A Practical Christian Pacifism

by David A. Hoekema

Dr. Hoekema is executive director of the American Philosophical Association, Newark, Delaware.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 22, 1986, pps. 917-919. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Practical pacifism deserves more serious consideration than it has received in Christian circles, especially since the major alternative to pacifism in Christian ethics, the just-war tradition, has significant deficiencies.

Few moral and theological positions are as deeply cherished by their adherents, yet so quickly dismissed by their opponents, as pacifism. The moral legitimacy of using violence is among the most urgent issues of our time, and yet its discussion slips quickly into an exchange of stereotypes. Pacifists are to be commended, even admired—runs the familiar observation in mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelical circles—but we who know what the world is really like cannot share their naive optimism. The pacifist’s reply has become equally familiar: the principles of just war, noble as they may sound, in practice merely pronounce a blessing upon ruling nations and ideologies.

I have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the gulf separating pacifists from defenders of just war. The church in which I was raised, the Christian Reformed Church, is what one draft board, in refusing a friend’s request to be recognized as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, aptly termed a "war church." Calvinist theology has long been hostile to pacifism, and most Reformed churches’ reflections on war begin by distinguishing justified from unjustified wars. Yet the Reformed perspectives on the nature of the person and of society can actually support a realistic form of pacifism—a version that has received too little attention in either the "peace churches" or the "war churches."

Pacifism need not be politically naive, nor need it place undue faith in human goodness. These may be telling objections to some pacifists, but a careful articulation of the pacifist vision can meet them. By the same token, pacifists ought not deride just-war theory as merely Realpolitik in vestments, for the just-war tradition, when taken seriously, is just as stringent in its demands as is pacifism.

The case for Christian pacifism has been made frequently and fervently by many writers. The Gospel writers record that Jesus called his followers to a way of life in which violence and division are overcome by sacrificial love. We must not return evil for evil, Jesus taught, but must return good for evil; we must not hate those who wrong us but must love our enemies and give freely to those who hate us. These themes in Jesus’ ministry were deeply rooted in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and Jesus’ ministry an his sacrificial death were a continuation and a fulfillment of that tradition. Followers of Jesus, Christian pacifists say, must follow both his example and his teachings: they must show love for all in their actions and seek healing and reconciliation in every situation.

The early Christian community understood Jesus’ commands to prohibit the bearing of arms. Christians refused to join the military, even though the Roman army of the period was as much a police force as a conquering army. Those who converted to Christianity while in military service were instructed to refrain from killing, to pray for forgiveness for past acts of violence, and to seek release from their military obligations. A striking example of the pervasiveness of pacifism in the early church is the fact that Tertullian and Origen—church fathers who stood at opposite poles regarding the relation of faith to philosophical reasoning—each wrote a tract supporting Christians’ refusal to join the military.

A profound change in the Christian attitude toward war occurred at the time of the emperor Constantine, whose conversion to Christianity helped bring the Christian community from the fringes to the center of Western society. From the time of Constantine to the present, pacifism has been a minority view in the Christian church. The just-war tradition, rooted in the ethical theories of Plato and Cicero and formulated within the Christian tradition by Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, defends military force as a last resort against grave injustice. According to this view, when the innocent are threatened by an unjust aggressor and all other remedies have failed, Jesus’ demand for sacrificial love may require us to use lethal force.

Pacifism and just-war theory reach different conclusions only in a narrow range of cases: both positions insist that Christians must strive always for healing and reconciliation and must act out of love for all, and both traditions unequivocally condemn the reasons—whether nationalism, territorial or economic gain, revenge or glory—for which nearly all wars have been fought. Yet the differences that exist are both theologically and politically significant. Just-war defenders argue that if all means short of violence have failed and organized violence promises to be a limited and effective means of reestablishing justice, Christians may participate in war. Pacifists insist that to resort to warfare, even for a moral end, is to adopt a means inconsistent with the Christian’s calling.

Why is the pacifist vision of a healing and reconciling ministry of nonviolence not universally embraced in the churches? I would single out five prominent arguments to which pacifists, if they are to make their own position cogent and realistic, must respond.

Pacifism is surrender. "The pacifist viewpoint is appealing in principle, but in practice it means surrendering to the aggressor," is a charge heard often. "Capitulation to the forces of evil cannot be moral."

The problem with this objection is that it equates pacifism with passive nonresistance. Pacifism is not synonymous with "passivism": the pacifist rejection of war is compatible with a great many measures for defense against aggression. In fact, pacifist theorists have urged the development of a civilian-based non-military defense, which would encompass organized but nonviolent resistance, refusal to cooperate with occupying forces, and efforts to undermine enemy morale.

