Posted by: beattieblog | May 29, 2008

Understanding Pacifism


I mentioned before that I’m writing on whether or not war is ever justified from a Christian perspective for my ethics course. This of course means reading the differing perspectives: proponents of ‘Just War‘ and ‘Pacifism’. I came to this paper a little more informed about the specific beliefs of Just War theorists, and almost no understanding of pacifism – other that it means not viewing violence as an option for Christians. Christian pacifists are a minority group within Christianity and I haven’t known too many in my 12 years or so as a serious Christian. At this point I would not call myself a pacifist, though I do believe the use of violence as a solution should be exercised less often. It’s been good to have to read some pacifist writings and get past a superficial, clichéd understanding. I’ll share some quotes below, but the most helpful corrective I’ve experienced is this: pacifism does not mean passivity or ‘getting out of the way’ when violence is coming. The concept of active resistance is very clear – what alternative forms are there to resisting evil? Because violence is ‘on the table’, does this mean we will always turn to it sooner than we need to? And what about personal self-defense? The pacifist’s argument for not being willing to violently defend the innocent against violent evil is not convincing for me. However, the edict in Matthew 5:38-41 about ‘turning the other cheek’ does seem directed towards personal disagreements and conflict. In this, the call to non-violence is compelling. I’ve always said (somewhat glibly), “I think I could be a pacifist until it came time to defend my wife or kids against assault. Then I can’t really believe I’d stand by and try to verbally stop such a thing.” But this can be easily extrapolated to include any innocent victims. If the Good Samaritan, who made himself famous for going out of his way to care for one who’d been violently robbed, had walked up 20 minutes earlier in the midst of the robbery would he have been compelled to stop and intervene, keep walking or just wait patiently until the beat-down ended and then help the victim? It’s hard to believe the second or third options are true. Overall, after reading from both sides, I was struck how passionately and eloquently folks argue – with scripture – for their perspective. Here are some quotes.

From Stanley Hauerwas in his article “Pacifism: some Philosophical Considerations” that I read in this book:

“The reason I believe Christians have been give the permission, that is, why it is good news for us, to live without resort to violence is that by doing so we live as God lives. Therefore pacifism is not first of all a prohibition, but an affirmation that God wills to rule his creation not through violence and coercion but by love. Moreover he has called us to be part of his rule by calling us into a community that is governed by peace.” P. 251

“Though it counts individual passages of scripture such as Matthew 5:38-48 important, pacifism does not derive its sole justification from them. Rather pacifism follows from our understanding of God which we believe has been most decisively revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. Just as God refused to use violence to insure the success of his cause, so must we.” P. 251


“At the same time we shall need to rethink our understanding of the nature of justice as a cardinal virtue. ‘What is by nature just,’ wrote Aristotle, ‘has the same force everywhere.’ This fundamental assumption about the universe, remarkable as it is coming from a non-theist, concurs with biblical teaching on justice, whose character and demands are the same for all people everywhere and at all times. It is in this light that we are to understand just-war moral reasoning—a mode of reasoning or “tradition” that is living and not stagnant, in minor ways evolving yet at the same time in constant conversation and basic agreement with authoritative voices within the Christian moral tradition.” P. 5

“Hence, when we speak of just-war, we do not mean a war that, narrowly speaking, is just. Nor do we have in mind an exact moral calculus that can be applied without agonizing prudentially over geopolitical realities. Rather, we refer to warfare or military intervention that is undertaken as a result of political and moral prudence and in conformity with the demands of charity, justice and human dignity and that seeks to protect the innocent third party from gross injustice and social evil. These are the fundamental assumptions undergirding just-war moral reasoning—moral assumptions that moderate between the poles of militarism and pacifism.” PP. 19-20



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