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Thoughts on Pacifism and Just War (An Essay) Part I

May 1, 2010

Loving Our Enemies; Opposing the Enemy of Others: Reflections on Just War and Pacifism


The focus of this essay is to reflect theologically, biblically, and ethically on Christian involvement in the formation and functioning of national armies.  In other words, given the nature of Christ’s injunction to be “peacemakers” is there a place for a Christian to be involved in matters of war?  This issue is extraordinarily complex, in that before one can even comment on the nature of national armies, one must determine whether or not it is permissible for a Christian to ever use violence in the first place.  There is a tension between justice and mercy.  Miroslav Volf’s evocative language captures this tension:  “[My thoughts are torn by] the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered to the guilty.”[1] One the one hand, we have the clear teachings of Christ to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and his clear example of dying for his enemies on the cross.  On the other hand, there may be times when our love for the oppressed and the innocent may require that we fight against an enemy who is not oppressing us but oppressing others.  Are we then to remain silent and inactive?  These are issues in the debate between theories of “Just War” and “Pacifism.”  Regardless of what conclusions we draw concerning this debate, proponents on both sides can agree that “steps should be taken to reduce the incidence of wars”[2] and that “‘war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”[3] Yet, while I believe Pacifism to be normative for followers of Christ, I must conclude that there may be instances (albeit rare ones!) where for the sake of defending the other, Christians must enmesh themselves in violence against the other’s enemy; in a situation where action and inaction both incur guilt, “responsible action” is the necessary—not necessarily right—choice.[4]


Then tension between Just War and Pacifism is not one I can bring resolution to.  First, the reality of war is that it is never “just”—at least not for everyone involved.  Just War advocates from Augustine onward have maintained that there may be just reasons to go to war.[6] Yet, how “realistic” are these so-called “just” reasons?  Just War theorists claim that while Pacifism is certainly an ideal, it cannot be unequivocally maintained in the “real” world.[7] But as Stanley Hauerwas as commented, the supposed “realism” of Just War theory is not at all apparent.  He writes,

What would an American foreign policy determined by just war principles look like?  What would a just war Pentagon look like?  What kind of virtues would the people of America have to have to sustain a just war foreign policy and Pentagon?  What kind of training do those in the military have to undergo in order to be willing to take casualties rather than conduct the war unjustly?[8]

In asking these questions, Hauerwas implies how utterly unrealistic Just War theory is.  Just what government would seek to accurately follow the guidelines set out by Just War theorists?  As Tony Kempster notes, “Once a war begins, the end normally justifies the means however brutal they may be.”[9] This automatically creates injustice for someone in the conflict.  It seems that no matter what, innocent people will always be affected by war and violence.  Therefore, though it may be perfectly justifiable for a group or nation to go to war, it is virtually impossible for the war itself to be just.  And this is putting war in the most idealistic light!  The fact remains, that the vast majority of wars would hardly ever measure up to the noble standards of Just War theory.

So what of Pacifism?  The Christian pacifist, according to Thomas Kennedy, “argues that the way of Christ is the way of non-violent suffering love, that Christ condemned the use of violence.”[10] Pacifists have the strong example of Christ, who did not retaliate when accused unjustly, and who obediently suffered death as a means of overcoming sin—violence certainly being within the realm of such sin.  Further, the teachings of Christ found in Matthew 5, are pretty clear:  as followers of Christ, we are to “bless those who persecute us,” “love our enemies,” and “turn the other cheek.”  Paul also affirms the ethical teachings of Jesus when he writes, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12: 17).

Pacifism takes seriously the fallenness of humanity’s condition concerning violence: man will tend to perpetuate violence out of self-interest, rather than seek reconciliation.  So writes H. Richard Niebuhr:  “Self-interest acts destructively in this world; it calls forth counter-assertion; nationalism breeds nationalism, class assertion summons up counter-assertion on the part of exploited classes,”[11] and thus, the vicious cycle continues.  Violence perpetuates violence.  The teachings and example of Jesus is all the more startling when once considers this unending cycle.  Jesus’ answer is to refuse to take part in it—to not “resist an evildoer” so to speak.  However, Jesus’ way is far more; it is to overcome evil with good.  One can see just how “realistic” pacifism really is, when one considers the ultimate victory of Jesus over sin, death, and evil by dying on the cross.

And so it would seem that Pacifism is the obvious choice for followers of Jesus.  If it is apparent that the reality of “just war” is, in fact, unlikely, and the “idealism” of pacifism is, in fact, rooted in the reality of Christ’s victory, then the answer to whether Christians may ever involve themselves in violence seems certain:  Christ-followers are never to engage in violence.  Yet, this is not the conclusion I’ve come to.  For, as Miroslav Volf’s quote above reveals, I too am caught between the tension of wanting justice for the innocent, and recognizing that Christ suffered for the guilty—of which I am.  The problem remains:  although I am never to resist and evildoer who opposes me with violence, am I to stand by and watch as another is violently victimized and do nothing?

[1] As quoted in Lori Brandt Hale’s, “From Loving Enemies to Acting Responsibly: Forgiveness in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Word and World 27, no.1  (2007): 79.

[2] Tony Kempster, “The Ethics of Pacifism and Jus War in an Age of Terrorist Violence,” Modern Believing 49, no.2 (2008): 9.

