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Essay On Pacifism

Loving Our Enemies; Opposing the Enemy of Others: Reflections on Just War and Pacifism


The focus of this essay is to reflect theologically, biblically, and ethically on Christian involvement in the formation and functioning of national armies.  In other words, given the nature of Christ’s injunction to be “peacemakers” is there a place for a Christian to be involved in matters of war?  This issue is extraordinarily complex, in that before one can even comment on the nature of national armies, one must determine whether or not it is permissible for a Christian to ever use violence in the first place.  There is a tension between justice and mercy.  Miroslav Volf’s evocative language captures this tension:  “[My thoughts are torn by] the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered to the guilty.”[1] One the one hand, we have the clear teachings of Christ to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and his clear example of dying for his enemies on the cross.  On the other hand, there may be times when our love for the oppressed and the innocent may require that we fight against an enemy who is not oppressing us but oppressing others.  Are we then to remain silent and inactive?  These are issues in the debate between theories of “Just War” and “Pacifism.”  Regardless of what conclusions we draw concerning this debate, proponents on both sides can agree that “steps should be taken to reduce the incidence of wars”[2] and that “‘war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”[3] Yet, while I believe Pacifism to be normative for followers of Christ, I must conclude that there may be instances (albeit rare ones!) where for the sake of defending the other, Christians must enmesh themselves in violence against the other’s enemy; in a situation where action and inaction both incur guilt, “responsible action” is the necessary—not necessarily right—choice.[4]


Then tension between Just War and Pacifism is not one I can bring resolution to.  First, the reality of war is that it is never “just”—at least not for everyone involved.  Just War advocates from Augustine onward have maintained that there may be just reasons to go to war.[6] Yet, how “realistic” are these so-called “just” reasons?  Just War theorists claim that while Pacifism is certainly an ideal, it cannot be unequivocally maintained in the “real” world.[7] But as Stanley Hauerwas as commented, the supposed “realism” of Just War theory is not at all apparent.  He writes,

What would an American foreign policy determined by just war principles look like?  What would a just war Pentagon look like?  What kind of virtues would the people of America have to have to sustain a just war foreign policy and Pentagon?  What kind of training do those in the military have to undergo in order to be willing to take casualties rather than conduct the war unjustly?[8]

In asking these questions, Hauerwas implies how utterly unrealistic Just War theory is.  Just what government would seek to accurately follow the guidelines set out by Just War theorists?  As Tony Kempster notes, “Once a war begins, the end normally justifies the means however brutal they may be.”[9] This automatically creates injustice for someone in the conflict.  It seems that no matter what, innocent people will always be affected by war and violence.  Therefore, though it may be perfectly justifiable for a group or nation to go to war, it is virtually impossible for the war itself to be just.  And this is putting war in the most idealistic light!  The fact remains, that the vast majority of wars would hardly ever measure up to the noble standards of Just War theory.

So what of Pacifism?  The Christian pacifist, according to Thomas Kennedy, “argues that the way of Christ is the way of non-violent suffering love, that Christ condemned the use of violence.”[10] Pacifists have the strong example of Christ, who did not retaliate when accused unjustly, and who obediently suffered death as a means of overcoming sin—violence certainly being within the realm of such sin.  Further, the teachings of Christ found in Matthew 5, are pretty clear:  as followers of Christ, we are to “bless those who persecute us,” “love our enemies,” and “turn the other cheek.”  Paul also affirms the ethical teachings of Jesus when he writes, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12: 17).

Pacifism takes seriously the fallenness of humanity’s condition concerning violence: man will tend to perpetuate violence out of self-interest, rather than seek reconciliation.  So writes H. Richard Niebuhr:  “Self-interest acts destructively in this world; it calls forth counter-assertion; nationalism breeds nationalism, class assertion summons up counter-assertion on the part of exploited classes,”[11] and thus, the vicious cycle continues.  Violence perpetuates violence.  The teachings and example of Jesus is all the more startling when once considers this unending cycle.  Jesus’ answer is to refuse to take part in it—to not “resist an evildoer” so to speak.  However, Jesus’ way is far more; it is to overcome evil with good.  One can see just how “realistic” pacifism really is, when one considers the ultimate victory of Jesus over sin, death, and evil by dying on the cross.

