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It’s (Too) Easy for Me to Say I’m a Pacifist

Like so many others, Syria has been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve read dozens of articulate and well-reasoned arguments against any kind of military intervention. I’ve read many passionate and biblically sound anti-war-pleas from people whose views I deeply respect. I spent a good chunk of the prayer time during worship last Sunday praying for peace in Syria, praying that no more lives would be sacrificed on the altars of power, ideology, economics and religion. I know that this is what I am supposed to do and say and read and pray as a Mennonite, as a pastor. But it has all felt, I don’t know, a bit hollow.

Am I a pacifist? Well, yeah, I guess so. But what does it even mean for me—a middle-class white Canadian whose experience has never even remotely been affected by war—to say this? I am anti-war. OK, fine. I am also anti-cancer, anti-poverty, anti-racism, and, well, just generically ­anti-bad-things-happening-in-the-world. So what? Who cares about my shiny ideological artifacts shaped and preserved in a vacuum of privilege?

Perhaps the hardest thing for me to imagine is how, “I am a pacifist” would sound to those in a very different context than my own. To the parents of a Syrian child who is suffering the effects of a chemical attack, for example. Or to impoverished refugees huddling on the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan. Or to mothers who have lost sons and brothers and husbands to this conflict. I try to imagine, how, “I can’t support military intervention against those who are brutalizing you because I follow Jesus and Jesus forbids violence” would sound to these kinds of ears? And what if I were in their shoes? Would I be a pacifist then? Or would I want someone big and strong to come in and force the bad guys to stop doing bad things to my people?

I remember sitting at a kitchen table with my wife and her grandfather fifteen or so years ago. I don’t remember how we got on to the subject, but we started to talk about war and religion. I possessed all the misguided, naïve confidence of guy in his early twenties who had done a bit of reading—just enough not to know how very little reading it actually was. I proudly said something about being a Mennonite pacifist, and the floodgates were opened. My wife’s grandfather had spent half a decade tramping around the mud and blood of WWII Europe, hiding, starving, spending time in POW camps on both sides of the conflict, lying and begging for his life, wielding a gun for whoever had their boot on his neck at the moment. He had lived through horrors I could barely contemplate. You Mennonites are a bunch of cowards! he roared, angrily pounding his frail fists on the table. You are happy to accept the benefits that come through the blood of others, but you won’t fight for it yourselves!! Cowards, all of you! Cowards!!! He was shaking by the end. So was I.

We never spoke of religion or war again. And I resolved from that point on that I would never be so casual with words like “pacifism” again. I realized, then, how words like this can sound to others—especially those who have seen, heard, touched, and smelled the kinds of atrocities that are mediated to me through televisions, computer screens, and words on a page. I realized that I had not earned the right to be pro- or anti- anything that big or complicated. I realized that it was far too easy to say that I was a pacifist when it demanded nothing of me beyond lofty words and theological principles.

To be clear, I don’t think war is the answer. I really don’t. I don’t support it in any way.  I think even the most cursory glance at global politics and conflict over the past decade and a half or so makes very plain the fact that however high-minded our collective rhetoric about war might sound at any given moment, war has not accomplished much. To almost no one’s surprise, freedom and democracy—those wonderful words we love to throw around—have not been realized through violence. Shocker, I know. Violence breeds violence. It always has and it always will. And I know that pacifism is not synonymous with passive-ism. I know that Jesus was not a coward, that he actively engaged his enemies, that he advocated and demonstrated a commitment to peacemaking that was anything but a refusal to dirty his hands with the world as it really is.

So, yes, most days I am a pacifist, whatever that means from where I sit. But there are also days where I think Jesus can have his precious peace because it doesn’t work in a world like ours. Days where I think that, for the sake of the innumerable innocent victims of the violent whims of men, Jesus has no right to demand it of us. Days when I try to look at the world through the lenses of other people—people who have lived their whole lives looking over the fence of my privilege, people who are not afforded the luxury of theorizing or theologizing about peace and violence— and it just doesn’t fit.

