Pacifism in Canada, a debate

Canadian war graves near Vimy, France
Canadian war graves near Vimy, France

On November 8, I published a blog piece that provided a description of Christian pacifism and some arguments on its behalf.  I wrote it intentionally to appear prior to Remembrance Day. I wrote that “pacifism is not the chosen position of the majority but it does remain a respectable minority position, and more so all of the time.” I have received a number of comments, one of them from Jim. He wrote as follows: Interesting Dennis, but what do you do when another country’s army is approaching your house and home with intent to kill and destroy?

I began to draft a reply for the Comments section of this blog but found that it was becoming quite lengthy. Jim’s comment-question is the core one that is frequently posed to people who are pacifists, or even those who make arguments against specific wars and armed engagements. So I decided to elevate the Comment into another blog entry — as follows:

Hi Jim:

Thanks for your question. You ask what I would do if another country’s army was approaching my house with intent to kill and destroy.

I don’t think Canada has ever been in such a situation. Perhaps once, in the war of 1812, and that in a very limited fashion. The wars that we have participated in were always fought on other people’s soil – whether it be the Boer War in South Africa, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and more recently in Afghanistan and Libya (where we bombed them).

So the question has to be dealt with specifically, in terms of what army, what war, what situation? In Canada’s wars, we were not defending our homes and our families but rather taking the war to other people’s turf. What was the justification for doing so in each case? That is a very different question from the hypothetical one that you pose about having a hostile army massed on our border.

But let’s for a moment imagine that American troops were indeed massed on our border with the intention of invading Canada. I use the example of American troops because, given our geography,  I can’t imagine who else would possibly plan to invade us.

We would want to know why are they planning to invade us? Have we done something terrible to them for which they want redress? If so, would it not make more sense to try diplomacy rather than preparing to fight? Perhaps we could head off a war and save thousands of Canadian lives and much destruction of property.

Okay, but let’s even allow that diplomacy does not work in this case. The Americans are massing troops and weapons on our border — and they would likely soften us up first with a so-called shock and awe wave of bombing such as they used against Iraq. The Americans have troops and weaponry that vastly outnumber ours. Would our best response be to threaten war against them in this situation? That would obviously be suicidal. We would far better off  not to offer a resistance that would leave our cities and infrastructure destroyed and our people killed and maimed. Our fighting a war in this case would be folly.

I have noticed that often when someone challenges war as the solution to a conflictual situation, that person is immediately asked the big “What if” question — in this case, what if another country’s army is approaching my house with intent to kill and destroy?

But such a question exists at a level of abstraction that does not deal with the concrete situation at hand. It skips over all kind of questions that we would ask ourselves in any other situation where there was lot at stake, and it skips over the range of solutions that we would consider to save the lives and protect the well-being of our loved ones.

Best wishes,


6 thoughts on “Pacifism in Canada, a debate

Add yours

  1. I think that’s a very weak response to a good question. It’s like you said, you could ask a million questions, but you’re not allowing for the evil, unreasonable enemy. On today of all days we have to consider that while war is not always black and white, good guys versus bad guys, there have been a couple of pretty clear examples in history. In these cases, how would you respond. How would your response to Jim’s question be different if we were in Poland 75 years ago? What analogy would you use if our army was an effective rival to America’s? I’m not trying to justify violence by any means, but God’s people have had to fight in the past, and while Jesus tells us that to live by the sword is to die by the sword, I don’t necessarily think it was a warning as much as a fact. I don’t think everyone is cut out for conflict, but when the cause is righteous I think there are people who are called to fight, knowing full well that they are risking their lives, they understand that while they live by the gun, so they may also die by the gun. Today of all days, it is important to remember those who fought and died to protect their home and to protect justice.


  2. Thanks for your response, Dennis. I sense you do not condone going to another country’s defense, such as Canada and the Allies did against Hitler.

    Good to know.

    Although I disagree with your position, I understand it and I truly appreciate your taking taking the time to respond.




    1. Hi Jim:

      Thanks for our follow up note. I am not sure what my position would have been about World War II had I been an adult at that time. Hitler is the example that most people immediately use in these kinds of discussions. But what if we were to talk of the Boer War, the First World War, Korea and Afghanistan, just to mention wars that Canada was involved in, to say nothing of America’s invasions of various Latin American countries and Vietnam, or Russia’s invasion Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Yet all of those military invasions were justified by their proponents as necessary and honourable. I do appreciate your comments. These are important questions and never easy.



