[Editor’s Note: Welcome today’s guest writer, Jonathan Fitzgerald. Jonathan is a writer and teacher in the NYC area. His work has been featured in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today. He is also the managing editor for PatrolMag.com Today, he offers a response to my recent post about Pacifism. Please join the conversation with your own comments and submissions!]
Five Questions Your Pacifist Friends Are Tired of Answering
(originally featured in Burnside Writers Collective)
In an effort to stay relevant to my students, I often myself frequenting message boards populated, mostly, by college students and twenty-something’s. Being a twenty-something myself, and a college professor, I exist in limbo on the “boards.” I choose to simply read many conversations rather than participate, however there is one thread I never can seem to stay out of: Pacifism.
I am a Christian Pacifist, a follower of Christ who sees it as my responsibility as such to live a life committed to non-violence. I believe Jesus’ teachings on non-violence are absolutely central to his message that the Kingdom of God is near.
Years ago, when I was a college student I had a faith crisis. I came to a crossroads where I had to make a decision to either radically transform my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ, or get out all together. As many can attest to, my high school faith didn’t stand a chance against my college education. I prayed a lot, studied other religions, and watched the United States change in the wake the attacks in NYC and Washington D.C. A series of events as varied as a semester in Kenya, personal heartbreak, and acting as care-giver for an injured friend contributed to my decision to breathe new life into my faith by making the difficult decision to take seriously Jesus’ call to non-violence.
This decision to follow Christ in this way was not easy for me, especially not initially and it’s become only slightly easier in the years since I made this commitment. Since then I have come up against a barrage of questions and arguments from friends, family members, fellow Christians, non-Christians, just about anybody with any sense of self-preservation. The questions are often the same, though the askers can be very different.
What follows are five questions about/arguments against Christian Pacifism that I have heard over and over in the five years since I made a commitment to non-violence. I present them both for those thinking earnestly about Jesus’ teachings on non-violence, and also for those who are dismissive of these teachings, whether Christian or not. Following the questions are the answers that I’ve come up with and often recite by heart to the asker. They are by no means authoritative; rather, they are the reflections of someone still grappling with these difficult issues, trying to discover how best to live a life that is pleasing to God.
1.What if your (insert loved one here) was attacked?
By far the most frequently asked question. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this may be the case and the answer I keep coming back to is that it is the question that requires the least amount of thought. It’s a gut reaction. We all have the sense that defending our loved ones, even defending ourselves, is not only a basic part of human nature, but also (for Christians) a Biblical mandate. This is, of course, is based on truth. Jesus does speak of defending the defenseless. But what does this defense look like? I think that Christ himself answers this question both in words, and with his life as the model. “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Jesus certainly calls us to defend those in need of defense. But he never advocates violence. Quite the opposite; in fact, he says the key is laying down one’s life. And he modeled this self sacrifice on the cross.
The question remains a difficult one, even as a gut reaction, and most recently my best answer is a non-answer. That is, I don’t know what I would do. If I was acting in complete accordance with my faith I would throw myself in the way, take the beating myself. But if I was acting from instinct (read: my sinful nature) I’d probably punch, kick, scrap, tear, sin.
2. What about the Old Testament?
And yes, the question is often presented that vaguely. The assertion, I’ve come to find out, is actually “God commanded the Israelites to kill all kinds of people; entire nations, men, women, and children were the victims of the Israelites, enacting God’s will.” The answer to this, the right answer, may require more theological knowledge than I possess, but it may not. It seems clear to me that God telling the Israelites to violently destroy other nations falls into the category of things that existed under the Old Covenant; that is, the covenant God had with the Israelites before Jesus came to live among us. When Jesus came he said that he had come to fulfill the law. So directly did he address this very issue in fact that he prefaces his statement on treatment of enemies by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” And then continues, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). Jesus understood that by coming to fulfill the Law he was in fact reinterpreting. And rather than making the Law any easier to live by, he was making it much, much more difficult.
As to why this particular part of the Law needed to be reinterpreted, there are many ideas, and I have my own theory. My sense from reading of the Old Testament is that though God gave the Israelites the ability to enact his justice on earth by making them his hands and placing the sword squarely within them, they consistently messed up . Much of the Old Testament is in fact the story of how the Israelites received direction from God and proceeded to foul it up. This, it seems, is why Jesus says that only he has the authority to judge, given him directly by the father. I often conclude my answer to this question by asking if the asker believes that God has mandated any modern country to wage war on another. The answer, thankfully, is most often “No,” and the point tends to follow.
