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VIEWPOINTS: Christianity and pacifism

Metta Spencer — December 1983

Almost every religion teaches some form of pacifism. Yet history is full of cases of religious wars. In battle chaplains on each side regularly urge soldiers forward by telling them that “God is on our side,” and by praying for victory instead of reconciliation. Some religions have been exceedingly warlike, such as Aztecs, Muslims and Christians, with their “holy wars” and crusades.

Christianity is a notable example of this dichotomy between teaching and practice. Christ is rightly called “the Prince of Peace,” for he consistently urged his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. In his “Sermon on the Mount” he gave this remarkable advice:

“You have learned how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Almost all Christians in the world today (including most fundamentalists, who claim to be following Jesus’s teachings word-for-word) apparently consider this message as political nonsense and never attempt to follow it. Yet for the first several hundred years of Christianity, it was considered to be Christ’s main message, and it was followed absolutely. The early Christians were pacifists who, if it came to that, would let themselves be slaughtered or eaten by lions without resistance.

The doctrine of pacifism is not without moral ambiguity, however. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were the leaders who probably advocated following Christ’s teachings most faithfully in our own century. Yet Gandhi was troubled by the realisation that a moral person might have to use violence to stop a mad dog, for example, or a mad person who was killing people. We all can recognise that we’d want our friends to use the necessary amount of violence to stop us if we should ever happen to lose our sanity and start attacking people.

It is this basic notion — that love may sometimes seem to require violence of us that led Christianity away from its initial commitment to pacifism. Other distinct logical steps increased this divergence, though not necessarily in an orderly historical sequence.

The first landmark in the transition from pacifist to non-pacifist Christianity was the “just war” theory of St. Augustine, who taught that some wars were just and moral, while others were not. The crucial principle was this: one might engage in violence to defend peace and order and to vindicate justice. For a war to be just there must be a promise of greater order, with justice and peace as its outcome. The fighting must also be justly conducted (for instance, it must be directed against forces and not directly and deliberately against noncombatants.)

In accordance with this theory of the “just war,” a nation was considered within its rights in resisting an aggressor if it had (1) attempted without success to reconcile with the aggressor, (2) stuck to limited, just objectives in its war, and (3) used tactics and weapons that were proportional, so the injury caused was commensurate with the harm averted.

A somewhat greater departure from Christ’s ethic is seen in the principle that one may not only defend others by using force, but may defend oneself. Of course, the early proponents of this notion insisted that the means of self-defense had to be appropriate and that a Christian might never deliver the first blow.

The third logical step is the acknowledgement that a pre-emptive strike might save a lot of trouble later on. Perhaps it might not be such a bad thing to stab someone in the back to prevent him from attacking oneself or others later on. Theologians have rarely promoted this theory explicitly, but many Christians have believed in it.

Subsequent steps in the reasoning become more subtle. The principle was recognised that some kinds of oppression take place without anyone’s hands getting bloody. An oppressive landlord, for example, may starve his tenant farmers to death by charging them unfair rents. Is he any less aggressive than a robber who uses a weapon to take their money? Doesn’t justice require that both a robber and an exploitative member of the ruling class be opposed with all available weapons? Many priests and nuns in Latin America, for example, maintain today that by aiding the revolutionaries they are serving God.

Notwithstanding these logical subtleties, most people see only two options: a) to succumb without protest to a bully, or b) to resist violently against his domineering ways. Which option to choose would seem to depend on weighing the evil done by the bully against the evil likely to arise from violent resistance.

Few Christian theologians would justify the use of nuclear weapons by appealing to the “just war” theory. All weapons of mass destruction obviously cause far more harm than any bullying that might need to be resisted.

However, even if the actual use of nuclear weapons is wrong, is the threat of using them necessarily wrong? More and more Christians are convinced that it is. But some justify the principle of “deterrence” — the threat of retaliation by an overwhelming weapon against any military incursion by one’s enemies — on grounds that it can prevent war by the salutary fear it induces.

There are, however, at least two important objections to the claim that the threat of violence prevents violence. The first is practical, the second both practical and theological.

First, to threaten violence credibly, one’ must at least appear to really intend to use it. The resulting preparation for war makes its outbreak more likely — because a) we may get carried away by our own bluffing and actually behave aggressively. or b) we may react to a false alarm and thus initiate fighting by mistake, or c) we may appear so threatening to our potential enemies, that they consider it necessary to strike us first to prevent our striking them later. Preparation for war does not prevent war, but actually invites it.

The second objection to a policy of deterrence is based on the observation that, whether or not deterrence succeeds at keeping one’s enemy at bay, it surely does not turn that enemy into a friend. Violence and threats of violence just might produce victory, but what one wants is not to triumph over one’s enemy or even to ward him off, but to be reconciled with him. And whatever one does to threaten or harm others makes reconciliation more difficult, and hence endangers peace.

This fact has become very clear to most religious leaders today, and it is largely for this reason that they generally now oppose militarism. Violence, they say, begets violence. Retaliation, simply keeps a chain of violence going indefinitely. The principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” leaves everyone blind and toothless, and none better off for it. The only way to break the chain is simply to stop it — to refuse to retaliate with violence, even if one is injured by others.

Moreover, the Sermon on the Mount is not actually impractical. As Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed us, nonviolent protest is powerfully effective. A pacifist does not fight back but confronts an antagonist with two simultaneous messages: (a) I care about you and will not harm you, and (b) I am protesting the harm that you are doing.

Gandhi and King insisted on faithfully applying Christ’s message to love one’s enemies. Thai did not mean succumbing without protest, however; it meant confronting their evil and refusing to cooperate with it. These two religious leaders realised that society works only because people cooperatively follow certain common rules. If people refuse to do so, social organization breaks down. What has to be done to resist evil, then, is not to retaliate with violence but simply to refuse to obey bad rules. It may cost one a great deal of suffering, but it is a tactic that has one unique advantage: It leaves room for one’s antagonist to stop the wrongdoing and become one’s friend.

Protest, to Gandhi, was a duty; he claimed that morality was mostly a matter of telling the truth and that meant objecting to all oppression of oneself or others.

But at the same time, love required one to view the oppressive person as a seeker for truth too. Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King would ever speak of anyone as their enemy; their antagonists were also seeking truth and the struggle with them should always be carried out in a spirit of love — as an effort to assist them in finding truth and love.

Christ was assassinated. So were Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But their teachings have not been defeated. During this month, the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to a Catholic machinist, Lech Walesa, for organising nonviolent protests in Poland.

Christianity has come full circle. Church leaders preach nonviolence again today, having discovered along with the rest of us that when violence is carried to its ultimate extreme — nuclear annihilation — it defeats those who depend upon it. Only love has a future.