Can You Be a Pacifist Without Religion? (Maybe.)

Rebecca:

Great post. You’ve touched on an area where my agnostic side and my Mennonite side clash in a fairly thorough way.

While I was still (for lack of a better word) churched, I found Mennonite pacifism relatively easy to adopt. My logic went something like this.

  • God is the God of eternity.
  • Any losses you suffer in this life are thus short-term in nature.
  • Ultimately, through faith in God, Good wins out over Evil.
  • Taking up arms, then, would have a couple of effects: It would hurt our witness — hard to convert the mind and soul of somebody you are killing — and it betrayed a lack of faith in God to win the ultimate victory.

Now? I really don’t know if there is God, or if it’s in the nature of God to win out over evil as I define and perceive it. Which leads me to wonder if it’s not the right thing now and again to pick up a gun and kill a bad guy — for the greater good.

But that withdrawal from total pacifism is kind of theoretical. In practice — and as in many other things — you can take the boy out of the church, but it’s not easy to take the church out of the buy. In practice, I’m pretty dovish.

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Some of that’s a result of being American, I guess, where we tend to exalt violence as a solution to many of our problems. Our popular entertainment is soaked in blood, our president wants to gut the State Department while putting even more money into a cash-rich defense department, and we no longer talk about the use of nuclear weapons as an event to be ardently avoided. Any small pacifism is an important counterweight in a society where violence seems to be the only hammer and every problem — no matter its nature — looks like a nail.

I’m also dovish because as a practical matter, war doesn’t seem to work that often. I thought we were justified, for example, going to war against the Taliban back after 9/11. But we’re still in Afghanistan. I’m not certain the country isn’t worse for it, or that we’re safer from terrorism as a result.

Really, there aren’t many wars — the ones fought in my lifetime — that didn’t seem to cause as much trouble as they mitigated. Afghanistan is a tar pit. Iraq is beset with terrorists. Libya, where we “led from behind” still ended up a mess. War rarely fixes problems and often expands the suffering that was already present.

So even though I’m not strictly pacifist these days, pacifism still informs my outlook.

Violence is easier than pacifism, because pacifism requires patience. Violence provides immediate feedback: Pull a trigger, watch a body drop. Push a button, watch the explosion. But those bodies, those explosions, aren’t necessarily solutions — though they’re often mistaken for such. Pacifism doesn’t provide that kind of immediate gratification, and never will, which is one reason it’s doomed to forever be a minority position.

In our private talk, you said you thought there was an atheist defense of pacifism. I think that’s right. If you’re an atheist and you snuff out a life — even if there’s a good reason — that’s a life forever ended: No chance to change, no chance at redemption. Even the least spiritual among us recognize an elemental difference between “alive” and “not.” There are few good reasons for erasing that distinction.

On the other hand, I can’t swear that there are no good reasons for it, either.

Back to your initial question though: Is self-defense a “sacred” right for Christians?

I keep coming back to this:

51At this, one of Jesus’ companions drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52“Put your sword back in its place, Jesus said to him. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.53Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?…

If Jesus is God, and we’re not allowed to use violence to defend God — nevermind the fact that we actually do — then what excuse do we have? It’s the Mennonite in me speaking, but gun-toting Christians confuse me.

— Joel

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