Can Christians be truly Pacifist in the 21st Century?

Pacifism, by which I mean the complete rejection of involvement in warfare, was a predominant view on war and violence in the early Christian church. Many of the early church fathers held a pacifist view; with many of them arguing the Christ himself was a pacifist. Many of the early church fathers were not only against war but seemingly against all forms of violence. Origen, writing to Christians in the face of persecution writes ‘You cannot demand military service of Christians anymore than you can of priests. We do not go forth as Soldiers’[1] This is a very clear message to Christians at the time to not get involved in war. Justin Martyr goes further than Origen when he writes,

‘We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ…’[2]

Justin Martyr, then, not only writes that Christians should not go to war but that they should willingly die for Christ, he seems to suggest that retaliation with the use of violence against violence committed to oneself is wrong.

During the early years of the church we see a consistent message of non-violence dating back to Christ himself. When arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not respond to the soldiers with violence but with peace. When Peter responded with violence by cutting off one of the soldier’s ears Jesus responded ““Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.“ (Matt 26:52). Christ goes further than non-retaliation to say that not only should people not engage in violence, but that people should love their enemies and treat them as friends and loved ones. In the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus says;

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Matt 5:43-44

Jesus here calls for a radical view of life and a radical way of engaging, or not, in war and violence. It seems from this short look at Jesus and the early church fathers that the only logical position for a Christian to hold is a pacifistic one. However, this pacifist view changed after Constantine became the Roman Emperor and converted to Christianity. Being non-violent and not engaging in war was, and to some extent still is today, a difficult principle to hold when one holds political power. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was on the battlefield before his Army went to war. Legend recalls that Constantine looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it with the words ‘By this sign, you will conquer’[3]. He then commanded his army to adorn their shields with crosses and they were victorious. Many years later Constantine shared this with Bishop Eusebius who, as Egan writes, ‘…accepted the emperors account and referred to the sign as the “victory giving cross.”’[4] This seems to start the development of an ethic surrounding war.

St Augustine of Hippo is credited with creating a Christian ethic around the theory of a just war. He suggested that war was sometimes permissible if the outcome would be peace that wasn’t there to start with. Augustine came up with the idea of Jus ad Bellum, rules for going to war. These rules for war were that war was not for personal gain, that it needed peace as its main reason and it needed a proper authority to instigate it.[5] He conceded that all war was a result of sin and human failure but that if war was the remedy for greater sin then it could be justifiable. In Augustine’s letter to Boniface he writes,

“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”[6]

Augustine’s view shows that war, in his mind, can sometimes be the only solution for creating peace and happiness for the greatest amount of people, and therefore can be justified. Augustine drew upon texts from the Old Testament where God instigated war, or used war as a way of working out His will. Therefore, in Augustine’s thinking, because God used it, war can be justified in certain circumstances. Charles Reed in his book, Just War?, notes that;

‘Augustine moved beyond…Origen in holding that war, as such, should not be categorically rejected or condoned. To Augustine war can be morally justifiable, because in part of the Old testament God seemed to command it’[7]

Reed is a policy advisor to the Church of England, focusing on Foreign Policy. In his Book, Just War?, Reed wants to argue that Pacifism is not a defensible contemporary position for a Christian to hold because of the complexities of the world we live in. Focusing on Pacifism, Reed writes;

‘Noble though pacifism is, relying solely on non-violent conflict resolution can sometimes appear to run counter to the demands of common sense. It has repeatedly been labeled as morally and politically irresponsible…’[8]

Reed argues that his view is based, at least in part, on scripture. Those holding to a pacifistic position often want to assert that their view is based on the teachings of Christ compared to those who hold a Just War view, who many pacifists argue do not hold to the teachings of Christ. Reed spends considerable time in the early chapters of his book claiming that Scripture is at the very least ambiguous when it comes to war. Reed writes at the beginning of his book;

‘While certain passages of Scripture support the particular positions of pacifists and non-pacifists alike, the Bible should not be seen as a ‘maker’s handbook’ with a set of timeless instructions for being human, but a collection of historical documents written thousands of years ago…The Bible clearly requires a continual and lengthy process of interpretation’[9]

We see from this quote that Reed claims both sides of the argument can claim authority from scripture. Reed does draw more from the Old Testament than the New when arguing authority from scripture for an ethic of Just War and believes that the traditional Just War theory is the bridge ‘between Old Testament militarism and New Testament pacifism’.[10] This isn’t to say that Reed doesn’t believe there is New Testament basis for supporting an ethic of Just War. He notes the encounter of Jesus with the Roman Centurion. A man reasonably high up in the Roman Army, who would have been in charge of around 80 soldiers, and Jesus doesn’t rebuke the man or tell him to leave the army, rather he fulfills the mans request to heal his servant. Reed argues that this would have been the perfect time for Jesus to condemn war and those participating in it but on the contrary Jesus does not condemn it and goes further to praise the centurion for his faith which Jesus ‘has not found faith like this in the whole of Israel’ Matt 8:10.

