Why I’m Moving Toward Non-Violent Pacifism

The vast majority of people throughout history has been poor, disabled, or oppressed in some way (i.e., “on the bottom”) and would have experienced history in terms of a need for change. The people who wrote the books and controlled the social institutions, however, have almost always been the comfortable people on the top. Much of history has been recorded from the side of the winners, except for the unique revelation of the Bible, which is an alternative history from the bottom:…….”

For the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christians were the oppressed minority; we were rebels hiding in catacombs. But by the year 400, Christians had changed places. We moved from the catacombs to the basilicas. That is when we started reading the Bible not as subversive literature but as establishment literature.Once we were in a position of power and privilege, we couldn’t read or understand many Scriptures (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) because we had to maintain our empire, and in this direction the Scriptures give us little support or consolation..….

But when Scripture is read through the eyes of vulnerability—what we call the “preferential option for the poor” or the bias from the bottom—it will always be liberating and transformative. Scripture will not be used to oppress or impress.”

~ Richard Rohr

A disclaimer before we proceed. I am writing about A Christian Pacifism, as rooted in Jesus’ teachings in Sermon on the Mount.  Frankly have no idea why secular people are pacifists, nor the ideology that drives their thinking. I have never studied their form of Pacifism.  I, as a theologian am wrestling with what Jesus taught about non retaliation and violence against enemies, nothing more, nothing less.

I used to be a minister, a “preacher”.

In our circles we don’t use terms like Reverend, Father, or Bishop. Even “Pastor” is suspect, as these terms give credence to a clergy class. We come from good Ana-Baptist origins and influences that believe in the “Priesthood of all believers.” we are all priests and servants of the king. No other person has clerical authority over another brother or sister. Everyone is called to minister, preach, teach, and live out acts of love, kindness and service for others.  

Anyway, I have not been doing much pulpit supply for many years. Some, but not many. Though I spoke about my work often. However I’ve not hung out a shingle saying I will do pulpit supply.  It has been a choice, as I find one can get so busy in the church, you have little time to serve outside of it.

Anyway, last week I was asked if I could fill in for this past Sunday.  I had a real excuse why I could not. But the truth was, I really did not wish to, even if I could have.  Not deterred, the gentleman sent a note saying he could use me over the next six weeks, even if not this Sunday.

I admit, I left the request sitting in my messages and did not answer for a few days.

I wanted to say no right off, but i sensed i needed to mull it over. So, I let it percolate, and finally found no good reason why I should refuse and I had been reading some things in scripture that I felt i could share. Must Share. 

Part of my hesitancy to speak is that I have little patience for church games , church language, church platitudes, and I am at the stage in life where I can no longer fake interest in their petty programs or trivial theological hangups. So in this spirit, I feel it is best not to speak. Why go and risk offending someone, as I am sure to offend almost every time now. Maybe the pulpit is not the place for a guy like me. 

I accepted two Sundays, back to back, as I have a two part series to speak. I may never be asked again. Though this is not my hope nor intention.

However, this will be a coming out message on my slowly developing views on “Non Violence” over the last five years or so.  Some refer to it as Pacifism . That term is very misused and misunderstood. It’s too narrow. What you think of when you hear that word “Pacifism”, is probably nothing like  what I am going to preach from the scriptures. Pacifism is not passively standing back with arms folded. Pacifism is rather living a life that is proactive and preemptive. We live in such a way as to avoid conflicts, and angers, and to settle issues long before violence or some from of retaliation is a tempted outcome.

Pacifism does not ask,  “How will I respond to violence?” Rather, it asks, “How will we live long before this  becomes an issue?” Pacifism comes not from “PASSIVE”, rather the root is “PACIFY”. How to pacify the grievances of people against us,  so they are not tempted to retaliate against us. We seek to work it out, for peace, even when it is not in our favor.  There are no folded arms in this lifestyle. Much more holiness and sanctification at work in that process than pulling a trigger, or punching back.

I have gained a perspective that I believe best articulates Jesus teaching and how we are to live in his pattern and example.  It is not what I have been taught, probably not what most in our group believe in their heart of hearts about the matters of retaliation, vengeance, revenge, war, capital punishment, killing or torture.

