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Continuing to Engage with the Biblical Arguments for Pacifism

Don’t fear death

This argument, based on Matt 10:28 (“do not fear those who kill the body…”), says that Christians should not defend themselves because of what Jesus teaches here about us not “fearing death.”

Here in the midst of Jesus’ instructions to His Apostles before He sends them out, I think it is clear that Jesus is talking about the fear of persecution and wellness, not random violence or personal assault. Examine the verses immediately preceding:

24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

It is an exaggeration to say that to seek to avoid death is the same as “to trust in violence more than God.”  This is not the same thing.  I can choose to not fear death but still try to keep my cholesterol down, wear my seatbelt, etc.  I can not fear death and still harm someone trying to harm me or a loved one.

In fact, I have never had to do it, but I am guessing that when a police officer or a soldier charge toward gunfire, they are choosing to “not fear death” as they race to potentially take the life of another.

Persecution

I already take the stance that it is probably an error and could be sinful for a Christian to resist or fight back to avoid persecution.  There are too many places where Jesus seems to be instructing Christians to accept persecution as normal and will even be rewarded, for us think that fighting back against persecution is the appropriate choice.  (2 Cor 4:8-12, I Peter 4:12-16, John 15:18-21, Matt 5:12, Mark 13:9, I Cor 4:12, and most poignantly, John 18:36-37).

Side note.  Taking a quick glance at John 18:36 shows Jesus claiming that if His Kingdom was of this world, Jesus says that HIS followers would have been fighting if it were a kingdom of this world.  It sounds like maybe the principle of people fighting for their earthly kingdoms might be appropriate.  I have never seen this connected to the question of Christians being soldiers, but I think it might apply.

There are many passages that indicate that even though our citizenship is in heaven, that we are also part of an earthly government (Romans 13, I Peter 2:13-17).

The example of Jesus

In the examples of the gospels and in I Peter 2:21, Jesus does not fight back when He is being executed and that is an example for us.   This is often used as an argument against violence.  I agree that in the case of direct persecution, especially by the governing authorities, it is probably wrong for the Christian to fight back.

However, keep in mind that following this example would also mean not speaking up in court to defend ourselves against persecution.   He didn’t just not destroy everyone in those situations, but He kept His mouth closed (except to get Himself convicted).

I have not found that example encouraged anywhere so far.

The 1 Peter passage actually says that Jesus was leaving us an example:

 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  I Peter 2:21-23

However, the emphasis here seems to be on suffering, especially persecution – not really about when or where or how fighting back would make sense in a general sense.  The passage has built through enduring sorrow, even while suffering unjustly.

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The Arguments

So, we examine the passages used to defend Christian Pacifism.

So, let me make clear, I am not at all saying that killing is always right (even in times of war, execution or self defense), but am just making the case that it CAN be right.  I am not going to try to make the case that modern followers of Jesus are RESPONSIBLE to be willing to be violent.  Maybe someday I will try and see if that case can be made.

For now, I am only going to defend the ethic that honest, devoted followers of Christ ARE NOT required to AVOID violence at any cost.

We must be very careful when we look at scripture in these conversations.  Agenda driven people often handle passages poorly or in such a way that defends their views.  I pray that I do not do this… I will strive not to do this, but have been saddened to run into multiple places where words are redefined or scripture referenced as saying thing that it does not say.  In many of the books and articles I have read on this topic I run into passages that I have to think the author knows are not appropriate or at least not used appropriately.

These are some of the most common arguments made:

Loving enemies

Matt 22:34-40 – “love your neighbor”

Matt 5:44-45 – “love your enemies”

Luke 6:35-36 – “love your enemies”

These passages are about loving people – neighbors and enemies.  The presumption here is that violence would never be appropriate with people we love. This is patently absurd.  I could easily be forced to tackle a child who is about to step in front of a car… if my child became a murderer, might I have to kill him to prevent him from killing his own mother or younger sibling?  I imagine this has actually happened before to someone.

