Christian Pacifism

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by Gabriel Thy
One who accepts the stance—that New Testament nonresistance is the claim of Christ upon his disciples as an expression of the reality of his kingdom—will also follow other evangelical premises of faithfulness to Christ. For example, can one participate in war and take the life of a person for whom Christ died when our basic mission as Christians is to win that person to become a brother or sister in the Lord? Or, since the kingdom of God is global and transcends every national, racial and cultural distinction, when one’s country is at war with another country can Christians participate knowing that by so doing they may be at war with persons who claim to worship and follow the same Lord?

It was not novel in terms of what he emphasized from the New Testament, but because he borrowed from Gandhi’s philosophy. He created a new synthesis by enhancing New Testament nonviolence with Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent resistance and applying these to the nineteenth-century liberal idea of “the kingdom of God in America.”
To go back to the early church itself, according to several writers of history, there was in the church a significant percentage who renounced conflict and everything that produced war. The one thing Christians were armed with was love. E. Stanley Jones wrote that we search in vain during the early years of church history to find Christian people engaged in warfare. He states that Christians did not become soldiers. If they were in the army when converted, they resigned. Jones describes the early believers as saying, “we will match our power to suffer against your ability to inflict suffering, we will wear you down by our spirit, by soul force against physical force, by going the second mile, by turning the other cheek,” until Rome finally stopped torturing Christians. That perspective on history underscores the New Testament emphasis that we go out not by force but by love; we seek to make our world an understanding community.

This disdain of military service held true until the period of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome until about A.D. 180. After Constantine’s time, who from our perspective instituted a “fallen church” of which everyone was forced to be a member, there were many “Christian” soldiers.

In our own era, Martin Luther King, Jr. brought into the American scene a now synthesis. It was not novel in terms of what he emphasized from the New Testament, but because he borrowed from Gandhi’s philosophy. He created a new synthesis by enhancing New Testament nonviolence with Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent resistance and applying these to the nineteenth-century liberal idea of “the kingdom of God in America.” What King did was to confront society with this new dimension, and it shook the country to its roots.

King’s philosophy is expressed in five points: (1) Nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards. It takes more strength to stand for love than to strike back. (2) Such resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win friendship and understanding. (3) The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against the people doing the evil. (4) Nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. (5) This resistance avoids not only external physical force, but also internal violence of spirit.

This is the ultimate testimony of our belief in the kingdom of Christ and the resurrection. It is this same conviction which has motivated many people to go into unknown or violent areas of the world from which they may never return.
On the premise that we cannot kill people for whom Christ died, John Howard Yoder emphasizes in his significant writings on pacifism that the cross has made a difference. Christ has come into the world to redeem all people and has acted for the sake of every person on the globe. We cannot kill a person for whom he died and rob him or her of the privilege of knowing the fullness of life that Jesus Christ offers. This calls us to express a pacifist position not by a negative but a positive stance. Ours is to be an active penetration into society with the redeeming love of God. Above everything else, we want our fellow men to become our brothers in Christ. When Jesus stated that the first commandment is to love God and that the second is just like it (to love your neighbor as yourself), he was asking that we bring to bear on the life of our neighbor that which we find most important in our own relationship with God.

From an evangelical perspective it may be said that wherever a Christian participates in war he has abdicated his responsibility to the greater calling of missions and evangelism. The way for Christians to change the world is by sharing the love of Christ and the good news of the gospel rather than to think we can stop anti-God movements by force. Jesus made this point ultimately in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary’s cross. As Christians, our answer to the violence in the world is simply that we don’t have to live; we can die. This is the ultimate testimony of our belief in the kingdom of Christ and the resurrection. It is this same conviction which has motivated many people to go into unknown or violent areas of the world from which they may never return.

Read it all at Intervarsity.

I found this article of immense interest. A game changer really. Not that pacifism is a new idea, by any stretch. After studying Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ghandi, Schweitzer, Camus, ML King, and others, I was never quite persuaded how this idea could survive evil assault until I read an idea that appeared earlier in the article:

Another evangelical premise that leads to a nonresistant view is that we regard Christ’s Word in the Scripture as final. Having said that the New Testament is a culmination of God’s will known in Christ, then it follows that his Word is final. He corrects the understanding of the old “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” attitude. God gave that position to limit violence, that is, only an eye for an eye. But now he declares that we are to love our enemies. He tells us that we will be better for the loving. We will be better people, better neighbors, better friends when we live by love.

This actually makes sense to me. More than all that just war, Christians killing Christians, morality acrobatics. Will revisit this topic in due time because there is still the question of a pernicious assault on others and the proper pacifist reaction (always my blind spot even after decades of pacifist obedience).

—GT

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