On Pacifism

Ambrose Andreano

One time a professing Christian told me, in a very casual manner, that if someone tried to break into their home, they would “shoot them immediately and not lose a minute of sleep over the person’s death.” His mode of operation was “kill them all and let God sort it out.” This person was a soldier in the United States Army, and he said this to me when we were debating online about pacifism. He was a staunch Just War advocate, and I came at him advocating for a pacifist position. Most of the onlookers agreed with him, making me disadvantaged and in the minority position. I remained calm, and firmly supported all my arguments with scripture, the Church Fathers, and the testimony of the martyrs. He became furious, called me a coward, and managed to get everyone to ignore what I had to say with faulty pathos rhetoric. We agreed to disagree and went our separate ways. From the perspective of those watching, I lost the debate.

About a month or two later, I received a message from him. He said he couldn’t get my words out of his head. I could tell immediately that the love of Christ pierced his heart. He saw that there is nothing noteworthy about killing others in self-defense, because any unbeliever can do that. However, there is something special in being killed because you loved Christ so much that you couldn’t bear to see the image of God destroyed even in your enemy. The persuasive authoritative power of pacifism convinced him that his position was weaker, and he asked me to pray for him. Why? because he left the military.

Pacifism means many things depending on who you ask. Some say pacifism is about a general lifestyle of nonviolence. Others say it is an ideology of cowards who do not have the courage to do what’s right. Others say it is a distinctly political position that has to do with being against nations going to war. And some people think it is adopting a disposition of being passive in all situations. My view of pacifism is a bit different from all of these in expression, though it contains some of those things:

To me, pacifism ought to be viewed as synonymous with the cross; the intentional kenotic laying down of one’s life, in love, for the sake of his enemies, whom he calls friends, unto the destruction of death which shackles them. And what does it mean to lay down one’s life? The meaning is this: to lay down a life is to take up a cross,[1] and if any man wishes to increase, he must decrease that another might increase.[2] As Christ said, concerning they who deny themselves, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[3] Pacifism cannot be called nonviolent, for there is nothing more violent. The Lord who says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,”[4] also says, “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”[5] The true pacifist is not to be defined as one who is nonviolent towards men, he is rather one who is violent against “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[6]

As true Christians, what manner of spirit should we be of? What issues should we fight for? Should we die over the legal right to carry weapons intentionally designed to kill human persons? Or should we instead die over Christ’s command to love our neighbor even if it means relinquishing our rights? Can we really say we love our neighbor when we crucify them on crosshairs?

It is a peculiar thing to observe the calmest of people suddenly become irate by the suggestion that one not return evil for evil,[7] or resist evil,[8] or do good to evil people.[9] If I were to guess, I would think many Christians are against pacifist ideology either because they immediately imagine it in the most extreme and unlikely contexts, or because they read about violence in the Old Testament and they think God is therefore content with our violence, despite the fact that He explicitly states vengeance is His and not ours.[10] The coming of Christ has revealed to us that we do not fight against flesh and blood anymore, but against the underlying spiritual powers that provoke us to fight each other.[11] Many are quick to justify owning guns and killing enemies long before they think about following the commands of Christ. And if truth were told and men were honest, they would say it is because weapons bring a sense of psychological comfort and physical safety and Christ does not.

Salvation either comes from clinging to the wood of the cross or the wood of the rifle. It cannot come from both. As the Lord says, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”[12] Scripture speaks of this relationship in marital terms. The prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord!”[13] And again, as spoken by Ezekiel concerning the harlotry of military comfort, “Therefore, O Aholibah, thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will raise up thy lovers against thee, from whom thy mind is alienated, and I will bring them against thee on every side…And I will set my jealousy against thee, and they shall deal furiously with thee: they shall take away thy nose and thine ears; and thy remnant shall fall by the sword.”[14] Indeed, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword,”[15] and as the Psalmist reiterates: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God”[16]