Reed also questions pacifist understandings of the teaching of Christ, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. Of the Sermon on the Mount Reed writes;

‘…Biblical ambiguity raises questions as to the context in which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. New Testament scholars generally agree that the Sermon on the Mount is better seen as a collection of Jesus’ teachings that had been compiled from memory by his disciples than as a verbatim transcript of any single sermon’[11]

Reed here draws upon modern scholarly insights into the world of the New Testament to question the very basis on which pacifists claim their position comes from. This is problematic however, as Reed never suggests Jesus didn’t preach what is said in the Sermon on the Mount, he just questions the context in which it was said.

Reed however wants to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount, along with may of Jesus’ teachings, were not meant to be guidelines on how to conduct war or politics but that they were teachings for the individual. Reed argues that the commandments received in the Sermon on the Mount, such as turning the other cheek are not guidelines for how to run a country but what one should do personally when faced with conflict. He suggests that Pacifism is absolutely an acceptable position for churches to hold as the highest possible ethic for human behavior but that ‘as a political strategy, it has serious limitations’[12] Reed is arguing for a separation between church and state. One could suggest that he argues the church and state have different moral and ethical frameworks to work within. He seems to suggest that the individual and church should be practicing and believing one thing, mainly that Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, but that the state does not need to hold to such a high ethic because the teaching of Jesus weren’t meant for the state but individuals. I would approach such a view of Jesus’ teaching with caution. Just as Reed writes that to apply Jesus’ teachings to the state is a ‘highly specific interpretation’[13]of them, I would say that not to apply them to wider society and to only apply them to individual acts is also a highly specific interpretation of His teachings.

There are many scholars however who would disagree with Reed. Mark Allman, Professor of Theology at Merrimack University, Massachusetts, in his book ‘Who Would Jesus Kill? War, Peace and the Christian Tradition’, argues that pacifism is a defensible position to hold.

Allman suggests that there are different degrees of pacifism that a Christian can hold to. He argues that pacifism can often be mistaken for passivism, passivism being inactive submission. Allman claims the most pacifists are better known as peacekeepers or those committed to active nonviolence[14]. Allman writes that those who don’t believe Christians can be pacifists have not properly understood pacifism.

‘When others learn that a person is a pacifist they often retort “You mean if someone were to attack you, you wouldn’t fight back?” or “What if someone was going to kill your mother and you had a gun, would you shoot them?” These questions reflect and unnuanced understanding of pacifism.’[15]

Allman wants to highlight that there are many different positions within pacifism that a Christian can take. We will explore some of these in the rest of the essay. Allman argues to start that a Christian can hold an ‘Absolute Pacifist’ view. Absolute Pacifism is a view that war is always wrong no matter the circumstances. No matter the end of what may be achieve, if the means is war, the end cannot justify it, even if the end is peace. One of the major arguments for Just war is that each Christian has the duty to protect those who are weak and vulnerable, to look after ones neighbour. Therefore at times one must stop someone by force if they are attacking ones neighbour. Absolute pacifists would argue however that the weak and vulnerable are your neighbour, but so it the one who is doing the attacking. Allman uses the examples here of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as two people who are often cited as absolute pacifists. They wanted to change an oppressive system they lived in but refused to do it through violent means, rather they accepted that force would be used against them and refused even still to use violence. He notes: ‘Nonviolent alternatives almost always exist; they are simply not explored or are too easily dismissed and impractical’[16]

Allman suggests that there is also Principled Pacifism. Pacifism that is motivated out of a commitment to peace. He argues this is different to the Absolute Pacifism because it is not based on the understanding that violence is necessarily wrong rather is sees that violence is rejected by the individual or even by a group. However Principled Pacifists do allow violence in very limited situations. Allman sums up the idea of principle pacifism by writing:

‘Principled Pacifists can therefore claim, “I (we) believe that violence is wrong, but accept the right of others to use such force, such as the state of those responsible for protecting the common good”[17]

I would argue that there would be, I imagine, few absolute pacifists in the Christian church but that those committed to pacifism would more likely be principled pacifists. They would reject using violence themselves but do not see it is wrong, and indeed find comfort and security that there are those who are there in a military capacity.

