The Questions Pacifists Always Get Asked

I found this article “Five Questions Your Pacifist Friends Are Tired of Answering” from the Burnside Collective. The article, written by Jonathan Fitzgerald, is an easily accessible article on specific questions that pacifists often get asked.

Fitzgerald introduces his article by saying,

“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.”

Five Questions That Often Get Asked of Pacifists

1.What if your (insert loved one here) was attacked?
2. What about the Old Testament?
3. Didn’t Jesus mean to live non-violently in our personal lives, but not corporately?
4. What about Romans 13?
5. So, you’re suggesting Christians sit back and do nothing?

I appreciated this article because of its clarity, passion and simplicity. Hopefully if you’ve wondered about why people believe in “non-violence” this article can give you some food for thought. And if you already ascribe to it, hopefully it gives you some new or refreshing insights.

A Couple ‘Non-Violent’ Reflections

Either way it made me reflect on my own thinking on the matter a bit further. Here’s a couple reflections.

The first question I receive by a majority of people who don’t understand the pacifist position is definitely Fitzgerald’s #1. I often get asked about what I’d do in the case of someone raping my wife or killing my kids. And while I am not interested in making a full argument here, I appreciate what Fitzgerald says,

“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.”

And I share his conclusion on the matter,

“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.”

The Problem With Hypothetical Ethics

But I wanted to add another thought about this. As Christians we aren’t called to base our ethics on hypothetical situations, but the concrete message of the Gospels and the life of Jesus. In American culture, we are used to basing our ethics, and our responses on gut reactions, our preferences, what feels right, and what serves ‘me’ best. But the Gospel calls us to entirely different mode of engaging this world, a different way of thinking about everything. ‘I’ am no longer the primary concern if the greatest commandment is to “love one another.”

Trying to figure out what might happen in these hypothetical situations undercuts the basis of our very faith. It removes the ‘way of Jesus’ as the primary location of how we discern right from wrong and places it within a very specific situation. Our faith, when taken seriously, is not something that locates itself in hypothetical situations or ‘what ifs.’ Rather it is relevant in everyday life, something that guides every choice, and every reaction.

Peacemaking is A Way of Life

That is why peacemaking is a practice that requires daily practice. It’s a lifestyle and needs a community of people who try to live peaceably if it is to make sense. The church is called to make peace. I don’t, in the heat of the moment, decide I ought to become a peacemaker. I live my life as one and in the heat of the moment believe that my faith, and choices I’ve made up to that point will be acceptable in God’s sight. I don’t know what I would do, but I believe that by “practicing” peacemaking I will be able to make the right choice no matter what. This flips the question around, from one that is hypothetical to one that is concrete. The Question: “How ought I live everyday in light of the Kingdom of God, regardless of my context and situation?” Answer: Peaceably.

If I am pro-active in loving my neighbors, sharing my life with others, and am trying to promote peace in every sphere I come in contact with then we begin to understand it when Christ says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”


Sidenote: Expect a few more posts on this topic, as I’d like to share some resources and other thoughts on living non-violently in a violent world.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

11 thoughts on “The Questions Pacifists Always Get Asked”

  1. It is an interesting area isn’t it. I really don’t like being asked these kind of questions, but just thinking about it as I was reading your article, I was agreeing. I don’t know what I would do, but I do think the closer I am to God as I walk with him, the more likely I will be to make the right decision in his eyes. Which leaves me with the one thought, I should be striving to be closer to God and living for Him.

  2. These questions are infinitely important to answer and with more than just superficial reactions. There are difficult realities that we face. Just look at Dafur. Hundreds of thousands of people are being exterminated. How can we “peacefully” intervene? You cannot have rational discussions with those intent on genocide. Obviously we should be continuously praying for the crisis, but how would God have us respond?

  3. I appreciate your point that non-violence is a way of life and takes practice and cultivation. That makes a lot of sense. I know that some reject the term pacifism because it sounds passive. They prefer non-violence because it is pro-active.

    I agree that there is a limit to hypothetical ethics since one’s ethics truly come out in the moment. But I think hypothetical discussions are very important in shaping our responses; something that Willard would call “off the spot training.” Not to prooftext, but many of the statements of Jesus those who commit to non-violence quote are at least somewhat hypothetical. “If you are angry,” “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” etc. If we should not use hypothetical situations, can we use historical situations? Can we revisit moments of violence or threat, explore how people responded, and ask probing questions of those responses?

  4. @Phil – thanks for the comment. There are no easy answers to any of this but it sounds like you’re on the right track.

    @Kevin – great comment, I often wonder and pray for situations like Darfur. I know there are peacemakers in darfur and those who know know much more about this situation than I do, but you’re right all the same. Sitting down with a cup of tea and discussing issues rationally isn’t responsible in genocide. Fortunately, I am not proposing that either. I believe, along with a majority of the church, that there’s always something between doing nothing and using violence to solve situations.

    @Tyler – I like what you bring up about the necessity to discuss these issues, and your last question is definitely worth reflection.