The tendency to equate pacifism with "passivism" and capitulation reflects how little we know of the remarkable historical successes nonviolent tactics have achieved, even in the face of brutal repression. From the courageous Swedish and Danish resistance to Nazism to the transformation of Polish society by the Solidarity labor movement, and from the struggle for Indian self-rule led by Gandhi to the struggle for racial equality in the United States led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, nonviolence has been a creative and effective force. Whether nonviolent resistance can always overcome aggression and whether its cost in suffering and death will in every case be less than that of war is difficult to say, but at least it cannot be said that pacifism is merely a policy of capitulation.

Pacifism extolls purity. "The main problem with pacifism" runs a second objection, " is that the pacifist places a higher value on his or her own purity of conscience than on saving others’ lives. If we are going to fulfill our obligations, we have to be willing to get our hands dirty and not hold ourselves on some higher moral plateau than everyone else. Pacifists enjoy the freedom that others ensure by their willingness to resort to arms.

This objection rests on two confusions. In the first place, pacifism is an objection to war per se, not merely an objection to personal participation in war. Pacifists do not ask for a special exemption because of their high moral views or delicate sensibilities; they refuse to participate in war because it is immoral. Their exemption from military service is simply the compromise position that has developed in a society in which moral objection to war is not unanimously shared.

A second confusion in this argument is the notion that taking part in war shall be regarded as a lesser evil, rendered necessary by extreme circumstances. Such a claim has no part in traditional just-war theory—or, indeed, in any coherent moral theory. The just-war proponent believes that war is sometimes required by justice, in which case it is not the lesser of two evils but is itself a good. The issue is whether intentional killing in war is ever a good thing, not whether one ought to grit one’s teeth and bravely commit one wrong rather than another.

Pacifism is based on optimistic humanism. "Pacifism links a noble ideal—the avoidance of violence—to naive and implausible assumptions about the inherent goodness of human nature. If I thought that I could trust people and nations to resolve their differences peaceably and fairly, I would be a pacifist too. But history teaches us differently."

This objection brings us near the heart of the theological argument against pacifism. Indeed, it is a telling argument against some forms of pacifism. Gandhi, for example, was sustained by a deep faith in the goodness of human nature, a goodness he thought nonviolent action could call forth. "If love or non-violence be not the law of our being," he wrote, "the whole of my argument falls to pieces" (in Gandhi on Non-violence, edited by Thomas Merton [New Directions, 1964], p. 25). Similar optimism about human nature seems to have motivated some Quaker writers and much of the pacifism of American church leaders following the First World War. Such optimism requires a selective and unrealistic assessment of human behavior and human capacities. If pacifism rests on a trust that people have a natural capacity and an irrepressible tendency to resolve their differences justly and harmoniously, then pacifism is a delusion, and a dangerous one.

Such trust is not, however, essential to pacifism. There can be a realistic pacifism, a pacifism that gives due weight to the sinfulness and perversity of human nature.

Pacifists and defenders of just war can agree that every life is tainted with sin, and that evil will inevitably arise, but still disagree about how we ought to respond when it does arise. An essential companion to the doctrine of sin is the doctrine of grace. Though human nature is corrupted by sin, it is also illuminated by God’s presence and guidance; God’s grace shows itself in countless ways in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. In light of this fact, evil demands a response that overcomes rather than compounds evil. Such a pacifist stance differs significantly from a Gandhian or humanistic faith in the capacity of the human heart for goodness, while retaining the conviction that there are other remedies for sin besides war.

It should be noted, further, that realism about human nature cuts two ways: if it undermines a pacifism based on optimism, it also undermines the assumption that weapons of destruction and violence intended to restrain evil will be used only for that purpose. The reality of human sinfulness means that the instruments we intend to use for good are certain to be turned to evil purposes as well. There is therefore a strong presumption for using those means of justice that are least likely to be abused and least likely to cause irrevocable harm when they are abused. An army trained and equipped for national defense can quickly become an army of conquest or a tool of repression in the hands of an unprincipled leader. But a nonviolent national defense force, or a peacekeeping force bringing together citizens of a dozen nations, is of little use except for its intended purpose.

Pacifism confuses moral categories. "The basic confusion of pacifists is their assumption that the principles of Christian morality which we ought to follow in our individual lives can be applied to governments. Only individuals can truly be moral; governments are by their very nature ‘immoral,’ if we judge them as we would judge individuals. Killing is wrong for individuals, but for states an entirely different standard must be applied."

