*Posted with the editorial assistance of Brittany Evans*
As an introduction, I would like to start this post with a Hallmark quotation from 2 Samuel 8:2:
“[David] defeated the Moabites. He made them lie on the ground and then used a rope to measure them off. He put two-thirds of them to death and spared the other third. The Moabites became David’s subjects and brought tribute” (NET).
I just had to get that out of my system to start a post on pacifism. David…the man after God. I just can’t believe he did that…
My dear brother, Jeff McConnell, has written a post here entitled “Why I Am A Conservative, Calvinist, Baptist, Evangelical Fundamentalist, and a Pacifist” and he has given me permission to write a response to his post. For whatever value labels have (and all of those can be grossly misunderstood) I want to sign up wholeheartedly to those first four; and that is enough to put Jeff and I on the same tiny corner of the vast, evangelical iceberg. That is also why I want to respond to the fifth label – “pacifist” – a label that I completely disagree with. Since I have been meaning to chat with Jeff on this point for some time now, we might as well just have some blog interaction so others can eavesdrop. It should clarify some things. (I may, in fact, need to change some of my views…wouldn’t be the first time.)
The other reason I want to respond to this is because Jeff is a great guy and we do ministry together frequently. A few weeks ago we were both sharing about our faith in Christ with a receptive listener on Whyte Ave in Edmonton when a guy pulled a knife out just down the block from us – a big knife too. Jeff (and others) handled the situation magnificently (with far more confidence than I could muster), and, largely because of Jeff’s manly intervention, the situation was contained and the knife-wielder was arrested. That’s the second reason I want to respond to this – it’s a rare thing to have any passionate disagreement on secondary issues, while maintaining the centrality of the gospel. That gospel proclamation is something which I intend to keep doing with Jeff, Lord-willing for years to come. Hopefully the knife thing won’t be a reoccurring problem.
Finally, the other wonderful thing about Jeff is that, unlike so many today, he can separate one issue from another. In our day when every religious and political issue seems to be coupled, and “the party line” must be toed, Jeff can see distinctions. He would be the last person to make the kind of typical ad hominem internet attack and call me some backwoods, redneck fascist for disagreeing with his pacifism. And I would be the last to call him a pot-smoking, deadlocked, granola-eating hippie for it. Strange how many people go to those extremes though, isn’t it?
Ok. Enough bromance and on to the topic at hand.
Christian pacifism has a long history, especially within the Anabaptist movement (Mennonites, Hutterites and the baptists that emerged during the Magisterial Reformation on the European continent). In light of this long, established history, we need to reject the notion that holding to pacifism makes you, by definition, a coward. I have a lot of respect for an older man I once knew (who passed away not too long ago) who was a Mennonite of the old school variety and who was sent to a work camp here in Canada because he was a pacifistic, conscientious objector in World War Two. He was a great guy. I have no reason to believe this man was a coward. He was a man of principle and conviction, and he must have taken a lot of hits for that conviction. Thus, it is possible to have a pacifism made of titanium. And it’s possible for me to respect that kind of thing…as much as I can.
In his post, Jeff argues that under the Old Covenant, violence, war, and the like “coincided with the will of God in that particular covenant.” But now, in the New Covenant era, violence is incompatible with Christian faith. In this way, Jeff roots his pacifism in his New Covenant Theology – a particular school of thought (with proponents like John Piper, Don Carson, Doug Moo, and Tom Schreiner) that really emphasizes the newness of the New Covenant (sort of a via media between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism). I hold to the same New Covenant Theology but I work it out somewhat differently. Here are my seven reasons for rejecting “covenantal pacifism,” mirroring the points Jeff made in his article, interacting with the texts he put forward:
First, our principle text is the Sermon on the Mount/Plain in Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-46 where Jesus says loving your enemies is the fulfilled and better way to understand lex talionis – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The first thing to say is “amen” to the sermon. These are words that we really need to come to grips with. Then we need to recognize the context in which Jesus’ message was given. Jesus delivered this sermon to his followers as the ethical manifesto of the newly inaugurated, counter-cultural kingdom of God. This message pertains to kingdom life – it has to do with personal interactions and with love conquering the evil escalations that can quickly emerge between people. We ought not confuse personal vengeance, which Jesus is addressing, with civic polity, or national and international justice. There is a time for a “just war” (more below). But we must ask, “is Jesus rejecting lex talionis on the civil level?” No he isn’t. The principle of lex talionis must always remain the basis of good governance and retributive justice.
Let’s go to the second key text – Romans 13:1-7. This chapter teaches us that governing authorities are appointed by God and that this authority “does not bear the sword in vain” for it is “God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer” (NET). There is an inescapable connection in this passage between justice and death. Read that last sentence again. The sword is an instrument of death (which is also why I don’t oppose the death penalty). And that sword is “appointed.” If the Apostle Paul were a pacifist he simply could not write such a thing. I don’t believe he could. Not with that language. The point is clear – the governing authorities derive their authority from God, and part of that God-given authority is justice, even to death. If the Scripture affirms that in such positive language, why would that office be denied to a Christian? So this is the thought experiment: imagine there is a country where the gospel has taken hold so effectively that you had a strong Christian majority in the nation – say 95%. Would that country be allowed to have a police force or a military? The answer to me is a definite yes – and they would need Christians to work those jobs. There will always be wars and rumors of wars, so defense will always be needed and civil order will always need to be upheld. Christians are not barred from these roles.
