Why I’m not a pacifist

Britain's Home Front 1939 - 1945- Conscientious Objectors The scene during the sitting of a tribunal for Conscientious Objectors. On the left are the members of the tribunal, left to right: Judge E H Longson (chairman), Professor J G Smith and Mr A H Gibbard. Immediately in front of them is an objector with his advisor. In the seats behind are relatives and friends of the objector (wikipedia).

Britain’s Home Front 1939 – 1945- Conscientious Objectors
The scene during the sitting of a tribunal for Conscientious Objectors. On the left are the members of the tribunal, left to right: Judge E H Longson (chairman), Professor J G Smith and Mr A H Gibbard. Immediately in front of them is an objector with his advisor. In the seats behind are relatives and friends of the objector (wikipedia).

Jesus is famous for commanding, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:39). This is taken by many to imply that Jesus commands pacifism—the view that violence is never justified. I think that conclusion is deeply mistaken. I’d like to explain why.

Polemical context

As always, we need the context in which Jesus’ command is given.  Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that during the Sermon on the Mount (where our passage is found) Jesus is “commending his ethic of love in the context of launching a biting attack on the reciprocity code.”[1] As such, when Jesus said “turn the other cheek”, he did so in support of a larger message: rejection of the reciprocity code.

“The reciprocity code has two aspects. If someone does you a favor, you owe them an equal favor in return. If someone does you an evil, an equal evil is due them.”[2] Justice so understood is like a set of scales. Rights and wrongs must be balanced. Humans seeking justice, according to the reciprocity code, must attempt to balance the scales.

You have heard…but I say to you

Jesus begins his polemic with, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). He then makes a series of clarifications on the law, “each introduced with the formula, ‘You have heard that it was said,…but I say to you.’ The point in each case is that what one finds in the law and the prophets is the bare minimum of what the ethic of love requires.”[3]

Yes one must abstain from murder.[4] But hatred of others is also prohibited by the ethic of love.  Yes adultery is wrong. But lust (the root cause) is the real danger, hence Jesus’ hyperbolic “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29). Yes perjury (swearing falsely) is wrong. But speaking the truth (without being under oath) is also required.

An eye for an eye?

At length we arrive at our passage, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:38-39).

Context helps here. Yes unbounded blind vengeance (vengeance beyond an eye for an eye) is wrong. But God’s actual desire is that “you should also refrain from paying back evil with proportionate evil… You should reject not only blind vengeance but reciprocity as well.”[5] Simply do not try and get even.

A favour for a favour?

Jesus continues his polemic against reciprocity, criticizing instead the positive side. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? … And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:43-44,46-47).

Jesus thereby rejects the notion that “favors must be answered with favors.”[6]

Literally speaking

English: The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. An...

English: The Deserter by Boardman Robinson. Anti-war cartoon depicting Jesus facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries (at that time the US had not yet entered the war). First published in The Masses in 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does Jesus literally say about violent resistance to evil? Of course, he literally condemns it. That’s what he says. But what does he mean by it? “What a speaker or writer says by using a sentence may or may not be the same as what the sentence says or means.”[7] Jesus has already (presumably) spoken hyperbolically about lust, literally commending self-mutilation. No doubt he is just making his main point forcefully.

Taken literally, Jesus does not rule out violent resistance to evil. He rather rules out all resistance period: “do not resist an evil person.”[8] Pacifists often point to “Jesus’ own behavior when he was arrested. But if Jesus’ behavior at his arrest is employed to support an interpretation of the text, then what his behavior supports is not the pacifist interpretation but the literal, non-resistance, interpretation. For what is striking about Jesus’ behavior upon being arrested is not that he resisted non-violently but that he did not resist.”[9]

What I say and what I mean

When Jesus remarks, “turn the other cheek,” he is busy undermining the belief that justice requires balancing the scales with pain on both sides. He in no way promotes non-violent resistance to evil. Taken literally, he rejects all resistance. Rather, “What he says is simply, do not return evil for evil.”[10]

This is consistent with appropriate use of violence. “Impose on the evildoer some diminution of his wellbeing only if that serves the good. Reject vengeance. Do not try to get even.”[11]

Striking a balance

The opposite of pacifism, of course, is not wanton use of violence. Recall that pacifism maintains that violence is never justified. Jesus does not support this belief. In this passage, at least, he merely rules out retributive violence. A non-pacifist would reserve the right to employ violence when truly necessary in the interest of justice properly understood.

