Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Two Types of Christian Pacifism

“Pacifism” can  be defined at minimum as the view that war, even defensive war, is always wrong–or that participation in war is wrong.  Another minimal definition is that deliberately taking human life is always morally wrong. 

Minimal definitions only get one so far, of course.  Pacifists come in many different varieties.  Faith-based pacifists may be minimally defined as those who believe their religious faith forbids them to kill human beings, especially in war.  Christian pacifists are minimally those who believe that their Christian faith forbids them to kill in any war.  From there on, the differences abound:  many Christian pacifists would also be against abortion (minimally believing that Christians themselves should never obtain or facilitate abortions; maximally, attempting to outlaw all abortions), but some Christians, while always considering abortion a moral tragedy, would sometimes see them as morally permissable. (I have been on both sides of that debate and am currently “reluctantly pro-choice” for reasons I need a different blog post to delineate.) Many Christian pacifists are also against the death penalty, but some would only see Christian participation in that as sinful.  Some Christian pacifists are vegetarians, but most are not (whereas Buddhist or Hindu pacifists ARE vegetarians).  Many Christian pacifists are against the use of physical punishment in child rearing, but others are not.

Likewise,  the type of theology and spirituality which undergirds Christian pacifism come in great variety:  Franciscan pacifism is different from Benedictine or Catholic Worker pacifism, but they all bear far more resemblance to each  other than either would to Amish or Mennonite pacifism.  Anabaptist style pacifism undergirds Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Amish and others (and,  itself, has variations within it), but this is different from Quaker pacifism.  And so it goes.

In Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder outlined the strengths and weaknesses of about 20 different types of religious pacifism without claiming that his taxonomy was exhaustive.  But while sometimes it is useful to multiply categories in order to see the great variety, sometimes it is helpful to boil things down to a couple of choices so that one can see broad similarities.  This is one thing that Catholic theological ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill does in her book, Love Your Enemies:  Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. (By the way,  this is a must read.)

Cahill notes that not only do  Christian just war theorists read the New Testament differently than do Christian pacifists,  but that Christian pacifists fall broadly into two types which also read the New Testament differently.  One kind of Christian pacifism Cahill calls the pacifism of obedience and the other as the pacifism of compassion. 

Cahill’s “obedience pacifists” include people like Tertullian, Menno Simons, John Howard Yoder.  They are nonviolent out of obedience to the commands of Jesus as they see them.  Their discipleship is one of following.  Their defenses of nonviolence focus on the authority of Jesus (or the Risen Christ) and they read the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ platform for his followers.  By contrast, Cahill’s “compassion pacifists” include people like St. Francis of Assissi, Dorothy Day, and (in his pacifist phase) H. Richard Niebuhr.  Their focus of discipleship is on “works of compassion and mercy” to the poor and outcasts.  They reject war and violence out of a prior spirituality that is about serving and vocation, rather than by rules about when, if ever, to use violence.

One must be clear that these are broad tendencies, not pure types. After all, Dorothy Day, for all her mercy and compassion thought  in terms of authority and obedience (and could be a tyrant in running the Worker Houses of Hospitality).  Nor would anyone who knew John Yoder want to suggest that he lacked compassion and mercy or that his view of the NT was in any way legalistic.  Still, these different orientations are helpful to note.

Some other “obedience pacifists” include Alexander Campbell, a majority of first generation Pentecostals, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, Culbert Rutenber, Richard Overton, Conrad Grebel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in his “pacifist days),etc.  Some other “compassion pacifists” would include Muriel Lester, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Fox,  Mother Teresa of Calcultta, Jean Vanier.

But where would one put Stanley Hauerwas?  He eschews rules for virtues, but clearly has an obedience-style structure.  So, the typology has its  limits even if it is helpful in broad terms.

March 31, 2009 - Posted by | discipleship, love of enemies, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount


  1. If you can be a pacifist and support the killing of unborn babies, I suppose you can be a pacifist and support the killing of Taliban or Iraqis. That is what I would call a “seamless garment” position, or maybe it would be “consistently pro-death” position.

    Comment by Jerry | March 31, 2009

  2. No, Jerry, you cannot be a pacifist and support the killing of any person. The reason some Christian pacifists are not “seamless garment” folks is that we do not view fetuses as human PERSONS from the moment of conception onward. Thus, although the developing life of the fetus is to be respected, it is not put on par with the value of the mother’s life–as she is undoubtedly a PERSON.

