Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Dordt Diamond Column: What Pacifism Means


(Not that the Diamond editors did a bad job of cutting it. The Diamond editors rawk. But when I post these columns here, I just copy and paste from the saved version I have on my computer.)

(More than you cared to know, eh?)

Pacifism might seem like a heavy topic for a Diamond column, but lately I feel like it’s been popping up everywhere. One of my best friends recently gave me a copy of Jesus for President, a pacifist manifesto by Christian activist Shane Claiborne. I read Claiborne’s earlier book, The Irresistible Revolution, as my optional book for CORE 300 last spring. Two springs ago, Tony Campolo argued for pacifism in a lecture at the B. J. Haan. And an increasing number of my peers at Dordt are pacifists.

This column is addressed to them. I hope that it will be a starting place for a vital conversation.

Coherent pacifism is a rejection of any kind of violence, by anyone, anywhere. Claiborne refers in his books to the “myth of redemptive violence.” He denies that violence can ever be a good or necessary thing. What are the implications of this belief?

The defining characteristic of government is a monopoly on violence. Whatever else it does, the state must be able to protect its people and maintain order, with force if necessary. If a state cannot stop armed groups within its borders from attacking the innocent, we call that state “failed.”

Therefore, the logical extension of Christian pacifism is a refusal to participate in the state – a kind of nonviolent Christian anarchism, if you will.

This is exactly what Claiborne is out to convince Christians to do – leave the government, the voting booth, the police force, and the military. “God isn’t working through places of power,” he writes in Jesus for President. “I don’t believe that God needs a commander-in-chief or a millionaire in Washington,” he wrote earlier in The Irresistible Revolution.

To which I would say: Of course he doesn’t. God doesn’t need anyone, anywhere. That’s not the issue. The issue is, what is God calling us to do as his followers in the world?

Does the Bible support Claiborne’s attitude toward government? I do not believe so. The Bible says that government – founded as it is on violence – is a good institution, an institution specifically set up by God. I Peter 2 says that the governors “are sent by [God] to punish those who do wrong.” Romans 13 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God. The one in God’s servant to do you good. ...he does not bear the sword for nothing.”

So if the government and the government’s sword are good things, why should we separate ourselves from them? Doesn’t Jesus’ command to be the “salt of the earth” apply to politics?

When John the Baptist first began his ministry, a group of Roman soldiers came to him and asked, “What should we do?” John did not answer, “Lay down your weapons and desert the army!” He told them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14). In other words, “Be good soldiers.”

I’ve reached my word limit. What say you?


  1. Joel, I thought I knew my stance on this subject. But now I am back on the fence. (not the best place to be) I wrote about such questions and circumstances in a letter to you today. I will be sending it tomorrow. (Friday) Peace

  2. Zach, I eagerly anticipate your letter. Until then, let me encourage you not to let the fence-sitting get you down. A perfect understanding of theology isn't required to follow Jesus. If it were, he would have made the Bible a lot more straightforward.


  3. Zach, did you get my letter?

    I sent one.

  4. Joel, You might be interested in The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul. He discusses how Christianity is co-opted by the political world, and the results of the Christian belief that follows the hijacking. Also, he has a book called Anarchy and Christianity, in which he discusses the similarities between these tow worldviews, and why he believes hat Christians are called to anarchism, or at least apolitical perspectives.

    Check them out, they changed my thoughts on alot of this stuff.

  5. Thanks, CJ. I'm planning on doing a project on this next semester, and I'm making a book list. Jacques Ellul just went on it. My communications prof talks about him a lot, but I didn't know he wrote about politics too. Sweet!

  6. He actually writes about many things. Supposedly his corpus can be split into two major camps: his Christian perspective on society, and his Secular perspective on society. Ellul was so fixated on the concept of dialectical tension, he purposefully wrote like this to demonstrate the idea within his published works, not only in content, but also form.