Christian Pacifism

Myron S. Augsburger
May 7, 2004

Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place … for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” [Mt. 26:52]. And again, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” [Mt. 5:39]. The Old Testament prophet said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” [Mic. 4:3], a prophecy fulfilled where the people take the way of Christ and his Spirit seriously. And the way of Christ is best found in his own words.

In Luke chapter six, we read, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you do lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” [Lk. 6:27?36].

In John 18:36 Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews”. Again in Matthew 5:9, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called [known as] the children of God”.

These passages serve as a frame of reference for the discussion of nonresistance and pacifism. The discussion that follows takes as its foundation the explicit teachings of the New Testament rather than its silences. There are those who argue from silence—that since Jesus did not expressly condemn the centurian for being a soldier, it follows that military participation is right for the Christian. By the same logic one could argue for the practice of slavery, a stance taken earlier in American history. But the explicit teachings of the New Testament introduce a principle of love, a practice of respect for the ultimate worth of each individual, which when followed makes participation in both slavery and war antithetical.

The problem of the Christian and war is not one which can be viewed simply from the perspective of one’s responsibility to his or her nation. We are now a global community in which we face the question of what violence does to all humanity. The increase of population, the problems of adequate food production and distribution, of meeting the basic necessities of life have made violence a way of life. Christians must have answers as they face problems of new dimensions in their relationship to other people around the world.

Furthermore, in viewing the question from the standpoint of our responsibility to our own nation, it appears impossible that there could be such a thing as a “just war” in a nuclear age with a world community. The arguments for a just war in history appear to be quite irrelevant in an age of modern, mechanized and nuclear warfare. But, theologically, the Christian must also face the meaning of the biblical affirmation, “as he is so are you in the world,” or again the words of Jesus, “as the Father has sent me, even so send I you” [Jn. 20:21]. Ours is a mission of announcing the good news of reconciliation to God, and through him to one another.

Minority Movement?

As Christians we are not here to provide an ethic for society or the state, but to clearly define an ethic for disciples of Jesus Christ.

In the American system of government it is difficult for this stance to be understood. We operate with the myth of being a Christian nation, and we seek to interpret for society an ethic that we can bless as Christians. We need a new awareness of the pluralism of the New Testament, that the crucial issue is the difference between the church and the world, and that the church operates “within the perfection of Christ,” while the world operates outside the perfection or will of Christ. Christians influence the state for good through Christian ethics and integrity, but they do not equate church and state. Only an in?depth understanding of this issue can save us from a cultural and a civil religion. As one who believes in New Testament nonresistance, or New Testament pacifism, it is important to me that this stance be clearly interpreted as an evangelical and biblical stance, not as the stance of humanistic or moralistic pacifism. Theologically, this position begins with the reality and priority of membership in the kingdom of Christ. This entails living by the way of love, a spirit of brotherhood and reverence for life. While brotherhood is an important concept, kingdom membership has first priority in New Testament nonresistance.

The question of the Christian’s attitude toward war is viewed best by beginning with the New Testament, with Jesus Christ. This is to affirm that Jesus Christ brought the full meaning of God’s will for us. All the way through the Old Testament God had something further to say about himself, about the will of God for humanity, and we see this fully in Jesus Christ. One can find numerous incidents in the Old Testament where Israel as the people of God was involved in war, enjoyed the blessing of God in victory and experienced defeat when out of favor with God. But a study of the context makes clear that God was meeting the Israelites where they were, demonstrating to people who worshiped their tribal gods that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was and is the true God. This is not to say that the full revelation of the will of Yahweh was then present. Rather, we see that there is progress in this revelation. Throughout the Old Testament God always had something further to say – until the New Testament. We read, “But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son” [Gal. 4:4], and that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things” [Heb. 1:2]; that is, the One in whom the whole comes to its culmination. In Jesus’ words, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” [Mt. 5:17] – that is, to fill it full of meaning.

With this perspective we must recognize that peace is a holistic concept. Peace is not simply the absence of war. It is far more – it is positive, active peacemaking. The Hebrew word shalom contains in it the idea of wholeness or soundness.