I would love my son the entire time.

I also think I could potentially be doing it in the Name of Jesus Christ.  I think I could protect a child by killing a predator in the Name of Jesus.

I consider this, in fact, the ultimate question of all Christian ethics.  Can I do this thing in the Name of Jesus Christ (Col 3:17).  Most behaviors can certainly be done in NOT in the Name of Jesus Christ (including killing or harming) but I also think that most behaviors can be done in the Name of Jesus Christ.

False dichotomies

“Do not return evil for evil” (I Peter 3:9, Rom 12:17, I Thess 5:15)…but is violence evil – at least necessarily evil?   That is the exact case that the pacifist must make!  It is not presumed.

It is circular argument for the pacifist to cite these passages and say that we should never be violent because violence is evil and this passage says not to be evil…

The passage in Romans 12:17 continues, by the way…

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Isn’t it fair to say that God was overcoming evil with goodwhen He sends in His people to destroy the evil Canaanite culture?

This is the same argument as above.  It is still the pacifist who has to make the case that violence cannotbe good and that violence is evil.  It seems like there would be many examples of evil being overcome with good being somewhat violent  – or at least feeling that way to the evil!

What about the vengeance wording (like Rom 12:19)?

In another example of this, I assume that vengeance could be overcoming evil with good, since it is God who avenges (Rom 12:19, Heb 10:30, Dt 32:35), and He overcomes evil with good.  The problem apparently isn’t that vengeance is morally wrong (or God wouldn’t avenge); the problem is that humans lack the insight to know the right way to go about it.   So, again, this isn’t a command against evil, but specifically against revenge.

Whether violence is evil is the exact burden that the pacifist must carry across the finish line.  They cannot start with that assumption and then apply scripture that way.

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The Description of Government

Further, the Christian pacifist needs to explain why it is apparently morally responsible for governments to engage in the violence of being “an avenger who bring wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:4) in God’s eyes and that Christians are to subject themselves to that government – that to resist the government is to resist God!  See also I Peter 2:13-14.

Note that I am not saying that Christians are to obey the government at all times (the Christian ethic is always to obey the Highest Authority when there is conflict between the instruction of multiple authority figures), nor do I think that this passage is teaching that everything governments do is morally right.  However, this passage seems to indicate that this is God’s job description for governments. He wants them to approve of God and “bear the sword” against those who do wrong.

This is also New Testament.

Clearly God Himself did not become non-violent in the New Covenant.   At least in the case of governments, He still (as in the Hebrew Scriptures), at least some of the time, approves of violence.  After all, this is a God who will cast many into a Lake of Fire and Who expresses in His Word that the nature of Spiritual life is analogous to war.

The Burden

So,in my opinion, the only case to be made by the Christian pacifist cannot be “that it is morally wrong to be violent or to kill.” There is no absolute stance against violence or killing.  God kills. In the past, God has instructed man to kill.  In the future, God will continue to vanquish and destroy.  I consider these established biblically.  I have yet to see anyone really take issue with them with anything approaching a valuable argument.

The only ethic for general Christian pacifism, then, has to be limited to:

“It is morally wrong for followers of Jesus Christ to commit violence in this era of existence.”

Given the Hebrew scriptures, apparently God is of the opinion that there is a time to kill and destroy; there are times when killing is the morally right thing to do… and there are times to refrain from violence at all; there are times when not being violent is the morally right thing to do. Consider how men of war are recognized and honored by God and morally upstanding men in the Old Testament; in an appropriate way, war and killing in a combat situation has its place.

So, this argument must be made for a specific audience, to a certain degree at a specific time.   Everything else fails before it starts.

Further, in order to do more than just express their own personal views or conviction, the pacifist must argue that this ethic is right for ALL of that human population or at minimum for ALL of that subset (Christ-followers).  Otherwise, this is just a question of personal conviction.

