conscience shoot anybody, can nonetheless be a chaplain and medic in the army, as depicted in Hacksaw Ridge.

At the heart and root of Christian pacifism is an insistence on taking the Sermon on the Mount in Mt. 5-7 as Jesus’ blueprint as to how to be a good follower of him and his teachings.  Again, this is not a posture that can or should be imposed on governments or non-Christian citizens who are not committed to the ethic of Jesus and Paul (see e.g. the second half of Romans 13 and 14).   This is a personal decision that comes as a part of a Christian life that wants to obey what Jesus and Paul said about these matters.   I do not see any basis in the NT for taking a different position on this as a Christian, but I respect Christians who have taken other views of the evidence.  I freely admit that many devout Christians disagree with me about this.  I’m simply not willing to violate my conscience and my faith on this matter.

And so, when I was in high school and the Vietnam war was raging, there was a draft.  And I was subject to the draft, but I believed that killing people was immoral, and the Vietnam war could not be justified in any way as an example of a ‘just war’ which is the lesser of two evils.  WWII would qualify, and probably the war in Ukraine to defend that nation from invaders qualifies.  So, I decided I would go to the post office and get the conscientious objector forms.  Now my father was a WWII veteran and he tried to talk me out of it, again and again.   But I was determined.  And out of his love for me, he went with me to get the forms, but he asked that I wait and see what my draft number would be, before filling them out and turning them in.  I did so, and by God’s providence my number was pretty high— 192.  And so I never turned them in.  But in my first year at Carolina in 1970 I saw what devastating and life-changing things happened to students my age when they got a low draft number.  One of them in my dorm through his TV out the window when he saw the number, and went and joined the Peace Corp.   Another was so distraught he had no clue what to do, and dropped out of school. It  was awful, and it wasn’t because these boys didn’t love their country.  They just didn’t think participating in an immoral war counted as patriotism.

One final clarification.  Christian pacifist is not opposed to using some force, so long as it doesn’t involve actual violence against another human being.  He might for instance wrestle a thief to the ground or get in the way of a gunman and try to take away his weapon.  Force is one thing, lethal force is another.   There is more to be said about this matter, but this is enough to give you something to chew on.  I have no problem with people having hunting rifles and doing hunting, and I don’t think the Bible requires people to be vegan. But that’s a story for another day.

Ben Witherington

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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