Pacifism: A Culture of Life, Part 2

pacifismOf course, merely having love as a motivation does not make things right. We need to act with an informed, intelligent love that is shaped and constrained by the gospel. The gospel tells us that it’s good to risk life to convert the lost, and not so good to risk life by jumping out of an airplane without parachute — even if the odds of survival are about the same. One risks a life that’s going to heaven anyway for the chance of bringing more people to Jesus — small risk for great gain — when viewed in gospel terms. The other risks life for nothing of lasting consequence. It’s not the odds that makes the decision good. I think it’s mainly about the stakes

Therefore, I’m unimpressed by the argument: we must not take a life because we believe in the culture of life. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t ask the right questions — questions about the gospel and about love.

That’s not the end-all be-all of the discussion, but it’s where any proper discussion has to start.

Now, I need to add a few notes. There are pacifists who argue, with great conviction, that the gunman in the Baptist Church should not have been shot. The Christians should love their enemies and “Thou shalt not kill” is an absolute command, not governed by the situation. After all, the Christians in the church would have gone to heaven and God would have been glorified by their martyrdom.

But what if the children were not all Christians? Even if the Christians consider it worthwhile to choose to death to preserve the lives of others — even insane killers — how can than justify allowing the death of others who are there because of their invitation to be part of a Christian school?

And what about the next victims of the same man? In what sense are we doing good by refusing the pull the trigger? (Unfair to argue that surely there was another option, that shooting a killer is never the only options, etc., etc. It’s just not a real world argument. Sometimes the choice really is to either kill the crazy gunman or let him kill innocents.)

(Rom 12:17-21)  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

V. 17 says do “what is right in the eyes of everybody.” Refusing to defend your guests from evildoers would not meet this standard. Letting him go free to kill others would hardly meet that standard either.

Nor is the killing revenge. No one is retaliating. Rather, the goal is protect the innocent.

You have to look at the big picture, recognize the finitude of your wisdom, and make the best decision you can — out of love. I have to go with the sniper who shot the crazy gunman. Just as I have to go with the men who forced the terrorists to crash Flight 93. They killed scores of people, good and bad, to save thousands. Not all the people were asked their opinion on the matter, but the men who forced an early crash of the plane saved far more lives than they took, and they are rightly hailed as heroes.

Now, another argument often made is based on our finitude. Since we can’t know all the possible ramifications of our decisions, we should trust God and go with “Thou shalt not kill.” And, you know, the men on Flight 93 might have been wrong. They weren’t, but they couldn’t be 100% sure what the terrorists intended to do. Maybe they just wanted to hold the passengers for ransom. But you have to act on the best evidence you have. The real world rarely gives us 100% odds on anything.

Now, this is not a cowardly argument at all, but it is, I think, a return to the simplistic argument that ethics don’t depend on the situation. But they do. James commends Rahab for her actions —

(James 2:24-25)  You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?

What did she do? She bore false witness. She lied. Now, she lied in furtherance of God’s will, to save his spies, but she lied. The situation demanded it. (Joshua 2).

What I’m saying would be agreed with by some pacifists and disputed by others. None of this necessarily contradicts pacifism. Either way, before you can argue the merits of pacifism, you have to agree on some fundamentals — and I think it all starts with love. And when love — an informed, God-instructed, gospel-framed love — contradicts a command — even “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not bear false witness” — love gives the correct answer.

One more example, thanks to Ray Vander Laan.

(Luke 10:25-27)  On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

The expert in the law must have been of the school of Hillel, the great rabbi who taught that “love your neighbor” is the second greatest command, second only to “Love the Lord your God.” You see, the rabbis debated how to decide what to do when laws in the Torah came into contradiction. One law says not to do work on the Sabbath. Another says to make a sacrifice in the Temple on the Sabbath. You can’t obey both! Clearly, the command to offer sacrifices on the Sabbath is “greater” than the Sabbath command.

However, the school of Shammai taught that the obligation to glorify God at the Temple was the greatest, even greater than “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus illustrated his views with the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.

(Luke 10:31-32)  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

Why did the priest and Levite pass by on the other side? Were priests and Levites cruel men without compassion? No, they were committed by the Torah to service in the Temple, and so they had to remain ceremonially clean. And to touch a dead body would make them unclean. And under the traditions of the rabbis, there weren’t allowed to go near someone near death, for fear he die while they were touching him, and so become unclean.

The school of Shammai insisted that the Temple service commands were “greater” than the command to love your neighbor. The school of Hillel insisted that “love your neighbor” was higher — but they wouldn’t have considered a Samaritan their neighbor.

Jesus shows that “love your neighbor” is greater than the Torah command not to touch the dead, even for a priest or Levite — and that “neighbor” includes even a Samaritan.

We’ve been trained to pretend that God’s teachings never come into conflict, and yet they do. I remember attending a class as a youth where the debate was over whether it was okay to miss Wednesday night church to help a stranger with a broken down car. Some argued that regular attendance at church was a “greater” law than “love your neighbor.” Some said to tell him to wait in the snow and cold until after church. Some said that God would never let us face such an impossible dilemma. But the class eventually concluded we should help the man.

The teacher then asked whether we should help the man even if it meant missing communion on Sunday night after your night shift job kept you from taking communion that morning. Thank goodness — the bell rang. We’d still be in class working on that one but for the bell!

Some will say that this is a slippery slope. And it is indeed. Sometimes we’ll help a man who is really a thief pretending to be broken down to rob us. Sometimes if we drive past the man, someone whose church meets later or earlier than ours will take care of it instead. But the loving act is to stop and help. Driving past is sheer rationalization — even if it means missing communion.


5 Responses

  1. Excellent post.

    Here’s a passage that illustrates a couple of your points. First, it shows a conflict between two different scriptural teachings (contrast to the commandment “Thou shall not kill.”.) Second, it shows that the ethical choice can depend on circumstances.

    Ex 22:2-3a “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed. “

  2. I second that, excellent post Jay.

  3. Are pacifism and nonviolence always the same thing? I thought they were different, yet you seem to be treating them as the same.

    For example, you’ve referred to Lipscomb’s views on war, yet Lipscomb believed in the use of force in personal self defense. To my mind he supports pacifism, but not strict non-violence.

    I’m probably the one confused, so please help me out here.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. Tim,

    There are all kinds of pacifists. Some reject all violence. Some reject all killing. Some approve defensive killing. Some don’t. Even here, pacifistic commenters vary considerably.

    But I’m really not writing to attack a particular kind of pacifism or all kinds of pacifism. I’m doing what I said at the beginning: thinking outloud on the subject.

    And that means the posts won’t be in a rigidly logical structure. Rather, the idea is to look for firm handholds and to then see where they lead.

  5. Tim and Jay,
    To me as a commited Christian pacifist, non-violence and pacifism are the same. I trust God for my defense and for the defense of my wife. Personally, I try to be consistently pro-life: no executions, no war, and no abortions. I own no guns, but would and have hunted for fod in the past. I have lived and worked in some rough spots, and God has always protected my wife and I. One time I was almost beaten to death while working in a state hospital for my CO work. I have made it a point to go with non-violent responses as my first and only resort. I say this after being raised in a military home and going through ROTC in high school. I know how to use weapons and chose not to do so as part of my discipleship to Jesus.
    Peace is not a way of several for followers of Jesus, it is an intrinsic part of His way we are called to follow.

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