Where I am theologically right now, in no way reflects what my country, cultural, or church believes and practices. So what! It is where I am right now, and i can live with this perspective. I could no longer live in good conscience with my former perspective.

“The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future.
But the crimes they hope to prevent in that future are imaginary. The ones they commit in the present – they are real.”

— Aral Vorkosigan, Shards of Honor

I will be speaking from Jesus Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew Chapter 5:38-42 on the Eye for and Eye….. But I say, “Do not resist an evil person.” Then part Two will build on Jesus’ non retaliation teaching, by adding,in Matthew 5:43-48,  loving even our enemies.

And here is the huge issue for those of us who take Jesus’ non retaliation teaching at face value.  We then have to ask, “What about that God who seems to order killings in the OT? Genocide of whole cities, men, women and children. We have to take what we know of the Triune God – Knowing Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and we must now read the OT saying, Jesus did that. Jesus orders that killing of children, and see how it fits what we know of Jesus. I have heard it said that we need to understand the OT before we can understand Jesus. I, rather, believe that we need Jesus to understand the Old Testament. Just as Jesus, after his resurrection (Luke 24) explained what the scriptures said about him , on the road to Emmaus to Jewish men who knew the O.T., but missed how Jesus was weaved into those stories and events in every book. They needed Jesus to understand the Old Testament.

 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27

I don’t care who you are, you have a storm of a theological dilemma on your hands now. I had that fall in my hands about two years back.  It is precisely the messiness that “Going There” causes. I see that we are not permitted to go there as a church, so I had to go there without them. We want to preach certainty, not answers to the most difficult questions.

“When Jesus said to love your enemies, he probably meant you should not kill them.”

~ Shane Claiborne

I don’t have all the answers, I have even more unanswered questions to look into. But I’m more comfortable with where i am now, than where I’ve been theologically on this for most of my life.

Let me just say this…. I feel duped. Big time!

There are things about non-violence I was never taught, historical perspectives I was never introduced to, First century practices and beliefs that i was never even exposed to. Most of my theological books and spiritual growth books just go on their merry way in avoidance.  I understand why we can’t discuss these things. It brings too big a tension into how it might ask us to express our politics and live our christian lives today. We think its too lofty, and too radical to consider or believe in most church circles today. Believe possibly, but practice? I think there is a greater tension in not discussing the issue of non- retaliation versus addressing it.

These last few years of study have given me a real appreciation for the Ana-Baptist traditions, especial the wings that live under Jesus’ Peace and non-violence principles, like the Mennonites, Amish, and some other Brethren churches.

In my digging I also found an interesting piece of information about the Restoration Movement I am part of, here in Canada. In the southern US, this same movement was practicing and preaching non-retaliation and Pacifism up and until the Second world war, where at that time it just went away. I have never once been told this, taught this, read this in a history book about our movement, or heard this from a historian lecturing from our tradition. Why? What exactly was it they believed and taught about non-violence? Why did they stop teaching it at the time of WW2? Where were they on the civil war in the United States?

Why?

We have sold out to retaliation and violence as the only practical alternative (Though we will say only in extreme situations.) We suggest “Just War” theories that came from Constantine’s era via theologians like Augustine trying to make sense of it all. We never hear about the opposing voice in that debate do we? There was a church wide debate. No not a debate. A stunned church people and church leadership asking why are we changing the doctrine, practice and interpretation we have lived by for 250 years?

What choice did a Christian Roman Empire have? If they practiced none violence as the church did until that day, the empire would fall. Nations need military to survive, protect their interests and their borders.  So the church changed its belief and practice in a heart beat in Christian Rome when church and state was the Government. Now war, military and power were used by “Christian Empire” of ROME. Was it because of a change in Jesus’ principles and teaching, from new scriptural insights? Or was it just a change in their opinions? We forget that Augustine was arguing a side, we forget there was a huge section of the church who opposed this move, this total reversal. We have never heard from them sense, except those crazy little sects the Roman church persecuted through history, right up to the heretic, non-violent Ana-Baptists.

The question is not should my nation go to war? It has, and will continue to do so to protect national borders and interests. They will try to recruit, or forcibly conscript our sons and daughters to achieve their national ends and purposes, even if it takes their lives.