Determining when violence is necessary is often very simple and other times very complex. The complexities are another topic. In the meantime, it seems self-evident to me that violence is required (at least) in certain simple instances, such as protecting children from kidnapping or worse. A literal interpretation would prohibit resistance (even non-violent) in such circumstances. That can’t be right. Therefore, without direct teaching to the contrary from Jesus, I’m not a pacifist.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 120.

[2] Ibid., 123.

[3] Ibid., 121 emphasis added.

[4] Cf. Ibid., 121–123.

[5] Ibid., 122.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] Ibid., 121.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 125–126.

[10] Ibid., 126.

[11] Ibid.

14 responses to “Why I’m not a pacifist

  1. Hi Ben, thanks for getting my juices going on what has become a very interesting topic for me over the past few years. On a personal level, It’s easier for me to adopt a pacifistic stance when I’ve never been in the military or have had relatives who’ve been in the military or even police force. Nevertheless, some comments:

    – You said “Recall that pacifism maintains that violence is never justified.” – I think you would find quite a range within the pacifistic camp. I’ve heard some Pacifist theologians that would promote the use of force for policing but draw the line at taking a life.

    – It seems quite clear that Jesus grabbed the theology of ‘holy war’ that stood on solid Old Testament commandments and flushed it, and I think that the strongest way he said this are in his words during his arrest and trial: “My kingdom is not of this world” and again to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my servants would fight for me’ (not exact quote).
    I think to start at this place when evaluating the pacifistic stance is most helpful: To Whom or what is my primary allegiance? If it’s to Christ, who came to bring a kingdom that works its way from the inside out (many of the kingdom parables), what kind of acts of violence are congruent with living and promoting this kind of kingdom?
    (I really think it’s very hard to deal with this question well when we’ve all been brought up with a Constantinian frame-work “church AND state”.)

    – Finally,and along with this, ‘going the extra mile’ and ‘giving him your coat as well’ may have been a challenge to the code of reciprocity, but wasn’t it much more? Injecting love and friendship into an otherwise oppressive relationship, transforming the ‘master-slave’ dynamic into a ‘peer to peer’ act of friendship… wow! I guess that goes beyond passive resistance – it makes resistance not even the point!
    Jesus demonstrated non-resistance, like you mentioned, but in his ‘overall’ way, as well as in these individual ways that he advocates responding, it seems Jesus advocates ‘giving’ in response to oppression – but for no other purpose than planting His Kingdom in the heart of humanity, transforming people from the inside out.

    Gotta go
    Kevin

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  3. “A non-pacifist would reserve the right to employ violence when truly necessary in the interest of justice properly understood.”
    I agree.

  4. This is an interesting argument, Ben. As a pacifist myself, I can’t resist interacting with an article called “why I am not a pacifist.” I hope it’s okay that I “barge into” your conversation here.

    I’d like to raise three challenges to your argument.

    (1) You seem to imply that the core of the bases for Christian pacifism is Jesus’ command to love enemies. Now, I think that command is pretty important (I’d link the verse you discuss with the Good Samaritan story where Jesus ties love of neighbor [who’s actually enemy] with salvation itself). But the bases for pacifism are much broader (note that John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus scarcely mentions the Sermon on the Mount as it makes a powerful case for Christian pacifism).

    Part of the issue is simply what we mean by “pacifism.” I think it should be thought of most of all as a positive conviction—not simply the refusal to kill or even to use violence. It’s about desiring peace for all creation (shalom in the broad sense) and believing that no other value or conviction is more important than loving the neighbor—hence no other value or conviction trumps the call to love each person. So, to “take down” the specific verse about loving enemies (you—that is, Wolterstorff—make some good points about how to interpret that verse) doesn’t “take down” pacifism.

