For many years after becoming a Christian I believed in pacifism. The early church were pacifists (to my knowledge) and so was Jesus and his immediate followers (with one or two exceptions frequently debated). Part of my journey towards Christianity was in reading the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who stood up to the injustices of El Salvador at time and was martyred for it. A famous quote of his goes..
We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.
― Oscar A. Romero
The quote even now serves to highlight the life-changing power of the Gospel to me. Yet despite this in recent years I cannot help but realise that the world I live in and the circumstances I am so grateful for would not have come about with a direct use of violence at some point.
John Howard Yoder in his book ‘What would you do?’ addressed in what I felt was a sufficient way how one would answer a response to home invasion and the threat to loved ones. I reasoned from the book that a pacifist would place themselves between the invader and a loved one, I imagined Romero would say the same. Ultimately I would not want to deprive someone of the chance to respond to the Gospel by depriving them of their life. Yet it is one thing to accept your own or even the demise of your loved ones but what of something more? The destruction of a culture? A people group?
I might of completely misread it but in the aforementioned book Yoder leaves space for the distinction between individual violence and state violence. That it is one thing ultimately to protect friends and family and another for a state to engage in any semblance of warfare, just or otherwise. History however isn’t quite so clear cut, take modern Iraq and Syria for example.
Borders and violence
Christian pacifism I believe is a position closely aligned ultimately with political anarchism, I say political because to say you govern anything you must be able to define your sphere of influence. A state is a fundamentally violent entity in that its existence is defined by being able to exert influence over a population and equally in being able to define who makes up that population. In this sense I would offer that to believe in any form of governance is a concession to the necessity of violence in some form or another.
An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.
– Ammon Henacy
In all honesty there is a part of me that still holds to Christian pacifism despite these implications. However with the advent of groups like the Islamic State in the world I have been questioning myself. The Islamic State is a state in that it is able to both exert influence over a population and protect its borders. If I lived within its borders they would either hold me and mine to ransom, kill us or force us to convert to Islam. Without its use of violence to create and enshrine borders the Islamic state might still be ‘Islam’ but it would not be a ‘State’.
This totalitarianism we see in groups like the Islamic State is one that has appeared in various guises all over the world. This kind of violence however isn’t terrible for its violence against the person (which is horrific), but for its violence against the people by denying them an identity that links them to their past, the land and their culture. The Islamic State has a reputation for destroying tombs, historical monuments and both Christian churches and the Mosques of rival Islamic sects. This isn’t accidental, the Islamic state if it had its way would eliminate all trace of a world beyond the one it is attempting to create. Even now the children within its borders learn a history different to the history taught to the children outside of it. The Islamic State, like any totalitarian doesn’t care about your pacifism, it will quite happily remove you and all trace of your existence from both the earth and its history. Not just you but all people like you in their sphere of influence.
An appropriate response
If their were easy answers to unrelenting violence we wouldn’t need to discuss such things. I pray that we all were given the gift of tongues (or leaders with such tongues) like that of Saint Leo the Great who managed to turn Attila away from Rome and without violence saved so many. But at the same time we would be naive to think that the Attila’s of this world might uniformly be talked into lasting peace. The small peace of Leo’s Rome was in the context of Europe’s great ruin after all.
Many wars are existential in that they challenge the identity of the places and people among which they occur. I think a Christian can be a pacifist but one must truly expect miracles to be one because it is surely the more dangerous road to take. Part of me also wonders however if it is the selfish road to take. The Middle East was once thoroughly Christian and is no longer precisely because of the violence inflicted on it. Despite this as long as the state exists violence will be a part of the world we live in. In my own case as someone in the Church of England I am part of a National Church which as long as it is ‘National’ cannot without contradiction be a peace church unless it is in conflict with infrastructure the state itself. I am also speaking from the perspective of someone who has been raised in a state that has never known conflict seen in other parts of Europe in recent history or in Syria today.
I’m of two minds about this and will probably follow it up in the future as I think about it more.
Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men. Only now are the Germans beginning to discover the meaning of free responsibility. It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer