Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 19, 2010

Pacifism or Just War? Questions from a former Mennonite working within a Just War Tradition

After a great game of golf last week with some of my Mennonite friends, our conversation turned to the issue of pacifism. One of the major distinctives of the MB church is their stance on war and violence. Their current statement of faith reads “violence and warfare are contrary to the gospel of Christ, we believe we are called to give alternative service in times of war.”

(This is a famous Mennonite print of Dirk Willemsz who died as a martyr. In this print he is pictured returning to save the person who was trying to kill him. A pacifist who lived out his the ideal of loving ones enemy even though it put his life in jeopardy )

I am not culturally Mennonite, but I did go to a Mennonite church for a long period of my life. I have since left the MB church and have spent the last five or so years in the Reformed tradition. I will be credentialed by the Christian Reformed Church as I begin my ministry at Longview. The Reformed church differs from the MB church in that it argues that Christian participation in a just war is a legitimate Christian vocation.

The question I want to pose to my readers is where do you stand on this issue? What biblical principles or historical examples guide your thoughts on the issue of war and peace?

To get this discussion started I’ll highlight some of the main arguments used for both sides of the debate.

Pacifists appeal heavily to the Sermon on the Mount to support a non-violent ethic. Matthew 5-8 talks a lot about being peacemakers, turning the other cheek, loving ones enemies, etc. Pacifists also appeal heavily to Jesus death on the cross as proof the Christians are to engage in non-violence in their battle against evil. Jesus did not start a violent revolution like the Zealots of the day wanted, instead he chose the way of the cross. Pacifists often argue that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount trump the legitimacy of warfare that seems to be supported in the Old Testament. Historically, Pacifists will point to powerful examples of how non-violent revolutions, such as that of Ghandi, had a lasting impact in the overthrow of tyranny. Lastly, pacifists often have a very different view of the relationship between Christianity and culture. A number of pacifists will argue for the strong separation of church and state. This allows them to argue that nation states are allowed to have military and police forces but that Christians are not to participate in them.

Those who support the participation in just war support their position biblically by appealing to the presence of warfare in the Old Testament. A just war theology will sometimes criticize pacifists for being “Marcionite,” which was an ancient heresy that viewed the Old Testament as inferior to the New Testament. Just war proponents also point to texts like Romans 13 that talk about the right of the state to enforce justice with the sword. Since just war proponents argue for a more integrated view of Christianity and culture thet would allow for Christians to participate in this aspect of the state. Historically, just war proponents ask how pacifists would have responded to tyrannical leaders like Hitler. Deitrech Bonehoffer, for example, was a committed pacifist but eventually turned his back on this position during the reign of Hitler and participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. So just war proponents would argue that one of the ways we can love our neighbor is by defending them against people who are trying to harm them.

Anyway, these are just some basic thoughts. Lots to discuss here – I would be interested in your perspectives. I suspect that this will evoke some strong emotions for a lot of people. As such I would ask that we discuss the topic of peace in a peaceful way.


  1. Hey Phil, great topic – one with no easy answer I recognize.

    As a Mennonite myself, I’m careful in language we use to define our position on nonviolence. I think you’ve outlined well the basic stance for pacifism. I think one problem with the word pacifism, however, is it’s often equated with being passive. Our Mennonite Brethren confession of faith doesn’t even use the word pacifism, but rather “peacemaking.” Key, I believe, is the active implications for Christian nonviolence.

    As the MB confession of faith states, “Believers seek to be agents of reconciliation in all relationships, to practice love of enemies as taught by Christ, and to be peacemakers in all situations…Alleviating suffering, reducing strife, and promoting justice are ways of demonstrating Christ’s love.”

    Anyway, I just wanted to clarify the pacifist intention to engage the complex issues of justice rather than withdrawing as is so often the assumption (and sadly the practice for some).

    But I also realize, as a Canadian, growing up in peaceful times, I’ve never really been faced personally with the implications of my pacifist beliefs. So I don’t want to be naive in thinking my position works well on the ground.

    You can view the MB Confession of Faith here:

  2. Thanks Dave, that is an important addition to the conversation. I like what you say about pacifism not being passive. One of the things that I appreciate about the peace church tradition is that it models for the rest of the christian tradition, patient and creative approaches to seeking justice and peace. Sometimes I find that if we endorse the use of violence we turn to it too quickly. Like your man Hauerwas reminds us, Christian reconciliation requires a lot of patience. Violence I find is often a quick response that does not always have long term results.

    How does Hauerwas envision justice and reconciliation in the context of dealing with tyrannical oppression of the weak – ie in the case of Hitler?