    (2) I may be misreading your argument, but it seems that there might be some missing steps in the logic. What you show is that in the Matthew 5 Jesus is only ruling out “retributive violence.” Even if that’s true (I don’t think it is, but I will grant the point here), how can that be construed as the basis for saying some violence is acceptable to him (of course, another key issue is what we mean by “violence”—let’s focus here on lethal violence)?

    Pacifism says that killing others is always incompatible with the call to love each person. To argue that Jesus’ life and teaching do not support that conviction, it seems that one would have to have positive evidence that Jesus did indeed teach or act in ways that show lethal violence could be okay. Simply to show that one verse often used as a basis for pacifism should be more narrowly interpreted to be ruling out only a specific kind of violence is not positive evidence that would underwrite Jesus’ followers killing people (or preparing to kill people or being trained to kill people).

    (3) Though you say that the “complexities” of when violence might be “necessary” are a topic for a different discussion, I am not willing to let you off the hook on that point. The (seldom applied) logic of the just war position is that we should have a benefit of the doubt against the use of warfare (or, lethal violence in general). We need to make a positive case for why it’s necessary because we should assume that it is not.

    I would apply that logic by saying that it’s simply not enough (certainly if we are to be true to the spirit of Jesus’ message) to put off making that case as an optional, later, topic when we are explaining why we as Christians accept the moral legitimacy of violence. If 99 out of 100 possible realistic uses of violence are unjust or unnecessary or almost certain to be ineffective (I think that number is actually giving the possibility of legitimate violence too much credit), wouldn’t we actually be much more likely to be morally sound simply to say violence is off limits? Wouldn’t it be better to pass on the one situation where violence might be okay to avoid the much, much greater likelihood that we would engage in unjust violence? If we say yes, one consequence might be then to put our energies into ways to protect our children nonviolently instead of adding the spiral of violence by getting a gun, et al.

    Part of the reason, I’m afraid, that the vast majority of Christians have not taken this approach is that there are few negative consequences to engaging in unjust violence so long as it is on behalf of the state or otherwise in synch with cultural assumptions about acceptable violence. I don’t see much of Jesus in that dynamic.

    [Note: I just noticed your follow up post. I haven't read it yet but will right away and probably add a comment there.]

    • Hi Ted, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m happy to get some (peaceful) pushback! Let me try and respond to your three points.

      (1) If I understand you correctly, you are saying that pacifism is justified outside the Sermon on the Mount and also pacifism is a positive conviction, “about desiring peace for all creation”, rather than a mere “refusal to kill or even to use violence.” The pacifist values love for neighbor above all other values and convictions.

      Sounds pretty good overall. If pacifism is a desire for peace then I too am a pacifist, I too desire peace. But in this article I’ve defined pacifism as the view that violence is never justified. I don’t know what else to call that. Call it “schmacifism” instead if that helps. I am arguing that when Jesus said “turn the other cheek”, he was not teaching us to reject violence without qualification. My goal is modest: to argue that violence is sometimes (if only rarely) justified.

      Do you regard violence as always incompatible with loving one’s neighbour?

      (2) Here I understand you to say that even if Matt 5 only rules out retributive violence, it does not follow that non-retributive violence is biblically permissible. You take Jesus’s life and teaching to, at face value, rule out lethal violence.

      I think I can agree with this. Once again, I’m only trying to claim that violence is sometimes justified and I do not need to justify lethal violence to achieve that aim. So what’s my rationale for non-retributive violence? It seems to me that justice requires it. I’ve been working through Wolterstorff’s “Justice in Love” in a series of posts (can be found by clicking the Justice and Love button on the left). Love and justice are both so important in the bible that they simply cannot be incompatible. As Wolterstorff points out, “Love that perpetuates injustice is malformed [misunderstood] love.” I think that it is obvious that if I were to eschew all violence, even non-retributive violence, then I would be an accomplice in perpetuating injustice. Examples to demonstrate this abound easily.

      (3) Here I understand you to say that I ought to tackle the complex cases of violence as well, to see where this thinking would lead. Permitting any violence is a slippery slope towards “just”-war. What waits for us there, morally speaking? Since violence usually fails to do good, shouldn’t we play it safe and reject it completely? I’m not sure what you mean by protect our children nonviolently.

