Friday, October 9, 2009

The Pacifist Offense

It is one of the more haunting and enigmatic 'aspects' of the Gospel. Indeed, it is certainly the case that the Gospel received through the apostolic witness is simply unintelligible without it. I am writing about the humility and radical non-violence of Christ.

That humility which Paul captures in, say, Phil. 2.6-10. That radical non-violence at which the Gospel writers gape in, say, Matt. 26.47-56; Mark 14.43-50; Luke 22.47-53; John 18.3-11.

And I am writing about that humility, that non-violence, under the very real and haunting impression that their significance is far more demanding upon me than previously thought.

Not that its significance has been lost on everyone. But that for too long, perhaps, in theological quarters with which I am the more familiar, the significance of the humility and non-violence of Christ has been too narrowly translated into 'some interesting facts about God' or worse, 'some preliminary actions by God' - to be rectified, of course, when he returns for blood.

I want to resist caricatures. Without a doubt the 'ripped Jesus' billboard is one. Then again, I don't want to overlook what it is caricaturing either. Perhaps it is the result of the unwillingness among large groups of professing Christians to do business with this: that our Saviour and Lord took on human flesh, in humility was captured, tortured, and without a single act of violent resistance, died on a Roman cross. And that is who God is.

Which leads me to ask again about its significance. It cannot simply mean: 'that was God's prerogative to save us,' true as that may be. Nor can it simply be thought to teach us about how to be humble and non-violent in our daily interactions. Plenty of wise teachers could teach us that, did teach us that, from across the many religious traditions of this world. But is there, as John Howard Yoder famously asked, a social, a political ethic enacted by Christ? That is, does the Gospel command of Christians the humility and radical non-violence indispensable to its message?

Electronically thumbing through the CiC archives, I happened upon my good friend Andrew Faris' long-previous post on the subject of pacifism. While prima facie dismissing neither 'just war' or pacifism, Andrew conveyed his disdain for simplistic discussion from both sides - 'well, Jesus didn't kill anybody' or, 'God commanded war in the OT,' etc. To which I heartily agree, of course, and do add my voice to the chorus.

But that does not excuse us (as Andrew most surely does not want to do) from doing business with the Gospel; from thinking through the Gospel; from being transformed by the Gospel; and, of course, from interpreting both OT and NT through the lens of the Gospel.

So the 'pacifist offense' - it is offensive in that it is impinging; it weighs on our hearts, or should weigh on our hearts, indeed should be at the centre of our inevitable discomfort upon re-reading the Sermon on the Mount. But it is also offensive; in that it is really offensive. And frankly I can't get away from that. It offends me. Which I suppose is the more why it compels me.

I just wish, on my end at least, more evangelicals felt so too.


Unknown said...

Well Said. Thank you.

Johnnie said...

I agree with justinbotz. An excellent, heartfelt post, and a very necessary and relevant one.

Andrew Faris said...

Great stuff Ian (no surprise there).

The post you mentioned was my first ever on CiC.

I'd be glad to see more reflection on this topic by you. My immediate response is to say that the same God who died on the cross was the same God who issued the murder of the Canaanites. I don't mean to be simplistic, but I do mean to say that we need to do business with both aspects. This is a really, really tricky issue, and one on which my mind is not made.

David A. Carlson said...


Ignored? Yes.

Willfully misconstrued? Most definately.

But enigmatic? I think not.

Ian Clausen said...


Looks like an invitation to follow up. Will do - requesting your help, of course, as well as your patience. I'm not an expert in anything, least of which what the Gospel means (as if anyone is, of course...)


Not sure what your trouble is with the word 'enigmatic'. But to defend my usage: I think the appearance of God in human form, humbling himself, refusing violence, and finally dying on the cross at the hands of his creation, constitute the most profound, puzzling and paradoxical mystery on earth. In that sense it is enigmatic.

In other words, if the humility of God ceases to amaze and puzzle and overwhelm us Christians, I say we've given it up.

Could you elaborate?

Norman Jeune III said...

Great post Ian.

I don't want to run the risk of oversimplifying the issue, or equally, of not giving sufficient consideration to both sides of the issue, but I wonder, is it not reasonable to suppose that despite God's command to do violence to the Canaanites in the Old Testament, Christ's example of non-violence supercedes all?

I say this because we have specific New Testament teaching and examples of non-violence. The Old Testament records things that were done at God's command, but I see no enduring precedent for such behavior, unless of course God commanded it. But, that brings up the difficult issue of when people claim to be acting at God's command. Standard fare in some sectors of the church.

It seems to me that non-violence is also closely connected with the notion of surrender to God, which is central to the gospel. To me that raises the hermeneutical bar for someone arguing that Old Testament examples of violence might stand on par in this discussion with pacifist counter-examples.

The notion of surrender to God, regardless of the temporal costs for the sake of the gospel, gets at the heart of what makes biblical pacifism uniquely Christian. Its an expression of faith in God that what he has ordained will be done; the kingdom will be be consummated; his people will live forever, and we need not strive for our own sake, or the sake of the kingdom.

Again, great post.

David A. Carlson said...

I was reading it from the perspective that the example and command to be humble and non-violent is somehow enigmatic, which it isn't, no matter how much some Christians just don't seem to like it.

Why God chose to do so - well, you are absolutely, 100% correct in your usage

Carrie Allen said...

