***NOTE: Many footnotes add detail and background to the text.***
I have a good friend who loves the great Christian thinkers, Erasmus and his 16th-century Anglican friends and contemporaries known as the Oxford or London Reformers, Dean John Colet, Thomas More and Juan Vives.
My friend writes:
But, Erasmus was no absolute pacifist. He was very much the nimble, subtle and nuanced owl of his age, ever finding a thoughtful and navigating a thoughtful pathway between the pacifist doves and warlike hawks. (name and source withheld).
My friend’s assessment that such thinkers are “the nimble, subtle and nuanced owls of their age” has always struck me as passing strange. If “Teaching the Gospel Message that Jesus was totally nonviolent, and we’re called to be nonviolent too,” 1 then aren’t exception caveats in the otherwise dovish Erasmus–he the premier 16th-century Peace theologian–more of a departure from The Way than ‘nimble’ on The Way? And can it be denied that his opposition to church militarism2 became his legacy–not nimble path-picking between doves and hawks?
My conditional “if” above is of course the nub. But as I read Jesus in the Gospels3, the burden of proof is surely on those “nimble” thinkers to explain why they seem to contradict/obviate/set aside what Jesus explicitly taught: Love your enemies–don’t you think?
What follows is not so much an argument for Pacifism as making space for a challenge to its alternative, in one’s commitment to taking Jesus seriously. It does not address the minefield of thorny practical issues of living “in, but not of the world,” which two millennia plus of Church history have brought to bold relief on this matter. Then again, neither does Jesus.
Abstract theology holds for me little appeal. So along the way, beginning with my friend, I interact with embodied expressions of Pacifism’s alternative.
Simply stated: in Jesus, if not Pacifism, why not?
Exception-Clause Footnote Theology?
I must express textual agnosticism: Search as I might throughout the New Testament, I find nowhere any Exception-Clause Footnote Theology at work that permits, let alone encourages, an end-run around this central text and theme. Do you?
Surely a nimble mind does not try to find a (convenient?) agnosticism about this theme, while seemingly ignoring that
peace [is] the heart of the gospel message and the ground of the New Testament’s unity. (New Testament scholar Richard Hays. See Footnote 3.)?
Whereas, one must wonder at the apparent abnegation of simply seeing this unifying theme of the New Testament!? Or have I missed something–and not they?
Mind you (intentional pun), that great thinkers such as C.S. Lewis had such “nimble” minds, one cannot deny. Perhaps though therein lies the problem? . . .
Test Case for Love of God, Etc.
For is not the enemy in the New Testament extreme test case of neighbour–what assesses the pluck of our enjoined neighbour love, according to Jesus, in turn assays the mettle of our exalted God-talk? When asked for the Greatest Commandment, Jesus gave two for the price of one, implying, did he not, that the first is predicated upon, and nonexistent without, the second (Matt. 22:40)?
Might one not rightly express it thus?:
The Gospels indicate that the test case for love of God is love of neighbour.
The test case for love of neighbour is love of enemy. Therefore, to the extent we love neighbour and enemy, to that extent we love God. And to the extent we fail to love neighbour and enemy, we fail to love God.
“Love” (agapao) is a New Testament action verb that constantly reaches out to embrace as friends, draw a circle of inclusion around, neighbour and enemy (agape is the noun form, almost invariably referencing God’s unconditional love in the New Testament).
The above is my Personal Mantra that may be found on my Front Page.
And in case we missed the implication of Jesus, the rest of the New Testament telescopes The Two Greatest Commandments into One:
Love your neighbour as yourself (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8).
Though Christians for two millennia plus have hidden behind the “God-of-violence” escape theory of the Old Testament, Jesus says God’s entire revelation to the ancient Hebrews is ethically summed up in two simple dicta:
Love God. Love neighbour.
Surely there is not much room for a God of violence in either!?4
Or do “nimble minds” . . .
- see something in the New Testament that simply isn’t there;
- fail to see in the New Testament what is there?
For, my friend’s “nimble, subtle and nuanced owls,” unlike doves, are vicious birds of prey too–a point Erasmus himself made about the warring princes’ use of eagle imagery. Thinking to attach themselves to the nobility and strength of eagles, Erasmus points out that those nations that used them as their standard became predators. (One can think of examples: Rome, Nazi Germany, America.)
