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

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism I: Getting Started

   We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism.  To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem.  First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture.  There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case.  This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.

Second, this is a biblical case.  Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members.  Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters.  Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon.  Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church.  But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.

For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity.  I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal:  understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.

Defining some key terms in this study: 

  • Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ.  “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.].  So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up.  “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims  that Jesus Christ makes on their lives.  It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
  • Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.”  Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study.  But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence.  For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Artsed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).  Update:  Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right.  But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc.  Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil.  Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong.  We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong.  The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism.  There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear.  Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.”  But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
  • As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion.  Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion.  Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires.  Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence.  If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.”  However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent.  Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
  • These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important.  Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children.  That is not so.  Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome.  Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car.  I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm.  So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
  • Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue.  Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent.  Nor are intentions everything:  If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence.  The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
  • Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence.  It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent.  Examples of such practices include:  strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc.  We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
  • Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence.  These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
  • Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.”  In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking.  For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter).  (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention.  See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
  • Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice).  This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles.  Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking.  I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.

I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow.  The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions:  “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.

October 3, 2009 - Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, convictions, death penalty, discipleship, ethics, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Jesus, just peacemaking, just war theory, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, theology, violence, war


  1. (originally left on your Facebook page)

    Your definition of violence includes using force to overwhelm the will of another person. This is very straightforward. Yet you give an example where a person has made the choice to commit suicide (that is their will), and someone else uses force to prevent them from doing so (pulling them off the bridge), and you say that that is not violence. By your definition, it certainly appears to be violence. Force is being used to overwhelm the will of the other person. “You can’t do what you are wanting to do, and I am going to use force to stop you from doing it”.

    Spanking, which you also exclude as violence, falls into the same category. It is quite clearly a use of force (or threat thereof) to overwhelm the will of another person. Restricting your child to their room (and enforcing the restriction) would also be a use of force, I would think…. Read More

    It seems that something more needs to be added to your definition of violence to exclude such situations. (And it’s important because I expect that qualifier will be the exact clause that, say, just war advocates would use to justify a particular war…)


    (you replied on your Facebook page)

    Overwhelming the will is only part of that definition. The other part is violating the rights or bodily integrity of the other. I assume that no one has the right to take his or her own life or the lives of others. I don’t exclude spanking from violence, but set it as a borderline case which can and usually does become violence by violating bodily integrity. In any definition there will be borderline cases. As we progress, I hope it will be obvious that the case I’m trying to make will not be legalistic.

    (my follow-up response)

    Ah, I see… then I think you need “and” in your definition, rather than “or”. It currently reads “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will OR violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being”. I think you must mean “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will AND violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” That’s an important distinction, I think, that can change the discussion significantly farther down the line.

    I would go even farther, using your suicide example. The rescuer overwhelmed the will of the suicidal person… and also violated their bodily integrity (presuming that personal injury took place in the process, which you state would still not be violence). It is not violence because no right has been violated. So, it seems that the violation of rights is necessary for violence. So, it seems that the other “or” in your definition needs to be changed to “and” as well. It seems it would be more accurately stated:

    “Violence is using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will and violate the rights and bodily integrity of another human being.”

    It seems that removing any one of those three pillars results in an act that is not violence. It must be coercive (overwhelm the will); it must violate the rights of the individual (saving someone from suicide isn’t violent because they don’t have a right to suicide). The only potentially optional pillar is the violation of bodily integrity, since psychological cruelty can still be violence. Maybe the “bodily integrity” clause could be removed altogether? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


    Comment by Mark Congdon | October 5, 2009

  2. Mark, for now, I’ll keep the definition as is, but will consider your remarks in more detail. I have slightly modified the post to take some of your remarks into consideration.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 5, 2009

  3. If I refuse to pay my taxes because I don’t believe it should be used to support “welfare queens” and the IRS puts me in jail. Is that an act of “violence.”

    What is a good liberal to do?

    Comment by Jerry | October 6, 2009

  4. It is an act of coercion and backed up by violence. So, a Christian pacifist may want to conclude that a Christian should never be an IRS agent. What’s your point? This series will explore the duties of those whom Christ calls as his own, not the duties or prerogatives of government officials.

    And remember, Jerry, both Jesus and Paul commanded that we pay our taxes.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 6, 2009

  5. Also, this series has nothing to do with “liberals,” whether political or theological. I contend that Christian pacifism is a very “conservative” position–in that it takes Jesus and the New Testament seriously and does not use later human traditions or reason or philosophical or pragmatic judgments to overturn the clear teaching of Jesus and the apostles. At least on the question of violence, it is the non-pacifist Christian who is more “liberal,” Jerry.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 6, 2009

  6. My point is that pacifists should only support taxes if they do not involve either the threat or use of violence. Since it is impossible to tax someone without threateing them with violence, pacifists should not support taxes. They should only support the voluntary taxation.

    or they should give up their pacifism and permit the threat and use of “violence” against those who refuse to pay their taxes.

    So, which kind of pacifist are you, Michael.