To affirm that one is a member of the kingdom of Christ now means that loyalty to Christ and his kingdom transcends every other loyalty. This stance goes beyond nationalism and calls us to identify first of all with our fellow disciples, of whatever nation, as we serve Christ together. This is not a position which can be expected of the world nor asked of the government as such. The Christian respects rulers as God ordained them, to “protect the innocent and punish the evildoer.” The Christian can only encourage the government to be the government and to let the church be the church. We ask the government to be secular and to let the church be free to do its work in society. The church enriches society by the many things it brings to it, and in its respect for government it does not subordinate itself to any particular social order but is in allegiance to its one Lord.

Properly read, Romans 13 is telling us that God ordains political institutions for ordering the society: But since God ordains the powers he remains above them. In that light our response on many occasions will be that as Christians, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We cannot assume that since God ordains government we are always obeying God in our obedience to it. We are not to be lawbreakers, for Paul says that the authorities do “not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4). But we also cannot disobey a divine law to obey a contrary law by the government. The passage in Romans 13 calls us to be “subject to” the powers, but it does not use the term “obey.” Our ultimate allegiance is to the God who ordains nations to function for order in society. Any serious attempt to resolve the question of a Christian’s participation in war hinges significantly on this issue.

A Global Community

Grappling with the problem of war is not an isolated issue but has to do with the problems of the whole human community, involving race, poverty, equal opportunity and the freedom for persons to be individuals. To face this matter honestly we must look at the larger question of sin. As Samuel Shoemaker has said, “You do not wait for a war to look at the problem of evil, war is simply the problem of evil writ large.”

Closely associated with the preceding is the fact that war is quite often for the protection of property. As Christians we will respect the right of the government to declare war to protect its own territory. But the Christian who is a conscientious objector to participation in war must be consistent with respect to his or her own attitude toward material things. The Christian must take seriously Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that personality is more valuable than material goods and that we do not sacrifice life for the sake of goods [Lk. 6:29?35]. This means that as Christians under a government which enables us to become wealthy we cannot ask the government to sacrifice people’s lives in protecting our goods. The Christian attitude toward material possessions is not that of a legal right but that of responsibility, of a moral obligation to use the things he has acquired to help others.

In our society another question we must ask is, What are the guidelines for Christians participating in government? In an attempt to be consistent with the premise just stated, it would appear that Christians may serve in political positions so long as they do not try to create a state church. It is our responsibility as Christians to call the government to be secular and to respect the freedom of Christians to serve in loyalty to their own king. Christians will help interpret to others who hold political power why the Christian must constantly say, “Caesar is not lord; Jesus Christ is Lord.” Thus, Christians should only serve at government levels where they can honestly carry out the functions of their office without compromising their fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord. They should not consider holding positions where they could not both fulfill the obligations of the office and remain consistent with their membership in the kingdom of Christ. To fulfill their obligations and violate their commitment to Christ would be wrong. Likewise, to live by their convictions and not fulfill the functions of their office with respect to the society which creates the office would also be wrong. The Christian in a political position serves the goal of effective government just like a secular person, but the Christian is a witness to the higher values of Jesus Christ. Christians ought never to use a powerful government position as a means to achieve Christ’s goals for humanity. For the Christian, the desire to “rule” is always wrong; our stance is one of serving. This awareness will keep us from the struggle for power, a struggle which Malcolm Muggeridge has called “a pornography of the will.”

One who accepts this stance – that New Testament nonresistance is the claim of Christ upon his disciples as an expression of the reality of his kingdom – will also follow other evangelical premises of faithfulness to Christ. For example, can one participate in war and take the life of a person for whom Christ died when our basic mission as Christians is to win that person to become a brother or sister in the Lord? Or, since the kingdom of God is global and transcends every national, racial and cultural distinction, when one’s country is at war with another country can Christians participate knowing that by so doing they may be at war with persons who claim to worship and follow the same Lord?

