When you disagree with someone and there is a clear separation between you, it’s a matter of little concern. Disagreements only become passionate when something you value is involved. It may be that the policies you disagree with will affect people you love. It may be that the conclusion you disagree with subverts or distorts a principle you believe in (such as justice). In any event, a disagreement is a placid thing unless there is something shared mixed in with the disagreement.

I do not agree with Justin Hiebert’s pacifism. But I almost do agree. It’s that sliver of difference that agitates me the most. The broad cloth of Mennonite and other peace churches contains strong threads of community living based on relationships, not transactions (time, not money); a theology lived every day; and a practical appreciation for creation. It is a beauty and a song. It is lovely and comforting.

But if it is fundamentally wrong, then the beauty is a mask. The comfort is a seduction. I do not mean that all the brothers and sisters in peace churches are deceivers and villains – it is my own perception of peace churches to which I react. “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Mark 9:47).

First, Justin has some solid criticism of just war. Just war has been defended at length by countless theologians and philosophers, so neither Justin nor I will cover all its nuances. What I have seen is represented well by Justin’s quote from Arthur Holmes:

War is evil. Its causes are evil […] Its consequences are evil […] To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception. […] The issue that [t]ears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases entirely avoidable. 

I have not yet seen a theory of warfare that does not concede that warfare requires actions unlike Christ. These unchristian actions are always for Christian purposes, of course; but it is recognized that we would never do acts of war unless forced.

Forced is the key idea here. Something has gone wrong, and the only way to fix it is to fight. Our duty to a higher good compels us to a lesser evil, because (in this thinking) the Higher Good that we serve is incapable of sustaining the good without resorting to evil. As Justin points out, “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” This trite observation is regarded by just war proponents as a deliberate simplification of a complex issue. The tactic is real; people do reduce complex matters to simplistic conclusions. In this case, however, I think the burden is on the proponents of just war to use better terms. If you were to say “Sometimes the right thing to do is difficult, unpleasant, and unwelcome,” I could agree with that as far as it goes without a problem. But the purpose of the word “evil” demands that yes, the lesser of two evils is still evil. As long as you call acts of war evil they are evil.

Justin also gives the most common criticism of pacifism, but oddly, he presents it as a criticism of just war. In context, Justin summarizes Arthur as arguing that if everyone followed the precepts of just war, there would be no war at all. Justin describes this notion of just war as

“similar to saying, ‘If everyone would be nice, share their toys, not do mean things, get along, play well, think of others, be generous, forgive everyone and hold hands the world would be a better place.’

Or course it would. But we don’t really need Jesus for that, do we. If we had a problem that we could just fix by ‘being nicer’ than an ethic and standard of Jesus (and his coming, death and resurrection) really don’t seem to matter all that much.”

Again, to be clear, Justin directs this toward the ideal of just war. I think it holds just as well as a criticism of pacifism. Justin goes on to say that just war has historically failed to resolve warfare – no “war to end all wars” ever has. But it can equally be said that pacifism doesn’t work. It wasn’t invented in the 21st century. The very doctrine of the peace churches gives pacifism at least a 2,000 year history. Just war is a more recent invention, at least couched in Christian theology. So how’s that pacifism working?

The answer, of course, is that nobody (not enough) people have participated in pacifism all at once for it to succeed. But the same argument can be made by proponents of just war. There are injustices in any war (surely a pacifist would agree) that fall short of the idealized, mathematical justice of war without revenge or greed.

Practical results are a terrible way to evaluate morality, in this case as well as many others. It is a terrible gauge of theology as well. The first disciples considered Jesus a failed Messiah until they personally saw him in the flesh. Jesus could have ascended back to heaven (and sent his Spirit) without making any personal appearances – we would have had only a mysteriously missing body rather than the testimony of eyewitnesses to declare his resurrection. The practical result of Christ’s Messiahship was death. We cheat by reading ahead, and by counting the spread of (nominal) Christianity a victory. Insofar as those original disciples were concerned, following Christ remained forever the aroma of death (in the world): rejection, humiliation, and death itself. To find any hope in Christianity required peeking ahead, not to twentieth-century America but to the end of the age, the resurrection, visible in Christ the first-fruits–the preview of a harvest of life.

Justin and I agree that the record of Jesus and his first disciples shows them what would be generally called pacifists. There may be arguments about the use of a whip here or there, but aside from such technical arguments any casual observer would call it pacifism. Within the same political and cultural climate (within the lifetime of some of the apostles) there was an armed rebellion, on the cause of religious and civil liberty, led by ardent Jewish patriots against a foreign, pagan power whose ruler was widely revered as divine. A Christian who defends war could hardly find a better cause than the revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Many of the patriots who fought in this cause were contemporaries of the Apostles. Nothing in any of the apostolic writings betrays any sympathy with those patriots, even though the apostles themselves were tried unjustly and executed without cause, and generally had every single one of their constitutional rights ripped up in their faces.

The studied ignorance of most just war demagogues to the political environment of the apostles and their reaction to it is a wonder to behold. I can understand Justin’s sarcastic tone when he comments, “Right, because when Jesus rose from the dead he immediately rode out from the grave wielding a sword and striking down those that opposed him.” But Justin, in turn, makes no attempt whatever to explain Christ’s promise to return exactly so: riding a war horse, wielding a sword, striking down all who oppose him. It is a promise made in the Revelation and also in numerous Old Testament prophecies. And it is a promise made not only in what we call prophecy, but also what we call history. The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan all illustrate the suddenness and totality of the destruction that is in store for all of the enemies of God. If Christ is a preview of the resurrection life, these judgments are a shadow and a glimpse of the real and deadly wrath God has for all who hate his Son.