I believe, deep in the core of my being, that the world is not made new through violence, and that the cycles and patterns that our war-weary world is so familiar with must be broken by creative, courageous, sacrificial responses of people who are committed to peace. I believe that the way of Jesus is never violence. I do. But, I don’t know… I guess my beliefs just seem like very small and useless things when set aside suffering Syrian children who need the bad guys to stop doing bad things to them.

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Martin #

    I’m with you… I am a pacifist, but when things like this happen, it makes me want to move and act and, yes, even in non-pacifistic ways. For me, what that means is that I seek to find ways of acting which does not use violence but still opposes the grievous misdeeds of our world. Thanks for your excellent reflection.

    September 3, 2013
    • Yes, that’s where the rubber hits the road, isn’t it, Robert? Finding ways of acting that don’t resort to violence but still opposes evil. I know that there are many people out there leading the way on this, and I am glad for their inspiration and example.

      But there are times…

      September 4, 2013
  2. Mary Anne #

    Thanks, Ryan. No easy answers. I resonate with your thoughts – the way of Jesus is never violence – my beliefs seem very small and useless when set aside suffering Syrian children who need the bad guys to stop doing bad things to them.

    September 3, 2013
    • Thank you, Mary Anne.

      September 4, 2013
  3. James #

    I’m not a pacifist but I find the old term “non-resistant” closer to comfortable both intellectually and pragmatically. In my opinion it’s part of a theology that has been neglected for a long time [post Yoder].
    That is not to be confused with saying it has easy answers.
    I liked your comment about having “done a bit of reading—just enough not to know how very little reading it actually was.” That sense sometimes overwhelms me and goes along side of not having met enough people like your wife’s grandfather. That encounter is also worth a few books.

    September 3, 2013
    • Yes, that conversation has lived longer in the memory than countless books I’ve read… :).

      I read this piece from Greg Boyd yesterday, and thought you might resonate with it. I’ve always been fuzzy on the difference between “nonresistance” and “pacifism” as well as how we can say, “well the sword is fine for the government but not for us,” but this article gave me plenty to think of.

      September 4, 2013
      • James #

        I didn’t see the Greg Boyd link but I assume this is it-
        I agree with the case he is making. The problem with terms is that they change and are used differently by different people at different times. I would not call Boyd a pacifist 🙂 but it is pretty hard to argue with him if he calls himself that 🙂
        The difference, as I was taught it is that a pacifist generalizes the Kingdom ethic to the world at large while non-resistance limits the Kingdom ethic to Kingdom people. Hence the underlying 2 Kingdom theology.
        All very theoretical and in that sense and very thin gruel for those in the middle of a heart breaking conflict like Syria but worth thinking about IMO.

        September 4, 2013
      • Yup, that’s the one. The hyperlink was there, but it doesn’t show up very well in the text with this template, and I haven’t figured out a way to make it more visible… :).

        I think you’re absolutely right—the question, “what do you mean when you use that word?” always looms large in these sorts of conversations. So often we talk past one another due to a failure to clarify what, exactly, we are talking about.

        I understand the two kingdom theology behind Boyd’s post… I guess I just think there is (or ought to be? Or might be?) a bit more overlap/cross-pollination between the two. Who I understand myself to be and how I understand my role as a kingdom person cannot help but inform my politics. There will always be differences and divergences, of course… But I I sometimes fear that kingdom/world distinctions too closely map on to private/public distinctions, and Christianity can slide into little more than a privatized set of beliefs that I hold that make no difference in the world.

        (I’m not suggesting that you are arguing for anything like the above, just noting a trend that I observe from time time.)

        September 4, 2013
      • Robert Martin #

        I think the concept of “ambassador” works here, Ryan, to play to that “overlap”. Paul uses similar language in 2 Corinthians.