    Comment by Jerry | October 8, 2009

  7. Michael has suggested that it is possible to be coercive without being violent. He gave the example of a parent that “insists” that his children do their homework against their will. I’m not sure how effective coercion can ultimately be without the threat of force backing it up. Michael also seems to be suggesting that it is possible to use coercive force, but still not be acting violently… that is where the concept of “rights” came into play. Presumably, the child does not have the “right” to not do their homework, so some level of coercive force is not true immoral violence. I expect the same logic could apply to a taxpayer… the non-payer does not have the “right” to avoid paying taxes, so some level of coercive force would not be considered “violence”.

    I don’t yet understand these things, particularly where and how and why the lines get drawn. It seems to me that Hitler, for example, does not have the “right” to invade Europe and threaten to take over the world, wiping out most of its inhabitants in the process, so some level of coercive force (war) would not be considered immoral violence. But, obviously Michael disagrees at that point, and I look forward to hearing more of how he draws those distinctions.


    Comment by Mark Congdon | October 8, 2009

  8. For the pacifist letting an evil occur is always morally preferable to doing “violence” to prevent it. It is preferable to allow genocide to occur than resort to violence to prevent it. If I make a determination that the only way to prevent prevent the slaughter of, say, Jews, then it is better to allow the slaughter of jews than to resort to violence. simple as that.

    Comment by Andy | October 8, 2009

  9. I am someone who will make my case biblically, Jerry. I am not willing to discuss hypothetical situations or philosophical test cases. That’s a different kind of discussion for another time, although some such questions may be entertained at the end of our series. If we did that, now, we’d never get to the biblical discussions.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 9, 2009

  10. Actually, Mark, I do agree that Hitler had no right to invade Europe. I disagree that violence was the way to resist him. Further, I am exploring an aspect of Christian ethics, not the ethics of nations. There are no such thing as Christian nations and I do not assume that we must tailor our behavior or ethics to what rulers think they have to do.

    I write ethics for disciples, not for rulers.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 9, 2009

  11. Andy,

    This is obviously true, if you define a pacifist as someone who believe violence is always morally wrong. But, obviously violence (at least to Michael) is not always what it seems. Sometimes things that appear to be violence are not actually violence.

    The two key examples that Michael has given so far are saving a person from suicide, and spanking or otherwise disciplining a child. These acts appear to have all the necessary aspects of violence (use of coercive physical force), but yet are not (according to Michael’s definition) violence.

    Letting an evil occur (such as someone jumping off a bridge) is NOT, according to Michael, always preferable to using coercive force to prevent that evil (Michael wouldn’t call that particular use of coercive force “violence”). I think that’s a very important distinction, and I look forward to seeing how Michael will flesh it out as this conversation progresses.


    Comment by Mark Congdon | October 9, 2009

  12. Michael,

    Obviously you don’t believe that “violence” was proper. However, it seems that in some similar situations, some level of coercive force that you would not call “violence” is proper, and I wonder what about that situation makes it different from situations where coercive force is acceptable.

    The Hitler question is not, I don’t think, purely the province of “the ethics of nations”. For each Christian individual who chose to fight in that war, or for each of us who might be called on to fight in a similar war in the future, it is a very important, personal ethical decision. When is coercive force immoral violence, and when is it not?

    I am looking forward to learning more about how you draw that distinction.


    Comment by Mark Congdon | October 9, 2009

  13. Actually, Andy, that is not true. Please let me make my biblical case. I’ll deal with the “what about Hitler” question later–it’s one of the standard questions that every pacifist gets asked every day. Rest assured that most of us have thought of answers.

    But I should point out that non-pacifists have just as much trouble preventing genocide as do pacifists. First, WWII was not fought to save the Jews. Most of Europe would not allow them refugee status–and the U.S. turned away shiploads of Jews ourselves. Second, the genocide had not begun when the war began and when it did, the Allies would not even divert planes to destroy the railroad tracks taking Jews to the death camps. Meanwhile, pacifists throughout Europe hid Jews at great risk. And, had the nations of Europe listened to pacifists at the end of WWI, the fascists would never have risen to power in the first place.

    Likewise, non-pacifists have continued to turn away from genocides and allow them to continue even to today. Have non-pacifists used military violence to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, or the Congo, to name only two of the most recent examples.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 9, 2009

  14. well, Michael–WHAT is not true? It is NOT true that the case is the same for non-pacifists. Non-pacifists REJECT the notion that killing is NEVER to be done. Pacifists EMBRACE the notion that killing is NEVER to be done, regardless of the consequences. That means that pacifists ARE ALWAYS committed to permitting a great evil (genocide)to occur rather than killing to prevent it. Pacifists ARE NEVER permitted to kill even to prevent a great evil. On the other hand, if non-pacifists determine that you have to kill (or go to war) to prevent a great evil, then they say you should do so. How hard is THAT to understand?

    So go ahead and make you “biblical case” all you want–at the end of the day you can’t deny that conclusion. And I can’t imagine why a pacifist would want to avoid it in the first place.