And so it would seem that Pacifism is the obvious choice for followers of Jesus.  If it is apparent that the reality of “just war” is, in fact, unlikely, and the “idealism” of pacifism is, in fact, rooted in the reality of Christ’s victory, then the answer to whether Christians may ever involve themselves in violence seems certain:  Christ-followers are never to engage in violence.  Yet, this is not the conclusion I’ve come to.  For, as Miroslav Volf’s quote above reveals, I too am caught between the tension of wanting justice for the innocent, and recognizing that Christ suffered for the guilty—of which I am.  The problem remains:  although I am never to resist and evildoer who opposes me with violence, am I to stand by and watch as another is violently victimized and do nothing?

[1] As quoted in Lori Brandt Hale’s, “From Loving Enemies to Acting Responsibly: Forgiveness in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Word and World 27, no.1  (2007): 79.

[2] Tony Kempster, “The Ethics of Pacifism and Jus War in an Age of Terrorist Violence,” Modern Believing 49, no.2 (2008): 9.

[3] Ibid., 9.  I should note that “settling international disputes” is somewhat vague and would clarify that to settle national interests by the means of war is certainly incompatible with allegiance to Christ.  It may be the acknowledgement that most “national armies” are established with the primary function of protecting “national interests” that would allow us to bypass the discussion of pacifism/just war issues altogether and conclude that based on the function of these armies, it is not permissible for Christians to be involved.  I will proceed as if this option is not available.

[4] See Hale’s “From Loving Enemies to Acting Responsibly,” for a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s attitude of “responsible action.”

[5] Christian realism is another option, but not one I consider viable based on the definition given by Thomas Kenney in “Can War Be Just,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, ed. Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 436-442.

[6] For example, Kennedy writes that a war can be just if there is a “just cause,” a “right intention,” war is used as a “last resort,” there is a “reasonable hope of success of accomplishing your ends in fighting” and the issue of “proportionality”—that the “evils of war…be outweighed by the good achieved.” See, “Can War Be Just,” 440-441.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas wittily summarizes the Just War theorist’s stance:  “Pacifists always bear the burden of proof.  They do so because as attractive as nonviolence may be most assume pacifism just will not work.  You may want to keep a few pacifists around for reminding those burdened with running the world that what they sometimes have to do is a lesser evil, but pacifism simply cannot and should not be, even for Christians, a normative stance, “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism?” Criswell Theological Review 6, no.1 (2008):  61.

[8] Hauerwas, “Why War”,” 61.

[9] Tony Kempster, “The Ethics of Pacifism,” 11.

[10] Kennedy, “Can War Be Just,” 436.

[11] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Only Way into the Kingdom of God,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, ed. Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 426.

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There are several different sorts of pacifism, but they all include the idea that war and violence are unjustifiable, and that conflicts should be settled in a peaceful way.

The word (but not the idea) is only a century old, being first used in 1902 at the 10th International Peace Conference.

People are pacifists for one or some of these reasons:

  • religious faith
  • non-religious belief in the sanctity of life
  • practical belief that war is wasteful and ineffective

Many believe that pacifism is more than opposition to war. They argue that it must include action to promote justice and human rights. (Consider for example whether the preservation of peace throughout the British Empire justified the human rights violations of that colonial regime.)

Levels of pacifism

It's important to see the difference between the morality of pacifism as it applies to an individual, and the application of that morality to the behaviour of a nation-state.

Not appreciating this difference can lead to real difficulties in discussing pacifism and non-violence.


Pacifists are often thought of as totally opposed to killing, but they don't have to be. A pacifist can logically support euthanasia and abortion, although they would need to have thought their position through very carefully.


Types of pacifism

Types of pacifism

Absolute pacifism

An absolute pacifist believes that it is never right to take part in war, even in self-defence. They think that the value of human life is so high that nothing can justify killing a person deliberately.

To stick to this principle consistently is hard. It views it as unethical to use violence to rescue an innocent person who is being attacked and may be killed, and this is not a comfortable moral position.

Absolute pacifists usually hold this view as a basic moral or spiritual principle, without regard to the results of war or violence, however they could logically argue that violence always leads to worse results than non-violence.

Conditional pacifism

Conditional pacifists are against war and violence in principle, but they accept that there may be circumstances when war will be less bad than the alternative.

Conditional pacifists usually base their moral code on Utilitarian principles - it's the bad consequences that make it wrong to resort to war or violence.