I am willing to concede for the time being the argument of personal conviction.  I accept that it may be morally right for an individual to believe that what God wants for them is to be a pacifist.

I am not engaging in this in order to argue that every Christ follower should prepare to defend themselves and to be willing to defend themselves and those they are responsible for (at least not yet).

Further, it needs to be shown that this ethic is for here and now.

And, I am willing to accept that there could be layers of pacifism – or various standards within it.  One pacifist might determine that only killing is sin, but harming is not. Another might determine that physical violence of any kind is sin.

Each must be able to make a convincing case that in today’s world, that whatever behavior he or she is forbidding, is immoral for their audience.

“It is morally wrong for Christ followers of this era to engage… in any violent act for any reason.”

Or

“… in any violent act against another human being for any reason.”

Or

“… in any act intending to kill another human being for any reason.”

Though I mentioned natural law, I am engaging with this question as a Christian, so I will be engaging with the Holy Bible and perhaps other Christian ethics as to this question.

As I have continued to research this and look into this and prepare this, I am fascinated at the argument that the pacifist must make! They have to claim that something very significant has very significantly changed in the way God wants His followers to engage with each other!

Let me note that, of course, the teaching against murder is clear all through scripture.  Murder would be the unjusttaking of human life.

The pacifist argument cannot just be about unjust assault or murder.  That it also forbidden all through scripture and everyone knows it.

The pacifist argument has to defend the idea that hurting others is wrong, even if they are hurting you or others – even if they are committing unjust assault or murder.  Hurting, or perhaps at least that killing, as committed by some group, is always wrong.

Continuing on… I am going to engage with the main biblical arguments for pacifism.

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Character of God

I agree and yearn for the day when apparently predator/prey relationships of all kind are abolished.  I cannot wait for a day when the will of those I live for eternity with have no desire to sin, even if they are free to.  That day is coming.

There is coming an existence in which there is eventually no need for violence or predation, real competition, etc., at least not for creation.

However, this is not the peace of pacifism.  This is the peace of conquest.  Peace comes from God’s final subjugation of the enemies of creation.   “The Lord is a warrior” (Exodus 15:3)  In Isaiah 42, which is at least partially a prophetic passage generally accepted among Christians to be about Jesus, vs 13 says that

“The Lord will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.”

Almighty God is no pacifist.  Nor do I believe Jesus, as part of the Triune God, nor as proclaimed in prophecy, a pacifist.

I certainly do not think Satan would think of Him as one. As, in the last days, Jesus will defeat Satan in battle.

Further in the study of end-times prophecy, it seems that there will be a day for believers in which there will be no more sorrow, death, mourning, or pain, and God will wipe away their tears. (Revelation 21:4).  I believe that the Micah passage about an end to war is about that existence which Jesus Himself will usher in to place via this conquest (Micah 4:3, Isa 65:25, Isa 11:6).

That being said, this is not that existence.  We cannot usher in that existence by the way we act. It is not something that we can create on our own.

Here there is evil and predation, even among humans.

The Disney movie, Pocahontas, shows the title character dancing around in the forest proclaiming the peaceful nature of the animals and the web of life that connects them.  As she does this, she reaches into a bear’s den and takes out a cub.

Her philosophy might have some impression if people could do that for real.  However, when the mother bear crushed her into broken pieces, her beliefs might have been brought into question.

Declaring “peace, peace when there is no peace” in that way is delusional.

It is not common teaching among Christian pacifists that us being non-violent will lead to a non-violent world, but in some cases, the more liberal elements of this do teach this.  This is foolish, in my eyes… even if ones argues that Jesus was non-violent and led his students to practice non-violence, there was no indication that this would reduce suffering.

In that new existence someday, there will no longer be a need for humans to protect other humans from other humans.  There would be no call for self-defense (I use this term to apply to defending one’s own personal self and the well being of those we are responsible for).

Jesus was not human utopianist.