This is where I think most pacifists go wrong. They look at the life of Christ and his humble service unto death and cannot reconcile it with the wrath of God revealed in the Old Testament. Strange things spring up from this: there was a different God in the Old Testament times; God was misunderstood back then; God has learned a thing or two since then; it was Satan, not God, back then. These all ignore what Jesus said about himself in relation to the Old Testament and what his apostles wrote later. Separate Jesus from the Old Testament and you have quickly separated Jesus from any historical record that we have. He becomes an effigy created to our liking and in our likeness. You could as well select a Prince Charming from a fairy tale or a Greek god, editing until the deity fit your requirements.

So how do we reconcile the genocide in Canaan with the sacrifice on the cross? We cannot in any reckoning have preservation of human life as our highest priority. The record shows that God himself, and no human intermediary, killed Uzzah in the Old Testament and Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament. In these cases God put defense of his holiness as a priority over preserving human lives. We are not the only ones to be offended; David refused to take the ark to Jerusalem after God killed Uzzah. If God’s holiness is as picky as all that, how can any of us live?

This is the gospel in the Old Testament. If you read the Old Testament, and especially if you read it more than once, you will realize that the people who are judged and killed are often no worse than people who live. The prophets even point out that the Israelites have become worse than the Canaanites they replaced. Eventually the Israelites are removed from the land, but only after generations of idolatry and grossly immoral practices like child sacrifice. So God allowed some to live even though he killed others for the same crimes.

Is God unjust? Or is it not rather true that they all died? Some died by the sword when we would call them young; others in their beds when we would call them old. They all died in an eyeblink of God’s time; like a vapor, like a puff of dust. And if any of them ever really lived, then they live still, as Jesus said. If the death of a man is the failure of the life and peace that Jesus offers, than Jesus and his god are a colossal failure. And if a man needs time to have a chance to repent, than God has been utterly defrauded. Who is to say what a man might see in a few hundred years more of life? Maybe more men would repent if they lived a little longer, as Justin suggests (especially in that last paragraph). But Scripture speaks differently, testifying that man becomes more corrupt the longer he lives, and the shortness of life is a mercy of God on his remnant on the earth.

The witness of the Old Testament is that all men are guilty and deserving of death. The law given through Moses to Israel made this clear, for no Israelite could keep the law and their condemnation was evident. The same is true in the New Testament. All have fallen short. All have corrupted and profaned the image of God that they were meant to be. As a bottomless cup or a broken staff or a cloudy mirror, we are fit to be destroyed because we are not fit for our purpose.

The witness of the New Testament is that God does not destroy all men, but offers redemption and life. Although men are guilty and profane the holiness of God, he forbears and graciously delays their destruction so that they may be saved. The service and suffering of Christ make this clear, for although he could call ten thousand angels for judgement he accepted even death to give his life away. We Christians live this witness still. But just as the failure of the Israelites to uphold the law did not negate the righteousness of God, so too our lack of grace does not negate the grace of God. Should we be no more violent than Jesus and his apostles? Yes. If we fail, as Christians, and are violent, and kill, does this break the grace of God and destroy the life that he offers? No indeed. For God’s grace stretches beyond even our lifetimes, into the future and into the past; it is by his grace alone that mankind was not utterly destroyed in the Flood, no, in the Garden of Eden. His grace goes back as far as his wrath. It goes further, flowing from his first thought of creation that Jesus gave form.

Justin offers this summary of the Christian faith: “Christianity (following Jesus) is about learning to do the opposite of our ‘natural instincts.’ […] I’m fully convinced that one of the things Jesus came to do is show us how to be more fully human.” If to be human is to bear the image of God, and if Jesus as the perfect image-bearer fulfills this purpose, and if to be more “fully human” is to be more Christ-like, than there is little to argue here. But that is not what Justin means. He says instead that Jesus ” wanted to point us in a different direction.”

For Justin, once we are pointed, it is up to us to walk. There is redemptive work for us to do. Our Christ-likeness is working to be and to bring peace. But our peace-working can never exceed the law-keeping of the Israelites. If they were given a task of living God’s law of holiness and failed, how shall we succeed if we are given the task of living God’s law of grace? Do you think that law of grace is somehow easier to keep than the law of holiness? No, any peace-working we do will succeed no better than the holiness-work of Israel.

The hope that I have is the confidence that God has his own holiness, righteousness, love, and peace firmly in his grasp. He is not pleading with us to become better than we are. He is promising us that he will redeem his own. There is no shadow of doubt. There is no fear of untimely death. The rest and peace we have are our utter confidence in his promise, because there will be no rest for the child of God until the birth-labor of this creation is complete.

For Justin, “Real pacifism is much more than just avoiding the negative side effects of war; it is rather actively working towards peace.” I will give him his definition, but on those terms you must not call me a pacifist. The good news I have heard is that true peace is not working. Yes, we work for our bread. Yes, we work to stay alive. Yes, in that sense, we work to have peace. But that is a project that has already failed. We shall die. There is no peace. But our life, our righteousness, our peace, is already accomplished in Christ.