Pacifism as Gospel Liberation


The Crucifixion, by Jan Luyken

In my last post, I argued that Christians ought to be nonviolent because of what we believe about Jesus.  That is to say, I made a case for Christological Pacifism.  I left many logical connections to the ingenuity of my readers, with the hope that this would help you think about nonviolence in a new way.  As far as I know, I have so far only succeeded in helping readers think about new ways of disagreeing with me. 

So, in this post, I have a different strategy.  I want to help you think about nonviolence in a new way by outlining the unique logic of Christological Pacifism.  According to me, Jesus-centred nonviolence should not be understood as merely a restriction on war or a merely personal decision.  It is rather one instance of the church’s freedom in Christ.

Two Common Ways of Understanding Pacifism

Pacifism is sometimes understood as a belief about when war is justifiable.  In particular, it is thought a Pacifist believes that war is never justifiable.  Pacifism is then contrasted with Just War thinking, according to which a war is justifiable only if it meets certain conditions.  Just War theories typically make use of a variety of conditions that fall under the general headings, “Just Cause” and “Just Means.”  Because of the great variety of possible combinations of conditions that may make up a Just War theory, Pacifism is seen as one, extreme position on a large spectrum of views on the justifiability of war.

The other common way to understand Pacifism is as a personal vocation.  On this view, Pacifism does not affirm any view about the justifiability of war in general.  Rather, the person who affirms Pacifism in this sense only says, addressing herself, “I ought to be nonviolent.” 

Christological Pacifism does not fit either of these views.

The Logic of Christological Pacifism


I think the clearest articulation of the inner logic of Christological Pacifism belongs to the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson.  According to Jenson, the particular morality of the Gospel takes the basic form, “We may ___, because, if Jesus lives, there is no need to fear ___.”  Alternatively, “We may ___, because, if Jesus lives, we may hope for ___.”  An example unrelated to Pacifism might be: “We may follow our calling in Christ wholeheartedly, because, if Jesus lives, there is no need to fear falling behind the Joneses in our culture’s race for goods and status.”

Gospel morality appropriately takes the form of new freedom in light of the unconditional promises of God.

Christological Pacifism is one instance of this freedom.  It affirms that we may be nonviolent, because, if Jesus lives, we do not need to fear the powers and principalities over which Jesus has already triumphed, we may hope for the ultimate victory of his cross-shaped kingdom, and the rest of it.

Pacifism, so understood, is about freedom, not restriction; creative action, not withdrawal; gospel, not law.  It is both a serious and exciting prospect to be able think up and even try out (!) new ways of being together and being in the world that look like Jesus being with humanity on the cross.  The grounding of these possibilities in Jesus, who was raised from the dead, means that our freedom is not empty idealism.

This is the basic propositional form that Christological Pacifism takes.  Its function is also important.

What Christological Pacifism Does

The Pacifism which is really an extreme case of Just War thinking is supposed to function as a general standard, which authorities may use to judge whether or not they are permitted to go to war.  Unfortunately, like all Just War thinking, it has never actually functioned this way. 

The function of the Pacifism of personal vocation is to cheer and shout a few others closer to the Pacifist’s own lifestyle.  Reinhold Niebuhr thought that, in this way, these Pacifists might have a positive “leavening” effect on the rest of society.  He thought this task could be left to Mennonites, Quakers and Nuns.  Meanwhile, more responsible Christians could get involved in the messy business of national politics and war.

Christological Pacifism functions in the speech and bodily acts of the church.  It is one of the possibilities we speak into each other’s lives when we confess, bind and loose, preach, share a cup of wine, and forgive one another for the seventy-seventh time.  Particularly important for Christological Pacifism is the Rule of Christ (Matthew 18:15-20).

Christological Pacifism also functions as judgment, but only in this limited prophetic sense: that when we fail to live up to the set of cross-shaped possibilities named by “Christological Pacifism,” our speech and action remind us of this.

This reminder of what is possible in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not weak and ineffective, like Just War thinking.  Only in recent memory, it has set slaves free, thrown off foreign oppressors, stood up to Hitler, and taken a few chunks off the Berlin Wall.  What else might be done if we step into a fuller vision of our freedom in Christ?

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    • Renea McKenzie