Pacifism and Remembrance Day 2013

Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia
Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia

A friend and I taught a night course at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality in 2012 about Christian pacifism. Had you asked me when I began if I was a pacifist, likely I would have said no. If you asked me today, I might well say yes. At the least, it has become very difficult to convince me of the wisdom of any military intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or potentially against Iran. Wars are seldom undertaken for the right reasons and they almost always have consequences far more bloody and destructive than predicted. It is not the war makers but the victims who are left to bury their dead and comfort the homeless, the wounded, the mentally scarred and to clean up the landscapes made dangerous or uninhabitable from land mines, defoliants, or nuclear materials.

Justifying war

Frequently, wars are rationalized in the name of national self-interest, where political leaders think their nation’s needs, real or perceived are all the justification they require to wage war. Then there is the holy war, where one group thinks itself divinely ordained to destroy God’s enemies – as they define them. Of course, everyone thinks that God is on their side.

During the First World War a Roman Catholic cardinal in France published a pamphlet insisting that his country’s war was just. Within a few months, Catholics in Germany answered with a pamphlet of their own saying that it was their war that was just – and a German Catholic cardinal wrote the introduction to this piece.

There is also the Rambo effect, where war and killing are considered essential to how certain men assert their masculinity. How often do we see that in news, documentaries and especially in movies?

History of pacifism

Pacifists oppose war and the taking of human life but beyond that most pacifists are committed to nonviolence in their personal lives as well. That includes an attempt to cultivate tolerance, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. It is a good way to live.

Pacifism the West began with Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Christ says that the “peacemakers” are blessed. The early church was pacifist. There are those in today’s churches – and I have heard them – who deny this and who prefer a counter narrative about Christ’s tipping over tables and chasing moneylenders from the temple. I would refer them to a book called A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church, whose authors say that the word peace occurs 235 times in the New Testament.

Christians were persecuted in those early years because they refused to serve in the Roman army. But in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity would be tolerated and later, on his deathbed, he converted. By 480 AD you had to be a Christian to serve in the army. You might say that is where the church became a part of the Establishment – a position it occupied for centuries and to a great extent still does today.

Varieties of pacifism

There is not just a one-size-fits-all pacifism, but rather a diverse set of approaches that exist along a spectrum. For example there is what one Anabaptist scholar calls the pacifism of the “virtuous minority” – a group of people who believe that they have been called by God to live peacefully. They live non-resistance, which means that they will not get involved in violent conflict, but they do not necessarily say that the state cannot do so – as long as they are not part of the violence. Some Mennonites, but certainly not all, fit this category.

Brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, both Jesuit priests, and Dr. Martin Luther King occupied a more radical end of the pacifist spectrum. The Berrigans, who were arrested many times, poured their own blood on draft files to protest against the American war against Viet Nam.

Beyond Christian pacifism, there is the pacifism of Gandhi or of many Buddhists, to mention just two religiously-based varieties. Many pacifists are secular.  Óscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, is someone whose pacifism is born more out of a political than of a religious conviction. Costa Rica, by the way, decided to abolish its army in 1949 after a disastrous civil war, although the country does have a police force.

Who are the realists?

People who consider themselves realists, and this includes many of our political and military leaders, believe pacifists are fuzzy-headed idealists. They believe it would be dangerous folly if no one was prepared to fight, or at least to support war making. But it is actually those leaders who are lacking in realism. Their promises of wars to end wars have not come to pass and they are entirely unrealistic about what can actually be achieved by conflict.

Pacifism is not the chosen position of the majority but it does remain a respectable minority position, and more so all of the time.


12 thoughts on “Pacifism and Remembrance Day 2013

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  1. Thank you for this Dennis. May I recommend the Inglorious Pastors video sermon series by Bruxy Cavey of Oakville’s Meeting House. It is on YouTube, and podcast.


  2. Your article is a reminder to us that there are alternatives to war and this is where we as a civilized society must place our resources to make this happen. Spending $1.7 trillion a year worldwide on the military is criminal. We must seek the nonviolent and nonkilling way. See for a similar piece entitled ‘Remember Peace?’


  3. Your piece on pacifism was well-written and intelligent. The history was particularly helpful. I would like to share the piece with the members and supporters of the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary for Remembrance Day. I had been thinking of how to respond to the flood of official war-and-sacrifice rhetoric and promotion of military virtue as the pinnacle of human achievement and your piece is perfect. Thanks.


  4. Thank you, Dennis for the article and comments on a timely subject. For some years now, I thought of myself as a pacifist.– I believe that the United Nations [UN] should fund an international police force, that would act like the police operate in our own towns and cities.–However, that does not seem possible as long as the UN Security Council is primarily represented and controlled by the world’s most powerful and militarized countries.There needs to be more involvement by the UN Assembly of Nations.


  5. Interesting Dennis, but what do you do when another country’s army is approaching your house and home with intent to kill and destroy?


  6. “People who consider themselves realists, and this includes many of our political and military leaders, believe pacifists are fuzzy-headed idealists.”

    While that statement is quite true, people who consider themselves ‘realists’ have often also considered Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of faith fuzzy-headed idealists. The teachings of the great faiths are incompatible with such realism because such realism merely redefines killing as virtuous.

    I plead guilty to the charge of fuzzy-headed idealism! I do not consider accommodating myself to, and joining in, the violent ways of the world as realism, but as capitulation to evil. The ability to solemnly intone ‘love your enemies’ and ‘return good for evil’ on Sunday morning and then head out to work killing your opponents in the afternoon may be labeled ‘realistic’ by some, but I would suggest that is the same realism that operates in the mind of every killer who seeks to justify his violent crime.

    The problem is not idealism, but our flawed human nature. We can’t be true pacifists until our desire for revenge and hitting back is subsumed by our desire for peace and reconciliation. It’s fine for realists to criticize pacifists as fuzzy-headed idealists, so long as those realists do not then turn around and dress themselves in the garb of people of faith and pray with great piety at, for example, so-called Prayer Breakfasts. When the realists do that, they simply show they are not realists but hypocrites seeking to make hypocrisy itself a virture, and murderous ones at that!


  7. As the Berrigan brothers and many others have shown, there is no contradiction between calling for peace and overturning the tables of the moneylenders. Indeed, unless the moneylenders (read arms traders, mining companies, etc.) are overturned, there will be no peace.


  8. What would I do if an army were descending upon my house, threatening to kill and destroy me and mine? Since I have no guns and have not provoked the enemy, I am not likely to represent a target for them. However, if they carry through with their threat, my blood is on their hands. If I would fight back with ‘success’, their blood would be on my hands. So I have a choice. I prefer to take my chances, and choose the first scenario, risky as it may be. In Christian terms, it’s called ‘the way of the cross’.


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