To go back to the early church itself, according to several writers of history, there was in the church a significant percentage who renounced conflict and everything that produced war. The one thing Christians were armed with was love. E. Stanley Jones wrote that we search in vain during the early years of church history to find Christian people engaged in warfare. He states that Christians did not become soldiers. If they were in the army when converted, they resigned. Jones describes the early believers as saying, “we will match our power to suffer against your ability to inflict suffering, we will wear you down by our spirit, by soul force against physical force, by going the second mile, by turning the other cheek,” until Rome finally stopped torturing Christians. That perspective on history underscores the New Testament emphasis that we go out not by force but by love; we seek to make our world an understanding community.

This disdain of military service held true until the period of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome until about A.D. 180. After Constantine’s time, who from our perspective instituted a “fallen church” of which everyone was forced to be a member, there were many “Christian” soldiers.

In our own era, Martin Luther King, Jr. brought into the American scene a now synthesis. It was not novel in terms of what he emphasized from the New Testament, but because he borrowed from Gandhi’s philosophy. He created a new synthesis by enhancing New Testament nonviolence with Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent resistance and applying these to the nineteenth?century liberal idea of “the kingdom of God in America.” What King did was to confront society with this new dimension, and it shook the country to its roots.

King’s philosophy is expressed in five points: (1) Nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards. It takes more strength to stand for love than to strike back. (2) Such resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win friendship and understanding. (3) The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against the people doing the evil. (4) Nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. (5) This resistance avoids not only external physical force, but also internal violence of spirit.

On the premise that we cannot kill people for whom Christ died, John Howard Yoder emphasizes in his significant writings on pacifism that the cross has made a difference. Christ has come into the world to redeem all people and has acted for the sake of every person on the globe. We cannot kill a person for whom he died and rob him or her of the privilege of knowing the fullness of life that Jesus Christ offers. This calls us to express a pacifist position not by a negative but a positive stance. Ours is to be an active penetration into society with the redeeming love of God. Above everything else, we want our fellow men to become our brothers in Christ. When Jesus stated that the first commandment is to love God and that the second is just like it (to love your neighbor as yourself), he was asking that we bring to bear on the life of our neighbor that which we find most important in our own relationship with God.

From an evangelical perspective it may be said that wherever a Christian participates in war he has abdicated his responsibility to the greater calling of missions and evangelism. The way for Christians to change the world is by sharing the love of Christ and the good news of the gospel rather than to think we can stop anti-God movements by force. Jesus made this point ultimately in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary’s cross. As Christians, our answer to the violence in the world is simply that we don’t have to live; we can die. This is the ultimate testimony of our belief in the kingdom of Christ and the resurrection. It is this same conviction which has motivated many people to go into unknown or violent areas of the world from which they may never return.

A Matter of Obedience

Another evangelical premise that leads to a nonresistant view is that we regard Christ’s Word in the Scripture as final. Having said that the New Testament is a culmination of God’s will known in Christ, then it follows that his Word is final. He corrects the understanding of the old “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” attitude. God gave that position to limit violence, that is, only an eye for an eye. But now he declares that we are to love our enemies. He tells us that we will be better for the loving. We will be better people, better neighbors, better friends when we live by love. In answer to the question of whether this will work in our society, he showed us that we do not have to live; we can die. In dying we may sometimes do more for enriching the world than we would have done by living. We cannot answer the question of war on the basis of whether or not someone must suffer. Of course they will, one way or another. The question is, Which kind of suffering will we choose – that imposed by war or the suffering which comes because of love?

When troops move to take a beachhead, they do so with the conscious plan that they will sacrifice thousands of men. What if the Christian church moved into the world with the same conviction? What if we had a conscious plan to follow even though it might cost many lives? While there are conditioning factors to this comparison, it would appear that before the Christian church justifies giving the lives of so many of its people in military involvement it should look at the greater sin of being unwilling to sacrifice lives of affluent ease for the cause of building the kingdom of Christ.

Jesus says, “Put up your sword,” and history has proven that warlike nations perish. When people take the course of violence, they suffer the consequences. This is seen in the image that America is creating in the world today. We are no longer looked on as a friendly, gracious people. We are looked at in terms of power. We have established a pattern of using force to answer the world’s problems.

Whose Citizen?

