Why do most Christians reject pacifism?

Oct 30, 2019 by

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There are at least two major sets of reasons why most Christians reject pacifism: biblical arguments and general objections. And there are answers to all of them.

Biblical arguments

Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

Many Christians claim that in this statement Jesus endorses violent use of the sword. But Jesus is using metaphorical language to warn that following him will invite deadly persecution. The context supports this interpretation.

Just before and after verse 34, Jesus warns his followers they will encounter severe persecution. The parallel passage in Luke 12:51 shows Luke understood Jesus to speak of division, not a literal sword.

Soldiers in the New Testament aren’t told to give up their profession.

There are four significant places in which the New Testament implies or states positive things about soldiers without saying they should stop being soldiers (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 3:14-15, 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-11:18). Christians have argued that these stories show that Jesus and the New Testament writers regarded the military profession as acceptable.

This is an argument from silence and thus carries no weight. It is just as plausible to argue that Jesus and Peter told the centurions to stop being soldiers as to argue that Jesus and Peter intended to teach that continuing as soldiers was ethical. The texts say nothing either way.

Roman army life was immersed in pagan religion. Jesus and Peter do not tell the centurions to stop pagan activity, but we do not conclude that Jesus and Peter thought paganism was acceptable.

Jesus and Peter affirm the faith of centurions. That does not mean they are endorsing a military career any more than Jesus’ praise of the faith of tax collectors and prostitutes (Matt. 21:31) means Jesus affirms extortionate taxation and prostitution.

Jesus cleansed the temple with a whip.

Some Christians cite this incident as proof that Jesus himself used violence. All four Gospels use the same Greek verb (ekballō) to describe what Jesus did. But this word does not necessarily carry any connotation of violence. In Mark 1:12, this same word is used to say the Spirit “sent” Jesus into the wilderness.

But John 2:15 uses this word in connection with Jesus using a whip. Some translations suggest Jesus used the whip on the money changers as well as the animals. But the Greek text does not say that. The Good News Translation has it right: “[Jesus] drove all the animals out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle [or oxen].” In this incident, Jesus is far from passive. But nothing in the text says he used the whip on the people.

After the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples to buy a sword.

Some Christians argue that this passage shows Jesus is not a pacifist. In preparing his disciples for their dangerous missionary journeys, they say, Jesus wants his disciples to have swords for self-defense.

This interpretation of the incident makes no sense. How could two swords be “enough” for 12 disciples (Luke 11:38)?

Furthermore, just a few hours later, after Peter actually uses a sword in a futile attempt to prevent Jesus’ arrest, Jesus rebukes him. A few hours after that, Jesus tells Pilate his followers do not fight (John 18:36).

Jesus used figurative language to warn of coming persecution, but the disciples misunderstood his words.

New Testament writers used military metaphors.

One example is 2 Cor. 10:3-4. A metaphor is a nonliteral comparison. Paul compares being filled with the Spirit to being drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18). Jesus compares himself to a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43) and God to an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). No one supposes these metaphors affirm drunkeness, theft or injustice. Neither does a military metaphor justify war.

Rom. 13:1-7 says to submit to the government, which does not bear the sword in vain.

This is probably the most widely used text to argue that God wants Christians to participate in justly authorized governmental killing.

Paul says God has established government, Christians should be subject to it, and rulers are God’s agents to punish wrongdoers. But just a few verses earlier, in words that seem to echo Jesus, Paul says Christians “do not repay anyone evil for evil;     . . . do not take revenge . . . but leave room for God’s wrath” (12:17-19).

Many Christians argue that the two sets of statements, taken together, mean that in their personal lives Christians should never use lethal violence, but in their roles as public officials Christians rightly participate in government-authorized killing.

How valid is this argument?

Paul lists a number of things that being subject to government involves: not rebelling, paying taxes, offering respect. But nowhere does Paul say Christians have a duty to participate in the government’s punishment of wrongdoers.

A comparison of the Greek words in 12:19 and 13:4 demonstrates that the government does precisely the things that Paul has just commanded Christians never to do. In chapter 12, Paul says that seeking to live at peace with everyone means “do not take revenge [ekdikountes], . . . but leave room for God’s wrath” (orgē). Then in 13:4, Paul employs exactly the same words — just used to describe what Christians should not do — to speak about what the state does. Rulers “are God’s servants, agents of wrath [ekdikos eis orgēn] to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Paul uses exactly the same words for vengeance and wrath in both places. Evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce is right: “The state thus is charged with a function which has been explicitly forbidden to the Christian.”

General objections

Pacifists fail to protect their neighbors.

This assumes there are only two options: to kill or do nothing. But the success of nonviolent campaigns shows there are always other options. A recent study of 323 armed and unarmed campaigns for justice discovered that nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts. Nonviolent campaigns in Poland, Liberia, the Philippines and elsewhere have overthrown vicious dictators. The work of Christian Peacemaker Teams has reduced conflict. Pacifists must greatly expand their use of nonviolent direct action.

Pacifists naïvely ignore ­human sinfulness.

Some pacifists do. But biblical pacifists understand the depth of human depravity. In fact, the rejection of all war fits better with human sinfulness than the just-war tradition. The just-war tradition calls on Christians to dispassionately judge every war to see if it meets the criteria to be just. But history shows that sinful tribalism and nationalism almost always overwhelm thoughtful moral analysis. Given the almost universal way that sinful people irrationally join their group’s wars, a general moral teaching against all killing is a more realistic restraint on our sinful nature.

Ronald J. Sider is the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and the author of more than 30 books, including If Jesus Is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence (Baker, 2019), which discusses these issues in more detail, and Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Your Enemies, coming in February from Herald Press. He blogs at ronsiderblog.substack.com.


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