Military Chaplains Just War Education Project

The Pacifist Tradition

In addition to the Just War tradition, the Episcopal Church also calls upon its members to study and understand the tradition of pacifism. Early church fathers traced this tradition to the Gospels and Jesus Christ’s adherence to non-violence; in more recent times, the Episcopal Church has reaffirmed statements made by Lambeth Conferences dating to 1930 that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching an example of our Lord Jesus Christ” (General Convention resolution 1979-D007).  At the same time, the Church has embraced the Just War tradition, encouraging congregations to study and understand it as well.  The following is a perspective on this debate by Marc Livecche, Ph.D., the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at “Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy,” with editorial assistance from Matt Gobush, member of the Church’s Standing Commission on World Mission, for the Military Chaplains Just War Education Project, supported by the Constable Trust.

In much of the West, including its Christian communities, there is a steadily declining belief that killing another human being is compatible with love. Instead, in many Christian circles the temptation is to focus on war’s undoubted evils and to equate war itself with wickedness tout court. And so, while it has never been the dominant belief, in recent decades pacifism has grown in influence in both the Church and the Christian academy. 

Christian pacifism can be found in a variety of forms. These range from the practical pacifists—those who concede that going to war might sometimes be right but impose such stringent requirements that justification is rendered essentially theoretical—to those principled pacifists who oppose all war (Biggar, 2013). 

So, for example, while the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee noted in 2009 that “God’s desire is for peace” it likewise acknowledged that “we live in a complicated world” in which conflict is sometimes unavoidable. In light of this, a 2003 resolution encouraging the study of just war nevertheless affirmed:

That when legitimate civilian authority determines that war is justified, members of The Episcopal Church recall our Lord’s teaching to love our enemies, counsel that participation in or refusal to participate in any war is a discernment process requiring deep reflection and prayer with humility, and acknowledge that one participates in war with great reluctance, always seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness.

This is deep wisdom. War undoubtedly causes terrible evils. The very existence of just war tradition – with its careful balance of permission and constraint – is an acknowledgment that war should never be waged lightly. Advocates of justified war need, therefore, to be honest about the real implications of their reasoning. But so too must their opponents. Just as war should not be too easy to wage, neither should a just war be too easy to avoid. If war causes terrible evils, ‘peace’ sometimes permits them (Biggar, 2013). The skeptic need only consider the 1994 Rwandan genocide. If ‘peace’ sometimes permits terrible evils, war sometimes prevents—or ends—them. Recognizing this terrible tension, the 1982 Joint Commission on Peace put it this way:

While a commitment to absolute pacifism may appear to be very attractive … it also appears to be impossible … However, the very causes which seem to make absolute pacifism impossible make active peacemaking obligatory.”

One example of just war’s ability to do what pacifism cannot accomplish might be found in reflecting on the 50thanniversary commemoration, in 1995, of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camps, in Poland. At the end of the formal program, a recitation of the names of the dead began over loudspeaker. This was to continue until every known name was read. If we suppose that all the names of the approximately 1.2 million people who were murdered were known, and if we assume that it took a single second to read each name, that terrible recitation would have continued for 13.8 days—nearly a fortnight of an uninterrupted litany of lost souls. It was war that vanquished Nazism and prevented a fifteenth day, a sixteenth, indeed an unknowable number of additional days of slaughter. War was necessary to bring about the peace that the nations under the allied coalition now enjoy with their former axis adversaries.

Some pacifists will concede that the governing authority’s use of force is ordained by God, but, they insist, Christian believers must, themselves, refuse to participate. Against the earthly society around us—the ‘coercive kingdom’—the Christian vocation is to bear witness to an alternative society—a ‘peaceable kingdom’—so completely governed by the law of God so as to lack all need for a sword (Hays, 1997). Such Christian conscientious objection puts pacifists in a double-bind: first, and parasitically, they have to depend in practice upon what they contradict in principle. Second, and more seriously, they stand in dereliction of the duty of charity by keeping their own hands clean while others willingly accept the necessary burden of dirtying theirs (Biggar, 2013).

One famous conscientious objector who managed to avoid this parasitic hypocrisy, even as he agreed that warfighting is outside the Christian vocation, was Private Desmond Doss. Doss was a World War II U.S. combat medic who received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest valor citation, for singlehandedly ferrying 75 casualties to safety at the Hacksaw escarpment during the Battle of Okinawa. His story was told in the film Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and in the documentary, The Conscientious Objector (2004)Taken together, both films bring into focus Doss’ moral scruples regarding war.

Some of these views were fostered through Doss’ fascination with a framed illustration of the Ten Commandments, hanging in his childhood home. It was the image of the Sixth Commandment, against murder, that most disturbed him: Cain, club in hand, standing over the lifeless corpse of Abel. Doss recalled lamenting aloud, “How in the world could a brother do such a thing?” In that instant, he heard the voice of God declaring, “If you love me, you won’t kill.” From that moment on, Doss mused, “I didn’t ever want to take life.”

