I call myself an “uneasy pacifist” and here’s why:

Like many evangelicals, like most North Americans, I grew up in healthy respect and reverence for our veterans and our military. My own grandfather fought and was wounded in World War 2. I devoured novels set in war times and the spine is battered on my much-beloved copy of Rilla of Ingleside.  War is hard, yes, I knew that, but when it’s just, when its necessary, the good of it outweighs the evil, it can be used to do a tremendous amount of good.

It may sound funny to some of you, but my pacifism actually started over violence in hockey. Yes, I can now come out of the closet and admit that I am a Canadian that does not like fighting in hockey. (Heretic!) I love hockey but, when the gloves dropped and everyone rose to their seat to pound the glass and holler their approval for the dance, I felt sick. Once that step toward abhorring violence was taken, it was hard not to find it everywhere. The glorification of violence as  a means to solve conflict is everywhere in our culture and I was that lame person that couldn’t stand mixed-martial-arts battles and railed against video games and movies that depicted war or crime as an adventure, even arguing we are “a generation of virtual sociopaths.”

My pacifism began to grow legs when I lived in the United States for 8 years. When the war in Iraq began, the political climate in our area was strongly in flavour of military-based, unilateral action. The war was promoted as a “just war” – the argument that when a war meets certain philosophical or religious purposes, for the greater good or rescue of people from evil, that it is considered “just’ in the eyes of God and his people, an inescapable path for doing good through evil means. (For instance, many believe – and I still do in many ways – that if any war met that traditionally Christian criteria of a just war, it was World War 2.)

The war in Iraq did not meet just war criteria for me – in retrospect, many would agree. As the political propaganda grew and war was equated with patriotism and, even more oddly, with spiritual practice or faithful following of Jesus, I struggled. I worked in a military-based bank, I loved and respected the Canadian and American military, I was proud of my own family’s military history, developed an small understanding of their lives – and a deep respect for their honour and choices. But I grieved for what I suspected was ahead for the enlisted, the officers, the national guard, the country, the people of Iraq, the world as a whole. I grappled with the sentiment since 9-11 of robust, nationalistic, flag-waving patriotism and how many evangelicals believed Americanism (or American interests for those of us that are not American) and Christianity were somehow one and the same.

If you weren’t for us, you were against us.

I began to read more about pacifism as the pamphlets filled my mailbox and news editorials became more and more passionate in favour of war. It deeply appealed to me.

At first, I grappled with war from a purely pragmatic standpoint. It was expensive. The military-industrial-complex that Eisenhower spoke of so warningly was in fearsome operation and I couldn’t fathom how this was going to cost in human life, in political capital, in sheer dollars for the world. And then I was surprised – which is shocking itself – to discover a long history and tradition of Christian, faith-based pacifism. Apparently, there were whole groups of Christians throughout all of history that took a stand for peace and for active peacemaking precisely because of their faith. Despite the sometimes-bloodthirsty pages of Christian history, there has always been a remnant of believers that were convinced that Christ has modelled a path of non-violence for us to follow, not resisting even unto death.

And they were not lame or weak-willed. Think Martin Luther King Jr., St. Francis, Dorothy Day, the martyrs of our faith. I began to understand that peacemaking is not a hippie-thing, a sit-on-the-sidelines-of-history cop-out, letting someone else or someone else’s kid do my dirty work.  There wasn’t any patchouli to my decision making process and despite my love of long dresses and flowers in my hair, I wasn’t singing yet. The more I read, the more I prayed, the more that this seemed the path for me. Peace-making began to seem brave and active, it began to feel courageous to stand counter to our culture of war and violence and destruction.

I’m an pacifist for many reasons now – some pragmatic, some moral, almost all faith-based.

I believe life is sacred. The soldier is sacred, made in the image of God, and I cannot think what it does to a person to commit acts of war, to lift up arms against another, to kill another human being. My heart is ever with our soldiers and their beautiful families, even though I could not take that path myself in good conscience. Even the enemy is sacred, made in the image of God, loved. (I am one of those crazy people that think that God is love, that since my Father loves my enemy, that I, too, am called to an active love for them.) The “collateral damage” – that awful, cold term for those that are caught in the crossfire, the women, the children – is sacred, each life precious in the eyes of God. My pro-life ethic has become a lot more consistent as the years have gone by. War is never redemptive.

And I believe that love is stronger. Love will win in the end. Love will triumph, love is wider, deeper, more wild and generous and redemptive than we can fathom and I will choose the tough love.

My allegiance is first and always to God, to the ways of Jesus. And so, even though I am thankful for my country, even though I do appreciate it and work for the good of the city and the country in many ways, when the two are at odds – as in the choices of war or violence – my faith and the hope for peace wins every time.

But my pacifism is uneasy because I don’t know how it looks all the time, how best to live an ethic of life, peace and love in a culture of violence and war. I know that pacifism is not total and absolute abhorrence of all violence – instead, to me, it’s a policy of non-aggression and active peace-making.

