In my last serious post I argued that pacifism is a non-solution, because it depends on the very thing it seeks to abolish– that is, the pacifist is able to argue freely against war because people have died in war to make that possible. But I promised to address a more important issue: whether pacifism is taught in Scripture. Here we go.
The Scriptural argument for pacifism is usually based on Christ’s teaching against revenge in the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matther 5:38-45)
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.
The last thing I want to do is neuter these commands, excuse us from obeying them or make them sound simple. Our Lord’s teaching here is countercultural, contrary to our fallen nature, and impossible to obey outside the work of the Spirit. Christ clearly teaches not only that we are not to seek revenge, but that we are to hold loosely to our rights, being willing to bear up under unjust treatment.
But do these verses also mean that nations are not permitted to defend themselves against threats, or that governments are not to bring justice to criminals? If they do, why would Paul say this in Romans 13?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)
Here Paul indicates that governments are established by God, and that one key reason they are established is to “carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” For this purpose governments are given the right to “bear the sword,” i.e. use force when necessary to punish those who need to be punished.
Similarly, the apostle Peter:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Peter gives a negative and positive function of government: to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. We see in both these passages that governments have a God-given responsibility to protect their law-abiding citizens and punish the guilty.
When we look at these passages as well as the Sermon on the Mount, I think there’s a clear distinction between what an individual can do and what a government can do. So if someone shoots my dog, I can’t chase them down and shoot them in revenge. But the government has the responsibility to prosecute them as a criminal and deal out an appropriate punishment.
This is a broad case for the use of force by governments. Next we’ll look at some places in the Bible where you’d really expect the case for pacifism to be laid out, but what’s actually there is something different.