Posted by: sean | July 8, 2007

Pacifism and Passiveness

Often times those who endeavor to literally obey Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” are classified as pacifists.  However for some, the word “pacifist” has come to mean one who is “passive.”  The pacifist is made out to be a coward who for fear does not engage with intense situations of life and death.  Pacifists are seen as pushovers who lack courage to do what’s right when times get tough.  Pacifists are those who make an over-literal interpretation of Jesus’ commands in order to justify their own spinelessness and condemn the brave who risk their lives to earn the freedoms that allow the pacifist to even question these matters.  The pacifist is a gutless, weakling who may be nice to have over for dinner but certainly should not be trusted with watching other’s children or bearing any responsibility for others. 

However, we contend that the command of Jesus, “to love your enemies” is the antithesis of this description.  In fact, the very wording of this command defies all notions of passiveness by its very afirmative nature.  Jesus did not say, “don’t fight back;” he didn’t say, “don’t hate your enemies;” he didn’t say, “don’t stand your ground against your enemies;” he said, “love your enemies.”  He is calling for action not passiveness.  Which is harder: to hate one’s enemy or to love one’s enemy?  Which did Jesus do?  He is calling his followers to radical, self-sacrificial love.  He is calling his followers to do what’s right especially when it is hardest.  The command, “to love your enemies” means that we should be actively involved in extreme forms of love. 

If there is a fight, it should be the follower of Jesus who gets involved, seeks peace, and if necessary risks his own wellbeing for the sake of others.  If there is an attack it is the follower of Jesus who not only loves his own but seeks to demonstrate love to the attacker.  If there is a war, it is the follower of Jesus who prays even for the enemies of his nation.  If there is a plague it is the follower of Jesus who risks his own health to nurse his enemy back to health.

The one who takes seriously the command of our Lord to love the unlovable is the courageous one.  He is the one who sets aside vengeance, self-preservation, and selfishness to step out in absolute faith on the simple instruction of our Lord.  With childlike obedience and trust the disciple of Christ seeks to do the impossible, to defer vengeance to God, to love the hateful, to return blessing for cursing, to  refuse to render evil for evil but instead overcome evil with good.  And in the end, if we perish, we perish.

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Responses

  1. Amen brother. This is an important distinction to make. Love is active, passionate and real. So often those who are commited to follow this command are called cowards – this is wrong – they are committed disciples of the Lord Jesus. Jesus was no coward, he left us his example, one of suffering and then glory.

  2. “Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.”

    –Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957

  3. I really enjoy reading the articles posted on this web site. Nice job. Is this site a Christian [trinitarian] one? [I ask only because I saw some articles/links that were written by heretical cultists, though they presented a decent pacifist defense from the New Testament.]

    In regards to this article, I wanted to mainly ask, to what extent can a Christian use force. E.g. I have it in my mind that I should treat an enemy like a would treat my own child. I would restrain him, but not seek to cause injury. I would block blows, but not strike back (also, I am aware of the Old Testament passages used to support modern day spanking, though I disagree with spanking as I see the shepherd’s rod in OT times, used to actually move/correct the path of the sheep, not to hurt/beat them with).

    Also, I have learned martial arts in the past, and I ‘know’ how to repel a knife wielding attacker, but I would have to injury/bruise them to do so (and maybe knock them unconscious). So far I have determined that this may not be allowed, though I do seek other opinions, as it could be argued that I am seeking the attackers greater good (like a doctor performing surgery, though there is a huge leap required to tie the points together).

    So, what type (or to what extent) of force can a Christian use, if any?

  4. My dear fellow follower of Jesus,

    The natural man typically responds to a violent attack in one of two ways: (1) violence (2) cowardice. In the first case the victim commits to using the same means as the attacker and in so doing diminishes their own image of God as he or she attacks the image of God in the other person. In this case selfishness is generally the foundational principle of survival at all costs. Of course, this person fails to realize that at baptism they attend a funeral–the moment of their own death, when Christ began to live in them. The one who chooses to use violence out of fear for their own survival fails to realize that in Jesus’ resurrection, God has already broken the power of death.

    In the second instance, when the person chooses flight from the situation regardless of the possible harm that may come to others in his or her protection, the same basic principle motivates them–survival. I don’t mean to say that there is anything wrong with surviving, but to run away in certain instances is just as irresponsible and unbiblical as the person who engages using violence.

