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Complications to Pacifism

March 27, 2013

Pacifism seems to be a Biblical position. There is unearned grace and mercy involved in this position. How could there be any problems with this?

A case to look at is the genocide in Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda occurred over roughly 100 days. Human rights organizations estimate between 500,000 to 1,000,000 were killed in this massacre. While modern weapons were used, the weapon of choice was a machete. Churches were bull-dozed and burned with people inside. The international community stood by as these atrocities occurred. The United Nations peacekeeping forces deemed the situation too dangerous to assist with. There were pastors turning against their flocks to save their own lives, while other pastors were killed with the congregation.

The ethical or moral problem can be summed up by one Rwandan pastor who assisted those who were resisting the attacks. Some of his congregation came to him asking if it was allowable to Christians to try to repel the attacks and provide armed resistance to the genocidal forces. He recalls he said something to the effect of, ‘When is it a greater sin to watch this evil happen and do nothing than to pick up weapons and kill in an attempt to protect others and stop this.’ This is the essential theological issue Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to wrestle with during the holocaust under the Nazi government of Germany.

What answer would pacifism have to these situations? The governments have no desire to negotiate. In Rwanda’s case, there are rebels running without direction other than kill. Seeking a pacifist answer to this situation is difficult. While there can be a personal objection by a military member of a foreign nation to combat in Rwanda, a country declaring a pacifist solution would be perpetuating the evil which was occurring.

A second case to look examine would be the attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States. The question to ask in this case is this: Would a national pacifist stance have solved the situation by opening a national conversation with the terrorist organizations to address their grievances with America? America faced a group affiliated with no particular government, with no permanent homeland who had a grievance. Would a national pacifist response encourage a compromise leading to peace? It would be difficult to see national pacifism be effective under these circumstances.

This would bring us to a personal pacifism, or conscientious objection. There seems to be little to no problems with this. A Christian can assert his or her beliefs and abstain to serve in the military in general, or in a role where they would become a combatant. The question then becomes a matter of conscience if they can even serve in the armed forces as a noncombatant (doctor, nurse, chaplain). This can be a very difficult decision if the person comes from a faith community which is not normally affiliated with a pacifist movement.

In the end, a national pacifism seems to be quite problematic. It appears a pacifism as a matter of national policy leaves a nation vulnerable to relentless attacks, seemingly neglecting its duty as a government to protect it citizenry. Yet a personal pacifism, or even a denominational pacifism, seems to be in order. Even that brings questions of a moral and ethical nature. For example, would a pacifist church employ, or hire, armed security to guard its members during church services? Would an individual who holds a pacifist belief defend his or her family with a firearm in their own home? To take a pacifist position takes a strong, bold person as it is fraught with endless questions and decisions. It seems pacifism is easy in belief, but difficult in application.

  1. “In the end, a national pacifism seems to be quite problematic.” Yes. Many pacifists, jparticularly Christian ones, confuse the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of Christ. In one of the great pacifist passages of the New Testament, Paul makes no such confusion.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think it would be difficult for a nation to survive the current world situation maintaining a pacifist stance. The closest I can think of would be the Swiss. Even they maintain a solid, although defensive, military.

      I will, be addressing Just Peacemaking this week and next.

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