Six Arguments for Pacifism Answered

Jesus Cleanses the TempleAndrew Fulford in his excellent little book Jesus and Pacifism gives six common arguments pacifists use for “absolute non-violence.”

  1. The Cycle of violence: violence always provokes further violence and never really solves anything.
  2. The Limits of human knowledge: human beings can never truly determine the guilt of another person, and so coercive judgment can never be verified as just.
  3. The Immorality of punishment and vengefulness: the very idea of retribution and vengeance are immoral and barbaric.
  4. The Unloving character of violence: violence is inconsistent with the virtue of love.
  5. The Utopian character of violence: violence can never truly achieve real justice or common good, even while claiming that it can.
  6. Hierarchy as intrinsically dominative: any sort of hierarchy is unjust intrinsically, and thus so too for one person to punish someone under his or her authority.

Fulford writes that all these arguments do not assume that at one point violence was okay, but now it is wrong. Instead they “imply that non-violence has always been ethically obligatory.” The value of this list is that it helps the reader easily spot which argument is being used by a pacifist. Next time you are arguing a pacifist try to decide which argument is being used. He also does a good job of keeping these arguments before the reader as he unfolds his own argument that pacifism is wrong. 

One important point to realize is that this type of thinking rules out all coercive acts of violence, including spanking, the death penalty, a police force that shoots the bad guy running down the street, and of course war of any kind.

How does Fulford deal with these arguments? First, Romans 13:1-7 “at minimum, directly contradict 1, 2, 5.”

Regarding #1 Romans 13 assumes “that government violence is usually definitive”  and “that those who resist the government will come to a bad end, and that this provides sufficient reason to submit. ” In other words, the cycle of violence argument does not hold. Romans 13 does not teach that if the government exercises the sword violence will then escalate.

Regarding #2 Romans 13 “assumes the government will be able to detect the evildoing.” As Fulford points out this does not just mean believers, but rather that even pagan rulers can determine guilt and innocence “without the benefit of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, regeneration, prophetic gifts, or special grace.”  In fact this is assumed throughout the entire Bible. Human beings can determine the guilt and innocence of individuals. The command for parents to bear the rod (Proverbs 13:24) and the call for Titus to reject a divisive man (Titus 3:10) are two easy examples, which could be multiplied ten-fold.

Regarding #5 I will quote Fulford. Bold is mine.

So, assuming Paul was sensible, we must take this passage from Romans to be about a limited, imperfect justice, the only kind of justice a government composed of human beings can ever produce. And this means that Paul denies the premise of reason 5 for pacifism: he teaches that God intends violence to bring in imperfect, but valuable and real, justice…

In other words, we do not have to have perfect justice to have a real justice.

Fulford goes on to refute #3 (immorality) by citing texts about excommunication and punishment (Matthew 18:15-20, I Cor. 5:1-13, II Cor. 2:5-8) where it is clear that punishment is not immoral. He makes clear that punishment and vengeance are pretty much the same thing in Scripture and Christian theology. Vengeance does not refer to personal revenge. We all agree that is wrong. As Fulford says,  “Romans 13…[affirms] that God himself takes vengeance through the instrument of the state.”

That leaves #4, violence is unloving, and #6 that hierarchies are evil. Fulford quickly dismisses #6 with this line, which I loved, “The NT everywhere contradicts the idea that hierarchies are intrinsically immoral.” Hierarchy can be found in the family, state, and visible church.

That leaves #4 the idea that violence is unloving. This is one of the more common arguments, yet it is easily refuted by Scripture. It is clear in the Bible that doing someone harm, even physical harm, is not intrinsically immoral. The OT teaching on this is clear. Think of using the rod. Physically harming the child is not wrong, in fact it is seen as a positive good. But even in the NT we have Jesus driving out people with a whip, Paul and Jesus commanding excommunication, turning people over to Satan, and of course we have Romans 13, which implies that a Christian magistrate would not be unloving should he use the sword.

Later Fulford looks at the positive commands of Christ, such as “turn the other cheek.” But his point in this chapter is that outside of the specific teachings of Christ, that is the OT and the Apostles, pacifism is neither suggested or commanded. In fact it is quite the opposite. Coercive violence is necessary at times and when it is necessary it is an act of love toward our neighbor and pleases the Lord.