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Pacifism Simplified

March 20, 2013

“Pacifism is a belief in peaceful methods of resolving human conflict.”[1] This is one of the major positions Christians have held over the years towards violence in general, and specifically war. This view has a long history in the church, with an ebb and flow of support over the years depending on the conflict at the time. Volumes have been written on the topic. With limited space, I will limit this to a summary of the historical background of this position. Next week, I will look at the complications with holding an absolute pacifist view.

In the early church, there was distaste for war to the extent of a prohibition of church members being part of the military or armed conflict. The church felt love should triumph over killing. “Concretely, the early Church saw an incompatibility between love and killing.”[2] In the early military, there was an active idol worship involved with serving. Eventually, the church allowed members to enter into military service, but not clergy. They held a strong line regarding clergy. They felt clergy should not be exposed to military service, again for reasons of idol worship and violence.

There is a book by Lisa Sowle Cahill entitled Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Regarding pacifism she states, “In general, pacifists stress Christian community as the origin of the Christian life, and nonviolence as an expression of it.”[3] While she addresses the history of the pacifist position, she returns to the core theory of it: community. The pacifists hold there is a bond in the greater community and this bond puts them in a position where conflict between each other is not ethical. This bond is grown though conversion and then discipleship in a Christian community, which espouses nonviolence. The denominations associated with this belief are Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Quakers.

Pacifism is typically associated with liberalism in the political realms, which may contribute to the lack of support the position receives from self-described “conservative Evangelical” churches and denominations. For example, during World War II, pacifism was not a popular view, as it was seen to be siding with Japan and the Nazi regime. By the advent of the peace movement during the Viet Nam war, churches took a new look at the position. More denominations took a neutral, or positive view of pacifism. This illustrates how the ties of politics and nationalism can sway major denominations in their outlook and application of pacifism.

With the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the secular view of pacifism typically revolves around objection to military service. This is referred to as conscientious objection. Absolute pacifism believes it is always wrong to wage war. People with this belief typically will not enter military service even if they can enter in a noncombatant role. The second view is considered a personal, or limited, pacifism. Personal pacifists hold each individual must discern in their own conscience if it is right for them to participate in a particular conflict. This can be considered a personal moral responsibility. With the current conflicts, churches have spoken little from a pacifist point of view. The pacifist conversation has centrally focused on individuals refusing service, or refusing to enter into a particular combat zone.

Two contemporary names are mentioned when the topic of pacifism comes up. The first is John Howard Yoder. Yoder is a Mennonite, and a prolific author on the topic. A quick search on Amazon will bring a seemingly endless list of books he has authored on the topic. The second is Stanley Hauerwas, a Southern Methodist. Both of these men are academics who have spent considerable time addressing these topics. While each of these men has a slightly different outlook on the issue, they are quite similar nonetheless.

I acknowledge this is only a gloss of pacifism as it comes from Christianity. By no means is this an exhaustive study either in its history or in its application and implications. While pacifism is an attractive stance, it is ethically complicated. We will look at some of the difficulties associated with this position next Wednesday.


[1] J. Howard Kauffman. “Dilemmas of Christian pacifism within a historic peace church.” SA. Sociological Analysis 49, no. 4 (December 1, 1989): 368-385. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 21, 2013). 368

[2] Roland H. Bainton. Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation. Eugene, OR: WIPF and STOCK Publishers, 1960. 77

[3] Lisa Sowle Cahill. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994. 228

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3 Comments
  1. Some early Christian quotes and resources here:
    http://christianpacifismblog.wordpress.com/

    The Spurgeon and Moody quotes will surprise many.

    • Thank you for your input. I had a feeling this post and next Wednesday’s post would be of interest to you.

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