And the everyday peacemaking can be hard. It was easy for me to look at the Iraq war and call it wrong. It’s not so easy to pursue peace in my every day life, to choose a life of non-aggression, to release anger, rage, trespasses, to forgive, to actively advocate for peace and wholeness in the world around me, making space for God’s ways. I don’t know how it always looks to choose love  in a way that exemplifies my commitment to the cultivation of the fruit of the spirit in my own life, such as peace, joy, goodness, love, faithfulness, gentleness and so on.

I am uneasy because sometimes I cry out for justice instead of mercy, failing to see that in Christ those two things are not separated. I can’t always find the way of peace or love.

But I choose peace. I have set my feet on the path to find out how to live active peace-making, to identify boldly as a pacifist.

As Shane Claiborne wrote, “As a Christian, I am convinced in the power of non-violence by the greatest nonviolent act in human history: Jesus dying on the cross, even for his enemies.

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  • Thank you for this~ I can completely identify with your words (except that I’m not Canadian) 😉  I struggle with putting into ink the ways I feel because it can change, I don’t have a firm answer that works in every situation… But I cannot separate my belief in Jesus and His love and that I truly believe He meant what He said. Thanks.

  • That’s funny, I use the same exact label for myself. We live in an imperfect world, and so I try to leave room for UN peacekeeping interventions in some cases. But heck, what do I know?

    What I find fascinating is that there are some really smart, high-level, highly informed people who suggested viable alternatives to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were other solutions being put out there by people who had actually been to these countries and understood what we faced. They weren’t perfect solutions, but when so much of our budget (and hence economy) is tied up in military expenses, it’s too tempting to not use military force. If all you have is a hammer…

    One good place to start out dialogue is that Christians need to be against militarism–the belief that force is an option to solve our problems. We may differ on the extent of pacifism or whether just war is possible, but we can’t follow Jesus in one breath and support militarism as a viable way to deal with world problems. I feel like agreeing to stand against militarism creates a lot of common ground and helps us stand against the most egregious wars we’ve perpetrated. 

    • Yes, start from that place and find other solutions actively. And yes, the military-industrial-complex thing is a big factor in the discussion.

  • KathleenBasi

    In so many ways, this is me.

  • Goeastyoungone

    Interesting thoughts that somewhat parallel my own journey…particularly as one who has been brought up in a world where one’s politics = the strength of their Christianity.  I struggle against this everyday.  I understand and feel your words, and agree with them.  My struggle continues here with how does one live this out, and live it out with love and compassion, while not diminishing the work and sacrifice of those who are actively serving in the military?

    • I don’t know. I know I hold both of those feelings in my own self, live them both, so I guess that’s where we start. 

  • rayhollenbach

    It’s a difficult question, and like you, I respect people on all sides of it.

    I have a difficult time with the Shane Claiborne quote because it represents only one facet of the Jesus-portrait. The cross is certainly a *major* expression of his love for the world–including his enemies, but what of his ministry in the 30+ years before hand? Or his resurrection, or his appearances to Stephen, Paul, and John in the years after his ascension?

    What has helped me personally are several essays by C.S. Lewis, who ministered to his nation during that “Good War” we call WWII. Lewis helped me see the difference between statecraft and soulcraft, the dangers of senseless nationalism, the levers of manipulation used by governments and religion, and the bloodlust loosed in battle. Still, we should ask the descendants of Jewish Europe whether pacifism is a one-size-fits all garment.

    Thanks for working through your positions so honestly and publicly. Peace to you!

    • Tamara

      The descendents of Jewish Europe who live in Israel don’t seem to be big fans of non-violence.   Of course no one in that area seems to interested in maintaining any peace for very long.  Maybe it’s a good business! 

    • Thanks, Ray. Those are some of the same points I still struggle through. (And I am in agreement about the quote – it was actually the totality of Christ’s life, death and resurrection that informed my choices.)

  • Tamara

    I’m really not uneasy about holding non-violent resistance views (not pacifism).  I believe it whole heartedly.  Now, I’m a hypocrit for sure, because if someone were to seriously harm anyone in my family I would want to harm them and very badly..maybe even to death and I think that is wrong.  I also believe lying is wrong, but have I done it? Umm..yes!  And, I’m forgiven.  So , hopefully if I end up in a situation where I feel very passionatly that I want to take someone out or beat them up then God who knows I’m His own will do all in His power, saints, angels the whole deal to keep me from it.  If I still fail then there’s repentance and forgiveness.  I also believe that love is stronger.  I fear however, I’m not very peaceful despite my beliefs! Ha! 

  • rachieannie

    This is really interesting. I have a great respect for the military and all that they do. Several of my friends have been deployed multiple times and I don’t want to say that their sacrifice is worthless (not that I think you’re saying that). However, there are other options. We don’t all have to be out there wagging our guns around, proving that ours is larger (ahem. I think of a male-oriented body part when I say this, but I’ll keep it family friendly).

    Ok, on a totally frivolous point, what caught my attention was your mention of Rilla. Oh how I love that book!! Definitely the reason I got the whole series for my Nook, because we had lost our paperback copy. Sad day. I spent hours looking for it. 