  3. Good question Phil. Unfortunately Hauerwas is elusive in offering specifics for how nonviolence can be applied to these situations of injustice. He does refer to the community of Le Champon in France during WWII as an example of nonviolent resistance (Philip Hallie, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed”).

    Usually, however, he repeatedly says things like this:

    “Pacifism that is determined by the reality of Christ’s cross, assumes we must be peaceful not because such peace holds out the hope of a world free from war but because as followers of Jesus we cannot be anything other than peaceful in a world inextricably at war.”

    Key for Hauerwas, then, is the idea that pacifism offers no guarantees of success. Justice should be actively resisted, and in the face of extremes (e.g. Hitler), the church offers its best nonviolent response. If that means tyranny wins, well, Hauerwas doesn’t have a direct response, except to say the foundational hope for nonviolence is profoundly eschatological in nature – i.e. the church reflects now the future hope for the peaceful kingdom of Christ’s reign.

    As you can guess, he gets much critique for his pacifism, as it appears to promote withdrawal and idealism, without much practical advice for the complex realities of war and violence. So I think his picture is incomplete and needs other voices to illustrate how the church can resist injustice nonviolently. The peacemaking work of Mennonite Central Committee, for example, illustrates how positions like Hauerwas’ can become practical.

  4. I have struggled with this issue it’s definitely not an easy one. I have come to the conclusion that I am a pacifist. I haven’t come to the point that I believe pacifism is the only Christian way after all CS Lewis was clearly not a pacifist and if pacifism was the only true righteous way surely Jesus would have been more specific about it.

    I know what I am willing to die for. I cannot think of what I am willing to kill for.

    Was Nero any better than Hitler? We have a clear early Christian response to Nero.

    Of course, like Voluntary Simplicity, pacifism is much easier to embrace when there are enough people on the other side to lessen the impact of your decision. The Taliban won’t blow up my neighborhood because other people are willing to fight them.

  5. Thanks Bruce, you’ve added a lot of important ideas to the conversation. The example of the early church is very significant in this discussion. Early Christians did not respond to the persecution of the Roman empire with force but with martyrdom.

    I appreciate you’re honesty about how pacifists are able to benefit from those who fight battles for them. I find this specifically significant when we talk about the presence of a police force. It seems to me that a consistent pacifist position would argue that Christian participation in an armed police force is not viable; yet, I suspect that pacifists would be wary of living in a town without the presence of a police force.

    This probably brings us to the issue of Christianity and culture. Pacifists like Hauerwas argue that the state has a right to have a military and police force, he simply says that Christians ought to participate in these parts of culture. He argues that the Christian community should function in society as an alternative community. They are to live out an ethic of non-violence within a war-torn world. This does raise the issue that you raised about how it is easier to live out this non-violent ethic if there are others willing to fight for us.

  6. I’m looking forward to following the discussion further! You guys rock!

  7. I think the police force is a bit different than a military force. The police do not plan to kill. They threaten it but for the most part it isn’t planned until it actually happens. I don’t know how important the distinction is but it’s there. Some even say force of any kind even non-fatal is unChristian so that would remove much of a police officer’s job.

    Where would Christianity be without Constantine? Or the Americas? Without violence Rome and the Americas would not have become Christian. You could say God would prevail anyway but He hasn’t. Christianity is primarily in 4 continents and the Word was spread because of violence in all 4 of them (Europe (Rome), N America, S America, Australia). Not directly spread by violence but it definitely wasn’t spread by martyrdom.

  8. Phil said: “It seems to me that a consistent pacifist position would argue that Christian participation in an armed police force is not viable; yet, I suspect that pacifists would be wary of living in a town without the presence of a police force.”

    Are you suggesting pacifism is inconsistent? 🙂 Kidding aside, I think you raise a good point for theology in general: how consistent is our theology and life in the world?

    I think people like Hauerwas are wary to say they promote withdrawal from things like the police force active nonviolence (although it often sounds like they do). Ideally, the point of the peacemaking Christian community is to exist as a concrete alternative to violence. For example, instead of the a reactionary response to crime or violence (typical Police response in an emergency), how can Christians preemptively foster a safe community through connecting with the outcasts of our culture, thereby reducing the incidents of violence? Realistically, this won’t erase all the violence I know. But at least it takes responsibility for alleviating injustice and reducing violence around us.

    Bruce said: “Where would Christianity be without Constantine?”

    Good question. Many Anabaptists and others actually see Constantine and the subsequent spread of Christianity as the fall of the church, not the victory. Sure, Christianity has spread, but what kind of Christianity?