[3] Ibid., 9.  I should note that “settling international disputes” is somewhat vague and would clarify that to settle national interests by the means of war is certainly incompatible with allegiance to Christ.  It may be the acknowledgement that most “national armies” are established with the primary function of protecting “national interests” that would allow us to bypass the discussion of pacifism/just war issues altogether and conclude that based on the function of these armies, it is not permissible for Christians to be involved.  I will proceed as if this option is not available.

[4] See Hale’s “From Loving Enemies to Acting Responsibly,” for a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s attitude of “responsible action.”

[5] Christian realism is another option, but not one I consider viable based on the definition given by Thomas Kenney in “Can War Be Just,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, ed. Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 436-442.

[6] For example, Kennedy writes that a war can be just if there is a “just cause,” a “right intention,” war is used as a “last resort,” there is a “reasonable hope of success of accomplishing your ends in fighting” and the issue of “proportionality”—that the “evils of war…be outweighed by the good achieved.” See, “Can War Be Just,” 440-441.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas wittily summarizes the Just War theorist’s stance:  “Pacifists always bear the burden of proof.  They do so because as attractive as nonviolence may be most assume pacifism just will not work.  You may want to keep a few pacifists around for reminding those burdened with running the world that what they sometimes have to do is a lesser evil, but pacifism simply cannot and should not be, even for Christians, a normative stance, “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism?” Criswell Theological Review 6, no.1 (2008):  61.

[8] Hauerwas, “Why War”,” 61.

[9] Tony Kempster, “The Ethics of Pacifism,” 11.

[10] Kennedy, “Can War Be Just,” 436.

[11] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Only Way into the Kingdom of God,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics, ed. Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 426.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Aaron Brooks permalink
    May 1, 2010 11:37

    I see you used some Hauerwas there. I need to read some of his stuff before August…

    I loved this article. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, especially after reading some Shane Claiborne and doing a personal study on the gospels. I think we’ve both had to come a long way from our southern, red-white-and-blue Christianity, but I think (remembering our talk on war on the way back from a field trip in Thailand) that you got there quicker. Anyways, I totally agree with your opinion on pacifism, and I’m still trying to work out the details of “Just” war theory on behalf of the innocent. There’s definitely a huge tension there to try to resolve. But my guess is that it’ll never be resolved…

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      May 6, 2010 7:34


      I like Hauerwas. I read his book Resident Aliens awhile back and it was quite good. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read. You’re right, we both have had to do some “shaking off” of southern “bible-belt” worldviews. That’s not a bad thing. Keep the good, and throw out the bad.

  2. May 1, 2010 1:30

    Nice work Jonathan. I’m looking forward to the rest of it. I’m interested in what you think of my take on the Caananite geocide, which I posted a couple of days ago.

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      May 6, 2010 7:39


      Thanks for reading man. I figured we would come out at pretty much the same place. Great minds think alike right? 😉 I did get to read your violence blog and thoroughly enjoyed it. I like Dennis Bratcher a lot by the way. I do feel the view that scripture is just wrong on those accounts has the risk of being a slippery slope. I would want to find other avenues before I go there wholeheartedly. Ya know? Greg Boyd is about to release a book called Jehovah VS. Jesus where he explores the contrast between the Old Testament view of God and Jesus. I’ll be interested in what he has to say.

      Also, check out This guy goes into great depth to deal with all the intricacies of God’s command to destroy the Canaanites. It’s dense, but well worth the read.

      Anyway, you and I really are kindred theological minds. Maybe we’ll get another class sometime. 🙂

  3. May 3, 2010 6:33

    There is probably no reason why my opinion would matter in an academic realm. However, I can’t help but comment on this topic as it seems pretty clear to me. We, on a personal level, should strive to emulate Christ every day. As far as war is concerned, it is not up to us, as individuals to pick and choose our behavior in this matter. God has put in place those leaders of countries that make the decision to go to war or not. If we find ourselves in a situation where we are in the military I would hope that it was God’s will that allowed us to be in this position, and I do believe that this scenario is totally possible. In this case, we have no choice but to follow the military and governmental leadership from a biblical perspective regardless of any tendencies toward pacifism. To not perform our duties would be unthinkable in light of the fact that we are to do all things to the best of our ability as if we are doing it for the Lord. There is no room for picking and choosing. That would be way too presumptuous. The time to pick and choose is when we are electing leaders.

  4. Matt Bohlman permalink
    May 16, 2010 12:18

    “For, as Miroslav Volf’s quote above reveals, I too am caught between the tension of wanting justice for the innocent, and recognizing that Christ suffered for the guilty—of which I am. The problem remains: although I am never to resist and evildoer who opposes me with violence, am I to stand by and watch as another is violently victimized and do nothing?”

    This quote really is the rub isn’t? I am also not sure if being Christian really does mean we are not to defend/resist an evil doer…in a completely unqualified sense and irregardless of what evil is being forced upon us. For example does a Christian father really tell his college daughter that if she is walking to her dorm at night and a rapist tackles her that she is simply to passively lie down and “take it”? Would she not be acting within her God-given wisdom to scream out, struggle, eye-poke and scratch? Statistics show that rapists are always looking for easy victims and will often run when someone resists them in any way that would attract attention. This is just one example…there are many. I think ultimately a Christian’s stance on passivism has to do with not resisting the oppressor or persecutor whose violence against is BECAUSE of our faith. In other words I think there is a difference between persecution of the faith and simply a random act of violence. I also think there is a difference between violence and force. Violence seeks the harm of another with evil intent. The use of force does not necessarily conform to that sort of description… In this sense I think Christians can be police officers whose use of force to restrain evildoers need not be confused with violence.

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