For Christians, I suggest then, that the heat is on. Since not only have Christians for two thousand years tried to dodge this “two-for-the-price-of-one” deal from Jesus, and this “one-law-for-all” metonymy of the New Testament, they seem rather summarily to toss out the window any reference to love of enemies. Or again, have I missed something?
A Case Study
C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper, (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1949, pp. 33 – 53), seems a representative example of excising “love your enemies” from the “Dominical sayings” that Lewis chose to consider.5 But surely that is less nimble than straw-man thinking, where Lewis refused to consider the (potentially?) War-Game-Stopper reality of peace/peacemaking being core New Testament teaching, in his bid to support Britain’s involvement in World War II. And he, a grand literary Master. One wonders: What else was going on, that he excluded and misappropriated such a key Dominical text? Each time I read his talk, I respond: “Not so fast Dr. Lewis!”
Then there is the classic text in Matthew 22:
37Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whatever else one might say about the italicized, at least this: the enemy is surely no less a neighbour? We hear Lewis saying to that Pacifist Club:
Indeed, as the audience were private people in a disarmed nation, it seems unlikely that they would have ever supposed Our Lord to be referring to war. War was not what they would have been thinking of. The frictions of daily life among villagers were more likely to be in their minds.
And by that kind of sleight-of-hand reasoning, Lewis dismisses out of hand the entire Christian Pacifist panoply of testimonials that dates back–well–to Jesus’ clarion call: Love your enemies–a cry taken up throughout the history of the Church, not least by many pre-Constantinian voices, as shown below?
Lewis offers not even a nod towards the sensus plenior of biblical texts, which according to Wikipedia
is a Latin phrase that means “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.” It is used in Biblical exegesis to describe the supposed deeper meaning intended by God but not by the human author. Walter C. Kaiser notes that the term was coined by F. Andre Fernandez in 1927 but was popularized by Raymond E. Brown.
Brown defines sensus plenior as
That additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation.
Further, Lewis’ surmised “quiescent villagers” were well aware of, and harboured often, members of a Zealot splinter group, known as Sicarii, who were cloak-and-dagger assassins of Roman soldiers. And a full-scale rebellion against Rome erupted only a few decades after Jesus’ death, known as the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE): a rebellion long-since brewing that led to a worldwide diaspora of the Jews, from their last stand at Masada6, until their becoming a nation in 1948.
Burden of proof is surely on the side of Pacifism’s naysayers like Lewis, to insist Jesus’ signature teaching about love of neighbour/enemies was not direct interdiction of the above groups’ commitment to violence, with “But I say unto you . . .” its choral crescendo.
In the context of the Good Samaritan Story–the epitome of the New Testament for Ivan Illich–also, apart from the Crucifixion, the classic New Testament instance of “love your enemy“–we read:
Illich’s sense of the Incarnation, as I’ve said, was that it allowed God “to be loved in the flesh” and not just in the person of the Christ but in the understanding that “whoever loves another loves [Christ] in the person of that other.” Such love is free, unconstrained, and undetermined—when, where, and how it will occur cannot be foreseen. Just as the Incarnation is pure gift and obeys no necessity, so the love that it models and inspires. (David Cayley, Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey 2 (Ivan Illich: 21st-Century Perspectives), Penn State University Press, p. 266.)
In the understanding that “whoever loves another loves Christ in the person of that other,” is it not in the Incarnation therefore we discover as well that, mutatis mutandi, “whoever destroys another destroys Christ in the person of that other?”
As to Illich’s “no necessity,” if “God is love” (I John 4); if God so directed that love towards the “world, that he gave . . .” (John 3:16); and if we then are enjoined to
then whatever else, God’s Love is surely its own necessity, or better put, God “cannot” do other, and neither should we (though sadly too often do–and tragically in Jesus’ name!).7
Are we also to assume that the Second Greatest Commandment to Jesus and his followers was only for villagers in Christ’s hearing? Lewis’ hermeneutical reductionism appears to be a kind of manipulative casuistry that astounds to be sure, rather than goes deep, let alone convinces? One might have exclaimed the day of his talk, “C’mon, Dr. Lewis, let’s get serious!”
For C.S. Lewis (nicknamed by friends, “Jack”) I wonder that a slightly paraphrased children’s rhyme might fit?:
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick/Jack jump over the pacifist shtick,
when he simply excises or leap-frogs over the key Dominical teaching to “Love your enemies,” and fails to see the central textual witness that peace/peacemaking is core to the New Testament. Surely his chosen non-pacifist position is not faithfully nimble, so much as at best disingenuous, at worst . . . what might you call it?