    • Wagging our guns around….ha! And I was wondering who would get that relatively obscure reference so yay!

  • Lisa_DiggingForMyrrh

    Thank you for sharing your wrestlings and uncertainties. I am a wannabe pacifist, but like so many others I am not sure how it looks when I walk it out every day. Thank you for putting words to my angst.

  • Trait

    Allow me to be the voice of dissent.  While I believe it perfectly noble for someone to be a pacifist on a personal level, I think it is unrealistic and naive when applied on a geo-political level.  We live in a world characterized by the Darwinan struggle of “survival of the fittest.”  Were the U.S. were to adopt a position of pacifism, we would quickly become a target of every of other military regime in the world seeking to advance its territory or expand its fortune.  We currently have the largest military in the world many times over and it still does not stop despots and ne’er-do-wells from attacking us. 

    Our leaders take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  Unfortunately, staying faithful to that oath requires acts of violence from time to time.  It’s not pretty and it’s not noble, but it’s the result of living in our flawed world. Our leaders must constantly weigh the benefits of action vs. inaction, often with deplorable consequences regardless the path taken.

    Are there “just wars”?  I don’t know the answer to that question in the philosophical sense.  However, I do know God commanded his people to go to war countless times in the Old Testament.  I also know that the U.S., a shining beacon of democratic values would not be here without a war.  Most of Europe would be under the influence of Nazism without violent intervention.  That being said, the U.S. certainly has it’s share of wars on record that were not noble or for good cause.  For this, we must beg forgiveness from the Almighty and seek always to be better in the future. 

    One of my favorite quotes is from the president in the movie, “The American President.”  When a political advisor suggests that bombing an intelligence center in country that attacked America was “very presidential,” the president bristles and then retorts, “You’ve just seen me do the least presidential thing I do.”  I believe most of our presidents enter into violence with this attitude, but it doesn’t change the fact that our country must, at some times, be defended.

    I close with a quote from Patrick Henry: “As individuals possessing a holy religion, it is our bounden duty to forgive injuries done us as individuals. But when to the character of a Christian you add the character of a patriot, you are in a different situation.  If your enemy smite one cheek, turn the other to him. But you must stop there. You must not apply this to your country.”

    • I always appreciate your perspective and wisdom, Trait – thank you!

  • I don’t know what I could possibly add other than right. there. with. you.

  • I too opposed the war before it began, when it was intensely popular. Now I just grieve for all we might have avoided.

  • Good piece here, Sarah.  So much of this rings true for me.  Scott & I talk about this a lot.  Have you seen the old movie, Sgt. York?  We feel much like Alvin.  
    the world is so complex.  But, actively seeking peace could change a lot.  We won’t turn this place into heaven.  And yet, active peace can bring a whole lot of redemption to messy situations.
    Keep preaching.

  • eve

    I love this, and totally am on the same boat with you!  I must say that though I am anti war/violence… I am also all for creative non-violent action.  There are so many problems in our world, but I am constantly amazed by the creativity of humanity, that I totally believe that we could find different solutions if we put our efforts (and our defense budgets!) into it.  Are we willing to take the risks and expose ourselves to harm in the pursuit of nonviolent action, though?  I pretty much doubt it.  Guns and bombs give us a distance that remove us from the consequences. Plus, we have them – it’d be a shame not to use them! (I say this dripping with sarcasm).  “I felt that I was in the general atmosphere of a great nation, so efficiently equipped for war under the pious persuasion of self preservation and peace that war became almost inevitable.  In fact, the thinking seemed to be that it would be a shame to have had so much money spent without putting the equipment to use, even though this meant misusing it”  Grantly Dick-Read (he was talking about a hospital, but the words definitely can apply here.)  It puts me in mind of the Trayvon Martin shooting – the neighbourhood watch had a gun, and so it was used.  (Did anyone else feel horrified that the neighbourhood watch had a gun?  I’m Canadian, too, and that was my first thought!  It freaks me out to know the NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH uses guns.)
    I find that when you tell people you are anti war/violence, they jump all over you saying others die for your right to lay down and be a pacifist.  I’m NOT a passive-ist.  I think action should be taken against aggressors, but I think that violence should not be a first resort, or where we put our money into.  Another commenter was right when she said that if some one was hurting her family, she would feel violent towards that person.  I totally would too, and who knows what would happen in the heat of the moment?  All my ideals might fly out the window and make me a hypocrite.  I’ve spent a long time thinking about this issue, and I’m still reluctant to  – come out of the closet, if you will. 

  • barry

    hi sarah,

    just came across this on a friend’s facebook page, and greatly appreciated it. as i told her, i thought it was really excellent — well-written, borne of deep
    conviction, wrestling honestly with real-life complexities. i think i can
    locate myself earlier in your journey. i don’t know if i can yet claim to
    be a pacifist, nor am i even positive that’s the road Jesus would
    advocate at the macro-level. but i am certainly thinking a lot of the
    same thoughts. appreciate your taking the time to write these reflections.