Athenagoras of Athens makes the point that it is hypocritical and inconsistent for the Christian to claim to be a proponent of life in one context, but have complete disregard for human life in another context.[17] Justin Martyr says Christians have traded in our weapons of war in the fear of God and the expectation of the future.[18] Basil did say violence is sometimes necessary, but he says it is never justified, and the soldier who kills in battle must nevertheless repent and be denied the Eucharist for three years as a mercy.[19] Hippolytus said that soldiers who convert to Christianity are not allowed to kill. He even goes as far as to say Christians can’t be soldiers.[20] Pacifism has always been the theological standard of Christian thought since the earliest times, and there was even internal controversy in the first few centuries about whether or not a lapsed Christian could be saved after denying Christ to escape the death of martyrdom.[21]

It is commonly known that in more historical Christian traditions, clergy must not own or use weapons. The church recognizes that a priest should be held to a higher standard and must act as such as an example for the rest of us. It is lived eschatological iconography, and it displays the image of the peacemaker and the kingdom to come. To be a priest is to have died to the world at the moment of ordination, so in a spiritual sense, one cannot kill he who is already dead, nor can a dead man seek to preserve his life. One might say, “Well, that is for priests alone and does not apply to me!” However, those who run through the scriptures too quickly will overturn their ankle on certain elevated passages. Listen to the scriptures saying: “Christ hath made us kings and priests unto God…”[22] As Origen rightly said, one cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests.[23] Indeed, what a priest is to the people of God, the people of God are to the world. If one is a Christian, then they are a priest called to, though their otherworldly love, word, and conduct, bring sacrament to the world. In other words, every Christian is held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Of what inspirational value is a pragmatic approach to violence? Even the most wicked pagan will retaliate against violence or fight for his country. There is nothing Christian about this. However, if every Christian decided to take a firm stance on “wrestling not against flesh and blood,”[24] to the extent that a Christian refuses to join combat roles in the military, then the world might find a Christianity worth watching for its consistent and coherent moral code.

Imagine a Christianity that cared about eschatological marketing. Imagine people in a private conversation, and they refer to Christians as “those radical-but-consistent people who refuse to own weapons for self-defense, or be soldiers in the military, or abort children, or support war.” One might say, “That’s impractical. You and your family could die without proper protection.” Precisely, and I do not appreciate the varied attempts of the pragmatist to castrate my Lord to make His teachings less radical and more palpable for those who are double-minded and lukewarm, venerating the wood of both cross and rifle. As James says, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”[25] And may the pragmatist hear the words of the Lord saying, “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.”[26]

I have seen on many occasions a most lazy reading of Luke 22: “Jesus wasn’t a pacifist because He told his disciples to buy swords,” they’ll say. Firstly, the text itself explains the action, saying it was to fulfill Isaiah 53:12.[27] Namely, that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors/rebels.” We must then inquire as to what about the mere appearance of two swords within a group of men, by itself, would make an onlooker declare Christ to be numbered among transgressors and rebels. The reason is simple: man looks at the outward appearance,[28] and a sword would therefore carry inherently negative connotations. In other words, if there is a group of regular men and a few of them have swords (imagine guns instead for a contextual translation), the instinctive perception is that they are up to no good, and Christ clearly thought this perception was necessary to accomplish His goals in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and to take steps towards the crucifixion by outwardly presenting Himself as a threatening iconographic juxtaposition to Caesar. For Christ, who is truly king, has truly set up a spiritual militia. The army of God violently takes hold of the kingdom of God by force, and wars not against flesh and blood, but against death itself, and him who wields the power of death, that is, the devil.[29] It is this divine warlord, the true Joshua, who says to the devil, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”[30] But concerning us, hear the Lord saying, “Shall a sword separate us from the love of Christ?”[31]

We must nevertheless ask, supposing the defenders of the lazier reading were correct, why would Christ command His caravan to buy swords? “The disciples need protection,” they reason in pragmatic accordance with the perceived utilitarian desire that would provoke a fearful man to purchase a sword. However, protection cannot be the answer for three reasons: 1) They only have two swords, which is no protection at all against a random group of armed bandits, let alone the entire Roman militia 2) The very moment someone tries to use one of those swords in the name of protecting a loved one from harm, they are immediately rebuked,[32] and 3) They are literally standing alongside God incarnate. What nonsense is it for the creator of all things, who causes men to fall down by a word,[33] to consider a few sharp pieces of steel protection?

