A friend and I taught a night course at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality in 2012 about Christian pacifism. Had you asked me when I began if I was a pacifist, likely I would have said no. If you asked me today, I might well say yes. At the least, it has become very difficult to convince me of the wisdom of any military intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or potentially against Iran. Wars are seldom undertaken for the right reasons and they almost always have consequences far more bloody and destructive than predicted. It is not the war makers but the victims who are left to bury their dead and comfort the homeless, the wounded, the mentally scarred and to clean up the landscapes made dangerous or uninhabitable from land mines, defoliants, or nuclear materials.
Frequently, wars are rationalized in the name of national self-interest, where political leaders think their nation’s needs, real or perceived are all the justification they require to wage war. Then there is the holy war, where one group thinks itself divinely ordained to destroy God’s enemies – as they define them. Of course, everyone thinks that God is on their side.
During the First World War a Roman Catholic cardinal in France published a pamphlet insisting that his country’s war was just. Within a few months, Catholics in Germany answered with a pamphlet of their own saying that it was their war that was just – and a German Catholic cardinal wrote the introduction to this piece.
There is also the Rambo effect, where war and killing are considered essential to how certain men assert their masculinity. How often do we see that in news, documentaries and especially in movies?
History of pacifism
Pacifists oppose war and the taking of human life but beyond that most pacifists are committed to nonviolence in their personal lives as well. That includes an attempt to cultivate tolerance, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. It is a good way to live.
Pacifism the West began with Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Christ says that the “peacemakers” are blessed. The early church was pacifist. There are those in today’s churches – and I have heard them – who deny this and who prefer a counter narrative about Christ’s tipping over tables and chasing moneylenders from the temple. I would refer them to a book called A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church, whose authors say that the word peace occurs 235 times in the New Testament.
Christians were persecuted in those early years because they refused to serve in the Roman army. But in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity would be tolerated and later, on his deathbed, he converted. By 480 AD you had to be a Christian to serve in the army. You might say that is where the church became a part of the Establishment – a position it occupied for centuries and to a great extent still does today.
Varieties of pacifism
There is not just a one-size-fits-all pacifism, but rather a diverse set of approaches that exist along a spectrum. For example there is what one Anabaptist scholar calls the pacifism of the “virtuous minority” – a group of people who believe that they have been called by God to live peacefully. They live non-resistance, which means that they will not get involved in violent conflict, but they do not necessarily say that the state cannot do so – as long as they are not part of the violence. Some Mennonites, but certainly not all, fit this category.
Brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, both Jesuit priests, and Dr. Martin Luther King occupied a more radical end of the pacifist spectrum. The Berrigans, who were arrested many times, poured their own blood on draft files to protest against the American war against Viet Nam.
Beyond Christian pacifism, there is the pacifism of Gandhi or of many Buddhists, to mention just two religiously-based varieties. Many pacifists are secular. Óscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, is someone whose pacifism is born more out of a political than of a religious conviction. Costa Rica, by the way, decided to abolish its army in 1949 after a disastrous civil war, although the country does have a police force.
Who are the realists?
People who consider themselves realists, and this includes many of our political and military leaders, believe pacifists are fuzzy-headed idealists. They believe it would be dangerous folly if no one was prepared to fight, or at least to support war making. But it is actually those leaders who are lacking in realism. Their promises of wars to end wars have not come to pass and they are entirely unrealistic about what can actually be achieved by conflict.
Pacifism is not the chosen position of the majority but it does remain a respectable minority position, and more so all of the time.