Christian Pacifism May Have a Point

This post will upset some people, most of them from a particular socio-cultural-ecclesial context. However, before they give vent to the full fury of their outrage it is asked that they read this post carefully, and then read it again. Disagreement is expected and constructive argument encouraged. Abuse or vitriol will get short shrift. There is an issue to engage with here, and it is not to be camouflage for arguments ad hominem.

You will recall the atrocities committed against the Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday in Egypt. What may not be so clear in our memory is the Copts’ response. It has been, put briefly, one of non-violence and forgiveness. So astoundingly strong and consistent has been this response that even Muslim Egyptians are increasingly impressed.

One things that must impress them is that the Copts are practising what they preach, and what Christ taught. That integrity of witness is almost impossible to argue away or even ignore.

Church teaching allows for “legitimate self-defence”, even to the point of taking the aggressor’s life though this must not be positively intended. According to the teaching of Aquinas, as embraced by the Church, the preservation of one’s own life (or those in one’s care) must be the intention of one who resists an aggressor. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2263-7) This is an important distinction of motive. It can be a fine line indeed between desiring to save one’s life and seeking to take the other’s, and both conceivably could co-exist in the one action. Legitimate self-defence has its conditions.

The Church’s teaching is taken as a given. Yet there is something of a tension within it, one the Church would acknowledge. It is more a concession to reality than a counsel of perfection. Why? Because it can find no real warrant in the teaching of Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus never advocates bodily violence; in fact he seems to prohibit it. In place of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, he commands his followers instead to turn the other cheek. When Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus commanded him to put away his sword. It is easy to love our friends, but he holds loving our enemies to be essential. Forgiveness must not be offered just once, but seventy-fold and more. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for his name’s sake. The servant is not greater than the master, as they did to him they will do to Christians. When a Christian willingly lays down his life for Christ and his “friends” he lays it down also for the persecutor. That is the martyr’s resistance.

The only time we see Jesus in any way violent he is attacking the tables of the moneychangers, not the moneychangers themselves.

It can justly be argued that these do not constitute a total prohibition against forceful self-defence. Yet it sits uneasily in the general context of Jesus’ teaching. One might argue that  Jesus does not definitively and explicitly condemn the use of violence in self-defence for everyone, and that perhaps he is speaking only of individuals defending their own persons rather and not of nations and others authorities that have responsibility for others and their common good. It is a valid consideration.

Yet it has something about it of an argument from silence. Silence is not a strong basis for argument. Those who advocate, for example, relaxing the prohibition on homosexual activity on the basis that Jesus never condemned it miss the point. The Old Testament Law forbade it, and Jesus was happy to tweak that teaching when he saw fit. Thus the old provision of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was explicitly set aside by Jesus. Moses’ provision for divorce was set aside as Jesus established that what God had joined (and in every valid marriage God has joined) no human authority could divide. Jesus, more subtly it must be said, set aside the dietary laws of the old covenant when he said that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes forth out of him. The worship of the old covenant yielded to the Eucharist Jesus bequeathed to God’s people on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, which has become our worship “in spirit and in truth”. Otherwise the old covenant has its force.

In the same vein it is no good arguing from Pope Francis’ silence that the law on communion for remarried divorcees has changed. His silence changes nothing. Church teaching stands, and it needs more than the manipulation of a footnote to change it. But I digress…

It is no good pointing to the great battles between good and evil, God and Satan, in the Apocalypse. These are not human wars but supernatural ones. We are being fought for by the heavenly powers; we are not being invited to fight ourselves and for ourselves. We are not our own, but God’s. It is God’s to defend us and rescue us—and to avenge us. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.

And this is a crucial point to consider. We are not our own. My family is not my own, nor is my nation. They are, all of them, God’s. There is no power on earth save that which God gives in the first place, as Jesus reminded Pilate. That derived power is extended not just to God’s people but to those who are outside the family of God. Persecutors have power from God, and in the mystery of his gracious will he allows them to use it even against his own people, even against his own Son. In creation all men are God’s; in the ransom paid by Christ on the Cross, all humanity is now doubly God’s, as it were.


