The Hypocritical Pacifist: A Follow-Up

I knew that the post I published yesterday might generate some reaction from those who enjoy arguing about issues like this. I did not wish to engage in arguments of that sort, so I did not include a comments section following the post itself. I promoted the post on Facebook, however, and I knew that some might leave comments there.

One of my friends (a real friend, not merely a Facebook friend) saw the notice of yesterday’s post on The Relentless Pursuit’s Facebook page. He left a thoughtful comment there. I believe it deserves a thoughtful response. I know that most of my Facebook friends and most of my blog readers never see the FB page dedicated to this blog, so I decided to use this follow-up post to address the issues he raised in his comment.

First, here is his comment, slightly edited but faithful to his original point.

Pacifism should not equal non-action. It should equal a creative and, yes, risky non-violent resistance. What if a flood of Christians, I am talking tens of thousands, poured into Iraq to be a human shield against Isis, while also caring for their injured and cooking them food? What might happen? Many would die, for sure, but might God do something amazing through such sacrifice? But who is really going to do that? No one I know. There lies the hypocrisy to me—preaching pacifism, but not taking any radical steps toward non-violent solutions. I include myself in that.

I know the man who wrote that comment. He is a conscientious follower of Jesus, and I believe he is absolutely sincere in what he wrote. Nothing I write here should be viewed as anything other than a serious response to a serious comment.

That said, I would caution my friend not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The scenario he describes, in which thousands of non-resistant (or pacifist) Christians (and others) sacrifice their comfort, and maybe their lives, in an effort to thwart a terrorist agenda is a laudable vision. I would argue, in fact, that if there were that many pacifists willing to undertake such extreme and radical action, their action would not be needed. There would already be such an awareness of the futility of violence and terror as a means of achieving goals that there would be no environment in which violence could flourish.

That is, of course, mere speculation on my part, even as the scenario he describes represents idealism on his part. Mind you, I do not fault him for his idealism. I applaud it. On the other hand, idealism that cannot recognize and appreciate incremental steps in the right direction is its own kind of obstacle.

There are a million reasons why what he proposes cannot be a reality in the current situation. To name just one, the bureaucratic and logistical red tape would doom such an effort from the outset. So, if we cannot accomplish the perfect in this instance, at least not at this time, what can we do? As someone (maybe Confucius) said, “a diamond with a flaw is better than a pebble without one.” Let it never be said that, because we couldn’t do everything, we chose, instead, to do nothing.

The Christian church was almost universally pacifist for the first two- to three hundred years of its history. Christians suffered execution rather than serve in the military. Then came Constantine, with his vision of military conquest under the sign of the cross, and later Augustine, laying the theological foundation for a theory that some war is justifiable. This change in perspective resulted, fifteen hundred years later, in a prominent evangelical pastor suggesting that perceived enemies of the United States should be blown to smithereens “in the name of the Lord.”

I was more than thirty years old before I first heard the word pacifist used other than as a term of derision. Conscientious objectors were not respected in the circles in which I grew up. They were ridiculed and denounced as cowards.

That mindset still prevails in much of the evangelical Christian community today. Granted, there has always been a witness to “another way” from the “historic peace churches” (Mennonites, Quakers, and others). But as I noted in my previous post, those groups have sometimes been their own worst enemies when it comes to persuading non-pacifists to consider the merits of pacifism or biblical nonresistance.

By that I mean they have been too eager to partake of the economic and material benefits of a system they would not fight to defend. Even today, I fear that many heirs to the peace church mantle don’t see the inconsistency between their “peace position” and their lavish lifestyles. Too often, non-pacifists, fully persuaded that their Christian faith is completely compatible with American nationalism and militarism, view pacifism and conscientious objection as simply a way to avoid danger and risk and, yes, duty. Their skepticism is multiplied exponentially when they see pacifist Christians taking full advantage of a system preserved and sustained by somebody else’s sacrifice.

My friend is calling on Christians who believe in the peaceful way of Jesus to join together to form a physical barrier against a terrorist threat. I’m suggesting that we would take a giant step in that direction if we could simply persuade pacifists to live in less opulent houses, stop driving luxury cars, use more of their resources for humanitarian purposes, and stop plastering pictures of their holiday in Barbados all over Facebook.

We have to “bloom where we are planted.” For more than thirty years I have been using my gifts as a communicator to advance the message that there is a better way to confront evil than with guns and bombs. For much of that time, I made that case from within the relative comfort and safety of a church community (the Mennonites) who, for the most part, shared my convictions whether or not their lifestyles matched their beliefs. My whole ministry has not been undertaken in a Mennonite context, however, and it has been costly to advance a “peace position” in other settings, even when those settings are ostensibly Christian.

When I was serving among Mennonites, I sometimes wearied of the constant focus, in some circles, on peace and justice issues. I asked myself, and others, isn’t it the primary task of Christians to call people to faith in Jesus? Isn’t all this emphasis on peace and nonviolence just a smokescreen that could actually be counterproductive to the cause of Christ?

I now believe there is no issue more important for Christians to address than how we can advance and defend and model the loving, caring, compassionate character of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Our best efforts will be very small in the beginning and full of inconsistencies and, yes, hypocrisies. The task will be difficult and painful. I speak from experience. Still, let’s begin where we are, try to be as consistent and faithful as we can be, and do what we can to be both advocates and examples of a better way.