    I’m not prone to see it so negatively, but I do think there is much to critique in the blend of society and faith that followed Constantine.

  9. Thanks Phil for getting this started. This is tough for me because I’ve largely grown up thinking “might makes right”, which is the predominate social and political thought in the US. Where Jesus messes things up is talking about His followers being peacemakers and that He was willing to die without a fight (physically). He went willingly to the cross, would I do the same?

    This issue ties in to our views on patriotism and nationalism, and it is hard to keep my views in clear perspective with my faith, especially with the discordant discussions going on in our society. The discordant discussions even permeate our church culture and it’s difficult for us to disagree without feeling attacked. Maybe that’s why we avoid the issue.

    I really have more questions and few answers, but that makes life interesting. Looking forward to more thoughts!

  10. Bruce said, “Without violence Rome and the Americas would not have become Christian. You could say God would prevail anyway but He hasn’t.”

    This is a really interesting point. Christianity has spread a lot through violence. I’m glad you raised this, it leaves a lot for us to think about. It is sort of a historical wake up call for us in this debate to be reminded that the reason many of us have grown up within a Christian culture is because Christianity spread through violent means.

    However, it is hard to speculate on where things would have gone if the church behaved differently. I think the idea that God would not have prevailed if the church had not engaged in violence is not entirely accurate from a historical perspective. The pre-constantinian church spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire despite it’s refusal to engage in violence. In fact Tertullian famously wrote in the second century that “the blood of the martyr’s is the seed of the church.” He was commenting on the fact that the church multiplied during the time of martyrdom. Similar examples can be seen in more contemporary situations. I believe it was someone within Stalin’s administration who commented that the Christian church was difficult to eradicate because as it faced persecution it just grew stronger.

  11. Thanks everyone for either listening in or contributing to this discussion. It has been a while since I have reflected on this issue and I found that I learned a lot and gained some better perspective through our discussion.

    I thought I’d post a couple of resources for those who want to get deeper into this issue. One of the most articulate and comprehensive arguments for pacifism that I have read is John Howard Yoder’s book “The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism.” Also by Yoder is his book “The Politics of Jesus.”

    On the other side of the debate I find that C.S. Lewis has a lot of helpful ideas about why an engagement in Just War is legitimate as even necessary as a Christian. He has an essay on this in his collection of essays “The Weight of Glory.” And I believe he touches on this issue in “Mere Christianity.”

    If anybody has any other resources they would like to share feel free.

    Another issue that seemed to be at the foundation of our discussion is the relationship between Christianity and culture. Should Christians impact the world by forming an alternative community that models the values of God’s kingdom. Or should Christians be more integrated within the cultural structures (including military, etc) and seek to bring about transformation from within the structures.

    Stanley Hauerwas “Resident Aliens” outlines the first argument – Oliver O’Donovan’s “The Desire of the Nations” – argues for the transformationalist view. (warning- O’donovan’s book is a tedious and difficult read).
    A great overview of this issue that highlights different views is Neihbur’s “Christ and Culture.”

    If anybody is interested in reading some of these books in community and discussing them let me know and we can start up a reading group.

    This forum is by no means closed so feel free to continue the discussion – just thought I’d post some of these resources right now.

  12. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how this often abstract topic – is anyone really being forced to participate in war as in the past? – doesn’t always translate into our everyday living.

    How do our views on violence and justice translate into personal relationships and the church community? Should there be a consistency between our theology for culture (in this case Just War or Pacifism) and our personal faith? I think both sides can be greatly challenged considering this relationship.

    Sadly Mennonites, even with their historical peace position, haven’t always sought relational peace in how they handle conflict within their own ranks. I’m guessing this type of inconsistency still exists in people’s lives and church practices. As a Mennonite, I guess I’m asking this: when we aren’t forced to live/die on our peace position, how do seek to be peacemakers in our everyday lives?

  13. Yep, Lewis discusses the issue in Mere Christianity. My favorite part in it is when he says that he can respect pacifists even if he thinks they’re wrong. What he doesn’t like is the semi-pacifists who go to war but with a “long face” as if you were ashamed of it. If you’re fighting a just war then do it with courage not shame.

    He also says he believes if two men kill each other on the battlefield and see each other the moment after death we’ll have no resentment or embarassment about it. Which is a cool way to view the afterlife. It’s wicked awesome to think that just like that our animosity towards each other would wash away. We’d no longer be German and British fighting the just war against our enemies but children of God. CS Lewis was a a good man. Even if I disagree with him on pacifism. 🙂

    I’ve never read the Weight of Glory. I probably should!