“We have to abandon the myth that if we could just kill enough people we could make the world a better place.” ~ Keith Giles

The question is an internal one. We are not citizens here, firstly. Our citizenship is in heaven. What is the Christians role in war, retaliation, taking life, and the use of violence in the kingdom of God? It is our question; A question for each believer and for the church at large to ask themselves. The church cannot, and need not seek to force their said practice on the nation, as they will take no other view on this to survive. But we must do the theological work, not the nation. You and i were handed an already accepted package, that is not open for discussion in church circles. But I feel we should open it up to the exegesis, and allow freedom to choose, and stop waving national agendas and activity in the body of Christ. We don’t like to hear it, but politics, military, security, torture for information, and spying is, indeed, a nasty business. What business do Christians have in it? What is our relationship with it?

I believe many Christians view God as retaliatory, a God who uses violence and violent means to archive his ends. Therefore we feel justified to participate in the same at times, for “just” outcomes.  Jesus could not really have meant………. “do not resist an evil person” Matthew 5:39

I was faced with the question of non-violence in Mali. Will I retaliate if radical Islamist come for me?  Would I shoot at someone entering my house who has no gun? Canadian Law says I can’t. Americans say “Hell, Yes! He’s entering my castle”

The Christians in Mali are asking what is our response in the wake of personal attack and expanding Islamic radicalism?

“We must believe that God is very far from the war path and he does not like it when men destroy in his name.”

(Jean Zerbo. Archbishop of Bamako, Christmas 2015 As Radical Islam attacks his country)

How many westerners, , Christian westerners , would Amen the Archbishop of Bamako?

I no longer accept most of those interpretations I grew up with on this subject. I can no longer stick my head in the sand on what has become to me, a clear Jesus path to follow. I am afraid, as Nietzsche wrote, that as we fight monsters, we have become monsters ourselves,  of the very kind Jesus refuses to allow his followers to be.

“Sadly, almost to a person, they were disbelieving when I talked about Christian non-violence, a central idea for Mennonites; for people I met, the militarism of George W. Bush is now the face of Christianity.”

(Arthur Paul Boers. The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along The Camino de Santiago. He is a Canadian)

You may have noticed i did not address much history, or present specific scriptures with there exegesis in this introduction. Truth is, i do not want to answer this question for you, or my whole church fellowship. I am simply sharing the news that things have changed for me, and in me, concerning this subject. I am not all the way there, but i sympathize greatly with this interpretation of scripture. It was a study, not an exercise in cultural fades or pragmatism.

I do not understand or believe all that these folks are saying in the links provided below.

However, these discussions do expose one to the real questions we need answers to (I need answers to). If you think  the Issue of how to live non-retaliation principle of Jesus is settled adequately, in the church, in our church, in my church, we have our head in the sand.This is a messy one. I have lived the tension my whole life, and as a minister for many years.

I do not appreciate that my teachers did not even broach introduce the debate and the early churches view on this subject. I forgive them!

When I speak on this subject now, I will speak what I see the scriptures pointing to. It will be uncomfortable for many. So Be it! Let the chips fall where they may.

“When they arrived back home, one of the girls ran into the house and exclaimed, “Hurrah ! There’s a war!” She was promptly slapped. The Bonhoeffers (parents) were not opposed to war, but neither would they celebrate it.”

~ Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy


As usual, others articulate this stuff much better than I am capable of. Richard Rohr hit a cord here.

“Starting in AD 313, Christianity gradually became the imperial religion of the Roman Empire. It was mostly top-down and hierarchical for the next 1700 years. As the “imperial mind” took over, religion had less to do with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, forgiveness, and simplicity, and instead became fully complicit in the world of domination, power, war, and greed itself. The wolf started living right inside the hen house, and the common pattern of low-level religion was repeated…….

I am sorry to have to share this with you, but the impact of the Church’s collusion with empire must be confessed or we will never be free from it. It also helps us understand why so many have given up on Christianity and often, unfortunately, thrown out the baby with the bathwater.”
~ Richard Rohr

To peruse this topic further here are a few Audio discussions I found helpful to spark interest.

The Roundtable: From US Military to Pacifist: Interview with Joseph Medina

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: Interview with Brian & Peri Zahnd

Crucifixion of the Warrior God Greg Boyd Homebrewed Christianity Podcast

Nomad Podcast With Greg Boyd Discussing Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

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