He is a heavenly one, but clearly did not hope for mankind to solve our own issues.  He was clear that there would be trouble (John 16:33) and persecution (John 15:19-20). He and His followers certainly were on the receiving end of violence.

In fact, the way that Jesus John 2:15 drove “them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen” (seeming to make clear that the “them” was someone other than the animals), sure makes it seem like any stance He had against violent behavior did not apply to Himself.

One can argue that Jesus wasn’t beating the men, sure… but there really isn’t any normal definition of “violent” that would not include driving people out with a whip of cords.

So, while the character of God in the past clearly involves violence and warfare, and Jesus was violent in His time on Earth, so too will His character be that of a warrior in the future.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.” Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.  Rev 19:11-21

Of course, it is part of God’s character to be an agent of peace – as well as to be a warrior (peace and war are not contradictory). But the pacifist is making the claim that we only follow the example of God’s character as peacemaker.

So, the pacifist is defending the claim that God is calling on us to live in a way differently than His character.

This is NOT impossible – an example of this is that it is morally right for God to be jealous, but not for us to be. Obviously, it is appropriate for God to accept worship, but not us.  That makes sense.  However, these have to be explained – especially when God (back in the Genesis passage with Noah) has commanded man, under certain conditions, to shed the blood of man.

Head on to Part III to summarize what that burden is.

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Nehemiah 4:9

And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.”

In debate, there is a focal point of debates called “burden.” I am starting this conversation with what I see to be the burden of the Christian pacifist.  I will warn you, this part isn’t short.  Neither is the rest of it.

Natural Law

(“The doctrine that human affairs should be governed by ethical principles that are part of the very nature of things and that can be understood by reason”– Dictionary.com)

First off, I think it is important to note that the fail safe or default stance on self-defense should be that all human beings have the natural freedom to defend their own life and the lives of those they are responsible for.

In other words, if there were no scripture or ethic to the contrary, humans would, by natural law, be entitled (and perhaps responsible in some cases) to harm or kill an animal or another human in defense of himself or herself.

I do not know for sure if this is agreed upon, since I have rarely seen anyone start the conversation this far back, but I believe it should be.  I don’t put a lot of emphasis on natural law typically.  Here, I am merely mentioning it to indicate that it is “natural” for created beings to defend themselves.

Children fight back; animals fight back; created beings fight back as instinct, and the right to defend one’s own life and well-being as well as the responsibility to protect the weaker, has been considered a God-given right.

So, the burden is on the pacifist to show that for some reason, humans or some subset of humans, are responsible to refuse to defend themselves or others.

God’s Instructions

One thing that a Christian has to be able to argue is that something has radically changed between the ethic of violence in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

God directly instructs violence, executions, and killing in warfare regularly.  Clearly, any directive against violence represents a change in the ethic that God calls His people to.  Anyone who wants to debate this topic as a Christian must concede this.

After God has destroyed much of the human race, as is His right, He declares the ethic for how mankind engages with violence against other humans.  This is not a Jewish law, or a Levitical rule.  This is not just about governments, since there were none in place. God’s ethic for violence against humans was a violent response by other humans.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed,

for God made man in his own image.

Genesis 9:6

I want to make clear that this is a teaching from God to the race of mankind.  This is God’s presented ethic about the very topic of human-on-human violence.  There will need to be a teaching of Jesus that changes this ethic if it is to be argued that the new ethic for all Christians is one of non-violence.

I think there is no time needed for defenders of Christian pacifism to attempt to make case from the Hebrew Scriptures.  What is required of them is to show that God has changed His mind on this in regards to His followers at the incarnation or teaching or death or burial or resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And the argument cannot just be from silence. As mentioned above, both natural law and direct instruction from Almighty God calls for man to respond to violence with violence.

Just getting started!

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Hey Chris,
“I mentioned to you once on the ultimate Frisbee field that I was doing some of thinking on the idea of Christian warfare, especially given what Christ says about turning the other cheek, or how the Kingdom of God being one in which the lion and the lamb will lay down together and even what the prophets say about how swords will be so useless that they will be beaten down into plowshares (Micah 4:3).