Functional atheists (whatever their protested belief in God) simply do not take God into account in daily life. Likewise, it seems that a great number of Christians are operative echthrosists 8 (whatever their protested belief in God, Christ and Scripture) when push comes to shove, as it invariably does, in response to domestic and international enemies.
A Second, Brief Case Study
The following is a powerful sermon about the book to your left! It was preached Sunday, April 3, 2022, at Good Shepherd New York, a church we have tuned into for much of the pandemic. It combines superb worship music, excellent preaching, and joyful affirmation of the best of “orthodoxy” in the context of American Evangelicalism. It is inclusive, challenging, and spiritually nurturing.
We hear the story of Diana Oestreich‘s amazing conversion from waging war to waging peace, in the context of the Iraq War. Her sermon is powerful, and discusses also the current war in Ukraine.
Her story is also told in: Waging Peace: One Soldier’s Story of Putting Love First. We read of it:
Diana Oestreich, a combat medic in the Army National Guard, enlisted like both her parents before her. But when she was commanded to run over an Iraqi child to keep her convoy rolling and keep her battle buddies safe, she was confronted with a choice she never thought she’d have to make.
Torn between God’s call to love her enemy and her country’s command to be willing to kill, Diana chose to wage peace in a place of war. For the remainder of her tour of duty, Diana sought to be a peacemaker–leading to an unlikely and beautiful friendship with an Iraqi family.
A beautiful and gut-wrenching memoir, Waging Peace exposes the false divide between loving our country and living out our faith’s call to love our enemies–whether we perceive our enemy as the neighbor with an opposing political viewpoint, the clerk wearing a head-covering, or the refugee from a war-torn country. By showing that us-versus-them is a false choice, this book will inspire each of us to choose love over fear.
For her sermon, please click on:
But There Are Legitimate Issues With Pacifism
I suggest that the real problem is not textual, rather a question of how we should then live?
Things get complex when:
- Christians become a force in a society and its governments. So, no, we should not arm the church and go to war, but should not the state have a military wing that functions against injustice and resists despots? Like, as often argued, the police? (But see my War, Police and Prisons: Cross-Examining State-Sanctioned Violence.; and War and Hell — and Exception-Clause Footnote Theology.) Then ponder also Tertullian (160–220AD) above on Matthew 26:52:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to [Peter], “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
- One asks: What about Hitler? How in a “Christian land” did he get into power in the first place? What about Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church? What about Bonhoeffer’s participation in the failed plot on Hitler’s life–that cost Bonhoeffer his?
- One sees gross injustice in many parts of the world. What about the failed intervention by the West in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide? What about United Nations peacekeepers in conflict zones?
In short: how can “absolute pacifism” be a Western Christian standard in the “democracies” we inhabit? In giving aid, including military, in conflict zones, etc.? A friend wonders whether this is not unlike opposing safe injection sites, when such interventions are enormously life-saving? . . . Point taken–to a point.
But of course, such pacifism is its own foolishness. Of it, David Cayley explains Ivan Illich’s understanding:
“Faith,” Illich says, “inevitably implies a certain foolishness in worldly terms.” This link between faith and foolishness is crucial to Illich’s understanding of the New Testament, and, in later years, he readily spoke of both himself and his Lord in these terms, calling Jesus, at one point, “a major disturber and fool” and talking of himself as one who employed his “fool’s freedom” to teach as he liked outside all academic categories. He described the idea “that God could be a man” as foolishness—a “logical contradiction” explainable “only by love.” He says that Jesus died as a fool—“this fool who was crucified”—hung in ignominy outside the city walls and “ridiculed by everyone entitled to represent Israel”—his unanimous rejection by his people symbolically completed by Peter’s denial outside the house of the high priest on the night of Jesus’ arrest. It is foolishness certainly to try to live in an “unimaginable and unpredictable horizon”—Illich’s characterization of faith—when our whole civilization is virtually defined by its effort to increase predictability. (Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey 2 (Ivan Illich: 21st-Century Perspectives), Penn State University Press, p. 359.)