  14. Bruce F wrote: “pacifism is much easier to embrace when there are enough people on the other side to lessen the impact of your decision. The Taliban won’t blow up my neighborhood because other people are willing to fight them.”

    Philip Rushton replied: “I appreciate your honesty about how pacifists are able to benefit from those who fight battles for them.”

    I would question several of these points. First, I think there’s some confusion between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Incidentally, sowing this sort of confusion was a key strategy used by the West to motivate the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe a strong argument can be made that those wars, rather than helping keep us safe, have only stoked the flames of resentment and bitterness that will encourage international terrorism.

    Far from benefiting from these wars, all of us–pacifists or not–only suffer. I reject the notion that others are “fighting battles for me”.

  15. So far this conversation has sort of been in house, with people from the church and some of my friends from Abbotsford. Joining this debate today in the above comment is Nick Barrowman. Welcome Nick! If you’d like we’d be interested to hear a bit of your story – where your from etc. I gathered from your blog that you are from Ottawa (one of my favorite cities!), a medical researcher, and, as it pertains to this discussion, a peace activist.

    In many ways I sympathize with your concern that the so called ‘war on terrorism’ may in fact be fostering further violence and terrorism rather then eradicating it. As you can tell, I am approaching this issue from a theological orientation. As I Christian I disagree with the notion that the presence of evil or terror in the world is something that we will be completely eradicated through military power.

    So in light of this context I understand your concern surrounding the argument that pacifists are benefiting from others “fighting battles for them.”

    My question, though, is how you would respond to other examples of military violence. Are there not some examples of military power overcoming oppressive regimes and protecting the weak? I have often referred to the case of Hitler and the National Socialists, throughout this conversation, as perhaps an example of how military power may have been justified and protective of many people. (Though as in any conversation regarding just wars, we often have to evaluate each battle on its own terms – i say this in anticipation of reference to battles like that of Dresden). I also wonder what your thoughts are regarding the presence of an armed police force. As a pacifist do you see a police force as a legitimate structure within our society? If so how does that fit within a stance of non-violence?

    I submit these questions with genuine interest – not to stoke unnecessary controversy. Thanks for getting in on this!

  16. Philip,

    Thanks for welcoming me to your blog. For many years I have been interested in peace issues, and I recently started a blog called as a place to explore and promote pacifism from a broad perspective. Although many faith traditions have pacifist currents, I did not want to limit the discussion to any one tradition. As it happens, I attend a Mennonite church, though I am not a Mennonite myself.

    I have been looking for thoughtful blog posts about issues around pacifism where I might be able to engage in productive discussions, and when I found yours, I decided to comment. Now, to respond to your questions:

    I agree that there are examples of military power overcoming oppressive regimes — along with many examples of military power installing such regimes. Military leaders almost always *talk* about protecting the weak, but if you consider who suffers most in war, it seems a dubious claim. There is ample evidence that the Allied leadership was aware that the Holocaust was taking place (certainly by 1941), and yet took no steps to halt it (by, for example, bombing the railway tracks leading to Auschwitz). During the Holocaust, Canada accepted very few Jewish refugees, and in 1939 turned away an entire shipload of German Jewish refugees (onboard the S.S. St Louis) who were forced to return to Europe. Meanwhile, about 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps. Protecting the weak doesn’t seem to have been a priority here.

    It is interesting that you raise the question of the legitimacy of a police force, as I have recently been giving this some thought. I do see a police force as legitimate in a democratic society, provided their actions are appropriate and provisions for democratic oversight and accountability are in place. Police do have some coercive powers, but their fundamental purpose is not violent. Police have the authority to pull a driver over for running a red light, and if the driver turns out to be intoxicated, to arrest them. This clearly involves some infringement on liberty, and to the extent that the driver resists arrest, physical coercion. I would distinguish this from violence, however. In our society, deliberate (rather than accidental) harm to the driver would itself be treated as a criminal offense. By contrast, in warfare the explicit aim is to inflict harm.

    Now, let me tell you a bit about how I see pacifism. As I have written on my blog, I see it as a direction of thought and action rather than a fixed point. At one extreme is what some have termed “absolute pacifism”. In its strongest form such a commitment would prohibit violence even in self defense, and perhaps violence against non-human living things. At the other extreme is a total lack of concern about violence. Someone holding this view might oppose a given war, but not because it involves violence. For example such a person might object that this particular war is not cost effective.

    I suspect that not many people hold to either of these extreme views. Instead, most of us fall somewhere in between. What I would argue, however, is that to the extent that you believe your society is too ready to use violence, you have pacifist leanings. In this sense, I believe pacifism is quite widespread, if perhaps a bit timid.