  3. Thanks Dennis for opening up the discussion. Too quickly we try to solve problems the quickest way rather than the right way. Your point about the abstractness of the problem description makes the problem un-addressable, as you mentioned. I liken it to the problem of having infinite choices towards problem resolution and always picking up the hammer (war) every time. You’d think by now as a species we’d realize we have more choices. If we spent more time studying the various options available to nations like problem resolution and de-escalation, economic approaches, development, etc. maybe we’d be more creative than just the knee jerk reaction to (metaphorically) picking up a gun. I do appreciate the wisdom Dennis.

    I think the same issue touches a nerve with people on the white poppy / red poppy issue. We’ve been programmed to respond in certain ways instead of critically thinking about what is being presented. Why is desiring peace and putting large amounts of energy into avoiding conflict seen as so counter cultural, and even threatening? Because it plays into a counter narrative, one that is seen to be threatening to power (people stop kowtowing to authority perhaps?). Love to hear your ideas as to why. Thanks – Aaron


  4. Most true faith-based pacifists would answer that it is better to suffer and die than to fight back regardless of the situation. Christians do not hold a monopoly on pacifist thought and action. I think what you are getting to in this case is the whole theoretical concept of “just war” which seems to be a battle the Christian churches are often tormented with.

    Times have changed. The Vatican has been very clear on that, especially since the Gulf War. Some people chose to conveniently ignore those statements. At the same time, people in general are much more aware of the degree of propaganda that is thrown at the public to make a war action perceived as being just.

    Dennis, I think you are quite right that none of the recent military exploits could be considered “just wars”. In all case there have been powerful corporate interests who expect to profit from the wars and their outcomes. Just as there were powerful corporate interests that benefited greatly from the First and Second World Wars. Even the ones that were on the enemy side seemed to have been immune from post war prosecution. One could have argued that for justice to have been served, at the very least these corporations should have been dissolved and formed into new companies under different and unrelated owners.

    A just war principle based on the gospel would first look at the most basic of all Gospel values – the respect for life. And then, also consider the common good. I’d argue that had these principles been followed either before the World Wars or now before the wars in the East, the conditions for war would never had existed. So while I remember and mourn the fallen soldiers and civilians, I know that today it is my responsibility to work against allowing those conditions which make war possible.


  5. The problem with the ‘what if an army was set to invade?’ question is that the question itself is invalid because it presumes history begins with a specific event at a specific point in time, and it doesn’t work that way! World War II had its roots in World War I, and World War I was rooted in the European conflicts of the 19th century, and those conflicts were in turn rooted in what might be termed Europe’s age of imperial obsessions.

    History did not start with Hitler’s Third Reich and to regard World War II as a war that can be presumed to begin with the rise of the Nazi Party simply betrays a great ignorance of history. So, to say ‘what if you were in Poland in 1939’ is really a question that assumes history starts at this or that point in time, and events of today can be considered in isolation from events of yesterday that gave birth to them, or from the events spawned by such conflicts in the years that followed the ‘war to end all wars.’

    What would I do if the Americans had a million of their storm troopers poised on the border and a bombing campaign was about to begin? I’d have to make a decision about whether I could live under American military occupation, or should stay at home and resist the occupation, or whether I should flee as a refugee. That would be an ugly, heart-rending choice, but, fundamentally, the pacifism question is really about how far we are prepared to go to break the cycle of violence. Going as far as is convenient for our own ends is simply ‘easy virtue’ in geopolitics … going so far as to suffer great personal loss without retaliating so that the cycle of violence is broken is the Way of the Cross.

    I love my country, but what if the question was whether we should take up weapons to preserve Canada if the cost was an endless cycle of wars that would kill 50% of our young people from generation to generation in perpetuity or, alternatively, accepting the death of Canada as the price of ushering in an era world peace. The trouble with ‘what if’ questions is that you can structure them to get any answer you want … or to avoid unpleasant truths such as the fact that going to war is both futile and evil, so we had better change our ways or at least own up to the shameful fact that a major instrument of our foreign policy – the use of war – is an instrument used by stupid and ignorant people who do not learn from history.


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