Must Christians be pacifists?

In a post praising Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon mentions among Hauerwas’s great contributions to the church his emphasis on pacifism.

Hauerwas argues in strong terms that following Jesus requires pacifism, and he has criticized Christian theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr who make arguments on behalf of some sort of just war theory.

The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles would likely draw Hauerwas’s criticism. We deplore war, but do not rule it out, for instance here:

We deplore war and urge the peaceful settlement of all disputes among nations. From the beginning, the Christian conscience has struggled with the harsh realities of violence and war, for these evils clearly frustrate God’s loving purposes for humankind. We yearn for the day when there will be no more war and people will live together in peace and justice. Some of us believe that war, and other acts of violence, are never acceptable to Christians. We also acknowledge that many Christians believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.

Or here:

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote that war was a reproach to Christianity itself, a position which might make him more of a pacifist than our denomination.

So, in honor of Hauerwas, I am wondering how central pacifism is to Christianity. I tend to be persuaded by Reinhold Niebuhr that Christians cannot avoid all violence and war. I suppose I end up pretty close to the United Methodist position that finds war a tragic necessity at times. I’m not convinced I am correct about this, and like all Christians I long and hope for the day when we learn war no more, but I do not see that that day is upon us. Not yet.

What about you?

27 thoughts on “Must Christians be pacifists?

  1. Deuteronomy 20 is all about going to war and who plays what part.
    The Priest of the Army would play a specific role.

    God gives David a Plan of War.
    14 Therefore David inquired again of God, and God said to him, “You shall not go up after them; circle around them, and come upon them in front of the mulberry trees. 15 And it shall be, when you hear a sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall go out to battle, for God has gone out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.” 16 So David did as God commanded him, and they drove back the army of the Philistines from Gibeon as far as Gezer.
    1 Chronicles 14:14 NKJ

    Do you suppose the Son ( Jesus) would contradict the God of the Old Testament (Father? The Son? The Holy Spitit?) concerning war, soldiers and priests and the role they play? Would the One God who created man in “our image” contradict himself? Genesis 1:26

    1. I find the relationship between the Old Testament and the New more complicated than that. Jesus clearly changes what were common readings of the law in his day. Whether he would also change the means of establishing the kingdom (bloodshed by humanity vs. bloodshed by the Son of God) is at least to my mind a reasonable conversation. Concluding that Jesus preached what we would call non-violence does not require, so far as I can see, that we reject or somehow contradict the Old Testament.

      1. I think if one looks closely they will find the laws governing war and God sanctioning war under certain condition has not changed. Just as the sins of the Old Testament and the sins of the New Testament are pretty much the same. There where rules governing capitol punishment, trials and war. Those rules and regulations where very restrictive and guarded against the abuse of the persons or nations accused.

        Jesus never changed the law and he makes that clear on at least two occasions.
        Love your neighbor is right out of the O.T. That Law is not new or unique to the N.T.
        O.T.Laws governing murder, adultery, incest, theft, drunkenness, false witness, the worship of one God, condemnation for extortion, backbiting, dishonoring parents, sexual immortality, rules regulating war and trial are carried into the N.T. They did not change.
        What changed was the penalties for sin.
        What Christ explained and taught by example was the correct use of the law.
        What changed was mercy and grace considered when declaring penalty.

        The God of the O.T. is the God of the N.T.
        You can not teach the Trinity, sameness of mind, action, and principles and then try to separate God as if there was some drastic difference between God The Father, God The Son, & God The Holy Spirit.

  2. Well, fight opression and evil, defend your neighbors? But does that justify having a military empire throughout the world, massive nuclear arsenals, pro-active strikes?
    Also, all war efforts are clouded by falsehoods and propaganda. Will you allow yourself to be influenced by arms merchants or various other ‘interested’ parties with money to make or political agendas?
    Case in point – should ‘we’ attack Syria? Some believe Assad gassed civilians, some don’t believe it. Some think Assad’s opponents are just and good Syrians, some believe they are foreign hired guns, merciless thugs.
    Truth is always the first casualty.
    The prohibitions and cautions in Just War theory make it hard to start war. There’s a good reason they do.

    1. Are you proposing a slippery slope? Any act of justified violence must lead to nuclear war?

      1. He’s asking if the massive arsenal of the US military as well as its constant global presence are justified by the possibility of a just war. He further questions our ability to determine if violence is justified in the first place. Syria is an excellent example, considering the number of questions flying around about who was actually responsible for the gas attack, as well as the motives of the opposition forces. The Kony 2012 thing jumps into my mind as another example of poor judgement influencing support for violence.

      2. Nuclear weapons are non-discriminatory tools of mass murderers.
        Just War prohibits their use.
        It is a grave sin to not only manufacture and stockpile them, but also to defend their possible use.

        Personally, I feel that if I were a better Christian, I would throw away the ‘Just War’ crutch and tell you there is no ‘justified’ use of violence.
        I simply can’t take that step.
        Just War theory is the least objectional alternative.

  3. I’ve been wrestling with this question for a very long time, John, so thanks for this post. I’m currently about halfway through reading Fight, by Preston Sprinkle; the entire thesis of the book is the case that to be a Christian is to embrace non-violence in opposition to the way of the world. It’s a fascinating read, and is already helping me to settle my own personal struggles with the subject.

      1. John,

        Just finished reading the book a couple of days ago. While Sprinkle does bring up some counter-arguments, there’s a not a huge focus on them. Similarly, he addresses some of Mark Driscoll’s statements regarding Jesus and nonviolence, but not at length. The book doesn’t seem intended to be academic and scholarly. Like “Erasing Hell,” which Sprinkle co-authored with Francis Chan, it’s both overview and (for some) an introduction to the topic.

        1. Thank you so much for taking the time to come back and follow up. Would you recommend the book?

        2. I would. Sprinkle really does a good job with laying out the Christian case for non-violence. I particularly liked the chapter in which he addresses just war theory.

  4. This question desperately needs to be divided in half: when is violence justified when the agent is an individual, and when is it justified when the agent is a government. The two are affected by different circumstances, so they have to be approached separately.

    An individual only needs to ask when its appropriate to start swinging.

    A government needs to ask when it’s appropriate to go to war, what kind of powers it needs to go to war, what effect those powers will have (thinking of our own NSA here), if those powers are even justified, and the effects the political process will have on determining if a war is justified.

    1. I’m trying to think through whether I agree with your premise that the individual and the collective are affected by different circumstances and whether that means they belong in a different category for theological and moral reflection.

      All the secondary questions you ask about the government, for instance, assume it is sometimes appropriate to go to war. If you say in both cases it is okay, don’t you get into the same kinds of secondary question — when is it okay? what preparations is it okay to make in anticipation? what actions must you take after violence?

      The specific answers are different but is it true that you cannot have an answer in principle that applies to situations whether the violence is contemplated by a single person or 300 million? If not, when does the group get big enough that it becomes a different realm of moral and theological analysis? 10 people? 100? 1,000? 10,000?

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