A Statement of Christian Pacifism

I am a Christian, and therefore I am a pacifist.

For the first 300 years following the resurrection of Jesus, that would have been a redundant statement: it was understood that all Christians were pacifists. We know that some Christians even allowed themselves to be killed rather than join the Roman army. But that sort of belief is very rare today, and those who share it are often made to feel that their pacifism is an aberration or problem rather than an integral part of Christian faith. So allow me to explain myself.

Becoming a Christian is not an intellectual declaration, but a transformational experience. In that transformation Christ breaks the shell and the bonds of our old life, and gives us each a new life, with a new spirit and a new heart—a new desire to do God’s will and a new strength to do it.

I share in the historical experience of members of the Religious Society of Friends that as that transformation progresses, one discovers the guidance and companionship of Christ within. Christ’s "Behold, I am with you always" (Matt. 28:20) has become literally true. When we examine ourselves in this new life, we discover that among many other blessings, we are now living in that life and power that takes away the occasion of war—all the reasons and excuses for fighting other human beings have fallen away.

As a Christian, there are at least four reasons why, to borrow the words from the Declaration to Charles II of 1660, I "utterly deny" all wars and preparation for war and fighting with outward weapons. The first reason involves lust—we usually think of lust as involving intense sexual cravings, but when the Epistle of James tells us that wars come from the lusts (James 4:1), a broader meaning is intended. Lust is intense desire for those things that I do not have and which it would be wrong for me to possess. As a Christian I’ve been redeemed from my bondage to the lusts, in all their forms. The freedom Christ gives me from the covetousness of my old life frees me from the urge to fight to fulfill those desires. There is no longer an occasion, or reason, for me to make war.

The second reason is an explicit command—Christ my King has by command and example disarmed me. Peter attempted to defend Christ by violence, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest. What better justification could there be for fighting: the defense of the perfectly innocent and defenseless against a violent enemy with evil intent? But Christ said to Peter, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword"(Matt. 26:52). When Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

The third reason is that war is counterproductive—as a Christian, I yearn and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom will come not by might or the power of the outward sword, but by the spirit of God (Zech. 4:6). I can’t hurry the kingdom by waging war. It is impossible to "fight for peace." The cessation of outward fighting at the end of any war already always contains the seeds of the next war.

The fourth reason is transformation—as a Christian it is no longer my aim to replace one Earthly government with another, but to speed the day when all the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of God (Rev. 11:15). My task as a Christian in this regard is to examine my life continually and to remove the seeds of war and injustice wherever I find them. The most and best I can do to bring about the Kingdom of God is to live as if it were already here. I may be called to witness to others, but never to force them to change. "Regime change" is an unchristian concept.

Friends will recognize these arguments as part of the Declaration of 1660, with which I am in close agreement. But my Christian pacifism goes even beyond that famous Quaker statement.

A key vision for God’s Kingdom is the biblical Jubilee—where everybody has enough and nobody has too much; where debts are forgiven and people are restored to their ancestral lands. Jubilee was a periodic redistribution of wealth, to prevent some people from staying wealthy at the expense of others.

When we accumulate an unfair portion of the world’s wealth while so many others are poor, ill, hungry, and without resources or opportunity to improve themselves, we deny the vision of Jubilee and refuse to live into the Kingdom of God, which is now coming into being on Earth. We become gluttons.

When we go to war to protect our wealth, our standard of living or our physical belongings, we deny Christ. We deny the redeeming and renewing power of Christ to give us a new spirit and a new life where outward wealth is irrelevant.

When we take up arms against our enemies we disobey the clear command of Christ and become lawbreakers ourselves. When we rely on our national military force to protect us rather than placing our faith in God, we become idolators.

The first great commandment is to love God totally. Therefore my first loyalty is to God, not to my country. Christ calls us to love our enemies, to pray for them, and to do good to them. I cannot do these things and also take up arms against them.

The second great commandment is to love our neighbor. Therefore my second loyalty is to my neighbor, helping those who need help as the Good Samaritan did.

My third loyalty, then, can be to my country—but no higher than third. We are told to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. But like Dorothy Day, I find that after I render unto God what is God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar.

Is this a risky position to take in life—to place all my trust in an unseen God, rather than military defenses I can see and touch? Of course it is; it places me and people like me in a very vulnerable position. But that is the nature of faith: to put ourselves at risk on behalf of what we believe to be true. Discipleship is costly.

Even if my pacifist position results in apparent failure in the eyes of the world, I believe it is more Christ-like to suffer wrong than to oppose it by methods that are themselves wrong in Christ’s sight. The standard for Christians is always faithfulness, not success.

So I am a Christian, and therefore a pacifist. I oppose and denounce the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and all the military aspects of the "war on terrorism," including its name. These attacks are unjust, as others will readily point out, but it is not merely this particular war that I oppose. The basic issue for me is that war itself—any war—is never an acceptable means to any end for a Christian. There is never a special situation that justifies participation in war for Christians. In Christ we have become new people indeed, and in God we really do trust.

An earlier version of this article appeared as "A Christian Pacifist" in Quaker Life, April 2003. This statement was originally prepared for a colloquium in February on the topic of the impending war on Iraq, sponsored by Chowan College’s Center for Ethics.

Lloyd Lee Wilson

Lloyd Lee Wilson, a member of Rich Square Meeting in Woodland, N.C., serves on the administration of Chowan College in Murfreesboro, N.C.