Saint Paul’s classic commentary on this is found in 1 Corinthians 1:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
22Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,c 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
So of course: Christian pacifism has never made sense, has ever been foolishness–in worldly context. But in the utterly counter-intuitive rationality of Kingdom Come, Illich would say that
This foolishness is inherent in the gospel, when seen from a “worldly” point of view, and this becomes significant when “faith is made subject to the power of this world.” Foolishness acts outside self-interest, obeys a promise without guarantee, risks everything on the word of another. (Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey 2 (Ivan Illich: 21st-Century Perspectives), Penn State University Press, p. 359.)
So we see through a glass darkly. But let’s at minimum not hide, rather wrestle with, New Testament texts and themes that are there, and not go seek ethical guidance from the state, arguably supreme manifestation of the very inversion of the foolhardy Kingdom of God . . . For Jesus came preaching the foolishness of the Kingdom–not the wisdom of the state.9
Limits To Steelmanning
A note of caution in this steelmanning though: I find that generally, abstraction dominates in just war discussions, where there is little or no personal investment. Few embracing it seem to do so in a personal way vis à vis innocent family members, children, friends, personal investments in infrastructure, etc.
Once, in a workshop discussion about the Kosova War with a Political Scientist (colleague of my friend Ron Dart) at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, at one point he indicated that “only” 488 Yugoslav civilian deaths due to NATO bombing, including substantial numbers of Kosovar refugees, “was not all that bad.”
OK. Let’s place your young adult daughter visiting a friend in that Radio-Television building as the NATO strike happened. And suddenly, it’s now your daughter among the victims. Is that same death toll still not “all that bad“?
That workshop and my question ran twice that day. My fellow discussant would not respond either time. Except his silence was all the response needed . . . I only learned from Ron later that he in fact did have a young adult daughter . . .
In 1979, Sojourners magazine seemingly excitedly ran this headline/interview: A Change of Heart: Billy Graham on the Nuclear Arms Race. Editors Wes Michaelson and Jim Wallis wrote:
In recent months many fresh voices in the church have been speaking out with a Christian witness against the insanity of the nuclear arms race. One of the most surprising and significant of these is Billy Graham’s. He believes that the nation and the world now face their own hour of decision about halting the escalation of nuclear weapons. Graham’s growing convictions, which he describes as a change from past years, have taken firm root and are now becoming one of his most deeply felt concerns as a Christian. He graciously agreed to share his thinking publicly by responding to these questions . . .
Billy Graham The Nuclear Pacifist: Mulling Billy Over
I have often mulled over in these intervening years the idea of Graham’s not being a pacifist, yet faithful to Christ; but his being a nuclear pacifist is somehow hugely significant.
Billy Graham at one point in the interview wisely says:
The present arms race is a terrifying thing, and it is almost impossible to overestimate its potential for disaster.10 There is something ironic about the fact that we live in a generation which has made unprecedented advances in such fields as public health and medicine, and yet never before has the threat of wholesale destruction been so real — all because of human technology.
No. I do not think the present differences [between America and other nations] are worth a nuclear war. There is no denying that there are differences between us. But there are many things we have in common, especially on an ordinary human level. I am not a pacifist, but I fervently hope and pray our differences will never become an excuse for nuclear war. I hold the view that some wars had to be fought in history, such as the war against the Nazis. The alternative would have been worse.
Madness in individuals is something rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule. —Friedrich Nietzsche
- Just how many people, combatants and non-combatants, may (in this case) the United States slaughter in a bombing campaign to declare it nonetheless a just war? 11
- Just how many people, combatants and non-combatants, must (in this case) the United States slaughter in a bombing campaign to declare it “too many–and thus an unjust war?“
- What if to the first question we added just one more victim? Would it then become an unjust war?
- What if to the second question, we substracted just one victim? Would it then become “not too many” and therefore just?
- Just how much infrastructure (in metric tons, life-sustaining things such as waterworks, hydro-electric power, hospitals, food- and medicine-supply chains, etc.), may (in this case) the United States destroy in a bombing campaign to declare it nonetheless a just war?
- Just how much infrastructure (in metric tons, life-sustaining things such as waterworks, hydro-electric power, hospitals, food- and medicine-supply chains, etc.), does it take (in this case) the United States to destroy in a bombing campaign to declare it an unjust war?
- Just how many civilian loved-ones am I willing to sacrifice to a (in this case) United States bombing campaign my family members are inadvertently caught up in, to declare it nonetheless a just war?