As Christians we regard membership in the kingdom of Christ as our primary loyalty. Such an outlook is even more basic to the New Testament than the principle of love. Jesus himself said that he came to introduce another kingdom. Its spirit is one of love, but its platform of operation is loyalty to another Lord, an authority separate from any earthly power. This premise, which says that our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of heaven, underscores the fact that we answer first of all to Jesus Christ and his mandate alone.

This is true with respect to any given culture or nation in which a Christian lives. A believer will seek to be a good citizen, but with the awareness that there are many valid contributions Christians can make for the good of their fellow citizens when they give of themselves in a positive way. This should not be overlooked by those who imply that if one does not participate in military action he or she is not contributing to the nation. We carry an ethical responsibility to demonstrate that the position of conscientious objection to war is not something that you “turn on” during a war, as though this is the way to avoid several years of military service. Nonviolence is a total way of life. It means that we give ourselves in service to others. We are not to build status as people who give themselves to a materialistic power struggle.

Some readers may ask, Does Augsburger not understand that God used war in the Old Testament and blessed it? The answer is simply yes, this is well understood, but interpreted in relation to the “unfolding revelation” in which God moved men to higher levels of understanding of his will. I say this with a deep conviction in the full inspiration of Scripture. There are no contradictions of meaning in the Bible. But I am also convinced that the Bible is not a flat book. It is rather an unfolding revelation of God’s will in Jesus Christ. God is no longer using a nation to achieve his purpose, but rather using the fellowship of believers, the church of the reborn. Instead of using a nation, Jesus Christ has given us the Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. This is our mission: discipling people to become members of the kingdom of Christ, not helping to justify participation in war. David Ben Gurion’s question still confronts the Christian church: “When are you Christians going to begin working for peace?”

The love that is basic to the Christian’s relationships with others is a volitional as well as emotional love. This means that we as Christians must find the way to build bridges of understanding. One problem that we face is to discern the course of love. A further problem is how to express that love. Certainly this involves more than merely talking about the problems. Many young people have given themselves through alternate service to the promotion of brotherhood, of peace and of understanding through rehabilitation and aid for those who are suffering. Nonresisters are not simply protesters.

Service in love must become a part of our whole philosophy of life. Our choice of vocation as well as our other involvements should be an expression and extension of the love of Jesus Christ. To open one’s life to another makes the question of peace inescapable. Instead of waiting for a catastrophy to happen, we should be penetrating our world with acts of love to help alleviate its ills.

As Christians we believe in the infinite value of every human life. As Kant said, we should treat each person as an end in himself, not as a means to an end. We thus oppose any kind of revolutionary tactic which sacrifices persons for the sake of goals. Rather, from our Christian perspective we believe that deterioration occurs when people follow a course of violence as an answer to the world’s ills. Believing in the sanctity of human life, we cannot be involved in anything, whether it is social injustice, violence, war or poverty, which interrupts a person’s opportunities for a full life.

Committing oneself in ultimate loyalty to Jesus Christ means becoming a conscience to society, where that society operates beneath the level of the will of God. As members of the kingdom of heaven, obedience to Christ is the basic aspect of our approach to the question of war. The story of the good Samaritan highlights what it means to be a member of the kingdom of heaven. The interesting thing in this account is that it stands in judgment on everyone.

The story of the good Samaritan addresses the priest and the Levite as churchmen, and then shows that while these people could sit and talk about issues, when it came to concrete experience, they could not walk across the road to help a man who had been robbed and beaten. One of the sad facts about our life as a church in American society is that we can often talk about loving humanity in general, but not do anything about loving individuals. We can love people across the ocean and not walk across the street to help someone in need. The real consistency of our objection to war has to do with more than simply being opposed to war.

There are at least three other views of war held by the modern Christian church. One is that war is the lesser of two evils, and we cannot avoid it as an option. Another is that we turn to war only as a last resort. And another is that the Christian should be able to move beyond hate and kill in love. But from my perspective the issue is not answered by any of these, rather it is to be faced by the people of God on the basis of the character of his kingdom.

My intent here is to call for a Christian conscience to counteract violence by positive actions of love and thereby to promote peace in our society and in the world. Such activity is not a neutralizing of relationships, but an active expression of the love of Christ which treats every person as having ultimate worth.