I love love love this post.

And yes, I am a pacifist. :)

And this issue is close to my heart every day, because it seems so obvious when I read the gospels, but so NOT obvious when I look at Christians today.

We have all often heard said that when Jesus came, the Pharisees didn't even recognize Him as God, because the rules were changed... they were getting everything all wrong - from Sabbath, to uncleanliness, to violence.

So I constantly like to ask myself, if God came to this world today, what would he be telling Christians? WHERE are we getting things wrong?

I really believe the issue of violence and war, and Christians holding a non-pacifistic view, would be one of the areas of rebuke. Because I would reeeally like to know where, in the entirety of the NT, it is okay to act in violence...

Yes, this issue = constant struggle.

Ian Clausen said...

Thanks for these responses. There's more to be said about this. Let me give it a think and come at it again in another follow-up post. Is there a compelling case for pacifism? I think so. And I want to see some back and forth on it, real bad.

HomeBuilding Team said... answer to your question on where the NT condones violence, I would say this:

from what I can see, the NT does not seem to condone violence by the church or the individual Christian at all. However, it does seem to condone it in the actions of government, as God appointed agents of earthly justice. See Rom 13:1-5 and also 1 Peter 2:12-14.

So the difficult part (to me) comes in mixing believers with the government. Now that we have a say and place in our government as believers in the US, what is the right response and attitude of believers acting as representatives of the government.

HomeBuilding Team said... answer to your question on where the NT condones violence, I would say this:

from what I can see, the NT does not seem to condone violence by the church or the individual Christian at all. However, it does seem to condone it in the actions of government, as God appointed agents of earthly justice. See Rom 13:1-5 and also 1 Peter 2:12-14.

So the difficult part (to me) comes in mixing believers with the government. Now that we have a say and place in our government as believers in the US, what is the right response and attitude of believers acting as representatives of the government.

Carrie Allen said...

I see where you're coming from, and I struggle with the role of government as well. But mostly, I just think that Christians should separate themselves from the government. I know, I know, a bold statement. :)

I am writing a paper on what the early church fathers thought of war and pacifism, and I am SHOCKED at their views. They were total pacifists. Obviously, this changes a bit as history goes on, and I hope in my future studies I am able to really track how that all went down. Anyway, I will probably post a bulk of my paper on my blog, sometime in December.

Kaitiaki said...

I wish I had more time to deal with this issue. A short answer is going to sound like cliches but here we go.
First - remember why Jesus came into the world. He came as a sacrifice for sin, yet (if you want to take a purely non-violence view of his ministry) there is the puzzle of his taking to the money-changers in the temple overthrowing their tables and driving them out. So even as the sacrificial lamb (come to lay down his life for the sheep) there was what many pacifists today would call violence.
Second - the Apostles and John the Baptist had the opportunity to require soldiers to turn away from killing others. Neither they nor the Lord Jesus himself required that of them. So, when acting on behalf of the government - the role of a soldier - killing is legitimate (remember the commandment forbids murder not execution).
Third - Jesus actually counseled the disciples (Luke 22:36) to sell their robe(s) to buy a sword. That he healed the man whose ear was cut off doesn't negate the idea of protection which is implied in the counsel. Nor does a mistaken application by the disciples of his day. It would seem there are times and circumstances when using a weapon may be acceptable behavior in a Christian.
Fourth - One mark of Christian pacificism is that it is supposed to reflect Christ's character. Do not forget that, as the Judge on the last day, he will condemn a part of the human race to everlasting fire and torment for no more reason than that they did not care for his followers. Now the real reason for the condemnation is sin against God and that they deserve it. But it is a less pacific punishment than we would like to see if his character was really as drawn by the Pacifist.
Fifth - what has been said above is *my* reading of the Scriptures. I am responsible for my actions based on my understanding of God's word. BUT in my father's house (the same one of my older brother Jesus) are many vessels - each for different tasks. I cannot require you to see things exactly as I do - your task in the kingdom may be different - but I can require you, as I do myself, to search the Scriptures and to follow where they lead trusting that, if there is a difference between us the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. I will hear what you have to say but please accept that this may be one of those questions no one can resolve this side of heaven and don't be too disappointed if we end up differing, respectfully of course.
Thank you for hearing my small contribution - may the Lord's name receive all the honor and glory from our desire to serve him with all ours hearts, minds and strength.

Ian Clausen said...


Thanks for the insights. Your interpretation is not uncommon, and raises a good number of interpretive questions. As you put it, the blog is hardly the place to sustain serious exegetical discussions!

But, I'm very pleased you offer your comments as a brother in Christ. This can be a heated debate, with both sides eager to slam the other. Thanks for allowing some room to disagree. I'll come back at you with some thoughts in another post.

Regarding, however, your point three. I'm not sure it's clear just what Jesus meant by telling this to the disciples, but it seems to me to echo his statements about how he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Mt. 10.34). Of course he came to bring peace - he is the 'Prince of Peace,' and by his reconciling blood we are made at peace with God the Father. It seems to me the sword of which Jesus speaks here is metaphorical, but no less meaningful. And in my post I reference to where Jesus effectively disarms his disciples, refusing their use of violence. Is this just a historically significant moment, or is the example meant to teach the church something? Tertullian, for one, thought the latter. But clearly it's up for some debate.