- Just how many civilian loved-ones am I willing to sacrifice to a (in this case) United States bombing campaign my family members are inadvertently caught up in, to declare it an unjust war?
- Just? . . .
Pretty ridiculous, right, when it all gets downright personal? Point, I hope taken? Some people’s daughters, sons, family members, etc.–all made equally in God’s image, and for whom Christ died–are invariably destroyed in war. Point, I hope taken? What gives us Christians the right to selectively endorse their destruction? Point, I hope taken? Or is it all just, if we don’t choose whom in particular (and rarely find out–or care to) should die as in Monkey see no evil, etc.? Point, I hope taken?
Yet, to the excited Sojourners Editors and Billy Graham, at some point nuclear destruction is acknowledged to cause too many lives lost; too much destruction . . . Surely some kind of such vague–and silly!–numbers calculus was at back of Graham’s (and the Sojourners Editors’ excitement about) embrace of nuclear pacifism?12
In fact, Graham sent a secret memo to President Richard Nixon that was later made public as part of the secretly recorded Nixon tapes. It was dated April 15, 1969, and drafted after Graham had met in Bangkok with missionaries from Vietnam. These “men of God” said that if the peace talks in Paris were to fail, Nixon should step up the war and bomb the dikes. Such an act, Graham wrote excitedly, “could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam.”
Nixon demurred when advisors indicated that up to a million civilians could thereby lose their lives. Graham may not have known that estimated number of potential casualties–but was certainly proposing vast destruction of infrastructure. He was quite willing to countenance mass murder of civilians nonetheless–maybe up to one million? But perhaps not one million plus one!? Point, I hope taken?
At the Nuremberg Trials held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946,
For the first time in international law, the Nuremberg indictments also mention genocide (count three, war crimes: “the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies and others.”). (Wikipedia: Nuremberg trials)
Had Nixon carried out Graham’s urging, he would have been directly guilty, along with Nuremberg war criminals, of genocide. As it was, Billy Graham visited troops in Vietnam around Christmastime 1966 and returned in 1968. His son Franklin Graham, CEO and president of the BGEA, shared:
My father felt it was important to go and minister to the U.S. Military. He went to Vietnam not because he supported the war, he was going there to minister … to men that were dying on the battlefield!
Warmongering Franklin failed in the above however to mention the obvious: Billy didn’t go to Vietnam to encourage–nay order!–the American soldiers in the name of Jesus to “love your enemies” as “the Bible says!” (Billy’s iconic endlessly repeated shout-out), as in: stop killing the North Vietnamese enemies on the battlefield! . . .
We Evangelicals across the world prayed on those two occasions of unprecedented evangelistic opportunity, that Graham would preach the Gospel such that American G.I.s would come to Christ before dying on the battlefield and going to (as was said) a “Christless eternity.”
At the time, it never occurred to any I knew, including me, that Graham would preach the Gospel such that those same American G.I.s would lay down their arms and thereby avoid sending the Viet Cong to a Christless eternity . . .13 For in the end, as Sojourners magazine often pointed out about Graham’s brand of Evangelicalism, Graham tragically practised evangelism without the Gospel–and helped pave the way to Trump. (See the next paragraph.)
Billy was throughout his career in the end sadly an antichrist idolater who worshipped at the shrine of American Christian Nationalism. A superb brief treatment of this is in Kristin Kobes du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,14 chapters 1 & 2. She writes:
Graham preached a gospel of heroic [idolatrous] Christian nationalism . . . (p. 25)
Billy invariably prayed with every sitting President throughout his evangelistic ministry–access to whom was desperately sought after early in his career–for victory on the eve of American military exploits around the world.
Perhaps ironically enough, he had a counterpart decades later in Jim Wallis, who agreed to become one of Barack Obama’s spiritual advisers during his Presidency. Wallis took on that role–like that of Graham with his Presidents–seemingly despite Obama’s murderous militarism. Wallis could surely not have missed Obama’s horrific claim about being “really good at killing people.”15
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.—Lord Acton
When a journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi about his opinion of Western Civilization, he replied,
I think it would be a very good idea.
See on this my: Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S. Imperialism. For what does Empire invariably mean? Kipling puts it bluntly (emphasis added):
Take up the White Man’s burden —
The savage wars of peace —
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Such “savage wars of peace” have ever meant the peace of the graveyard: the very antithesis of “civilization.”16