        I think, though, that the 2 Kingdom language doesn’t work well for me… I prefer C. S. Lewis visualization of there being only 1 kingdom and 1 rightful king, all else are rebels and usurpers… and we, as followers of Christ, are the loyalists embedded in hostile territory…. dangerous place to be, for sure, but it helps to visualize it not as much as “us vs. them” as much as “We are all citizens of the Kingdom… just some of us haven’t acknowledged that fact”.

        September 4, 2013
      • I like “ambassador” language very much, Robert. I think that, as you say, it carves out at least a bit of space for that overlap.

        Re: “two kingdoms,” I’ve not been very comfortable with it (or at least how it sometimes plays out) either. For one thing, it makes it difficult to pray the Lord’s Prayer—”thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven…” I prefer the image of the one, true kingdom seeping, spreading, growing—gradually becoming more and more at home in and capturing the hearts and minds and hands and feet of its citizens.

        September 4, 2013
      • Robert Martin #

        Counter-insurgency, then? A peaceful, subversive one… One that insinuates and takes over… like yeast in bread, salt in soup, a tiny mustard seed in a field, or a candle in a dark room…

        September 4, 2013
      • Absolutely! Love that collection of images…

        September 4, 2013
      • James #

        One of the great functions of conversations like this is clarifying including the distinction between the Lutheran and Anabaptist versions . To be sure the Anabaptist Two Kingdom theology is prone to misuse but I think Jesus clarifies the balance with His “in but not of” description. The separationist Anabaptists overlooked the “in” the magisterial Reformers [CS Lewis team] forget the “not of.”
        Anyhow that’s my narrative 🙂

        September 4, 2013
      • Robert Martin #

        Paradoxical Christianity? Blasphemy! j/k (“in but not of”, “here but not yet”, “holy and merciful”…)

        September 4, 2013
      • Becca #

        I’ve loved reading all of these comments. In reference to “We are all citizens of the kingdom…just some of us haven’t acknowledged that fact.” Robert, is this your words or C.S. Lewis’?

        I resonate with that and the ambassador analogy. Freedom in Christ and eternal life is a gift. I picture sitting on the living room floor at Christmas and God has given me a small brown paper package tied with twine with my name neatly written on it. Once I’ve opened it, I’m free to get up and roam around, live my life and open more presents (blessings) but I must open this one first. For those of us who have accepted the gift, we’re experiencing life to the fullest, but those who haven’t must live in a restricted way, and miss out on other blessings.

        September 4, 2013
      • Robert Martin #

        Hey, Becca. They are my words but as far as I can tell in reading Lewis, they are synthesized from his thoughts and Anabaptist worldview. Your gift analogy sounds a lot like Miroslav Volf, too, in his thoughts about grace, forgiveness, and salvation in the book “Free of Charge”.

        September 5, 2013
  4. mike #

    WOW!.. This is the best piece I’ve read on the topic, by far. You managed to navigate through all of the seemingly hollow sounding “well reasoned arguments” that haunt many of us professed pacifists. This article forces us to face the uncomfortable paradoxes of our faith,….. Outstanding.

    September 4, 2013
  5. This is EXACTLY how I feel. I like to say I stand on one side of the argument, but what do I really know? What have I really experienced? I would like to say that finding a peaceful solution is the right thing to do, but I have a feeling that we passed that possibility long ago (I really hope I’m wrong about that). So then what? Sit back as people suffer immensely, knowing that the only way to stop it is through violence, but not acting because we believe that it’s the “right” thing to do? I’m conflicted. Very very conflicted. Thank you for articulating this perfectly.

    September 4, 2013
    • Yes, “conflicted” is an appropriate word here. Thanks for your comment.

      September 4, 2013
  6. Becca #

    Ryan, thank you for your thoughts, and picking through the idea of pacifism this way. I took Peacemaking & Justice in college, and the question of the definitions of pacifism, non-violence, non-resistance was one we waded through, and I still don’t have a clear idea in my head.