    Comment by Andy | October 10, 2009

  15. another point–Note how Michael changed the subject in the above post. the issue is not whether non-pacifists will ALWAYS resort to killing to prevent genocide in this or that case, but whether one may EVER resort to killing to prevent genocide. The PACIFISTS says you may NEVER resort to killing to prevent genoide whethe it be Darfur, or Rwanda, or whether it involves stopping the genocide of the Nazis. Again, that is simply the NECESSARY implication of pacifism and I can’t understand why Michael or any other pacifist is so hesitant to resist the conclusion.

    Comment by Andy | October 10, 2009

  16. What I reject Andy is that military violence prevents genocide. Give me an example when that happened. I’ve already shown that WWII was not fought to prevent the Holocaust and that the Allies did little to prevent it during the war. Pacifists, on the other hand, saved Jews at great risk to themselves. Did military violence prevent the killing fields of Cambodia? No. Did military violence stop the Arminian genocide that was Hitler’s inspiration? Did it prevent the Stalinist purges?

    What genocidal violence has violence prevented?

    Yes, it is true that pacifists are committed to nonviolence and that this may not always work to stop monstrous evil. But the “it doesn’t work” claim gets non-pacifists, too, because violence is remarkably ineffective. In any war, at least one side loses and often the damage is so great that neither “wins” in any meaningful way. That’s a pretty poor success rate in standing up to monstrous evil.

    On the other hand, while pacifists do refuse to use violence, and we sometimes are powerless to stop evil–we often are not and are willing to die (not kill) to stop it. And we invest our resources into making nonviolent direct action, even nonviolent intervention, more effective–such as the creation of such groups as Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace (I’ve been on 3 of their short term missions), Nonviolence International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades International (Canadian based), etc.

    Sometimes, nonviolence is DEMONSTRABLY more effective than violence. The genocidal tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, of Serbia, survived several wars and coup attempts with his power intact–including the NATO bombing which failed to stop his rape and death camps. But he was overthrown by the nonviolent movement in 2000 led by the student group Otpol. (See the PBS documentar, Bringing Down a Dictator).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 10, 2009

  17. Serbian genocide was finally halted in Bosnia-Herzogovnia because Richard Holbrooke unleashed NATO airpower in support of a Croatian offensive in the Krajina region in 1995. It is indisputible and widely agreed that this led to the Dayton accords. So, there’s one example.

    In July of 1995, had the Dutch battalion in Screbrenica not behaved so cowardly and had NATO had acted more aggressively with miliary force the greatest genocide in Europe since the Holocaust would have been prevented. ALL general knowledge, Michael, but you are evidently ideologically blinded to the history.

    Michael,Your pacifist views by moral and logical necessity lead to the claim that it is MORALLY PREFERABLE to let massive slaughter occur rather than bring “violence” on the person or persons causing the violence. All this blather in your last post is simply a dodge. In any event ask the Jews who were liberated in the death camps and see what THEY think of your pacifism. Ask what they think would have happened if your Christian peacemaker teams rather than the US Army had tried to land at Normandy. Sheesh. How absurd can you get! What a joke!

    The non-pacifist doesn’t have to argue that “violence is always effective” She just has to argue that it is often, or sometimes effective. And THAT is simply obvious. To paraphrase George Orwell, my children sleep safely in their beds at night because rough men (the local cops) will bring violence on those who would do them harm

    Finally, If I understand you correctly, you would be morally and ethically and Biblically opposed to all peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations (blue helmets). According to your logic, anyone participating in UN peacekeeping missions are immoral. They carry guns. they threaten with violence those who would rape women and children and slaughter the men. what kind of perverse morality is this?

    Comment by Andy | October 10, 2009

  18. Andy, you are quite wrong. Pacifists aren’t “passivists.” They so not “permit” or sit idly by while injustice proceeds. No! The pacifist takes a strong role in opposing evil, but does no non-violently. This was actually quite effective in Denmark during World War II, savings thousands of Jews from going to camps, and even turning Nazi leaders in their favor.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | November 12, 2009

  19. Your argument is actually very logically infallible.

    You are saying that pacifists must have 100% success rate in what they do, but that violent people (who God hates (Psalm 11:5)) only have to be “sometimes effective.”

    How about if pacifism is “sometimes effective” it’s the moral equivalent of violence – by your logic. Then clearly pacifism is the moral superior simply because it does not cause harm while it is achieving its ends, where violence does cause collateral damage in the process.

    Therefore, according to your logic (which, as Michael has pointed out, has no Biblical basis) pacifism is clearly the superior method.

    As it turns out, pacifism is “sometimes effective.”

    Comment by Steven Kippel | November 12, 2009

  20. Could you recommend some books? i want to read about practical-ethical pacifism. Most of what i’m reading focuses on pacifism from the war/international/state perspective. i’m hoping to find something that talks more about non-violence in everyday situations. i’ve read John Howard Yoder’s “What Would You Do?” and it’s great, but i can’t find anything else like it. Do you know of some resources along these lines?



    Comment by Guy | July 7, 2010

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: