Thursday, May 8, 2014

Being a Pacifist without Causing Offense

Christ our Lord came and took upon Himself our humanity. He became the Son of Man. He suffered hunger and thirst and hard toil and temptation. All power was His but He wished the free love and service of men. He did not force anyone to believe. St. Paul talks of the liberty of Christ. He did not coerce anyone. He emptied Himself and became a servant. He showed the way to true leadership by coming to minister, not to be ministered unto. He set the example and we are supposed to imitate Him. We are taught that His kingdom was not of this earth. He did not need pomp and circumstance to prove Himself the Son of God.
His were hard sayings, so that even His own followers did not know what he was saying, did not understand Him. It was not until after He died on the cross, it was not until He had suffered utter defeat, it would seem, and they thought their cause was lost entirely; it was not until they had persevered and prayed with all the fervor and desperation of their poor loving hearts, that they were enlightened by the Holy Spirit and knew the truth with a strength that enabled them to suffer defeat and martyrdom in their turn. They knew then that not by force of arms, by the bullet or the ballot, they would conquer. They knew and were ready to suffer defeat--to show that great love which enabled them to lay down their lives for their friends."
And now the whole world is turning to "force" to conquer.
"A new commandment I give, that you love others as I have loved you," not to the defending of your life, but to the laying down of your life.
A hard saying.
"Love is indeed a harsh and dreadful thing" to ask of us, of each one of us, but it is the only answer.

I grew up in Canada, and while Canada is not as militaristic in its focus as the United States, the messages driven home to young people are similar.  We're consistently told that our 'freedoms' are tied to military force, and therefore that we must honour those who were/are willing to use physical violence for the sake of the country.  In the soteriological picture painted by the nation-state, the veterans are our saints and martyrs, and all Canadians are expected to participate in the liturgies of war-remembrance.

None of this bothered me as a child and teenager, though I do remember reading the Sermon on the Mount and wondering why those around me (I grew up in the Protestant Evangelical tradition) didn't seem to think that Jesus' words in this sermon needed to be read literally, even though I was told that we were always to read the scriptures literally, particularly the first chapters of Genesis.  It seemed to me that there was a real disconnect between the message and example of Jesus and the eager willingness of my fellow church-goers to celebrate the military and even participate in the military.  But my interest in Christianity as a teenager was pretty low, so I merely noted the disconnect and then moved on without a second thought.

The question became more pronounced for me as I began to study theology in more depth as an undergraduate and graduate student.  I devoted one of my doctoral comprehensive examinations to the topic of war and pacifism throughout Christian history, a topic that led me to explore Christian thinking on violence from the first century to the present.  My reading of pre-Constantinian theologians – figures like Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Origen, and Tertullian (to name just a few) – convinced me that early Christians were generally opposed to the idea of Christian participation in military service, both because it involved participating in idolatrous worship of the gods and because it involved contravening the clear witness and teaching of Jesus in the gospels.  The arrival of Constantine – and so of Constantinianism (the alliance of Christianity with political power) – necessitated a re-think of early Christian political theology, and while some interpret this as positive progress away from the naïveté of early Christian idealism, I concluded that Constantinianism marked the failure of Christianity to maintain fidelity to Jesus’ life and teachings and to the early Christian understanding of what Jesus taught us about ‘power’ and Christian participation in such ‘power’.

Further reading of Erasmus of Rotterdam, Menno Simons, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and William Cavanaugh solidified me in my position regarding Christianity and the military.  I found thinkers like Oliver O’Donovan unconvincing.

So I have been a pacifist for many years.  Moreover, my political theology leads me not only to reject military service as a Christian option, but also to be deeply wary of Constantinianism in any form; it is for this reason that I have difficulties with acts of patriotism such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem, and why I choose not to vote.

It goes without saying that these positions place me in the minority within both Canada and (my adopted country) the United States, but also within my Roman Catholic tradition (and indeed within almost all Christian traditions, save the Anabaptists and Quakers).

While I am deeply committed to my political theology, I am troubled by the reality that my positions often cause offense to my sisters and brothers within the church and in the society at large.  In my classroom, among my colleagues, among by friends and my family are women and men who have served or currently serve in the armed forces, or who have family members who fought – and sometimes died – in service to their country.  My position is often offensive to them, for very understandable reasons.

I cannot and will not compromise my political theology simply because it is offensive to my sisters and brothers.  But I have been asking myself lately how I can articulate my own position in such a way that is less offensive.  It is probably impossible not to cause offense when one calls into question theological justifications for military service, but I wonder if pacifism can be argued for in a way that causes less offense.  Specifically, I wonder if there’s a way to articulate my own pacifist stand in such a way that I simultaneously honour in some way those who have chosen the path of military service.  Is this even necessary?  It is necessary if I want, as I do, for my position to be acknowledged and respected rather than marginalized.  More importantly, it is necessary for the sake of love.

But I’m not sure precisely what it could look like to articulate my position in a way that also honours military service.  Is it enough to recognize that many have pursued military service out of humility, selflessness, and love?  Or it is enough simply to express my viewpoints humbly and lovingly?

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

Image of Dorothy Day from

1 comment:

  1. I have struggled with the same issues. I am committed to the Christian pacifist ideals, but at the same time, I benefit from those who have chosen the way of the military. I have scaled back on trying to impose my ideals on others because I feel like a hypocrite by taking advantage of the social, economic and intellectual freedoms that have derived from the imperialistic dominance of the country I live in. Much of my way of life would not be possible any other way because the world powers that dictate how other countries can operate are driven by military expenditures and dominance. While many of the military actions adopted today are clearly violations of international law and basic human rights, how can I in a first world country tell someone in a different part of the world where villages are being scorched and entire communities are threatened by violent extinction that responding with violence is unacceptable? I still will condemn unjust actions of war and violence by nations, but what about such horrendous situations that I have been shielded from based on my privileged position in a wealthy, politically stable country? At this point, I will respect those who choose to serve within the military, but I will not idolize them. Even though the Constantinian shift allowed military actions, within Christianity, military members were always expected to undertake a period of mourning and repentance to atone for the actions during their service. We have lost the sense of military service as a "necessary evil" that can be undertaken to ensure the safety of one's country and people. At this point, as I said, I respect people from the military who undertake their mission as you mention "out of humility, selflessness, and love", but I also acknowledge that I am a fellow participant by benefiting from their sacrifices. If I consider military action as sinful, I am guilty through omission and by enjoying the benefits of their actions. I am no less guilty than the military service member. I don't know how my position might "honor" those in the military, but my position is based on my assessment of the inherent sin that permeates our world, all the countries that pursue military might and all the citizens that benefit from such a structure. I like to think that I honor military members by respecting their choices; most of them are trying to navigate the same difficult life questions I struggle with and I cannot fault them for the path they followed given the brokenness of our world and the limited vision that we have as humans. Any thoughts on my articulation are also welcome- I still have no final answer.