Despite this commitment, and although he was eligible for draft-deferment because of his employment in a shipbuilding yard, Doss, in his own words, “felt it was an honor to serve God and country.” Believing the war against Nazism and Japanese militarism was right, he did not believe he should “stay [in America] while all them go fight for me.” Doss enlisted and became an Army medic, a noncombatant, and passed through the entirety of his combat deployment in Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa, without ever handling a weapon.

Doss’ views regarding pacifism are complicated. While he insisted that he was not a pacifist, he remained committed to personal non-violence. Both films-elaborate on this. In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss is portrayed on more than one occasion contrasting his role with that of the trigger-pullers around him. Prior to enlisting, he insists: “While everyone else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it.” Later, he puts the same sentiment this way: “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to want to put a little bit of it back together.” These statements cannot be written off simply as a fictionalized portrayal of Doss’ views, for the real Doss made similar pronouncements. In one interview he said, “I was fighting for freedom by trying to save life instead of taking life, because I couldn’t picture Christ out there with a gun killing people. I like to think of him out there with an aid-kit like me.” And elsewhere he commented, “I didn’t believe in taking life. God gave life. It wasn’t for me to take it.”

Desmond Doss’ views are revealing because he appears to acknowledge, as we do, that despite his personal convictions and in light of the reality of human evil and the fact that some aggressors will not stand down from their evil-doing until they are knocked down, the Christian just war tradition is sometimes superior to pacifism both in practical responsibility and in approximating neighbor love—particularly the innocent neighbor who needs rescue. One can conclude that while pacifism remains a Christian option, it is one only in a way broadly analogous to something like celibacy—an exception reserved for those few possessed by a very particular divine call. It is the pacifist, not the soldier, who is the exception to the Christian norm.

Moreover, Doss was wrong about the war he fought. Just wars and just warriors – just like Doss – aim not at tearing things apart, but at putting things back together. “Even in waging a war,” Augustine demands, “cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace” (Augustine, 1887). The Pauline dictum in Romans 12 – “In so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men,” – is a commitment to force as last resort. Christians are to do whatever they legitimately can to make peace with their enemies, including praying that God would bless them and work in their consciences to persuade them to stand down. More than this, Christians are to take constructive and preventative steps to do good in the world, alleviating, where possible, the causes of animosity. In this, the just warrior and the pacifist stand in accord. Nevertheless, there are no sure ways to soften hard hearts, and the practice of peace has restrictions.

Peace cannot be bought at the price of truth “As far as it depends on you” is not just a goad toward peace, but also a limit: “You, given who you are, redeemed by Christ and created to carry the image of God, are called to preserve peace. But you, given who you are, also have no call – or right – to trump the veto of those who refuse to reciprocate your peaceful endeavors.” Our enemies have a vote on whether peace will prevail. 

In any case, the pacifist can find solace in Augustine’s own sentiments about the sorrows of war. The oft-described father of Christian just war morality, Augustine nevertheless asserted that the impossibility of peace is a tragedy. He lamented: 

A just war is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor, and that injustice ought to be a source of grief to any good man, because it is a human injustice (Augustine, 2003). 

Given the heavy nature of this task, the demeanor of the Christian soldier is paramount. Augustine insisted that “no one is fit for inflicting this punishment except the man who, by the greatness of his love, has overcome that hatred wherewith those are wont to be inflamed who wish only to avenge themselves” (Augustine, 1888).

Returning to the Gospel, the commentary by Bp. George Packard in his 2002 “Statement on Just War and Its Contemporary Implications” offers sage guidance to both the military chaplains under his care and the Church at large on the role of pacifism in our ministry:

For a sense of our Lord’s attitude we must “go beyond war” and embrace Christ’s message of the preciousness of and need for the redemption of every human being, his/her dignity and essence in God’s sight, and the importance of their living out a destiny in God’s service. It is hard to think of living out such destiny through the violence of war yet the origins of Just War have the noble origin of conflict on behalf of the innocent. (Thomas Aquinas and his comments are listed under the “Love” section of his works.) It is in these moments that we turn to Just War doctrine, for life, in its ambiguous complexity, might force us to choose to offer life for the saving of life. In short, we always seem destined – short of the Kingdom of God – to frame out the best, worst case scenario with lively discussions about the legitimacy of war.

Works Cited

Augustine (2003). The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London; New York: Penguin Books, 2003), cf. BK XIX, esp. p.chs. 13-p.17.

Augustine (1887). “Letter 189, To Boniface,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J.G. Cunningham, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co, 1887).

Augustine (1888). “On the Sermon on the Mount,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans. Philip Schaff, vol. 6 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), XX.63.

Biggar, Nigel (2013). In Defence of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Hays, Richard (1997). The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 331.