    I consider myself non-violent, and anti-war, but I hesitate to use the term pacifist because of how it’s interpreted. I try to emphasize to those with both liberal and conservative views that I am thankful for the liberties and freedoms that living in a country with an active military provides me, but that I don’t support the way in which they go about it.

    It’s always a struggle, and I appreciate the way you and Greg Boyd have allowed us to think through the Syrian conflict. I think this blog post and comments are a prime example of living with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

    September 4, 2013
    • Thank you for this, Becca. I resonate very much with what you’ve said here.

      September 4, 2013
  7. mike #

    I confess that my belief system as well as my life, are riddled with inconsistencies and conflicting ideals. …In the end, I will ‘believe’ what I WANT to believe, regardless of the internal conflict it may create.

    September 5, 2013
    • Welcome to the club, Mike :). I think that we tend to vastly overestimate the role that reason and consistency play in the forming and maintaining of our worldviews and, correspondingly, to vastly underestimate the role that desire plays.

      I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing. It is important that we are aware of this, though. Many are not, which can lead to a kind of paralyzing dissonance that is difficult to deal with.

      September 5, 2013
  8. Rich #

    I believe that a true “Christlike” pacifism without active response is simply an empty idea. If I am not ready to step in the way of evil and pain as Christ did, what right do I have to say that I oppose military action. Peaceful sacrifice of those with power for the powerless is best but, what am I prepared to do?

    September 5, 2013
    • If I am not ready to step in the way of evil and pain as Christ did, what right do I have to say that I oppose military action.

      Well said, Rich.

      September 5, 2013
  9. Kara #

    Hi Ryan,
    I read this piece out of a devotional this morning, and I think it reflects my point of view very well – I’d be interested to hear what you have to say. I realize Lewis wrote this with the echo of bombs not long out of his ears, and with the full weight of Nazi atrocities recently realized, so he has a bit of a bias here! But I wonder, do we tend to minimize the need to fight for the underdog because they are so far away? I would NEVER want to ‘retaliate’, or fight for political (read – oil) reasons, but is the need to protect those who cannot protect themselves so wrong? Not to try to undermine your beliefs! Just curious.

    There are three ways of taking the command to turn the other cheek. One is the Pacifist interpretation; it means what it says and imposes a duty of nonresistance on all men in all circumstances. Another is the minimising interpretation; it does not mean what it says but is merely an orientally hyperbolical way of saying that you should put up with a lot and be placable. Both you and I agree in rejecting this view. The conflict is therefore between the Pacifist interpretation and a third one which I am now going to propound. I think the text means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told. . . . . That is, insofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbour and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice within us which says, “He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.”

    From The Weight of Glory
    Compiled in A Year with C.S. Lewis

    September 6, 2013
    • Thanks for this, Kara. I’m not sure how original or insightful my response will be, but I’ll give it a shot.

      First, I would simply say that I admire C.S. Lewis a great deal and I agree with how he’s framed things (i.e., eliminating option #2). I’m a bit nervous about his option #3 only because it could be construed as something like, “Jesus means what he says except in exceptional circumstances (as determined by us) when it demands to much of us. He talks about situations in which “every hearer would naturally assume” to be an exception. But are there such situations? I don’t know. I think there is always disagreement about what counts as an exception and who gets to determine it. So the principle then becomes, “Jesus means what he says except in certain circumstances that this or that group decides to be exceptional. I realize that this problem extends far beyond the pacifism question, but I’m not entirely comfortable with this.

      Having said that, I fully resonate with your first paragraph. I remember listening to Romeo Dallaire lecture in Victoria a few years back and hearing him say, again and again, if only someone would have come in to Rwanda and stopped this madness by force, we could have saved nearly a million lives (many of which were women and children who were murdered in unspeakably horrible ways). I remember thinking, “you know what, screw my principles. I can’t imagine a world in which Jesus would not want these children to be protected.”

      So, the short answer is… I dunno. It’s hard. And, again, I am very aware that all of this angst-ridden confusion is formed and articulated in a vacuum of privilege.