Selective pacifism

Other pacifists believe that it is a matter of degree, and only oppose wars involving weapons of mass destruction - nuclear or chemical and biological weapons - either because of the uniquely devastating consequences of such weapons, or because a war that uses such weapons is not 'winnable'.

Active pacifism

Pacifists are heavily involved in political activity to promote peace, and to argue against particular wars.

During a war many pacifists will refuse to fight, but some will take part in activities that seek to reduce the harm of war; e.g. by driving ambulances, but other pacifists will refuse to take part in any activity that might support the war.

Not all pacifists are brave enough to act according to these beliefs and to refuse to fight, but many have, bravely choosing punishment, and even execution, rather than go to war.

Nowadays most democratic countries accept that people have the right of conscientious objection to military service, but they usually expect the objector to undertake some form of public service as an alternative.


Arguments against pacifism

Arguments against pacifism

Pacifism cannot be national policy

Pacifism as national policy for a nation is almost unheard of, for the obvious reason that it will only work if no-one wants to attack your country, or the nation with whom you are in dispute is also committed to pacifism. In any other circumstances adopting a pacifist stance will result in your country rapidly being conquered.

However, the idea of pacifism, and of seeking non-violent solutions to disputes between nations, plays a significant part in international politics, particularly through the work of the United Nations.

The logical case against Pacifism

Those who oppose pacifism say that because the world is not perfect, war is not always wrong.

They say that states have a duty to protect their citizens, and that citizens have a duty to carry out certain tasks in a Just War.

It doesn't matter that pacifists are motivated by respect for human life and a love of peace. The pacifists' refusal to participate in war does not make them noble idealists, but people who are failing to carry out an important moral obligation.

A second argument says that pacifism has no place in the face of extreme evil.

The war against Nazi Germany was a war against extreme wickedness, and in 1941 an editorial in the Times Literary Supplement wrote:

Pacifism and remembrance

Because most societies regard going to war as fulfilling a citizen's ethical duty, they honour and remember those who give their lives in war.

If we believe that war is governed by ethics we should only honour those who give their lives in a Just War, and who followed the rules of war.

So, for example, it should be wrong to honour dead soldiers who killed the enemy or wounded or raped enemy women. (But this distinction is not usually made about those who fought on 'our' side.)

A more tricky moral dilemma is presented by the case of soldiers who died while fighting 'justly' for an unjust war.

Many soldiers died fighting honourably and decently for Germany in World War II. But since the war was a blatantly aggressive and unjust war would it be wrong to honour such soldiers for their sacrifice?


The UK Experience

The UK Experience

Pacifism became widespread as a reaction to the scale of killing in the First World War and the use of universal male conscription, and gained further support after the creation of nuclear weapons.

However, the Holocaust, and other industrial scale abuses of human rights, caused many to think that there could be cases when war was the least-bad course of action.

In World War 1 those who refused to fight were known as 'conscientious objectors'. They numbered about 16,000.

While the name was intended to make it clear that it was conscience not cowardice that kept pacifists out of the military, it was rapidly shortened to 'Conshie' and used as a term of abuse.

Some pacifists were prepared to work in non-combat roles as medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers, while others refused to do anything that might help the war effort. Over 500 of these were imprisoned under harsh conditions.

There were two major pacifist organisations in World War 1: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the No-Conscription Fellowship (both founded in 1914). In 1923 a Christian Pacifist MP was elected to parliament. In the middle 1930s the Peace Pledge Union gained wide support.

Pacifism gained great publicity from a 1933 student debate in the Oxford University Union that voted for a resolution that 'this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country'.

In World War 2, there were 59,000 British conscientious objectors, who received rather better treatment than in the previous war.

Religion and Pacificism

Some religions, such as Buddhism, promote pacifism. Others have strong pacifist elements, such as Christianity, but have accepted that war is inevitable and sought to provide moral guidance in dealing with conflict.

Judaism, like other religions, is strongly opposed to violence, and where violence is permitted the minimum necessary should be used.

But Jewish law does occasionally argue that violence may be the only solution: it imposes a moral obligation to save the life of a person who is being killed, even if the only way of doing so is to kill the attacker. (This demonstrates that Judaism regards going to the aid of someone who is being attacked as a higher moral duty than not injuring people.)

Jewish law also specifically obliges Jews to use violence on the Sabbath as a response to an invasion.