The Problem With (Some) Pacifists

war is overI need to start off by saying that I don’t tend to read much from the Institute for Religion and Democracy, even though I probably agree with them on some issues.  As much as I gripe about my home within Mainline Protestantism, I’m not much for those who tear down with no intent to build up.  It’s a messed up theological home, but it’s my messed up theological home.

But even a stopped watch is correct twice a day.

What has me looking at the IRD website is a particular blog post on pacifism and it sums up why pacifists tend to bother me.  I do admire those who choose to not engage in violence because of their understand of the Bible and of God.  The many generations of pacifists like Mennonites, Brethren and other historic peace churches have my respect and understanding.  Their refusal to take up arms tends to be more biblically based than anything else.  I also support pacifists like the theologian Stanley Hauerwas.  I don’t agree with him, but I do support his gumption.

That said, there are some forms of pacifism that do bother me, not because they are pacifists, but more because it seems to be ground more in ideology than in faith.  Kevin Pavlicheck has more to say about this “crypto-pacifism:”

it is here that we find another reason that so many of us who are non-pacifist Christians find it so hard to take contemporary Christian pacifists all that seriously when it comes to public policy and foreign affairs. Many of us are quite aware of the recent history of Christian pacifist organizations in the US — and it ain’t pretty. The simple fact is that the major Christian pacifist organization in the latter half of the twentieth century traded their Christian pacifism for a pot of Marxist left-wing porridge.

If you are inclined to think that is an overly harsh judgment, then I would call your attention to Guenter Lewy’s classic study and devastating critique of American Peace organizations, Peace and Revolution: The Crisis of American Pacifism.  Lewy exhaustively documents how major pacifist organizations, particularly the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and The War  Resisters League, came to compromise their pacifism in favor of New Left inspired activism in the period during and following the Vietnam War. What is particularly devastating about Lewy’s history, is his extensive documentation of the futile attempts of a few honest pacifists, including long-standing leaders of these organizations, to stem the tide and keep their organizations truly pacifist. But in the end, as Lewy shows, they lost out to those who hijacked these pacifist organizations for the cause of New Left ideology.

The problem with these pacifists is that it’s hard for one to tell if they are against all war, or just against the wars they don’t happen to like.  In essence, their pacifism is not consistent.  Pavlicheck brings up the story of Alfred Hassler, a leader in the historic peace group, Fellowship of Reconciliation:

Hassler was dismayed that once again many pacifists had convinced themselves that all wars were to be opposed except the current one, “with the piquant addition that in the immediate situation those whom we support happen to be the immediate enemies of our country.” He was referring, of course, to the National Liberation Front (NLF) otherwise known as the Viet Cong. For his honesty and his attempt at being consistently pacifist, Hassler was pushed out of his leadership position in the FOR, in favor of the quasi-pacifists aligned with the New Left.

These are only two examples of the many documented by Lewy, but the upshot is that by 1988 Lewy could conclude, “While the major pacifist organizations today accept the use of force in the struggle against pro-American regimes, they at the same time continue to adhere to pacifist principles with regard to wars between nations.” If that sounds hypocritical, that’s because it is hypocritical.

This crypto-pacifism is guided more by criticizing American foreign policy than it is about violence.  I remember when the Iraq War was at its worst with sectarian violence engulfing the nation.  A number of peace groups seemed to be urging the US to get out.  I opposed the war, but during this period, I felt we had to stay and try to stabilize the situation.  We caused the mess and it was up to the US to set things right before leaving.  I was surprised that a group claiming to care about the people were so willing to keep a group of people mired in violence and not interested in working on how to bring peace to this troubled land.  I realized then that many so-called peace groups were more interested in fighting against neoconservatives than they were about how to help a nation that we had placed into conflict.

I’m not saying that we should support any and all uses of aggression by the United States.  I’m not saying one can’t criticize actions by the US Military.  What I am saying is that if you are going to call yourself a pacifist or committed to peace, it would be nice if you were committed to the principles you claim to stand for.

This reminds me of the long-standing quest to figure out what being prophetic means.  Here’s what I wrote in 2012:

what does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

I do think there is a place for Christian pacifism in discussions over war and peace.  But as long as it is nothing more than leftist politics masquerading as pacifists, then the message of refusing violence is compromised.


One thought on “The Problem With (Some) Pacifists

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  1. As a Christian pacifist, I would have a hard time disagreeing with much of this. You mention the historic peace churches as being “more biblically based.” This was certainly true of their founders, like Menno Simons and George Fox.

    But in my limited experience, those in these churches who are most vocal about the “peace testimony” are not focused on the Bible. They are of the liberal spectrum of their churches. Many of their more evangelical brethren tend to be embarrassed by pacifism or more thoroughly ‘Americanized.’

    Within the Geo. Fox quote (linked above) there is a link to an interesting history: ‘The position of Fox and others, as stated in Fox’s letter (1676), I have called Quaker Particular Pacifism (QPP), since there is a definite call upon Quakers not to take up “carnal weapons,” but an approval of the “magistrate” in doing so.’ [This would be in accord with Romans, where many Christians confuse the issues ]

    In Pennsylvania, it was the tension between such that led Quakers to give up governance.

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