What about pacifism?

The situation in Ukraine is really stretching our hearts and our thinking.  On this week’s podcast, I talked with Ryan Burton King, a pastor in London who has family and church connections to the country.  As well as talking about prayer points, we also discussed whether or not pastors could and should take sides in a situation like this.  I commented that most of us in the West have not really experienced the situation where an enemy poses a real and immediate threat to our families, homes and our lives in many years.  For those of us in Britain there was perhaps some sense of that threat under the Cold War and with the IRA bombing campaign.

There has therefore been a shift and I think we see it in that we are most comfortable praying for peace, but less comfortable hearing people take sides.  I wonder too what we would make of the following:

  • Ukrainian pastors under the age of 60 showing up to volunteer and be enlisted in the defence of their country.
  • Ukrainian women learning to make Molotov Cocktails whilst praying with and witnessing to their neighbours.

I suspect that if we are honest, that a lot of us struggle with that. Yet, those are real events and real, pressing decisions for men and women in Ukraine now. They really have a choice between fight or flight and there isn’t much middle ground in between.[1] 

This gets us thinking further about ethical questions about war. The other day, I wrote about the ethics of nuclear war. Today I want to talk about pacifism.  Is this required, legitimate, sustainable for Christians.  It’s worth noting at this stage that there are a range of attitudes on war and pacifism among Christians.  These include

  • War is evil.  We cannot support or get involved in any form of war or killing whatsoever. In fact Christians should actively oppose and speak out against all forms of war and encourage disarmament.  Countries should be encouraged to take a pacifist/neutral stand.
  • War may be necessary in some contexts, but Christians should not become involved in the conflict at all. We have no business with The World’s conflicts. Our business is loving people through/with the Gospel and bearing arms against them would be in tension with this.
  • We should not bear arms in conflict ourselves but understand the necessity of war and if called up would offer our services in non-combatant roles such as in logistical or medical roles.  Many Christians acted as stretcher bearers in the World Wars which put them perhaps among those at greatest risk.
  • War may be necessary in some contexts – limited tightly to self defence when your country is attacked. In such a situation it would be legitimate to respond to conscription to serve in defence of your own town and community as is currently happening in Ukraine.
  • Because war is sadly sometimes necessary and because strong defences  help as a deterrent against attack, enable us to protect our national interest abroad and puts a responsibility on us to defend our allies too. Therefore, it is permissible for Christians to participate in the armed forces and defence industry.  At the same time we need to be alert to the ethics of specific wars.

I want to acknowledge here that there are understandable reasons for each of those positions. I would encourage Christians to think through carefully their own position, reflecting prayerfully on Scripture and talking to others as well.

It’s important too that as with many political issues, that we don’t fall into the trap of suspecting and then maligning others. I think that there is a bottom line here which is that we cannot be gung-ho about war.  We should resist nationalistic expansion – though this  has tended to be a less overt military phenomena in the west for many years. However, we need to be clear that simply because someone supports or even is involved in the military that this does not mean they are a warmonger nor that they don’t long for and pray for peace. Similarly, especially in the light of those stretcher-bearers in the war, we want to speak out strongly against any suggesting that pacifists are cowards or traitors.

Personally, my sympathies lie with the final position. That may well affect a long association with the armed forces in my family. My grandparents on both sides served in the forces with my granddad on my dad’s side being an army combatant and my Grandpa on mum’s side being a medical officer with the RAF.  My mum’s family were therefore a forces family and her siblings all seemed to end up serving and/or being married to people who did.  Dodgy eyesight and asthma probably ruled me out of a lot of military service options but for ten years I worked in the defence industry. Indeed, I would suggest that those in the defence sector are often among the most cautious about conflict. Now perhaps I’m aligning my ethics with circumstances but I think there are strong and compelling arguments for a non-pacifist position.

First of all, I think Scripture permits it.  God’s people in Scripture were permitted to take up arms whether in battle for Israel or the disciples carrying swords.  There are examples of soldiers coming to Jesus for healing and conversions in Acts without suggestion that they lay down their weapons and resign their commissions. Military language is used positively in Scripture as imagery to teach on the Christian life (See Ephesians 6 and 2 Timothy 2).  In Romans 13 we are told that the governor does not bear the sword in vain.

Secondly, I struggle to distinguish between relying on others to defend and protect not just through the armed forces but through the police and security services from taking responsibility ourselves along with them. So I find the second option above the least convincing of them all. And yes, once we accept the premise of policing and the law then we accept that sometimes force is required. 

Thirdly, in that context, I don’t think that this conflicts with our responsibility and call to witness and show love to others. Just as we encourage victims of abuse and crime to ensure that they are safe and protected and that their oppressors are brought to justice, so too in terms of geopolitical matters we can be concerned for the eternal well-being of enemies in war whilst recognising that there is an immediate earthly need for justice and protection.

Now, for most of us, I pray that these things will remain hypothetical. I pray that we won’t find ourselves in a conflict where it is necessary for ordinary citizens to be called up on mass. However, there are people who have had to wrestle with these ethical questions before choosing to enlist and the question is far from hypothetical for our many brothers in Ukraine. I hope that this article will help us to understand the decisions of others. I also hope it will encourage us to pray for those who do serve in our armed forces and particularly at the moment for those Ukrainians facing attack right now.

[1] Though it was good to hear that those pastors volunteering are often being told that their role as pastors is more pressing right now. What an incredible witness.

If anyone is interested I’d welcome a response article setting out the case for Christian pacifism

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