That God allows persecutors to abuse their power to attack Christians violently and mortally does not mean that God necessarily allows us to do the same in return. Turn the other cheek, he commands us. Remember that early Christians often refused to serve in the military, even of a just government, because violence was forbidden by Christ. The persecutors are no less subject to Christ’s law than we are, and to the extent they are guilty of transgressing it they will be to that extent under God’s judgment, just as we are.

Love your enemies; turn the other cheek; return not evil for evil; blessed are you when they persecute you for my name’s sake. This is the law of Christ under which Christians will certainly be judged. Does this mean every soldier or anyone who has struck out, even killed, in self-defence is to be condemned by God? Of course not. God sees circumstances and mitigations that we do not, and to defend a life while not intending to take another’s is quite easily reconciled with Christian charity.

The example of the Copts, however, has shaken me out of my largely unthinking and instinctive acceptance of just war and violent self-defence. It is has not quite made a pacifist out of me but in the Copts pacifism—or rather forgiveness of persecutors and willingly acceptance of the Cross—make for a powerful witness to Christ, a witness not just to other Christians but also to the world. Many Muslims have noticed this witness and approved. Who knows what fruit the Copts might be about to bear for God; who knows how many are being moved by their radical following of Christ’s teaching, even to the point of acknowledging it and embracing it.

It is a hard truth, but it is martyrs, not crusaders or avengers or self-defenders, who make the Church grow. And he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it. The Copts are not lying down and waiting for the bullet or the machete. They have been taking prudent steps to the best of their ability to secure themselves from attack. What they will  not do, it seems, is seek to take the lives of others in order to preserve their own. This presents a powerful witness and challenge both to militant Islam and to us in the west, especially the Christian west. That is why we must seek reunion with the Coptic brethren as soon as possible: they need the communion of the universal Church, and we need their witness to bolster and purify our own.

At the very least, we should consider carefully where is the dividing line between legitimate self-defence and vengeance in any given situation. Certainly, if vengeance taints self-defence then the point is lost and Christ’s cause has been set back.

Interestingly, my monastery’s patron, St Edmund King and Martyr, was once England’s patron saint, and offers a ideal foil to the current one, St George, whose feast we are keeping today. St George was a warrior, St Edmund was a king who defended his people not be fighting but by allowing the Danes to take him and murder him. Martyrdom was his defence of the nation, and the Church has acknowledged the heavenly crown Christ has given him.

IMG_20170424_161157_01 blog
St Edmund being led to his martyrdom

I am not yet a card-carrying pacifist, but by the witness of the Copts certain explicit teachings of Christ strike home with greater force. There is much to think about, and nothing will detract from the wonderful and selfless work that the police, soldier and security officers do to keep our nations safe. My natural, instinctive sympathy is always with them; and may God protect them and prosper their labours.


Even so, I find that I must continue to grapple with the fact that Christ has commanded us to go out and convert the world, not to crush it. Christ will sort the wheat from the weeds in his good time. For the present, we are commanded to follow his example.

Now, where is my battle helmet…

16 thoughts on “Christian Pacifism May Have a Point

  1. Reblogged this on the theological beard and commented:
    Great post! I highly encourage anyone here to read it. I am not by any means a pacifist; I believe that one is just in defending themselves even if that defense extends to violence, and I believe that our police officers and soldiers provide a true good and do well in the just execution of their services. However, it is very easy (all too easy!) to root these beliefs in the wisdom of the world; and when one does this it puts them in opposition to God and His Revelation. So often the answer is both/and, but to truly find freedom in that answer and find rest in the mystery one must allow themselves to be challenged by God’s word and the witness of the saints. It is not an easy question nor is there an easy answer.