    I don’t think my proposal is different than Willard’s, I too am influenced by his thought. The position I am proposing is informed by his material in “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” There he discusses the necessity to always be in training for that moment of “on the spot training,” though I don’t remember if he uses that exact phrase, he gets at the same point. He uses the example of a professional baseball player who trains to hit a home-run and then someone like me, who wants to hit a home run (though never trains for it). The chances of me being able to hit a home run on the spot, or do the right thing, with a body/mind that is not trained is very unlikely.

    That being said, I agree with you and think that these situations are worth discussing because they help us know practicalities. They help us envision how real life looks and what are possible options for responding. If anything these should drive us toward creative thinking, not just the boring “i’d kill him” or “i’d kneel and pray” answers.

    I guess in regards to hypotheticals I would say that a) we shouldn’t ever ground our ethics solely in what ifs, but use it to think creatively about various options and b) Jesus’ examples are far less extreme situations than many of the ones offered by “opponents” of the pacifist view.

    “Can we revisit moments of violence or threat, explore how people responded, and ask probing questions of those responses?” I think we need to do this, and though we know we can never come to conclusive answers, we may find ways in which we could have responded better, and more Christ-like.

  5. “I believe, along with a majority of the church, that there’s always something between doing nothing and using violence to solve situations.”

    Using Dafur as a test case, what would be a solution between doing nothing and using violence to stop the genocide? Frankly, I grow tired of merely speculation. What are some ideas out there for a situation like this that go beyond the merely hypothetical?

  6. Kevin — What about the Darfur situation makes it especially problematic for pacifists? I haven’t seen any solutions from non-pacifists. (Well, except for the ones carrying out the genocide.)

    What’s wrong with taking the 20,000 troops Bush wants to put in Iraq, putting them under UN command, retraining them, and sending them to Darfur instead?

  7. People who don’t believe in nonviolence always ask someone who is a pacifist those “what if” questions. Usually they will come up with some outlandish scenario in which your loved one is about to be killed and your ONLY way to stop the killer is to shoot him dead. If you agree that you would shoot the aggressor then the person you are debating feels victorious saying,
    “Aha, so you are not really a pacifist!”
    I keep thinking about an article I read about folk singer/pacifist Joan Baez and her response to a man who challenged her pacifism.

    Man: “So what would you do if a man was about to stab your mother and you had a gun? Would you use it?”

    Joan: “Why would I have a gun?”

    Man: “It’s a hypothetical question. Would you shoot him to save your mother?”

    Joan: Am I an expert shot in this hypothetical scenario?”

    Man: “Yes”

    Joan: “Then I would shoot he knife out of his hand.”

    Man: “Ok, ok but say you are NOT an expert shot? Would you kill him?”

    Joan: “But I might miss and kill my own mother!”

    Man: “Say you are close enough not to shoot your own mother by accident. Would you kill him?”

    Joan: “No I would just get between my mother and the killer.”

    Man: “But what if there is no time to get between your mom and the killer.”

    This conversation went back and forth until the man just gave up in frustration because Joan would not say she would kill.
    Personally I do not know what I would do in such a scenario. I would just rely on God to help me get through it and do the right thing.
    As for things like Hitler killing the Jews and the crisis in Darfur there are no easy answers. Of course it would be best to stop such violence before it starts but if you wait too long then what do you do once the genocide starts? As I said I have no easy answers for that.

  8. @chase – thanks for the comment, a little peace training for soldiers sounds like a fantastic idea. Maybe we could sign them up for Christian Peacemaker Teams, I hear they are experts at that.

    @Richard – Great Joan quote, I’ve read that before in one of John Howard Yoder’s books. It shows how ridiculous this all becomes very quickly, especially when we’re arguing with people who don’t want to hear something other than their own point of view.

    And you are right there are no easy answers about any of these huge issues. But at the same time there you can be a pacifist without being able to solve the world’s problems the two don’t cancel each other out.

  9. “It shows how ridiculous this all becomes very quickly, especially when we’re arguing with people who don’t want to hear something other than their own point of view.”

    -This goes both ways…..

  10. Very interesting article. Interesting to me personally because I am just about in every way a Quaker in my beliefs, except on the topic of pacifism. But, it’s not like I’m militantly anti-pacifist. I’m really wrestling with it, and my own views which love so much of pacifism but can’t quite settle into it yet. I think your response, Wess, about there being something between is spot on.

    At the same time, in my experiences, pacifists are often the least personally peaceful people I’ve come across. So much of anti-war polemics are filled with hatred and anger and chaos. In a way the broader anti-war movement is for corporate peace rather than personal peace. Which is opposite than much of the ‘pro-war’ Christian right.

    Not that you’re in this category, as I see a seeking for both aspects in your journey.

    Anyway, I thank you for this because it’s a good tool as I wrestle through the issue.

  11. Patrick,
    You bring up a great point, and one that is worthy of deep for anyone who subscribes to this position. When we seek to live out the peace of Christ in every area, there is no room for “hatred and anger and chaos.” You are right that many pacifists are guilty of this, and where this is true we are wrong, and guilty of sinning against the good news of Christ.

    Hopefully, no matter what position we hold to we remember that humility is our most important virtue and out of humility comes love for the other. These questions often get tangled up in personal matters, and it can be hard to remain calm (or friendly) when our personal investments and ideas get in the way, in these moments let us all be gracious and loving.

Comments are closed.