One of the goals in my classroom is to create an atmosphere where the students want to dig deeper into their faith and wrestle with critical issues. As the year progresses my students learn of a few of my positions that are relatively new to them. Now most of the students who either have me as a teacher or will have me next year know that I am a Christian pacifist (the adjective is necessary because my reasons for being a pacifist rely on Jesus being who the Bible says he is). The fact that this reputation has started to precede me has led to some interesting conversations. I have explained my reasons for being a pacifist and why I think Christians are called to a nonviolent lifestyle, but it is clear from some of their questions that much is still misunderstood about Christian nonviolence. I am going to list some of the most common questions I get from students once they learn that I am a pacifist and craft a response for each.
1) Do you hate soldiers?
I recently had a student discover that a “Christian” group has made a habit of protesting soldiers funerals (Westboro Baptist). She then asked me if I approved of what they were doing since I was a pacifist. I was horrified by the question. While I don’t think that Christians should participate in the military, I do believe that the act of waving a sign that says “God hates you” at a funeral is an inhumane and deeply anti-Christian act. My call to Christian nonviolence puts me in direct opposition to the folks at Westboro precisely because I believe that they are committing verbal violence. I think many pacifists often get accused of dishonoring soldiers and veterans, and it is hard for the discussion to not become personal with so many of us having family in the military. So let me be clear, the church is called to love soldiers and veterans even if it stands against war. In fact, the church needs to be proactive in the care of the soldiers who are now starting to come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. There needs to be a safe place where soldiers can talk about their experiences and start to heal from both visible and invisible wounds. The church must be that place.
2) What would your husband do if you were punched in the face?
This question has actually become a running joke in one of my classes. Now whenever I ask this class if they have any questions during a lecture, this is usually the first one asked in jest. It started as a serious question when they found out that both my husband and I are pacifists. They then created a ridiculous scenario where someone randomly comes up to me and knocks me out (I find Yoder’s response to hypothetical scenarios to be especially helpful here). The correct response, according to them, was for my husband to beat up the other guy. He would do this to defend my honor, and if he did nothing that meant he clearly did not care about me.
There are several problems underlying this question. First, they assume that the role of a man is to protect “their woman” and be willing to use violence if necessary. This is endemic of our southern culture that identifies males as the proverbial “protector” and females as the “damsel” in need of rescue. If this is true, the measure of a man is evaluated by the lengths he will go to defend those he loves. I see this trope all over the place in Hollywood movies but not really in the Bible. The second problem is that a nonviolent response is viewed as not a response at all. I told them that my husband would probably not engage with the guy who hit me, but would immediately check to see if I was okay. They felt this response did not really address the issue, which was equally concerning to me. Are we so thirsty for blood that we forget about the very person we’re claiming to defend?
3) So as a pacifist are you just supposed to stand back and do nothing?
This question has been asked to me in many different ways. It usually comes up when there has been a violent uprising in a country or a school shooting (both of which seem to be happening a lot these days). My students often think that since I am a pacifist, my response to these situations is to not get involved. According to them, pacifism means you stand back and do nothing in the face of injustice. Pacifism is often mistakenly associated with being passive. This is why I prefer the term nonviolent resistance or peacemaking instead of pacifism. Both of these terms are active and more clearly convey the heart of Christian pacifism.
I think this question reveals both a lack of faith and imagination on the part of many Christians in America. We say that we trust God, but when it comes to defending our families or our nation, we’re more likely going to trust our guns. Because we automatically reach for the gun, it is hard to try and think of any other way to stand against evil and injustice. And we as Christians are called to have a more robust imagination than that. Our very name points back to the one who did not respond back with violence, but overcame evil with good. If the God whom we worship was able to overcome all the powers of darkness through “obedience unto death on a cross” what does that mean for his followers? Are we willing to take up that cross and follow him? How can we take an active stand against violence without responding in kind?
Christian peacemaking is a virtue that exercises the spiritual muscles of faith and imagination. Now with any virtue, we are not going to start off as masters of it. The place where I get the best practice in peacemaking is in rush hour traffic! If I can get in the habit of always seeing people as Jesus sees people, maybe when it counts, when my life is on the line, I won’t simply be thinking about my survival. Maybe I’ll be thinking about Jesus and the cross and how that’s changed everything. I’m certainly not there yet, but I can start by trusting in the Triune God, who brings peace into the violence of our own hearts.
So what is the next step? How can we start to exercise these muscles?
Here are two suggestions for moving forward:
1) Look for examples and imitate
A great example of nonviolent resistance in practice is a local anti-trafficking organization called Elijah Rising. This organization has some warriors who never lift a sword! They’re primary focus is to end human trafficking through prayer, worship, and awareness (they also strategically seek contact with the women who are being trafficked). This group exemplifies a nonviolent pursuit of justice and a faith that believes in the power of intercession.
2) Start doing some reading on the subject
For an excellent place to begin see our fellow blogger Mike Skinner’s posts:
Other recommended reading:
War and the American Difference – by Stanley Hauerwas
A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence – by Trip York and Justin Bronson Barringer
 Yoder, John H.. What Would You Do? Scottsdale: Herald Press. 1983