  2. Jesus taught that we should be peacemakers and not render evil for evil, and this discussion has become confused by importing into it the extraneous doctrine of “pacifism”. Christians debate whether they should be pacifist or not – but that’s using someone else’s terms, not the Church’s.

    You have left out one clear command of Jesus to take up arms: Luke 22:36.

    ‘Then he said to them: “But now, let whoever has money take it, and likewise with provisions. And whoever does not have these, let him sell his coat and buy a sword.”‘


    1. I’m not sure that Luke 22:36 equates to call to arms, and it smacks of rhetorical flourish. It will need some further reflection from me.

      As to other people’s terms, apologists use them all the time. One has to meet people where they are, use terms they are familiar with. Christian pacifism, not my camp for sure, is a familiar term and it is worth using, if only because it will provoke a reaction from many (and on Facebook it has already), and hopefully a reaction that itself provokes thought. On Youtube they call it clickbait.


  3. You know Father—this is an excellent post—heartfelt and very honest…and something all of us of the Christian faith must come to terms with….
    Over the years I have read extensively about the resistance movements throughout Europe during WWII—resistance by Catholics, Protestants, Jews as well as non believers of any particular faith.
    One of my favorite people, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a devout Lutheran who was for all practical purposes a pacifist, worked very closely with German Catholics, both military and non, in an attempt to thwart Hitler—such that he was offered the Aquinas argument and eventually adopted it as his own. Whereas he had not a hand in personally aiding in the actual assassination, he did work with the group whose end purpose was to kill Hitler…as he was knowingly abetting in the assassination because he knew those he was working with and associating with were trying to kill Hitler….so guilty by association in the eye of the Gestapo.
    He wrestled with, then found peace in the necessity of taking this one life in order to help save countless others.
    And we know, it was two weeks before his own suicide, that Hitler ordered Bonhoeffer’s hanging, despite having any real solid concrete links to Bonhoeffer and the failed attempt on Hitler’s life.
    And as we now fast forward to our current times… I don’t see any validity to any particular call for Christians, as well as Jews, to rally in order to do away with Muslims…yet it is the fight against ISIS that is real….as this terror group is a growing cancer to humanity—Christian, Jew and Muslim and must be stopped.
    Just as something must be done in Syria….
    I wrote a post last week about the fact that for the first time in 2000 years, a mass for Easter was not said in Mosul—I went on to cover an interview of the journalist Eliza Griswold who, having recently returned from a trip to Syria and Iraq, opined over the fact of the systematic elimination of the Christian faith from this region of the world. The very place of its birth as a practiced religion. That the Christian Church in Mosul is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the faith….
    Her’s is a plea to eliminated ISIS.

    So on the one hand, where I do see that the example of forgiveness, real forgiveness, being something we as Christian must learn to actually put to practice, I also see that there are times that we are called to bring arms against an uncontrolled evil in the name of all humanity.

    Vengeance is a knee jerk reaction taken in anger and sorrow…but defending the defenseless is something else entirely—may be be prayerful as we consider the difference.


  4. Dear Father, I find your statement quite complete and satisfying. I would also point out, though, that IF the Copts were to respond violently they would perish in a day. Singing the Creed and not responding violently is both virtuous and prudent in their case. I don’t know that it would be or should be transferable to other situations.


    1. It may be a counsel of perfection, but I think it is transferable, and therein lies another aspect of the challenge of the gospel.

      As I have written in comments elsewhere, such that it might become a mantra for me, legitimate self-defence (and that adjective is crucial) is a good; turning the other cheek is better; and I would add, revenge is always evil.

      The Copts would last more than a day but I take your point. But my point is that I do not think they are motivated purely, if at all, by such calculations. The Basques, for example, are a small minority in Spain but they waged a bloody and brutal terrorist campaign for independence. There seems to no hint at all of such resistance among the Copts, bless them.


      1. I think you are missing Dom Gregory’s point. It would be impossible for the Copts to resist militarily. They have no choice but to accept the inevitable. Just War theory is applicable when the threatened group has a choice — as at Lepanto.