    Once we break these two commitments, whether to fight or flight, a whole range of creative options opens up before us. Out of the infinite variety of possible responses God is suddenly freed to influence the attacked person with his wisdom for that particular situation. So long as our faith is in violence or cowardice we will never be open to hear the whisper of the spirit of God. But when one puts their trust in God in the most intense and frightening situations of life, out of that clay, God is free to shape the solution that dynamically fits the particular situation. In other words, I’m advocating that you walk by the spirit. If God allows you to be placed in this extraordinarily difficult situation, he will with the temptation make a way of escape. We’ve heard stories of people singing a song, saying a few words, or staring down the intruder without fear but love and the situation has been resolved in a particularly Jesus-like manner.

    I would not exclude the use of your martial arts skills from this potential situation, but I would say that trusting in them to deliver you would probably squelch the voice of God because of your a priori commitment to violence. It is scary, but we must trust that God is with us, that he will not abandon us in our time of need.

  5. Thanks brother for your response. Sean, I particularly liked your comment on baptism, our minister said something similar at my children’s baptism 🙂

    The issue for me isn’t ‘my own life’. My main concern is for the other person – whether I live or die, I know my Lord will resurrect me on the last day of history, so I am not concerned with my life, and I feel mentally that I am prepared to sacrifice myself for others/Christ if need be.

    With martial arts, I chose to give it up a fews back because I felt it was incompatible (being a Christian) to have a violent premeditated response to confrontations, when the Messiah had ordered us to love [agape] and sheath our swords.

    You noted that songs and wise words may help (I whole heartedly agree), but I wanted to know to what extent can a Christian physically interact with another person.

    How would this apply to say, if my son was carrying a knife (he is 3), I could easily take it away from him, using non-violent force (i.e. grab his arm, and take the knife off him). Would that be considered violent? If not, would I then be able to do the same to others?

    [I guess for those that spank their children, they could justify ‘spanking’ their attacker in situations in the same manner]

    A second scenario would be, if someone was attempting suicide, wouldn’t it be right to physically restrain that person?

    What I am really asking is, what would Jesus and the Apostles do in such scenarios?

    I only ask these questions so that I can prepare myself mentally for any situation, without breaking the teachings of Christ. The issue of a possible non-violent force (action which does not harm/bruise/injure) has caused me to think a bit more, about the tools a Christian can respond with. Perhaps thats an oxymoron though.

  6. The issue for me isn’t ‘my own life’. My main concern is for the other person – whether I live or die, I know my Lord will resurrect me on the last day of history, so I am not concerned with my life, and I feel mentally that I am prepared to sacrifice myself for others/Christ if need be.

    This is exactly the best place to be in before approaching this conversation because it frees us to see all of the options. Furthermore, it puts you in a serious position of advantage should you be attacked by someone. Generally and intruder depends on the predictable response of the “victim.” When we aren’t sticken with fear and our own self preservation is not our primary motivating factor, suddenly we become dangerous to the attacker.

    You noted that songs and wise words may help (I whole heartedly agree), but I wanted to know to what extent can a Christian physically interact with another person.

    Jesus’ command is to love our enemy. Because his command is affirmative rather than negative it makes it much more difficult to sort out what exactly is prohibited. I prefer to say let the spirit of God lead you in the situation, but apparently, that answer did not satisfy you.

    I would have no problem restraining an attacker or using some forms of non-lethal force. (I would not spank him.)

    A second scenario would be, if someone was attempting suicide, wouldn’t it be right to physically restrain that person?

    Yes, absolutely.

    I only ask these questions so that I can prepare myself mentally for any situation, without breaking the teachings of Christ. The issue of a possible non-violent force (action which does not harm/bruise/injure) has caused me to think a bit more, about the tools a Christian can respond with. Perhaps thats an oxymoron though.

    You said you want to be mentally prepared for any situation. I’m not sure this is available. There are millions of situations and each of them has an infinite variety of variables. I don’t think we can plan out our response because that would commit ourselves to a certain course of action and exclude God’s input in the situation.

    That’s the best advice I can give. Maybe some others on this site can give their advice.

  7. Thanks for your advice, Sean.


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