    In my case, this does not mean that I consider most abortions to be moral. I do not. Because the developing fetus is a POTENTIAL person (having a telos from conception onward), then it is normally incumbent on us to encourage and protect that potential–and the more so the closer to birth. The exceptions should be rare.

    But consider one case from a couple I know personally: She had an ectopic pregnancy. Do you know what that is? The fertilized ovum does not drop from the fallopian tubes as in the normal process, nor does it lodge in the uterine wall and begin to grow normally. Rather, the fertilized ovum stays in the fallopian tubes and begins to grow–where there is no room. Left alone, this will result in death for both mother and fetus. The only way to save the mother’s life is to remove the ovary and fallopian tube in question–which kills the developing zygote. The radically “pro-life” position would demand that nothing be done and that the mother be allowed to die, reasoning “better two deaths than one murder.” If that is your view, I cannot follow you.

    Let me try another example, also from an actual couple I know. They had tried often to get pregnant only to have miscarriages which were taking both a physical and emotional toll. They decided to adopt, instead. While working on adoption procedures, they became pregnant once more. This time the pregnancy seemed to go smoothly, at first. But tests soon revealed the developing fetus to have a radical form of spina bifida–no spine was developing and only a warped spinal cord. Again, the choices were grim: Allow the pregnancy to continue which would result in either a stillbirth or a child whose life could be only a few hours at best. Yet, such a choice risked further the health of the mother, especially as some radically deformed fetuses become malignant–i.e., lead to cancer in the womb. This was just one of many risks of continuing the pregnancy–and there could be no good outcome. Or, they could terminate the pregnancy. A “seamless garment” type told me that if this couple aborted, they would be sinning. The “proper” thing to do, I was informed, would be to carry the pregnancy to full term, at whatever risk to the mother, in order both to avoid “murder” and to show the child (presuming it wasn’t stillborn) that it was welcomed in love, even for a few hours of life.

    Now, the problem I have with such a “pro-life” view, Jerry is that it fails to recognize either moral tragedy (no good choices) or the concept of moral heroism. That is, a mother who CHOSE to bear such a doomed infant, even at great risk to herself, would be acting with moral heroism–beyond what could be required of her by others.

    I could include other examples. I probably need to write a series on abortion in the future, including why I no longer consider myself “pro-life,” but that was not the purpose of this post.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 31, 2009

  3. I see. MWM rejects a “seamless garment” position because it is too “pro-life” with respect to abortion. But he also rejects the “consistently pro-death” position because he is absolutely opposed to war. Killing fetus’ is OK but killing terrorists is not.

    So, could his position be described as inconsistently pro-death or inconsistently pro-life. Hmm?

    Comment by Jesse Rivers | April 1, 2009

  4. I do not believe in the “sanctity of life.” Only God is sacred. I do believe in respect for life, especially human life. This includes the lives of developing fetuses wherever possible. But I am “pro-person” rather than “pro-life,” and until a fetus is viable outside the womb, it is only a potential person, not an actual person, Jesse.

    But you are busy calling names. You haven’t dealt with my scenarios, drawn from real life. You haven’t acknowledged the difference between moral tragedy and immorality. You don’t tell me what the alternative is when there is no hope for the fetus, when it threatens the life and health of the mother. I give you real examples and you wonder whether I am “inconsistently pro-death” or “inconsistently pro-life?” I say that your seamless garment is too small and is being stretched to cover issues that are not the same.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2009

  5. “until a fetus is viable outside the womb, it is only a potential person, not an actual person”–this has got to be the silliest thing I have ever read.

    Comment by Jesse Rivers | April 2, 2009

  6. Did you know that the first church was a pacifist church? Augustine was the first who said it was ok for Christians to go to war, before him all the church fathers were pacifists. See a text I wrote about this, quoting 11 church fathers, at http://www.christarchy.com/profiles/blogs/early-christian-pacifism-and

    It also takes up the issues about the wars in OT and Romans 13.

    Comment by Micael | April 25, 2009

  7. Micael, yes, the early church was pacifist. This began being undermined by about 250 A.D., but Ambrose of Milan (Augustine’s teacher) was the first Church Father to officially give permission for Christians to join the army–although some catechisms had given limited permission earlier (as long as Christian soldiers did not kill). Augustine of Hippo was the first to change Christian teaching by adapting the pagan “just war theory” for Christians.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 25, 2009

  8. Was that Tertullian that gave limited permission earlier? I can’t recall…

    Comment by m | August 19, 2009

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