How it should look for a Jesus follower to pilot a war machine like an jet? I realize through the Ten Commandments that God’s character abhors injustice and murder, but is it against Christ’s teachings to shoot a gun at someone because their government is at war with your government?”

This was a great question I got a few years back…

First, an existence in which there is eventually no need for violence, predation, real competition, etc. is coming.

There will be a day for believers in which there will be no more sorrow, death, mourning, or pain, and God will wipe away their tears. (Revelation 21:4). I believe that the Micah passage and the Lion and the Lamb are about that existence which Jesus Himself will usher in to place (Isa 65:25, Isa 11:6).

Sadly, this is not yet that existence.

In fact, though that day will come, God is certainly cognizant of this fact… His character never changes. His character will not be different in the New Jerusalem from what it is now, nor was I different back in the days when He commanded His people to kill every human and most animals in a city (Dt 7:2, 13:15).
Apparently God is of the opinion that there is a time to kill and destroy; there are times when that is the morally right thing to do… and there are times to refrain from violence at all; there are times when not being violent is the morally right thing to do. Consider how men of war are recognized and honored by God and morally upstanding men in the Old Testament; in an appropriate way, war and killing in a combat situation has its place.

So, let me make clear, I am not at all saying that killing in combat is always right, but am just making the case that it CAN be right. How do you know when it is? We will look at that in a minute.Now, does a government have the right to call on someone else to kill? We have established that God has that right, and that thus, there must be times when it is morally right to kill… but does a government have the right to call upon someone to kill an enemy of the state?

In Romans 13, government is described as “an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Rom 13:4, NASU) The New Testament biblical mandate to follow authority is clear in this passage and others (Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13,14)… unless, of course, the authority of the governing body is over-ruled by the ultimate authority of God (like in Acts 4:19).

So, unless one believed that Jesus, in the New Testament, seems to prize a non-violent response to the world. This makes sense from the perspective He describes to Pilate just before the cross,

“Jesus answered, ” My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36-37, NASU)

 

This concept is certainly played out in numerous places – insults, even physical insults, like a strike on the cheek… a reminder of servitude/enslavement to the Romans, like walking a mile with a soldier’s pack… etc.  I believe Jesus’ guidelines for insult and persecution is non-violent.
Apparently early Christians took Jesus’ teachings to mean that they should avoid fighting for the Romans.  Some think that had more to do with the requirement to swear fealty to the Caesar (maybe even to him as god) than the actual fighting, but it is hard to know for sure what motivated them to try to avoid battle.

Finally, how does one know that it is ok to fight for one’s country? Each person has to make the moral decision as to what makes a war a morally appropriate war themselves. Saint Thomas Aquinas is famous for making a strong biblical and ethical argument for war… and being one of the first serious philosophers to take on what is called “Just War Theory.”

One modern and simplified version of it looks like this:

There are 6 things that need to be considered in order to decide if a war is just or not:
1. What is the cause – why are you fighting?
2. What is the intent – what are the goals?
3. Do you have the legal authority to do fight?
4. Do you have specific and achievable goals?
5. Will the casualties be legitimate; how many will there be?
6. What is the cost and destruction? How do these last two weigh against the rest?

It is interesting to me that given all else, Jesus requires the disciples to carry at least a couple of swords with them (Luke 22:36-38). I don’t think anyone knows exactly what Jesus is talking about (though I think that it had something to do with random acts of violence that might be committed against them, like wild animals or bandits or such, not persecution or insult).

In conclusion, my personal stance is that the Bible reveals God as holding that war can be morally right. It is the responsibility of each believer to determine through the Holy Spirit and scripture their personal role in a governmental war, while avoiding the taking of non-combatant life and seeking to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ with your fellow soldiers… and, remember, loving your enemy and praying for him. There is a crazy one to apply, eh? (Matt 5:43-47).

 

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