Often when I hear about pacifism, it is defined in opposition to certain acts. A pacifist does not enlist in the military or support military engagement. A pacifist does not engage in violence. A pacifist will not retaliate if harmed. There is an urban legend of a certain Christian ethicist who has claimed that he would not intervene if someone was sexually assaulting his wife. The image of a pacifist is well caricatured by a Birkenstocked, bio-Subaru-driving, granola-eating, leftist-voting, long-haired and bearded, hippie. (Full-disclosure: I am an Oregonian.)
Christian pacifism goes a step further. In addition to the actions avoided, there are Jesus-isms like “Turn the other cheek” and “Let the one without sin throw the first stone” that are elevated to supreme commandments. These commands are held without regard to Jesus’ words to the soldier in Luke 3 that do not include an indictment of his profession.
Christian pacifism also reaches back into the Hebrew scripture for inspiration, quoting Isaiah 2 “Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war”. These words are held to describe the essence and desire of God, neglecting the other supposed instructions to “take up sword” against nations that would oppose Israel.
I use these texts as a way to establish that there is no simple or singular Christian understanding of the world or interpretation of scripture. We are all (including the Biblical authors) a bundle of subjectivity whose influences we are often unaware of. This is only to say that it is presumptuous to look at scripture and think that pacifism is obviously the elevated practice of true followers of Jesus. Honest, faithful Christians have arrived at differing perspectives and made decisions which were entirely faithful to the kingdom of God.
The initial description of pacifism is what I will distinguish as “passive pacifism”. It is established by actions which the individual chooses to abstain from. This pacifism is largely hypothetical. For the armchair ethicist, there is insulation from situations in which they would be pressed to physically and violently defend themselves. Violence is sanitized from the person’s life and precautions taken that would maintain pacifist ideals. These can be precautions such as living in a certain neighborhood and avoiding others, not carrying a weapon, having doors that lock securely, seeking social settings that do not sanction physical intimidation. Pacifism is then best experienced in isolation from difficult realities in the lives of others.
“Active pacifism”, by contrast is the deliberate pursuit to re-establish peace where it is lacking. The foundation for this thought is found in the establishment of God’s justice, as expressed by Jesus and recorded in the gospels. This reign of God is the restoration of creation to its original state—peace exemplified as the lived reality within God’s shalom. To practice this type of pacifism, the Christian must act in accordance with what will uncover the true humanity of another person which has been marred by outside forces. Within this perspective, violence is defined as those things which would de-humanize a person away from their true identity in Christ.
We can use this active pacifism to re-hash traditional ethical dilemmas such as military service, but the active role is not expressed in avoidance but in action. This active pursuit may lead me to intervene with a physical presence to protect someone or to protect someone from themselves. In this regard, each person must look keenly at their own context and determine what it would look like to actively pursue and uncover the true humanity of themselves and those in their community. For many, this active pursuit will force us to invest into knowing a person beyond the stereotypes of their skin color, socio-economic status, sexuality, or nationality. This re-humanizes someone who before may have been devalued (even unconsciously) and effectively excluded from being one made in God’s image.
Active pacifism, then, does not only seek primarily to refrain from dehumanizing acts, but to intentionally correct abuses of human identity. This does not apply only the domain of Geneva Conventions, but occurs locally: within families as a parent maintains control over a child by withholding affection or a spouse manipulates with passive-aggression; at work using broad-sweeping generalizations to discredit opposing viewpoints; at church bullying those who do not fit a moral standard; around town using derogatory naming in place of personifying language (homeless, poor, or any ethnic slur). The first step of action is to admit our complicity, ask forgiveness, and then refuse to act from the prior state of thoughtlessness.
We also have to examine the ways which we have de-humanized others, even if we have done so without the use of weapons. Inclusion in community is one of the most dynamic expressions of valuing another (or, more specifically, valuing an “Other”). We may cross the street to avoid touching someone begging for relief, we may request a different teacher for our children due to their presumed lifestyle, we may oppose the rights of others to pursue and achieve society’s ideals based on their nation of origin. In all of these practices, we insulate ourselves and isolate others. In doing so, we neglect to nurture the expression of true humanity in community- not in singular, violent action, but in the small and steady erosion of the identity instilled in creation by God.
To love our neighbors as ourselves and to serve our enemies, we have to sit with the uncomfortable truth that they too are made in the image of the divine, loved by God, and provisioned for in the redemptive act of Christ in his death and resurrection. This places us in a perilous place to discount what God has seems to value so highly. To continue to neglect the call to uncover what is truly human within ourselves and others may lead us to arrive on the wrong side of that equation.