      September 6, 2013
      • Kara #

        Thanks Ryan. I guess I would wonder if genocide would ever be the exception to anyone (except for the group perpetrating it!). But I know what you mean, and I think I would have to echo you – sigh indeed.

        September 6, 2013
      • Yes, I think if anything would fit the “universal exception” category, it would surely be genocide…

        Christ, have mercy.

        September 7, 2013
  10. John Stackhouse #

    Well, at some point, you might have to consider that your paradigm is not taking adequate account of the anomalies–anomalies that I suspect would have piled to the breaking point long ago if you were not in the situation you are in (middle-class white Canadian male earning his living as a Mennonite pastor). I don’t mean anything snarky by this, since you know I love you and admire what you do. You yourself make this point, and I think it’s well worth attending.

    Many of who have studied “history”–which you suggest neatly justifies your pacifism/non-resistance–have come to strikingly different conclusions about the efficacy of violence in some cases. Sir Paul Collier’s work on “The Bottom Billion” is a dramatic case in point as he powerfully argues, both from what happened and what didn’t happen in Africa, for the strategic use of violence on behalf of victims of injustice.

    As a fellow Canadian, I also refer to the testimony of Gen. Roméo Dallaire who believes on the basis of expertise neither you or I can approach that had he been given the small number of troops he begged for, he could have prevented the slaughter in Rwanda.

    War doesn’t “solve” things, but it is sometimes the least bad way for things to proceed toward something better. I appreciate your open soul-searching here, Ryan, and I hope that eventually you’ll listen to your intuitions that just maybe the Yoder-Hauerwas-Boyd paradigm is dangerously inadequate…as I finally did.

    November 11, 2015
    • Whew, I’d hate to hear what snarky sounds like, John! It almost sounds like you’re suggesting that if I wasn’t earning my living at a Mennonite church, I would have abandoned this troublesome peace theology a long time ago or that I am somehow espousing (a heavily qualified) pacifism that acknowledges the myriad tensions embedded within it because it is materially advantageous for me to do so.

      Re: history, your point is a fair one and well taken. I presented things too simplistically in the original piece. History obviously yields evidence of war leading to good outcomes—or at least better outcomes for the vulnerable and the victims of injustice. I read Romeo Dallaire’s book a number of years ago and remember thinking that this is precisely the kind of situation where pacifism seems naïve (at best).

      As you say, war can be (and has clearly been) “the least bad way for things to proceed toward something better.” It can also be (and has clearly been) a way for things to proceed from bad to unspeakably awful. My pacifist friends have trouble acknowledging the former; my critics sometimes seem to downplay the latter.

      I appreciate the push back here, nonetheless. As I said in the post, I am no uncritical cheerleader for pacifism. My wife’s grandfather (among others) made sure of that a long time ago. I am painfully aware of the weaknesses of peace theology. At the same time, there are those in my family tree who have lost their lives because they refused to take the life of another. Perhaps they were naïve, unsophisticated, or operating out of the wrong paradigm. But they were convinced that they were in good company with Jesus. I honour them, too, even as I honour those like my wife’s grandfather who took a different path. And I pray for mercy for all who have made and must make decisions about war and peace and violence and nonresistance that I can scarcely comprehend and that remain, for me, in the comfortable realm of theory.

      November 11, 2015
      • Yes, you are such a genuinely good guy, Ryan, that my being truly snarky would curl your hair…so to speak. (Whoops…) I am glad we know each other well enough, and enjoy each other’s esteem enough, that you can rest assured that I have only your welfare in mind, however I might sound! As always, I am very glad you’re doing what you do, and I pray God’s strength, wisdom, and sense of humour as you keep doing it!

        November 11, 2015
      • Ouch! First my middle-class Mennonite-ness and now my baldness?! I’m reeling…

        Kidding aside, I am very grateful for the insight, wisdom, clarity, humour, and provocation you provided during my time at Regent and beyond (not least in your writing). I wish you the very same good things you mention above in your new context.

        November 11, 2015

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