What Pacifism Taught Me About The Truth (And Myself)

It happened a few months after 9/11. A friend, assuming I would agree, complained that Christians in America were overwhelmingly in support of going to war with whoever was responsible. He was a Southern Baptist. He didn’t sew his own clothes out of hemp, live in a commune, grow a beard or dreadlocks. How could he be a pacifist?

I made three arguments against pacifism:

1. What about Hitler?

2. But there’s war in the Old Testament!

3. If someone broke into your house…

Each question was a revelation about myself: Specifically, how I really decide what I believe.

What About Hitler nonviolence

What About Hitler?

I asked “What About Hitler?” believing the truth is practical. Pacifism can’t be true, I reasoned, because pacifism doesn’t work: It’ll get me or someone else killed.

And that’s correct. Pacifism does not always or even often stop violence and injustice immediately or permanently…which is what I think I meant back then by “work.”

Now, some pacifists say violence doesn’t work all that well either. But that argument too assumes truth is pragmatic, the thing that works best.

Today I believe the truth is the truth no matter the outcome.

David And Goliath Fugel painting

But there’s war in the Old Testament!

I said “but there’s war in the Old Testament” because I didn’t think context mattered: the truth for one group of people in one place and time is true for all people in all places and times. (Except when God outlawed bacon. That was different. Somehow.)

I reasoned that if God commanded His people to do violence against their enemies in the Old Testament then God’s people are permitted to do violence against their enemies today.

But context does matter.

And our context is very different today. There is no military on the planet now made up entirely of God-followers – Israel’s was in the Old Testament. Our wars are declared by politicians – not by God. Those politicians do not claim to have heard from God or to be acting on His behalf. Unlike the Israelites, we kill godly and ungodly alike. We are not outnumbered and outgunned as the Israelites were, so it is our might and not God’s which gets the credit for victory. In the end it is the national anthem sung in celebration – not “Glory to God!”

Today I believe that many truths are tied to context.

Police dog attacking man in Birmingham

If someone broke into your house…

I asked what my friend would do if someone broke into his house and did unthinkable things to his wife and children – because I must have believed truth was determined by my ability to obey it always.

I was talking about non-violence with a man I greatly admire many years ago. He said,”If that’s what Jesus is really teaching about violence…then I can’t follow Jesus.” He was being honest, saying out loud what I too believed but was afraid to speak. This can’t be what Jesus is teaching because I don’t think I can do it.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said he believes in Christian non-violence because he’s a mean son of a… In other words, the truth is not often what comes easily or naturally to us. The truth is given to us by God to correct and contain what does come naturally to us.

Truth is not determined by my obedience.

The Truth About Myself

I’m not certain today whether or not pacifism is true. That’s not the point of this article either. The point is that God has used my questioning of Christian pacifism to teach me a great deal about myself. Namely, that so often I’ve gone about getting at the truth all wrong.

The truth is not practical. It is not always the thing that preserves my life or solves a problem quickly and permanently.

The truth is tied to context. What is true then and there for them is not always true at all times everywhere for everyone.

The truth is not determined by my obedience. If the only commands of God are the ones I can always and easily keep then God’s not asking much of us.

While searching for the truth I’ve learned the truth about myself.

What have you decided is untrue because it’s impractical or impossible?