3. Didn’t Jesus mean to live non-violently in our personal lives, but not corporately?
This question follows the admission by the asker that Jesus did indeed command his followers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, etc. It would seem that these directions translate more readily to people’s individual relationships with the outside world as opposed to any kind of corporate understanding. That is, I found myself answering this question frequently soon after I attended an anti-war protest in NYC in 2003. With Saddam Hussein in the sights, and he being such an obvious source of evil in our world, many of my Christian friends who had conceded me the point of non-violence in interpersonal relationships argued that certainly when it came to international affairs, sometimes violence is absolutely necessary.
There are two ways I have found to answer this question. The first is to challenge the asker to provide any evidence that Jesus intended any qualifier to be applied to this command. This proves to be a difficult task because none of Jesus’ non-violence messages or actions are followed by any exceptions. The immediate rebuttal is that Jesus does not speak about the actions of nations. The conversation is then a reduced to a series of inferences of what Jesus may have meant, though not said.
Depending on the intent of the asker, I may offer a different answer, an acknowledgement that kingdoms (or nations) of the world certainly do extend or protect their reign by violent means. That is to say it has always been this way, and it looks like it’s not going to change any time soon. However, as Christians we owe our allegiance to a higher Kingdom than any in existence here on earth. As citizens, first of the Kingdom of God, our allegiance to the kingdoms of this world is severed when that kingdom calls us to act, or support actions that have no place are forbidden in the Kingdom of God.
4. What about Romans 13?
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13:1, 4-5)
These hard words from Paul are in the Bible, and must be reckoned with . And I’m reminded of them more often than I would like. My gut reaction, what I usually fire back with, is weak. I’m warning you. It’s the same kind of gut reaction that I condemned just a few paragraphs ago. But it goes like this: “What about Hitler? Did God establish Hitler’s authority? To do good? Should we have submitted to him?”
See the mess I get myself into with that one? Needless to say, I’ve abandoned that answer.
My better answer came after years of prayer, study, contemplation, and one really good conversation with my friend Jon Busch, a self proclaimed Christian anarchist. Jon reads this passage as a dismissal of the government, and his reading is rather convincing. In much the same way that Jesus answered the challenge from the Pharisees about paying taxes by all but tossing a coin away and saying “Give to Caesar what is Caesars,” he sees Paul doing the same here. Paul knew something about corrupt governments. So, for him to say that Christians must submit to governmental authority indicates that he has no intention of Christians rising up against the government, and he’s stating the obvious when he says if you do something to anger the government, you’re going to be punished. This interpretation, for Jon, who is committed to complete reluctance to participate in the government, makes perfect sense.
For me, a Christian pacifist, I also concurred Romans 13 this way. I agree that a Christian should not rise up against the government. He should submit to that authority. But today, as in Paul’s day, there is an assumed “unless.” Unless the government requires you to act against your higher allegiance, the Kingdom of God. This may make some people squirm when they first hear it until they think about it a little more. Ask any Christian what they would do if the government suddenly told them they no longer had the right to meet and worship every Sunday; they would disobey, they would not submit, as the churches in Paul’s day did not submit, and as churches around the world still do not.
5. So, you’re suggesting Christians sit back and do nothing?
“Pacifism is not the same as inaction!” I scream at the top of my lungs while flailing my arms like a mad man.
Actually, I don’t, or at least haven’t yet shouted into the face of an asker out of frustration, though I often want to. The kind of pacifism that Jesus advocated while here on earth has nothing to do with inaction. If it did, his mandate may have been to ignore your enemy. Or, instead of actively turning the other cheek, he may have suggested you stand still, smile, and take your beating. Unfortunately most Christians actually believe this is what it means to turn the other cheek. I answer this question by reiterating the numerous verses pertaining to non-violence and pointing out the action verbs used. From turning the cheek, to praying for those who persecute you, to Jesus replacing the centurion’s ear after Peter hacked it off, Jesus doesn’t just preach non-violence, he lives it.
The final and most pervasive example is His sacrifice for us on the cross. Giving Himself up to be crucified is not the same as being killed. Knowing that Jesus is God and allowing Himself to be sacrificed is an action – Jesus doing something that none of us can fathom.
Certainly there are more questions, others I have heard and probably many I have yet to encounter in my young life as a Christian pacifist. This list is not meant to be comprehensive. But I provide these common questions and my best answers in the hope that next time you come across a person holding to the belief that their commitment to be a follower of Christ requires they live a life of non-violence, you may spare them these questions, delving deeper perhaps to get to the center of their decision .
And if you do ascribe to non-violence, or if you’ve been thinking about or feeling drawn toward this way of life, your answers to these questions may be different, may be better than my own, but it is my hope that my struggle with these issues will encourage you and spur you on in your attempt to follow Christ in word and deed.