Why Pacifism is Complicated: I Get Why You Don’t Get It
I catch a lot of flak for my theological stance on pacifism. I have given the greater part of my life to the study of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, and have settled on beliefs that I believe to be unavoidably true and right according to Scripture. Yet, I am constantly accused of being under the influence of the zeitgeist; as if the conclusions I’ve drawn after years of dedicated studies of the Scripture are nothing more than weak reflections of faddish cultural progressivism. I find such assertions offensive.
Moreover, I have been accused of using social media to be “provocative.” In a post I refused to debate, it was argued that I should not post provocative statements that I was unwilling to defend. It’s a fair argument, if I felt that to avoid having to defend every one of my thoughts I should avoid those that might be provocative to some.
What I have come to realize is that the gospel of Christ, when properly shared, is provocative. It goes against the grain of everything I want to believe about the world, and every way in which I want to respond to the world. Thus, my peers often stare at me from a distance with great confusion.
I get it. I do. Years of cultural indoctrination by the cult of state, coupled with multiplied compromises made by church pastors and leaders over the years, have left us quite comfortable with a religion that calls us to invisible faith, with little to no visible change of engagement with the world. We’ve replaced radical ethics with an American brand of Christian moralism, which comes in more flavors than just fundamentalism. This brand of moralism avoids any ethic that might question, or dare offend, the status quo of the nation cult or its sacred institutions. We are quite okay, these days, with dismissing, or at least revisioning, statements like “turn the other cheek.” I cannot recount the times that a disclaimer has been added to this teaching by Christian teachers in the churches I have attended. It is often said, “But this doesn’t mean that Jesus intends for you to be a doormat!” It sounds good, and it sets well, because in the end it doesn’t challenge the status quo of Americanism and its cultic teachings that are now wedded with American Christianity (and not just Evangelicalism). On the other hand, when the church uses Scripture to regulate individuals’ personal behaviors, it rarely offers any disclaimers; instead, it just omits the disclaimers present in the context so that it might extract that part which will create the most guilt, and thus position it as the body who must be consulted to find penance. More can be said about this phenomenon, but that’s another blog for another time. Suffice to say, the church is often guilty of treating Scripture differently when it pertains to moderating personal behaviors than it does when confronting uncomfortable social issues.
So, over the next few weeks, I want to try and explain my philosophy/theology of all things related to war, evil, violence, pacifism, and Jesus. Rather than trying to sum these things up in 140 characters or less, I want to break them down, and try to, as simply as I can, let you into my thought process. This will not be an academic endeavor; meaning, I will not provide this citation or that citation (except when necessary). Rather, I am going to “spill my guts,” in my words, from my heart, so that you can get a feel for what I mean when I say the things I say. For now, let’s begin with a brief overview. Before we can even begin address the complicated issues of pacifism, some initials views need to be stated.
1. Evil is a complicated problem.
Western Christianity has the tendency to interpret everything linearly. That is, the more we can make things two-dimensional, sequential, and orderly, the better we feel about our interpretation of them. This is why most of our sermons are outlines with points, rather than dialogue with the text, and why we are fascinated by readings of Revelation that necessitate a timeline and actual lengths of time. This linear approach has also lead to sn embrace of a sort of cosmic dualism. Our theology often pits good and evil as polar opposites at war with one another. The mascots of the struggle are God and Satan respectively. Everything is black and white, and you are on either one side or the other. This is not biblical theology. Evil is circular, cyclical, and spiraling. It is complex, and insidious. Satan does not have a team. He plays on both teams: us and them. It is covert, presents as light, can do good things, and can have great intentions. It is present in systems and individuals. Satan plays a better hero than he does a villain. Evil cannot be answered with simple, linear, or dualistic solutions. It demands nuance. It cannot be dealt with until it is exposed—and exposing it is tricky business because it always puts you in the crossfire.
2. The Bible teaches us how to deal with evil. The story of Jesus exemplifies how to deal with evil.
Evil can only be seen for what it is when it is allowed to run its course. By running its course, we will see that evil is like a house built on the sand. It is like a black hole. It sucks everything around it into itself, only to destroy it. It collapses on itself. This is my first foundation for pacifism. To violently fight against evil, even when it yields seemingly good results, is to participate in a system that is slowly destroying everything it around it. It is like “The Nothing” that is eating away beautiful Fantasia in The Never Ending Story. By refusing to participate in evil, or violence, we render it useless and expose it for what it is. Bonhoeffer said it best:
The overcoming of evil now occurs by letting evil run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered. Evil meets an opponent for which it is no match… Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers…
(Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 132-133).
The prophets taught us this, and Jesus showed us how it works.
3. Resisting evil takes a lot of faith.
For this kind of life to be realized, I have to maintain faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ example showed us what letting evil run its course looks like on the cross. He also showed us that God is at work undoing what evil has done. With scars still on his body, life was returned, and God promised the same to all who buy into it. That is faith. It takes a lot of faith to decide not to intervene, not to return violence, and not to buy into the system. It goes against the grain of everything Americanism teaches us.
4. Resisting evil takes a lot of skill.
Biblical pacifism is not some sort of reservation to the idea of “whatever will be, will be.” It is a resistance, not a surrender! Evil is resisted, stripped naked, by our refusal to participate in its schemes, but not in our refusal to confront it and challenge it. This is a skill that Jesus possessed so well. He knew when to speak, and when not. He knew when to disappear from the crowds, and when to make a scene. He knew when to weep for the city, and when to take up a whip and vandalize unrighteous businesses. He knew it would ultimately mean his death, but he exhibited a nimble set of skills that helped him navigate the waters of systemic and social evil.
These four premises are foundational to my ongoing understanding and approach to war, violence, justice, and pacifism. I welcome your questions, and will try to answer in a timely manner. It is my desire, over the next few weeks, to explain in greater detail all the things I know frustrate my peers to no end about this kind of an understanding of Scripture. Stay tuned.