  17. Thanks Nick,

    You make a distinction between potentially coercive powers in the police force with the violence in warfare saying, “in warfare the explicit aim is to inflict harm.” To some degree I can agree with this, though I would probably substitute the word “aim” with “method.”

    For a just war theorist would argue that the “aim” or “goal” of war is not to inflict harm, but to protect human rights. The US Catholic Conference of 1993 says that, “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”

    Traditional Catholic just war theory sets out a number of guidelines for a just war. The latest catechism outlines them, though these have earlier origins in Augustine and Aquinas. A just war is one where:
    * the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
    * all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    * there must be serious prospects of success;
    * the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

    But as your evaluation of WWII points out, a war that may have been started by a just cause is not always performed in a just way. Traditional just war theory requires a just cause for war, but also a just enactment of war where innocent lives are protected. The reality is that a fully just war probably rarely happens. As such I think that if we are going to appeal to just war theory we really need to be accountable to it. In fact I would go so far as to say that if we took just war theory seriously we would have pacifist leanings, for we would see violence as a last resort, and we would (as you envision as a pacifist) “be a society that is not too ready to turn to violence.”

  18. Philip,

    Thanks for your reply. I agree that my attempt to distinguish policing from warfare has some weaknesses. You wrote:

    You make a distinction between potentially coercive powers in the police force with the violence in warfare saying, “in warfare the explicit aim is to inflict harm.” To some degree I can agree with this, though I would probably substitute the word “aim” with “method.”

    That’s a reasonable point. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that police, when acting legitimately, serve every single member of the population. Law breakers belong to this population, and thus must never be sacrificed for the “greater good”. This means that the use of force must always be constrained. Fascist societies may disregard them, but these principles are fundamental to criminal justice in a democratic society.
    In warfare by contrast, the other side’s soldiers – indeed all the members of their society in modern warfare – are seen as “the enemy”. Methods such as bombing civilian populations have been justified as furthering the “greater good”. This only makes sense if the civilian population is considered to be dispensable, by virtue of being “them” instead of “us”. The doctrine of Total War takes these ideas to their logical extreme, removing any constraints on the application of force. But in any war people are treated as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. What is called murder in ordinary life is considered acceptable, even laudable, in war.

    For a just war theorist would argue that the “aim” or “goal” of war is not to inflict harm, but to protect human rights.

    The idea of inflicting harm to prevent harm is fundamentally problematic, as is the idea of a war “where innocent lives are protected.”

    A just war is one where …

    Just war criteria have some appeal. But they require judgments that are difficult if not impossible to make with any degree of certainty. For example, who can make a valid judgment that “all other means of putting an end” to the evil “have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”? What would constitute “serious” prospects of success? How can one reliably predict whether a war will “produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”? Furthermore, history shows that those who would wage war always find justifications. In modern societies, massive propaganda campaigns are used to convince the public that war is justified, even in the absence of credible evidence.

  19. Thanks Nick,

    I agree that just war theory leaves too much uncertainty in its definition. I especially appreciate your question, “how can one reliably predict whether a war will ‘produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated?” There are a lot of examples in history that support this concern.
    I stated above that just war proponents ought to stay accountable to the theory but perhaps there isn’t enough built in accountability in the theory to begin with.

  20. Philip,

    I just found a blog post that addresses some of the questions about pacifism and policing from a Christian perspective:

    Are pacifists against policing?

    John Howard Yoder is quoted. Here’s an excerpt:

    The distinction made here between police and war is not simply a matter of degree to which the appeal to force goes, the number of persons killed or killing. It is a structural and profound difference in the sociological meaning of the appeal to force. In the police function, the violence or threat thereof is applied only to the offending party. The use of violence by the agent of the police is subject to review by higher authorities. The police officer applies power within the limits of a state whose legislation even the criminal knows to be applicable to him. In any orderly police system there are safeguards to keep the violence of the police from being applied in a wholesale way against the innocent. The police power is generally great enough to overwhelm that of the individual offender so that any resistance on the offender’s part is pointless. In all these respects, war is structurally different.

    The blog post and comments are enlightening.

  21. Wow! Glad to hear the comments, bring this kind of thinking to Longview. I come from a Quaker heritage so line up with the peaceniks. I have never seen a just war yet in my 7 decades, certainly none on the horizon. Even WW2 did not want to hear from the non-violence community. And after serving a hitch as a draftee in the US army I am more and more convinced that war, as practiced in modern time, is wrong for all mankind.

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