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.
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