Allman moves to discuss, Strategic Pacifism. This I believe is the most accessible and convincing pacifist position for Christians to hold today. Allman writes:

‘Strategic Pacifism allows for the use of force as a means of conflict resolution only if non-violent alternatives have been exhausted or would be ineffective’[18]

He uses the example of Albert Einstein or Bertrand Russell who both rejected the use of violence but with the horrors of the Nazi Regime saw that in exceptional circumstances there is no option but the use of force. Allman argues that for strategic pacifists war is still normally wrong in most cases, however with overwhelming evidence of great atrocities there can be the use of force to stop said atrocity. Interestingly Allman places within Strategic Pacifism, what he terms, Just War Pacifism. He explains that Just War Pacifism is the belief that no modern day war can be Just because of the indiscriminate nature of modern weapons. One needs only to think of WWI and the use of poison gas, which caused pain to many, often those not intended as it was picked up by the wind and went wherever the wind blew[19]. The end of WWII and the use of Atomic Bombs in Japan, causing the deaths of thousands of civilians due to the explosion itself and the after effects of contaminated livestock and water, best estimates are that around 185,000 people were killed because of these two bombs alone[20]. Of Just War Pacifism, Allman writes:

‘Modern warfare (with its risk of biological, chemical and nuclear attacks) renders all war immoral since it could produce widespread and catastrophic results. This is de facto pacifism: war and violence are not inherently wrong, but the context of modern warfare renders war undesirable, illogical and disproportionate’[21]

Allman, with all of his pacifist theories wants to base pacifism firmly as a scriptural viewpoint to hold. He does however state that the Bible is not consistent one way or the other on Pacifism:

‘The Bible does not give us a single treatise on war or peace…Nevertheless, peace is a predominant theme in both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.”[22]

Allman argues that peace is not a personal possession to have but that God promises peace to the whole people through covenantal relationship. Whether that be in the present age or as an eschatological promise[23]. With the coming of Christ, Allman argues that Jesus brings the eschatological peace to his people and that he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, amongst other teachings, how to live in that peace as a whole society. Concluding his look and the life of Christ as a pacifist Allman writes this:

‘His pacifism was not conflict-free. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a deliberate confrontational show of power. He was perceived as a threat to the political power structures of his day and perhaps is better understood as an activist who confronted injustice, albeit nonviolently’[24]

Having briefly looked at the history of Pacifism and Just War within the church, as well as more modern scholars on both sides, I conclude that a pacifist view is a defensible contemporary position for a Christian to hold. However it is my belief that is must be a Strategic Pacifist view with an understanding of active peacemaking and a realization that war is sometime inevitable. With conflict, war and violence all around the world it is not possible for Christians to take a ‘back seat’ and allow war and conflict to happen without, even in a small way, seeking the peace and prosperity of the place they find themselves in (Jer 29:7).


Allman, M. Who Would Jesus Kill? War, Peace and the Christian Tradition, St Mary’s Press, Winoa, 2008

Leithart, P. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom , IVP, Illinois, 2010.

Howard Yoder, J. Chrisitan attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution, Brazos, Grand Rapids, 2009

Maier, P. Eusebius, The Church History, Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2007

Origen, Against Celsus

Egan, E. Peace be with you: Justified warfare of the way of nonviolence, Orbis, Oregan, 1999.

Dixon, P. Peacekeepers, IVP, Nottingham, 2009

Reed, C, Just War? Changing societies and The Churches, SPCK, London, 2004

BBC, WWII, The Peoples War; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 14/10/14, as retrieved on 17/05/15.

[1] Origen, Against Celsus VIII.7.3.

[2] Justin Martyr, Apology, cited. Leithart, Defending Constantine, IVP, Illinois, 2010, 256.

[3] Maier, P. Eusebius, The Church History, Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2007 .305.

[4]Egan, E. Peace be with you: Justified warfare of the way of nonviolence, Orbis, Oregan, 1999, .45.

[5] Dixon, P. Peacekeepers, IVP, Nottingham, 2009. 43.

[6] Ibid .83.

[7] Reed, C, Just War? Changing societies and The Churches, SPCK, London, 2004, 35.

[8] Reed, C, Just War?, SPCK, London, 2004, 27.

[9] Ibid. 9

[10] Ibid. 9

[11] Reed, C, p. 27.

[12] Ibid, 28.

[13] Ibid, 28.

[14] Allman, M. Who Would Jesus Kill? War, Peace and the Christian Tradition, St Mary’s Press, Winoa, 2008, .63.

[15] Ibid, .63.

[16] Ibid. .64.

[17] Allman, M. p. 65.

[18] Ibid, .66.

[19] Howard Yoder, J. Chrisitan attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution, Brazos, Grand Rapids, 2009, .334

[20] BBC, WWII, The Peoples War; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 14/10/14, as retrieved on 17/05/15.

[21] Allman, M. p. 66.

[22] Ibid. 69

[23] Ibid, 72.

[24] Ibid. 76.

#pacifism #justwar #ethics

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