      Once again, good points. I don’t know the answers. I am simply trying to show that total rejection of violence is untenable. But where is the line? I try to deal with that in the next post which I think you’ve read. I think the answer lies in a proper understanding of love and justice. Violence must only occur in the context of love and justice, but you’d need to see my posts on Love and Justice to see what I’ve gleaned from Wolterstorff. As for playing it safe and rejecting violence completely, I think that is a mistake. Issues of when to apply violence have very high stakes morally speaking. If I am morally obligated to defend the weak, I must do it! If I am morally obligated to not interfere, I must not interfere! You can’t play it safe. The stakes are too high. We need to know what the right thing to do is. I am not confident that a total rejection of violence will lead us down the moral path.

      Thanks again for your comments, hope to chat more soon!

      • Thanks, Ben.

        I do agree that pacifism is the view that “violence is never justified.” Part of the issue, though, is the definition of violence. Yes, I do think “violence” is always incompatible with loving one’s neighbor. But “force” or “coercion” need not always be violent. I am following Gandhi and King on this point—two pacifists who nonetheless were will to act coercively (carefully!).

        I also (strongly) agree that love and justice are compatible—in fact neither love nor justice is biblical without the other being part of the picture. In fact, I’d say that because of this authentic justice cannot include violence—violence is always unjust. And, of course, authentic love must include justice. (Justice is another term that needs careful definition—I like much of what Wolterstorff says but I think he misses the full dimension of the restorative element in biblical justice.)

        It might help if you gave some examples of how eschewing violence makes one an accomplice in perpetuating injustice. Again, the issue seems to be how we define “violence.” What you call “violence” I might call nonviolent coercion.

        Again, Gandhi and King are prime examples of pacifists who “defended the weak.” They certainly did not “play it safe.”

        • Hi Ted,

          Probably some overlap with the comments on the other post. I’ve defined violence as harm of any sort. Do you believe that harming others (socially, economically, physically, emotionally, etc) is never justified? If not, why are some sorts of harm acceptable and others unacceptable regardless of the situation?

          Glad that you see justice and love as compatible, although we probably understand both terms differently. You say that authentic justice cannot include violence, that violence is always unjust. Once again, do you think that authentic justice cannot include harming another (socially, economically, physically, emotionally, etc)? Is harm always unjust? If not, then why are some sorts of harm just and other unjust?

          Some examples of eschewing violence resulting in injustice. First, I take justice to be an example of love, following Wolterstorff, because justice seeks to ensure that one’s neighbour is treated as befits their worth. Examples of failing to do harm in support of justice are easy to think of.

          1. My neighbour’s home is being vandalized. I call the police and the vandals are arrested and subject to the justice system, causing the vandals economic, emotional, social, and possibly physical harm. Or I do no harm and my neighbour is not treated as befits his worth.
          2. My neighbour is being assaulted. I physically assist him against his assaulter, possibly physically harming the assaulter. Or I do not assist and my neighbor is harmed but the assaulter is not, I do not seek to ensure that my neighbour is treated as befits his worth.
          3. My child is snatched by a kidnapper who I chase and entreat to release her. I go beyond entreaties and use all the resources at my disposal, including physical intervention, to ensure that my child is treated as befits her worth. Or I do not intervene physically for fear of harming the kidnapper.
          4. My home is broken into at night. I call the police and hide in a locked room with my family although the police are likely to harm the intruder in the process of protecting me. Or I do nothing and subject my family to treatment that does not befit their worth in order to not harm the intruder.
          5. My nation is attacked by a hostile country. I carefully examine the cause and decide to join the fight in order to ensure that my countrymen and women are treated (in the long run) as befits their worth. Or I do nothing and hope for the best, treating the wellbeing of the belligerent as primary.
          6. A foreign military is about to slaughter a large number of their own people. I either endorse my country’s decision to intervene militarily and ensure that the defenseless people are treated as befits their worth or I endorse a no-intervention policy, regarding the wellbeing of the belligerents as of equal priority with that of their victims.

          I honestly don’t see how one can take justice seriously without taking the potential need to harm others seriously as well.

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