The Violence of Pacifism
In a recent post, Sojourners blogger Stephen Mattson suggests four questions by which today’s Christians will endure history’s judgement. His second, inquiring why Christians don’t recognize and fight systemic racism, will go largely unaddressed here; though neither because it isn’t important nor because there’s no answer to it – there is and it includes a good degree of pushback.
The other three questions, however, are these:
1) In the midst of a historically horrible refugee crisis, why didn’t you actively pursue helping the poor, the destitute, and those in desperate need?
2) Why were you so supportive of national agendas associated with violence, destruction, and death?
3) Why did you crave martial, economic, and political power when God has already warned you against putting faith in such foolish and temporary things?
About the first question, Mattson insists contemporary Christians are not “to forsake compassion, sacrifice hospitality, and abandon love” in favor of national security and personal comfort. On the second question, don’t think it has to do with anything as passé as abortion; rather, in a nutshell, Mattson is insisting that because we worship a God who died for humanity, Christians cannot support war. The third point is a rather scattershot gripe against a great many things, but appears to boil down to a screed against the accumulation of power.
Now, it’s impossible to know precisely against whom Mattson is writing and therefore it’s difficult to address his complaints in context. But as I am myself a contemporary – and comparatively belligerent – Christian, I’ll just assume he’s complaining about folks like me. So, standing as I do in the Christian realist stream of classical just war casuistry – trickling forth from its Greco-Roman headwaters before finding depth and a confident course via the wellsprings of Judeo-Christian thought – what have I to say to this three-pronged Mattsonian condemnation?
Well, much; but I will limit myself here to an observation and a complaint. The observation is that Mattson’s three questions are incompatible. The complaint is that Mattson’s theological ethic, in all appearances – from this and other writings – pacifism, commits a great deal of unjustified violence.
Providence writers have made some effort (in these pages and here and here) to point out that the Syrian refugee crisis is too often falsely portrayed as a choice between compassion and security. We’ve argued that allowing refugees entry to the West is by no means the only way of manifesting Christian charity, nor the best way. The refugees largely represent the kind of anti-totalitarian and -extremist individuals who ought to populate the Levant and greater Middle East. Rather than drain the region of those who oppose Assad and ISIS, it would be better to help them return home. But that home needs to be secured and secure. In our world, if we can trust scripture, the preservation of justice, order, and peace is the work of a sovereign backed by a capable military. Prior to reestablishing security, charity must continue to be manifest in the massive efforts and resources (over 5 billion dollars by the United States alone at the end of last year) expended for the maintenance and improvement of refugee camps, with a special emphasis on providing conditions – housing, economic, recreational, cultural, and educational – to approximate, as closely as possible, those required for the flourishing of families. So the observation is that if today’s Christians were indeed, per Mattson’s second and third judgments, to refuse power and to counsel against the use of force against evil, then we would render ourselves and those who listen to us impotent to best demonstrate compassion to the suffering refugees. Neighbor love is concerned not simply with the welfare of the neighbor, but with that of their neighborhood as well.
Now the complaint: pacifism does great violence.
First, pacifism does violence to scripture and theological witness by presenting the cross as a solution to human belligerence. Certainly the crucifixion of Christ ought to have rendered all of humanity so profoundly grateful to God that we cast down, for all time, our weapons, lusts, and hates. Alas, it has not. The cross saved us, indeed, from our sins; but it did not save us from sinning: that is, it reconciled us to God but not necessarily to our neighbor. Scripture certainly doesn’t pretend so, as demonstrated by Paul’s assertion that God provides the sword as a necessary answer, however temporary and ultimately inadequate, to the practical problem of human evil.
The cross’ efficaciousness carries over to my next point. Christ’s sacrificial death achieved its purpose. Without doubt, human self-donation very often meets its purpose as well, though not always. The just war tradition recognizes that those who mean the innocent harm cannot always be talked out of their evildoing and must, instead, be knocked out of it. In fact, for an example of this we can gesture briefly to Mattson’s concern about racism. In September of 1957, in order to support the Little Rock Nine’s attempt to integrate Central High School in Arkansas, President Eisenhower needed to order the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the nine from the ongoing threats of white mob violence hellbent on preventing black students from going to class. Force and power, the very things Mattson wants Christians to abandon, were necessary to desegregate schools. Force cannot create peace, but it can create the conditions necessary for peace to have any chance at all of taking root. In any case, while there is a divine mandate that speaks to turning our other cheek to our attacker, there is never such warrant to turn our neighbor’s unstruck cheek to their attacker. This should all be rather self-evident. If our actions in history result in greater harm for our innocent-neighbor getting their teeth kicked out but great delight for our enemy-neighbor doing the kicking, we ought to wonder if there’s something amiss in our policy. When the cost of the preservation of our own piety is our innocent-neighbor’s annihilation, then this act of self-centered other-donation is a moral perversion. So pacifism also does violence to the innocently assailed neighbor.
Finally, pacifism does violence to Christian responsibility. It will do no good to claim, as some pacifists do, that while God indeed provides the sword to maintain peace, order, and justice this is the business of the government and not the business of Christians. The idea that Christians are called away from supporting the use of force and power in order to provide a witness of an alternative, peaceable kingdom is the real theological infidelity. As I’ve argued before, if the peaceable kingdom were a viable alternative to hard coercion then, surely, God would have ordained such a kingdom instead of, rather than alongside, the government’s sword. Given that God has ordained the sword, I stand among those who infer, therefore, that the sword is necessary. And if the sword is necessary than that makes the peaceable kingdom parasitic – because it cannot long remain in a world in which the good do not bear arms. The idea that Christians should allow others to dirty their hands while keeping their Christian souls clean is, abhorrent.
It is not that the pacifists choose non-violence and the Christian realist chooses violence. If the decision were simply that, the Christian realist would choose non-violence every time. But there are times when violence is already in play and no amount of prayer or sweet language can stop it. In such moments of conflict, the Christian realist attempts to discern and to then protect the innocent from the guilty. “History” may well judge such Christians in the manner that Mattson presumes; perhaps. But even if it turns out it does, and it is partly the work of Providence to help ensure it does not, it will not be because “history” has a moral clarity absent in those standing in the tradition of Christian realism. It will only be because “history” has lost its way. Christians – whatever their era – can only have any hope of remaining faithful to God – and to their neigbhors – if they are more concerned with His judgment than “history’s”.
Marc LiVecche, PhD, is the managing editor of Providence and the Scholar on Christian Ethics, War, & Peace at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
Image: Sometimes all that stands between the victim and the beast is a sword and one who can wield it. “St. George & the Dragon”, Stained glass panel designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, about 1862