Norwich pastor: I wish I could be a pacifist
Pastor Tom Chapman
of Surrey Chapel
gives a view on whether pacifism is Biblical.
Philip Young “Norwich vicar sees red and white over poppies”
presses many buttons from my past. As a child I was taken on CND marches and as teenager worshipped with the Quakers and imagined with John Lennon. Now, I want to be a radical follower of Christ – and who doesn't wish war would cease right away?
But I can't be a pacifist. I ask the questions “is it biblical?” and “does it work?” - and found myself sticking with just the red poppy this year.
Is Pacifism Biblical?
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39) This and numerous other bible passages seem to clearly teach that Christians should be pacifists. Without a doubt, as far as our personal conduct goes, violence is not an option available to us to solve our problems. Furthermore it can never be a means for the church to further the Kingdom of God. There is no justification for the crusades or anything similar. And it goes without saying that all Christians must seek to promote peace, by peaceful means where possible.
But that is not the whole story! Romans 13 v.1-5 says something different about governments. God has ordained governing authorities, Paul writes, and “he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an angel of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong doer.” Peter makes the same point (1 Peter 2:13-14). People in this position of authority are authorised by God to use force to uphold what is good and resist evil – in fact they fail in their duty if they do not!
How do we resolve this – without simply picking and choosing our preferred texts? The question comes down to what it means for Christians to be “in the world but not of the world.” Is it possible to reject violence as an individual and within the church, yet accept it – and even participate in it – when exercised legitimately on behalf of the state? For the first three centuries of the early church, Christians were effectively pacifists – but they had little choice! For the most part they were an oppressed and powerless minority and armed resistance was not a feasible option. They “overcame by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony.” (Rev 12:11). (Those most likely to have to confront this matter personally were converted soldiers like Cornelius (Acts 10) – and interestingly, there is no command that he lay down his arms.)
Yet by the fourth century the position had changed. For better or for worse (and, as a baptist I have my doubts) Christianity had become the official religion. Believers had to face the question of whether a “Christian” government could ever rightly resort to force. Over the centuries thinkers built upon the work of Augustine of Hippo to develop “Just-War Theory.” (see below). Granted, to many it seems ridiculous that an activity as innately horrendous as war could ever be governed by rules. Others question whether principles developed for conventional war between nations can be applied to C21st asymmetric warfare. Yet over the years this (in some form) has become the majority view among Christians – including many deeply committed to the principle of peacemaking. I believe, though flawed and difficult in practice, it is still the right approach.
We are in a situation today where, as citizens of a democratic country, we cannot isolate ourselves from the harsh realities of our world. We have responsibility as individuals and church members to honour the radical teaching of Christ – but also to play our part in upholding the God given duties of the state. Some may receive a radical call to pacifism – just as they might to celibacy, poverty or vegetarianism – but this is not something required of every believer. Many Christians rightly believe that, as a last resort and as agents of a legitimate authority, to oppose evil with proportionate force is the lesser of evils and a moral duty they should not shirk. We may choose not to defend ourselves as individuals from evil – but what right have we to make that decision for the innocent people whom we also have a responsibility to defend? Peace is not merely the absence of physical violence; true peace is a fruit of justice – and justice, sometimes, needs force behind it.
Which leads me to my second question. Does Pacifism Work? I will look at this next week.
Appendix: Conditions for “Just War”
Just cause – defence against violent aggression
Just intention – to restore a just peace to friend and foe a
Last resort – after all other options have failed
Legitimate authority – called by a just government
Limited goals - to repel aggression and redress injustice, no more
Proportionality to the offence caused
Non-combatants should not be subject to intentional attack
A reasonable hope of success
Pictured above: Tom and Suzanne Chapman