Jesus and Pacifism

“Those wars are now past history; and yet the misery of these evils is not yet ended … But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he remembers that he is a human being, he will rather lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars; for if they were not just, he would not have to engage in them, and consequently there would be no wars for a wise man” (City of God, Augustine, 861-862).

Prior to participating in the 19th Annual Jerusalem and Athens Forum debate, I had firmly believed myself to be an absolute pacifist without knowing more than the bare bones of pacifist principles. Following the debate, I am even more convicted of this position, but now as a contingent pacifist.

I am convinced that contingent pacifism is in line with Biblical principles of justice and peace.

If you attended or watched the Jerusalem and Athens debate on the resolution “Pacifism is the Most Faithful Political Ethic for Christians,” you most likely have the definition of pacifism seared into your memory. Nevertheless, here it is again: Pacifism is the adherence to a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes. Note that pacifism does not reject war and every form of violent action as a means of enacting justice. 

This is where the concept of contingent pacifism comes in. While absolute pacifism is concerned with seeking and maintaining peace through non-violent resistance and fails to address the pursuit of justice, contingent pacifism accounts for both objectives. Contingent pacifism makes room for the circumstances in which war is permissible and even necessary. Contingent pacifism acknowledges and condemns the horrors of war and violence and accounts for the fact that under certain circumstances, the horrors that would ensue without war would be worse. 

As Christians, it can be a struggle to reconcile that Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6 ESV) is consubstantial with the Father — the seemingly wrathful God we see in the Old Testament. But through scripture, we know that God’s nature is unchanging (Malachi 3:6), which means that Jesus has the same understanding of the relationship between justice, war, and peace, that the Father does. Through the Bible we also know that every command spoken by Christ comes from the Father Himself (John 14:24), meaning God is the Prince of Peace. 

When God instructed the Israelites to enact violence and engage in war in the Old Testament, He limited these commands through his instructions: “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it” (Deuteronomy 20:10-12). It is extremely important to recognize that a failed peace agreement is a prerequisite for the ability to justly wage war. There are biblical guidelines that set limits for the utilization of violence and war in the pursuit of justice.

Jesus’s teachings on personal retaliation during the Sermon on the Mount are often used as a Christian defense for absolute pacifism. Jesus said:  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39

The problem with utilizing this verse as a justification for absolute pacifism lies in the fact that Jesus was not instructing His followers to reject the use of war and violence under any circumstances. Jesus was teaching His followers to not retaliate when personally facing injustice. This does not mean that Christians should not pursue justice for others, especially when it involves the defenseless, such as the widowed and the orphaned (Isaiah 1:17). The pursuit of justice may require war and violence depending on the circumstances, and we are required to seek justice for others as an act of love. 

The cleansing of the temple is often cited as a rebuttal to the argument for any form of Christian pacifism. The issue with this, however, is that when Jesus cleansed the temple by using a whip to drive out merchants and turned over the tables of the money changers (John 2:13-17), there was no dispute over its justice. God’s law required that animal offerings be made during Passover, which merchants took advantage of as an opportunity to make a profit. Those who were treating the spiritual discipline as a business opportunity were not glorifying God. Jesus cleansed the temple as an act of justice to restore His Father’s house and render what was due to his father — an act of reverence and worship.

While the cleansing of the temple may effectively disprove the validity of absolute pacifism as an ethic for Christians, it does not disprove contingent pacifism. On the contrary, when the cleansing of the temple and other violent acts of justice are held in tension with the fact that peacemakers are called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9) and the command to love others as Christ has loved us (John 15:12), contingent pacifism becomes an even more a viable ethic for Christians.

As individual Christians, we have been called to live peaceably with all as far as it depends on ourselves, and we are told to understand that the government has been given authority from God to bear the sword to enforce justice (Romans 12:9-13:7). Contingent pacifism has been largely proliferated by secular theorists, but it also works as a political ethic for Christians.

Contingent pacifism unites what appears to be a dichotomy between the biblical call for bloodshed if it is required in the pursuit of justice and the biblical instructions for peacemaking.    

Categories: Faith

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