The notion that morality applies to individuals and not to governments is completely contrary to a central doctrine of Reformed theology which is endorsed, in varying forms, by other Christian traditions as well: that Jesus Christ is the Lord not just of the church, nor of a special sphere of religious activity, but of all of the natural and human world. We are not called to serve God in our religious activities and to carry on as usual in the other areas of life—far from it. We are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ in every human activity. Thus, we must obey God’s demands for justice and reconciliation not only as families and churches but as societies. There is no room in Christian social thought for excluding governments from the realm of morality. If Christian ethics permits killing in certain circumstances, then violence is legitimate as a last resort, both for individuals and for governments. But if, on the other hand, Jesus did in fact demand that the members of the new Kingdom he inaugurated renounce all killing, then we must restructure both our personal and our institutional lives to fulfill that demand.

Pacifism is too patient. "To suffer wrong rather than harm another, to return nonviolent resistance for violent oppression, might have been appropriate at an earlier stage in our struggle. But the violence inflicted on us for so long leaves us no choice but to use force in return. We can endure no more; only arms can bring justice now."

This argument, the cry raised in Soweto and San Salvador, is painfully familiar, and it is impossible to hear it without feeling the deep pain of those who make it. I am not sure whether this argument can be answered. Those of us who regard it at a comfortable distance may not know the possibilities that remain to those whose lives have been stunted by violence.

Are there wrongs so grave that only violent means can set them right? I do not believe there are, but I do believe that the historical point at which one faces this question is significant. Nazism would surely have been destroyed by sustained nonviolent resistance had Christians and others not averted their gaze from its evil for so long. But whether Nazism could have been destroyed by nonviolent means in 1939 is a far more difficult question. Similarly, the Christian churches of South Africa, both black and white, could once have ended the policy of apartheid through nonviolent reforms, but today, as the black death toll mounts into the thousands, it is difficult to imagine that the system will fall unless commensurate force is brought to bear against it.

Situations of extreme oppression do not invalidate the pacifist vision of nonviolent change. Active but nonlethal resistance is both theologically and practically defensible even in seemingly hopeless circumstances—as the courageous work of André Trocmé in Vichy France and of several church leaders in South Africa today makes evident. Yet many in such situations turn to violence as their last hope in the struggle for justice. We may dispute their conclusion, but our response should be more one of solidarity than of condemnation.

I have argued that the major objections to pacifism can be met by a pacifism grounded in Christian commitment and realism about human nature. To answer these objections is not to show that pacifism is the only responsible stance that a Christian may adopt. The issue of the justifiability of violence needs to be faced squarely and debated vigorously in the churches, and pacifists and non-pacifists can learn much from each other in this debate. Nevertheless, I believe that the practical pacifism I have described deserves more serious consideration than it has received in Christian circles, especially since the major alternative to pacifism in Christian ethics, the just-war tradition, has significant deficiencies. Important as the just-war tradition has been in the development of Christian thinking about war and peace, it gives insufficient weight to the central Christian calling to be agents of healing and reconciliation.

Furthermore, the radical changes that the nuclear age has brought to the phenomenon of war make it impossible to weigh means against ends in the way required by just-war theory. War is justified, according to just-war criteria, when its good result—the restoration of justice—outweights the harm it will cause. But when the possible consequences of war include the destruction of humankind and the permanent defacement of the entire natural and human world, we do not know how to balance benefits against such costs. The just-war tradition cannot guide us in thinking about such a prospect.

What are the practical implications of such a pacifist stance? Several first steps can be clearly identified. The cessation of nuclear testing and of the development of new weapons systems, and the subsequent reduction of existing stockpiles of weapons would stabilize the international balance of terror. If at the same time means of international cooperation were created and international authorities strengthened, the threat of war would begin to hang less heavily over us. To go beyond these preliminary steps to abolish war would require far more drastic attacks on the political and economic roots of war.

No one can consistently call for peaceful alternatives to war without reflecting on the ways in which one personally participates in and benefits from social institutions that cause violence. Some people may refuse to take up arms, others may withhold taxes designated for military ends; and others may renounce jobs or possessions that implicate them in injustice. Here there is an urgent need for more open and honest discussion in the churches, for we are too quick to condemn those who bear witness in a way to which we do not feel called. We ought not to demand the same actions from everyone. Out of more open and honest discussion may come new and still untried ways of putting flesh on a shared vision of peace.

Practical Christian pacifism is grounded in faithfulness and hope, but also in realism. It provides not only a moral basis for dealing with conflicts but a framework within which to carry on the vital task of building structures that can eventually eliminate war and its causes.