These days it has become a tradition for Christians to value their own protection over theological proclamation to the world. However, this tradition is one of which it is said, “Ye make the word of God of none effect through your tradition.”[34] And what is the word of God but to live as Christ unto the gain of death?[35] For as the apostle says, “I die daily,”[36] because, “to die is gain.”[37] It is this disregard for death that confounds the nations and persuades the battle-hardened soldier to sell his pistols for plowshares.

Not wanting to loosen their tightly clenched hands from the rifle, some might argue that we need more guns so we can be better protected, presuming that people who die from guns are a result of their being without one. However, this reasoning is faulty because it assumes having a gun makes one safer. On the contrary, those with guns are much more likely to get shot by both criminals and police. Unarmed people are not an immediate threat, so the paranoid aggressors are not in this instance waiting for an excuse to pull the trigger. My wife was once mugged at gunpoint by three men. If she had a gun and tried to defend herself, she probably would not be here today. Instead, the thieves merely ran off with her bible. This idea that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun is a fantasy. Not only this, but having a gun makes one less likely to consider nonviolent options to resolve threatening situations. Not only this, but owning a gun significantly raises the chances of child harm. “I am confident in my parental abilities to keep my child safe,” says the gun owner. To which I would respond: “And what about when your child goes to sleep over at a friend’s house whose parents are also gun owners, but with less supervision?” From this perspective, it actually makes more sense to not have a gun, and to form relationships with others who believe the same.

The story of Moses the Ethiopian is a great example of the pacifist life. When hostiles were coming to storm the monastery, Moses offered everyone two choices: flee and take refuge somewhere else or die without resistance and become a martyr. Some fled, and others stayed to die with Moses. There was no “kill all the hostiles and save the monastery” option. This is an option for the weak souls of the world, not Christians. Some try to use the account of Cyril Constantine to argue that killing people is a good thing, so long as it protects other people. The account is as follows:

When St. Cyril Equal-to-the-Apostles was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to preach the gospel among the Saracens, in their capital city he had to enter into a dispute about faith with Muhamaddan scholars. Among others, they asked him: ‘Your God is Christ. He commanded you to pray for enemies, to do good to those who hate and persecute you and to offer the other cheek to those who hit you, but what do you actually do? If anyone offends you, you sharpen your sword and go into battle and kill. Why do you not obey your Christ?’ Having heard this, St. Cyril asked his fellow-polemists: ‘If there are two commandments written in one law, who will be its best respecter – the one who obeys only one commandment or the one who obeys both?’ When the Hagerenes said that the best respecter of law is the one who obeys both commandments, the holy preacher continued: ‘Christ is our God Who ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them. He also said that no one of us can show greater love in life than he who gives his life for his friends. That is why we generously endure offences caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbours, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds. Our Christ-loving soldiers protect our Holy Church with arms in their hands. They safeguard the sovereign in whose sacred person they respect the image of the rule of the Heavenly King. They safeguard their land because with its fall the home authority will inevitably fall too and the evangelical faith will be shaken. These are precious pledges for which soldiers should fight to the last. And if they give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs and call them intercessors before God’.[38]

This is a bad answer to a good question. Cyril’s exegesis is misguided here and is clearly being twisted to justify his own actions. Let us examine Cyril’s rationale. He lists Matthew 5:44 and John 15:13 and interprets them as being juxtaposing commandments (they are not). In other words, he thinks Christ wants us to love our enemies in one context and kill them in another context. This is ridiculous, because Christ was obviously referring to Himself as the sacrificial icon of this teaching, not some earthly soldier in an earthly army. To “lay down your life for your friends” is not to kill your enemies when they endanger your friends, but to go to the cross, willingly, without resistance, in their place. It is to take a bullet to save them, not shoot a bullet to bring salvation as a byproduct of taking human life. If the latter is just as acceptable as the former, who would ever willingly choose to do the former? Moses the Ethiopian, as well as many others would have been scandalized at the prospect of violently holding your ground on the off chance your friend makes it out alive. This is not martyrdom; this is merely a religious turf war.

