I attended a conference regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian formation last year. The conference went well overall, but like all conferences there were some speakers I thoroughly enjoyed and others I believe missed the mark in their discussions about Christian spirituality. One such speaker was adamant about Christian pacifism. He believed it was the only authentic Christian response to the violence we experience in the world. This speaker is well known, articulate, intelligent, and most likely a better theologian than I will ever be, but I couldn’t agree with his position. It’s not that I thirst for violence, rather I believe taking this extreme position leads Christianity into a dangerous place spiritually and theologically.
Pacifism claims it’s never appropriate to respond to aggression with violence. Christian pacifists argue that even self-defense violates Christian principles. The reasons for pacifism are complex, some say it’s an ethical/moral question and others believe it’s a Christological/eschatological position reflecting the nature of a messianic community in response to the personal call to follow Christ. This brief commentary doesn’t allow me to elaborate these positions, but suffice it to say whatever the reasons, pacifism believes acts of violence and aggression are never an appropriate response for a Christian. This isn’t a new argument. The need to address the appropriate nature of going to war and defending oneself gave birth to the Just War Theory in the Christian past. Additionally, there was a time Christians believed it was inappropriate to serve in the military. The Christian church has tried to find ways to live peacefully in a violent world for centuries.
I believe taking an extreme position of pacifism ignores the fact it’s always our duty to resist evil. Evil isn’t something we should tolerate rather it’s a force needing eradicated wherever encountered. Too often Christians see evil as merely a spiritual force. We talk about “Spiritual Warfare” without pause and many pacifists want to stop there ignoring any other dimension of the human experience. Pacifism limits the boundaries of this battle to the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and to some degree the personal corporeal elements of our condition (i.e. personal mortification as a means to spiritual growth) but ignores evil manifesting in a communally embodied state. In many ways this reflects a neoplatonic or gnostic understanding of being human ignoring the physical nature of our being. Pacifism believes a physical response to evil is inappropriate. The underlying assumption is evil doesn’t need to be fought on the physical front, particularly as manifested in the social and communal setting, It’s purely a spiritual malady. This position ignores the fact evil is not only a spiritual phenomenon, but rather one permeating the whole human condition. Evil is something needing addressed from the spiritual perspective, but also the intellectual, emotional, communal, and physical levels. We don’t treat diseases by merely “praying them away”, we treat them with medicine and other physical interventions as well.
Once a person persists in choosing evil and with great resolve continues in their sin, it transforms their whole being to reflect a deformed state; a corruption of what is good and holy in them. I’m not implying this completely destroys their human dignity, but it has certainly caused it to be a very distorted part of who they are. Just as choosing to follow Christ and opening oneself to the graces bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit transforms our whole being to be active agents of love, beauty, and holiness, the choice to persist in evil transforms the individual to be an incarnate expression of all that’s not good, holy, and beautiful. Irenaeus captures this when he teaches what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God:
“The image was the human’s natural resemblance to God, the power of reason and will. The likeness was a “donum superadditum” – a divine gift added to basic human nature. The likeness consisted of the moral qualities of God, where as the image involved the natural attributes of God. When Adam fell, he lost the likeness, but the image remained fully intact. Humanity as humanity was still complete, but the good and holy being was spoiled.”
If we follow Irenaeus’ thinking, we can say evil corrupts the person’s ability to reflect the likeness of God. This corruption permeates the whole person, not just the spirit. Evil can become incarnate and needs to be countered “incarnationally.”
When a group of individuals decide they will act violently toward another group of people they are choosing to act in an evil way. Just as it’s appropriate for Christians to defend themselves spiritually from evil through prayer, fasting, acts of mercy, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and practicing other spiritual disciplines, it’s appropriate for them to defend their bodies from acts of evil through protective force. Pacifism imposes on the Christian a type of neoplatonism implying the body is not valuable, or at least less valuable than the spirit. This isn’t orthodox Christianity. Christians believe they are not simply souls in a body, but holistically integrated creatures with bodies, souls, minds, emotions, and integrated relationships. Evil cannot be permitted to simply take over any part of who we are if we’re called to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy. When evil makes itself known in our world, even as a choice people make to cause physical harm to another, a Christian has as much a right to destroy that evil as if it were a spiritual attack upon his or her soul.
Often, we look at the Cross as the example for saying Christians must imitate their master and submit to the violence inflicted upon them. The problem with this interpretation of the crucifixion is it stops with the cross and ignores the rest of the story of salvation. The Christian church believes after Christ allows violence to overwhelm him, he is victorious over it. His victory over evil is also the first battle of a larger war in which the forces of good do battle with the forces of evil and in the end God is victorious. This present and coming battle is a cosmological war described in the book of revelations involving not only our souls, but our bodies as well.
In the end, a holistic approach to eradicating evil requires more than Christian intellectual and spiritual exercises, it requires a holistic response involving the physical act of self-defense. While Christians should do all they can to convince the world peace is the most important choice people can make they must also be ready to defend what is good, holy, and beautiful with all they are. It’s in that way we give all we are to the purposes of God and not keep any part of ourselves from him.