I flirted with pacifism in the late 80’s. Maybe it had something to do with my disappointment with the Iran-Contra Affair at the end of Reagan’s presidency. But it was triggered by a conference in New England sponsored by an organization for which I’d later work.
Tony Campolo was there (and you thought it was Ligonier, didn’t you?). He was giving his argument for pacifism with a very emotional argument. “Can you see Jesus with his finger ready to drop bombs on people?” As a new, immature Christian I thought “no, I can’t”. Perhaps I hadn’t read to the end of Revelation yet. You know, that part where His robes are covered in blood as He’s been trampling His enemies? You know, Jesus is riding a warhorse? While Jesus now extends the offer of peace, don’t confuse Jesus with a pacifist.
There has been a resurgence of pacifism. Perhaps it is in response to the decade-long war on terror. I can understand, I’m weary of the whole thing. Perhaps it is all the shootings. I’ve seen plenty of people speak as if we should be pacifists in the midst of those gun control conversations. I was about 5-10 minutes away from Gabby when she was shot. Our community was rocked.
Gregory Boyd is another proponent of pacifism. And Shane Claiborne has popularized those views (I don’t give him a hard time for working with the poor, but for his horrible interpretations of the Bible). Recently someone was shocked that I, as a pastor, was defending gun ownership to protect people. Shouldn’t I be a pacifist? After all, didn’t Jesus say …
And there is the rub. We misunderstand what Jesus said. And we pit it against everything else Jesus said.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. Matthew 5 (ESV)
Let’s see the context. Some were using the OT limits on justice (an eye for an eye) to justify retaliation against others. They were taking justice into their own hands (more on that later). In particular, here it is merely an insult. The back of the hand is an insult, not an attempt to murder you. When someone insults you, you are not justified to throw down whether you use fists, knives or guns.
Additionally, when I am being persecuted for Christ I am to suffer gladly. I am not to retaliate there either. This much is clear. But pacifism goes far beyond this. It tries to apply Jesus’ teaching to disciples (individuals) to the State. It ignores the reality of Romans 13, that the State holds the power of the sword to punish evil doers (whether individuals or nations). Additionally, neither Jesus nor John the Baptizer nor any of the Apostles instructed soldiers with whom they had contact to leave their profession or repent.
Speaking of Romans, we see the differences between the individual ethic and state ethic in Romans 12-13. This is one place where the chapter divisions (not original to the text) mess us up.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12 (ESV)
Paul repeats Jesus’ instruction about persecution. We are not to retaliate when persecuted for Christ. We are never to avenge ourselves or seek vengeance. We are to place that in God’s hands, knowing His promise to avenge the wrongs done to us. So, we can’t go vigilante when someone hurts or kills someone we love. I can’t hunt down someone who robs my wife or abuses my kids. As we see in Romans 13, that is the role of the State.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Romans 13 (ESV)
God uses the State, “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” See the continuity of the passage. The State “does not bear the sword in vain.” The State is NOT supposed to be pacifist in nature.
As a Christian, I am not to pursue retaliation or vengeance. But I am to protect the defenseless. I am not to allow others to sin against them. I have an even greater responsibility to defend those under my covenant protection, my wife and children.
From the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed and protecting and defending the innocent.
Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.
The command properly extends beyond making sure I don’t murder anyone, but that I should prevent murder as I am able. If I think that means I should carry a hand gun, like many friends do, or keep a weapon in my home, I am not sinning. I am seeking to fulfill my responsibility to my family. You may make a different choice, but neither person sins. Each father and husband has to make difficult decisions based on where they live and other circumstances. Some places are more dangerous than others. If the risk is high, the need to defend your family from evil doers (thieves, rapists, killers) becomes greater. Pacifism doesn’t cut it when a man tries to rape you wife. I’m not supposed to do good to him, until after I subdue him.
We also note just war theory as a proper application of this command. Yes, it is “merely” a confessional statement. But I believe this is an accurate summary of Scripture. Pacifism is based on a variety of misinterpretations of Scripture. It leaves people open to the unnecessary triumph of evil.