(This post is part of Political Jesus’ #TheNewPacifism synchroblog thing.)
Imagine someone breaks down your door in the middle of the night. You get up and as you run down-stairs are confronted by big and burly man aiming a gun towards you.
“Get up the stairs,” he barks at you. You comply, even as you hear your wife’s confused shouts from the bedroom.
“What’s wrong, honey? Who’s there?”
You try to shout back and tell her to keep calm and not get up, all the while praying that she calls the cops.
The man, his gun still raised, backs you into the bedroom. He tells your wife to get the kids. He’s going to kill you all, starting with your infant son.
So what do you do?
What does a Christian do?
I ask, because pacifism has become the new Strange Fire. It started with Mark Driscoll’s non-affirmative answer to the question of whether God is a pacifist. The blogosphere and social media have blown up in response. Greg Boyd’s response was especially notable. And Jonathan Merritt round-up of Christian leaders’ responses was helpful too.
I’m very sympathetic to the rightly outraged pacifists: Driscoll’s piece was characteristically lacking in careful and critical reasoning. It was also conspicuously lacking of Jesus, who is, after all, God’s own self-revelation. If we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus first and foremost. And Jesus was a pacifist. Not a pansy, but certainly a pacifist. And that means that God is a pacifist (too).
But here’s my question: Even if God is a pacifist – do Christians have to be pacifists too?
Or, more specifically, what are the limits of Christian pacifism?
Billy Graham is often quoted as saying that God has no grandchildren. In order to become a Christian, you have to respond to grace and come to Jesus yourself. You can’t rely on someone or something else to do it for you. Similarly, you don’t have salvation to spare. Your salvation doesn’t cover anyone else. And you can’t force anyone else to become a Christian.
Becoming a Christian is a profoundly individual event, where a person enters into an deeply personal, intimate one-on-one relationship with God.
Being a Christian entails a lot of things, but relevant to the topic at hand, it entails pacifism and non-violence. Being a Christian means being Christ-like. It means following Jesus. And Jesus responded non-violently towards those who were violent towards him. Jesus was a pacifist. It is part and parcel of being a Christian, then, to be a pacifist.
Which leads me to my question:
If you can’t force someone to become a Christian and you can’t be a Christian on other people’s behalf – can you force them to be non-violent? Or, more pointedly, can you force them to endure violence because you are non-violent? Wouldn’t that be… violent?
Returning to the bedroom, what would be the appropriate response of a Christian to a murderous madman holding his family at gun point? It’s clear, I think, what the appropriate response would be if the two of them were alone in the room: Non-violent resistance. But is it right for a Christian to respond non-violently towards threats of violence against others? I don’t think so. Again, wouldn’t that in actual fact be violent? Wouldn’t that be enabling and part-taking in evil?
What happens when we get out of the bedroom and take a people group or a nation as our context? Doesn’t the same principle apply? Can a Christian respond non-violently towards a threat against a people group or a nation? There are obvious complications here that make it impossible to extent the analogy straight-forwardly. There are ways of being personally non-violent in a collectively violent situation. Think of Quaker ambulance drivers, for example. But complications aside, I do think the same principle applies. I don’t think a Christian has the right to demand that others suffer for his faith, whether they are individuals or people groups or nations.
What are the limits of Christian pacifism then? The limits of Christian pacifism extend to the individual and no longer. The church can be non-violent only in so far as its members have encountered Jesus personally and individually, and have come to adopt Jesus’ non-violent way as their own.
That’s why I personally am a pacifist, but interpersonally, collectively and socially I lean towards just war theory. Is the threat of violence limited to me? Ok, then – I will respond non-violently. Is the threat of violence against my family, my friends, my people, my country? As tragic and perhaps as sinful as violence and war always is, I’m afraid I don’t think I have the right to demand that others pay the price for my personal pacifism.