      2. I don’t think I am missing the point. A military response is not the only violent response possible. Riots on the streets or their own terrorism are the sort of things that minorities engage in when they experience oppression. Look at the Black Panther movement for example. The Copts have shown no sign of this. It is to their credit as Christians.



  5. Thank you! I think this is very important and seems to me part of a growing sensitivity to the Gospel of peace. While it would be arrogant to attempt to formulate a one size fits all solution, I think we are moving away from “just war” thinking (which can, as with the so-called “Right to Protect”) morph into just another rationalisation for colonial force. Lisa Sowle Cahill summarises the shift away from just war and towards just peace in the thinking of recent Popes very well here: . Peace


  6. I am glad to see a priest saying this. I think the witness of nonviolence and forgiveness of the middle east Christians is tremendous and the Christians of the world should pay attention and learn from it.


  7. Pacifism is little more than acquiescence to evil. Despite the attempt by some theologians to cloak legitimate resistance in some sort non-fatal intent of defense, their arguments are little more than sophistry better suited for a classroom. There is ample biblical and traditional justification for the use of intended deadly force when circumstances dictate. It is for this reason that nations have armies and households keep watch. While no thinking person wants war, preparation for it is often the best way of preventing it. Should it be necessary, the swiftest and most effective way of ending it is often also the one with least damage done.


    1. I have never denied the legitimacy of the just war theory. But to say that Christian pacifism is “little more than acquiescence to evil” raises some interesting issues. For example, Christ “acquiesced” to the evil of his own passion and death by his non-resistance, and his refusal to allow others to resist on his behalf. That is a challenge we do well to reflect on seriously, and put aside our personal dogmas for a while as we do so.

      Of course, the ultimate Christian response to evil is prayer. That too could do with a little more reflecting on today.


  8. This is an interesting post, Fr. Thank you for sharing. I hope this is not off-topic, but what about the idea of nonviolence instead of pacifism? Pacifism means non-participation in war or violence. Nonviolence, in the Gandhian sense, is active: it takes the ‘energy’ of violence and channels it toward active resistance. I wonder if nonviolence (ahimsa, in Sanskrit, which really means ‘to cause no injury’) isn’t a better way to look at the issue of war. In other words, not only would a Christian not participate in violence, but they would actively ‘resist’ violence using things like civil disobedience, protests, passive resistance, etc.

    When it comes to pacifism in the face of a personal threat to one’s self or one’s family…that’s a harder issue!


    1. Salve! Your comment is not off topic at all. Your definition of pacifism is narrow, but I grant it may be the one the world assumes, so in that sense it is useful. I disagree with the worldly sense of pacifism in its denial of any justification for war or violence. There are justifications for both in the Christian perspective, clearly. But as I have been implying, to say that something is justifiable is to mount the weakest case for doing it. Christ, who could toss tables around when he saw the need (though he seems not to have struck any people), offers a higher, and thus harder, way. Non-violence does not quite capture it; it is non-resistance, and that is far more challenging to the modern man especially in some cultures.

      Yet, non-resistance can share much with your Ghandian active non-violent resistance. Seen through that lens, the abolition of an-eye-for-an-eye etc can still be obeyed, since to cause no injury satisfies the explicit principle involved. So I would hardly object to the principle of non-violent active resistance!

      As I hope I was making clear, as soon as our resistance—of any sort—becomes vengeance, we have morally fallen. Also I sought to imply the truth that even our own bodies and our families do not belong to us except by delegated responsibility; they all belong to God ultimately. And lastly, I was seeking to highlight the confronting example the Copts are setting us. Some argue it is because they are powerless. Maybe (but in fact they are not totally powerless at all); but if the experience of powerlessness impels us to seek power, then yet again we are on the wrong path. This life is not the Christian’s main concern; our eternal home is in heaven.

      Thanks Michael!


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