Third, we need to consider afresh what Martin Luther called the “Two Kingdoms.” By this Luther meant that we always have one foot firmly planted in Christ as citizens of heaven and the other firmly planted in our current circumstances as citizens of our country. We have an obligation to both kingdoms. This can be a problematic notion that sometimes makes people think they can follow Jesus “spiritually” and do whatever they please “socially.” But that is not what Luther meant – Jesus is Lord over every sphere and every kingdom. What Luther meant is that there is a real difference between our engagement and our terms of reference in the kingdom of God and our terms of reference in earthly government. We cannot afford to blur the distinction between the two spheres, for, as Jesus said to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36). So a Christian should never pick up arms for the sake of Christ or the gospel. That is a different kingdom. There is no theological category for a Christian holy war or a Christian jihad. It doesn’t exist. But I can think of many circumstances (like WWII) where Christians (Christian men…) should go to war for king and country. Jeff also went to 1 Peter as an example of how we ought to suffer instead of fight as Christians, but I actually think the texts from 1 Peter totally support this theology of the two kingdoms. 1 Peter 2:13-17 articulates our obligation to be subject to the state, one kingdom, which exists to punish “the wrongdoer” (NET). Then the passage Jeff cited, 1 Peter 3:8-17, beautifully lays out our obligation as members of the new covenant community to embrace suffering for the cause of Christ in the other kingdom. In sum, Christians have multiple hats to wear. Always. And Jesus is Lord over all of them.
Fourth, I agree that Christ and his followers modeled a posture of non-violence in their ministry. A big part of that is because they were not revolutionaries and zealots – that was another contemporaneous movement. However, before his crucifixion, Jesus told his followers to sell their cloaks and buy a sword (Luke 22:36). Admittedly, this is a difficult passage to interpret. But I’m pretty sure the sword wasn’t for cutting vegetables. On the other hand, Jesus said that two swords were more than enough, not eleven, which suggests he has a restrained view of self-defense in mind.
Fifth, this leads me to a key differences between Jeff and me on this matter. I agree with Jeff that we are under the New Covenant and not the Old. I am a card-carrying believer in “New Covenant Theology.” In other words, we are under the law of Christ now and we have no binding obligation to the Law of Moses, for it not longer has jurisdiction over us since Christ is the end, the telos, of the Torah (nomos) (Romans 10:4; cf. 7:1-6). That said, we still need to appropriate the wisdom of the law, for our good and profit, through Christ. For Matthew in particular, “fulfillment” is the name of the game – the entire Law of Moses is fulfilled in Christ. So it is obsolete in its jurisdiction – it’s done. But it is far from irrelevant in its profitability and usefulness, for God “exhaled” it (2 Tim 3:16). So then Exodus 22:2-3 says, “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no blood guilt for him. If the sun has risen on him, then there is blood guilt for him.” I see no reason why Jesus did not love and believe, and even cherish, this passage – he loved the law. I also don’t see why a New Covenant believer cannot glean principles from this case-law; namely, that the principle of self-defense is a civic virtue. Take this virtue and apply it on a national level. If you can defend your home, why can’t you defend your country?
Sixth, Jeff had some soul-stirring, evocative points about living out the gospel. He said love for enemies is central to the good news. Yes it is. I was an enemy of God and Jesus died for me. I totally agree and I think we need to embody his love in everything we do. The trouble is, again, the two kingdoms. I think it’s possible to embody the grace and love of Christ in every sphere. Even policing and military. I know that seems provocative. What I mean is that the gospel must speak to our ethics in war. There is a way to bring the gospel to bear on even your civic duty. That is why we need Christians in policing and corrections and security and military. An example might be a soldier who respects the dignity of the enemy instead of a soldier who openly mocks the enemy. Additionally, there are many ways in which fighting and laying down your life for another if need be is actually a reflection of the gospel. On the cross, Jesus laid his life down for his bride (Ephesians 5:25). Jesus is coming back for her, and will ultimately fight a war for her on a white horse (Revelation 19:11ff.). That is a just war. If marriage is a picture of Christ and the church then certainly fighting for the defense of your wife and family, whether that means in your house or on a battlefield, must also be a picture of the gospel. The gospel is a jewel with many sides. Jeff’s point was that suffering for your enemies is a picture of the gospel. But it’s not the only picture.
And that leads me to my last and final point (and I suspect this might be the first point where Jeff might really agree with me). My pastor recently pointed out to me that Jesus rides on that white horse accompanied: “…the armies that are in heaven, dressed in white, clean, fine linen, [will be] following him on white horses” (Rev 19:14 NET). I always assumed that he was accompanied by angels. But the white garments motif in the Apocalypse suggests that humans are there too. That means the day will come when Christian pacifists won’t be pacifists any longer. I look forward to the day when I ride side by side with my buddy Jeff.