It must also be said that pacifism does not mean one stands idle while someone else is harmed before their eyes,[39] it means one is dedicated to preserve the life of the enemy, instead of using lethal violence as a first resort. Wrestling someone to the ground, shooting them in the leg, using pepper spray or tasers, all of these things are consistent with pacifism when trying to protect someone from being harmed by another. To be even more clear, I believe pacifism ought to be the norm, and if someone is too weak in the moment and kills someone in self-defense, this is to be seen as a tragedy.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment for modern fears:

Suppose you are in your house at night. It’s dark, and you hear a noise coming from the chamber of a drawn pistol. You do not know who has the pistol because the person is merely a silhouette, but you do know the pistol is pointed directly at your daughter. There is a gun in your hand. What do you do? “Shoot the person immediately to save my daughter, of course” one might reply, assuming it would even work. I turn on the light, revealing it is, in fact, your mother/brother/son holding the gun. Now what would you do? Do you immediately, as a first resort, kill them to save your daughter? “Of course not, I would try to find another way to save both of them.” Indeed, because love is present, you hesitate to pull the trigger, for you love your family as yourself. And because love is absent concerning a neighbor, you are swift to kill. However, listen to the Lord who says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”[40] And again, the Lord reveals his disposition towards others when he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren!”[41] And yet again, the Lord says, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”[42]

“Vengeance is mine” must mean something. We say we affirm the Lord as judge and jury, but we seem to think He leaves the executioner part to us faithful American concealed-carry gun owners. And as for these people who outwardly present themselves ready and willing to die for Christ, and who rigorously declare the proclamations of the church, and who zealously renounce the gripping attachment to this world with open hands, their knuckles seem rather white.


[1] cf. Matt. 16:
[2] cf. Jhn 3:30.
[3] Jhn. 15:13.
[4] Matt. 5:9.
[5] Matt. 11:12.
[6] Eph. 6:12.
[7] cf. Rom 12:17, 1 Pet 3:9.
[8] cf. Mat 5:39.
[9] cf. Mat 5:44.
[10] cf. Deut. 32:35.
[11] Eph 6:12.
[12] Matt. 6:24.
[13] Isa. 31:1.
[14] Eze 23:22, 25.
[15] Mat. 26:52.
[16] Psa 20:7.
[17] Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 32-35: “How can we possibly kill anyone when we call certain women (who take drugs to induce an abortion) murderers, and say they will have to give an account before God one day? We are convinced that with God nothing goes unexamined. And that the body, after serving the irrational urges and lusts of the soul, will have its share in punishment. We have, therefore, every reason to detest even the slightest sin.”
[18] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 110.3.4: “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.”
[19] Basil, 92 Canonical Epistles, canon 13.
[20] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition.
[21] John McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, p.780 (Digital version).
[22] Rev. 1:6, 5:10.
[23] Origen, Against Celsus, 8.73.
[24] Eph. 6:2 .
[25] Jas. 1:8.
[26] Rev. 3:15-16.
[27] cf. Luk. 22:37.
[28] cf. 1 Sa. 16:7.
[29] cf. Heb. 2:14.
[30] Mat. 10:34.
[31] cf. Rom. 8:35.
[32] cf. Matt. 26:52.
[33] cf. Jhn. 18:6.
[34] Mar. 7:13.
[35] Phil. 1:21.
[36] 1 Cor. 15:31.
[37] Phil. 1:21.
[38] Russian Orthodox Church, The Basis of the Social Concept, 8.2.
[39] Though it does mean this in certain contexts, as we have seen with Moses the Ethiopian. Other examples include Christ Himself, who did not save His disciples from brutal deaths, and the apostle Peter, who had to watch his own wife be crucified before his eyes. Instead of living according to instinct, and trying to save her, he simply said: “Remember the Lord.”
[40] Mar. 12:31.
[41] Matt. 12:49.
[42] Matt. 16:25.

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