I am a pacifist. I don’t say that very often. I am annoying in so many other ways that I try to avoid making an issue of my convictions in this area lest I provide people with either another reason to be annoyed with me or an explanation (at least in their minds) for why I am so annoying in the first place.
Once in a while I am pointedly asked, often as a result of something I have written, “Are you a pacifist?”. I usually obfuscate a bit in my reply, noting that pacifism is mainly a political position with philosophical roots. I prefer the term “biblical nonresistance,” since my objection to violence, including the violence associated with “justifiable” wars, is rooted in my understanding of the teachings of Jesus.
For today at least, on the thirteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I feel compelled to acknowledge publicly what so many already suspect, given the quarter century I devoted to ministry among Mennonites. When pacifism is defined as the principled opposition to violence and war and the belief that war is fundamentally unjustifiable, then yes, I am a pacifist.
Not a very good one, however. At least not according to many of my non-pacifist friends. They point out, and rightly so, that I live in a free country and enjoy the blessings of liberty that have been purchased and protected by the suffering and sacrifice of people who were willing to sublimate their distaste of violence to a profounder sense of duty and love of country.
From their point of view, there is something fundamentally hypocritical about enjoying the blessings of liberty while avoiding the sacrifice required to preserve and defend it. Consistent pacifists, so my friends suggest, would find ways to oppose the evil forces that threaten our freedoms, even if those efforts proved futile and resulted in much suffering and personal sacrifice. After all, shouldn’t everybody who benefits from liberty share in the pain and sacrifice required to maintain it?
I know exactly what they mean. That argument was the most serious obstacle I had to confront at the time I embraced the idea of pacifism as a young man in my early thirties. It remains so more than thirty years later.
I came to my pacifist convictions while a grad student at Wheaton (IL) College in 1980. A year later I enrolled at a Mennonite seminary, and although I did not expect to end up in ministry among Mennonites, it was not because I objected to their historical commitment to biblical nonresistance. By that time, I had developed similar convictions on my own, without benefit of a family history in Mennonitism.
From the first time I seriously considered the merits of an argument in favor of pacifism or biblical nonresistance, I realized it would always be a minority position, even among evangelical Christians, with whom I identified at the time. I assumed that I would subject myself and my family to criticism and possible ridicule, even from fellow Christians, when my convictions became public. I became a pacifist with my eyes open and because I honestly believed (and still do) that following the example and teachings of Jesus left me no other option.
There are maybe half a dozen communities in the United States where Mennonites are, if not a majority of the population, at least a sizable minority. The area surrounding the Mennonite seminary I attended is one of those communities. In addition to a Mennonite college and seminary, the community supports a number of Mennonite churches, some of which are quite large. Mennonite Christians, most of whom accept the idea of biblical nonresistance, have, for generations, made (and continue to make) significant contribution to the professional, educational, commercial, and social life of the community.
Many have done well financially, and some, very well indeed. I remember being surprised, as a newcomer to both pacifist convictions and to that Mennonite community, at the relative opulence of many of the homes I visited as a young seminary student. In my idealistic naivete, I had assumed that pacifists, who had not fought in an American war, would be discreet and humble when it came to the display of material possessions the American system had made it possible for them to accrue. Some were. Many were not.
I hope this does not sound like an anti-Mennonite rant. I don’t mean it to be that at all. I was an active Mennonite for more than twenty-five years. Even though I am no longer a member of a Mennonite church, I maintain a commitment to the distinctives of historical Anabaptism—upon which the Mennonite faith community is founded—especially its emphasis on the need for cross-bearing and nonresistance to evil as disciples of Jesus. I lived as a member of the community I referenced above for nearly twenty years, and, in a year or so, I may be asking them to welcome me and my family into their midst once again.
At the same time, I need to be honest about how difficult it is to avoid the charge of hypocrisy when we try to maintain pacifist ideals and convictions in a nation that makes it so easy for us to do that. Neither I nor my Mennonite and pacifist fellow-travelers take our freedoms for granted. As difficult as it may be for non-pacifists to understand, however, while we are enormously grateful for our freedom, including the freedom to exercise our rights as pacifists and conscientious objectors, we still believe that the violence and warfare required to make them possible are fundamentally immoral.
I know that my personal convictions will always seem like a blend of cowardice and hypocrisy to most non-pacifists. I suppose I could counter that accusation by raising a question as to why, during this era of an all-volunteer army, most non-pacifist Americans can still justify leaving military service to those, in many cases, whose economic straits make them feel that the military is the only career option open to them. Isn’t leaving the defense of the homeland to somebody else, whatever the rationale or motivation, just a bit hypocritical on its face?
In this matter, as with most issues of this sort, there is enough hypocrisy to go around. Almost nobody can avoid getting tarred with that brush. The best we can do is try.
And I really do try. If the so-called “war on terrorism” could be won, and the world be rid of the evil of war even for brief time, by all pacifists joining arms and forming a wall around every possible terrorist target, I would join that effort. I do not for one minute assume that my pacifist convictions should cost me nothing or that the freedom to exercise them should require only the sacrifice of somebody else.
For the moment, I will practice my pacifism with deep and heartfelt gratitude to the government of the United States of America which, at least for now, extends to me and my fellow pacifists the freedom to do so. I will, at the same time, gently encourage other kingdom citizens to consider the merits of biblical nonresistance as disciples of Jesus. That is also my right as a free American.
If that situation should ever change—if there comes a time when I have to choose between my convictions and my freedom—I pray to God that I will have the strength of character to be true to my convictions, trusting God to sustain me. I really do not want to be a hypocrite.