A friend who knows that I’m reading up on pacifism suggested Peter Brock’s A Brief History of Pacifism. It was an intriguing survey of pacifist movements; I’m not totally sure it was worth what I paid for it, but it’s out of print, and I inadvertently ordered it from a bookseller in England, which kind of inflated the price.

Brock starts out with this assertion: “An unconditional rejection of war, so far as we know, arose first among the early Christians….True, the idea of peace and nonviolence can be found earlier in the history of man as well as in other cultures…for instance, among Indians and Chinese and the indigenous peoples of North America. But nowhere else do we find ‘pacifist’ ideas leading to…the refusal of military service as the ultimate expression of a principled repudiation of violence.”

Which is fascinating in a couple of ways. First: is that really true? If someone can contradict it (with proof, please), I’d be interested to hear about it. Second: the biggest question I have about principled pacifism is wrapped up right in this sentence. The “refusal of military service” can only be carried out by an individual who is rejecting a government’s demand. And this is what I continually come back to: Can there be such a thing as a pacifist government?

I tend to think not; I’ve just worked my way through centuries of military history, and it is abundantly clear that governments which do not fight for survival die. Violence–defensive violence, at the very least–is essential to survival. Brock’s book points this out, several times, in its pairing of the rejection of war with the rejection of the entire apparatus of the state. “The Czech Brethren,” he writes about one pacifist movement, “regarded the state…as an unchristian institution and renounced war as an unchristian occupation.” Pacificist are, in Brock’s history, consistently portrayed as separatists, men and women who turn away from any involvement with the structures of state and nation in order to hold to their principles.

I have no problem with this as an individual stance. But if a principle is true, won’t it apply to states and nations, as well as to individuals?

Not pacifism, according to Brock. Invariably, pacifist movements forbid their adherents to hold office, because that might require them to wage war or to enforce violent punishments on criminals.

I am drawn to this philosophy. But I can’t help wondering: Are these individual pacifists (please excuse the metaphor) moral parasites, holding to a principle which they can only assert because others–those who do not share their beliefs–are willing to fight in order to hold the framework of nations (the nations in which the pacifists live) together?

Or is pacifism, by its nature, a movement which will always exist on the fringes of the established order, forcing that order to answer for its decisions? And is it morally defensible to insist that something is 1) true and 2) incapable of being applied on a national, global scale? I am distressed by this question…as an individual, as a voter in a democratic society, as a historian.

Or is this an incredibly basic and stupid question? And if it is, can it be answered succinctly, so that I can struggle with more essential questions? And what are those?

No answers, this time around. Just questions and more questions. And no grade, because I don’t have enough knowledge yet to evaluate this book.

Showing 19 comments
  • Christina

    Oof. “But if a principle is true, won’t it apply to states and nations, as well as to individuals?” Wow. That is thought-provoking to say the least. As well as the rest of your questions!! The thought that comes to my mind, as a Christian, is that Paul says that God wants us to obey our leaders (as long as they are not directly violating the will, what is revealed to be His desires, of God). While Jesus is clear on how we are to interact with others, turn the other cheek, etc., at the same time we are placed in societies, communities, countries, whatever, in which there are governments. There are people in the world who are in charge. God set up Adam and Eve to be in charge, there is not supposed to be no one in charge. So, in some way these things must work together, even if it is a mystery. (Hope I can say these things with integrity-Jesus talks about Adam and Eve like real people, so I do… 🙂 ) I wish sometimes that I had had a better education as far as how to think, especially when reading books like you have been sharing (the heavier ones!)…my mind isn’t trained to follow arguments closely or know when things are beginning to unravel. I love hearing you discuss these things though, because you are so clear. My husband has done some stuff at our church on the just war vs. pacifism issue. Very interesting and hot topic. At any rate, these are such important things to think about, and so easy to get lost in the back of the mind when tending to dirty diapers and lessons, soccer and laundry-you know? Thank you for sharing all this! Sorry for my book.

  • Christina

    By the way, you’re posting late!! I’m in Texas. I hope you get some rest.

  • Nicole

    I liked the review, but didn’t see a grade for the book this time around.

  • Lorna

    ‘An unconditional rejection of war, so far as we know, arose first among the early Christians’
    Didn’t Buddhism reject violence before then? Surely war was around during Buddha’s time.
    My ideas about prison and how to deal with crime were shaken up by Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’. I am now reading ‘War and Peace’ and enjoying having my ideas challenged on this topic too.
    There certainly is good reason to consider that the Holocaust was largely hidden by the war. War becomes a smoke screen and in the anarchy that it inevitably creates women and children suffer and evil is commited. This seems to be the pattern over and over in recent times. We don’t hear about the atrocities until after the war. Then the children who have seen the horrific violence inflicted on their families grow up in hate and repeat the cycle.
    In modern times the battle could be for the hearts and minds of individuals. Terrorism is commited by mavericks and fuelled by moderate people changing allegiance when families are killed. We have the power of global communication in the 21st century. Language differences should also be less of an issue. We are only just starting to realise how powerful the media can be in resolving issues and increasing understanding between cultures. People are less likely to kill if they see their ‘foe’ as like themselves.

  • Bob

    I thought “moral parasites” was an apt metaphor, although I don’t believe it’s true. If the ultimate assertion of the pacifist principle is to accept physical domination or death rather than employ them in-kind, then wouldn’t pacifists view State protection against violence as the obstruction of their principles, rather than the securing of them?

    Imagine a pacifist was holding a sign protesting a war, and an enraged war supporter charged the person with bat in hand, ready to strike. Just seconds before the individual can strike the pacifist, a police officer intervenes and uses his baton to parry the blow and incapacitates the assaulter with a blow across the knees. The pacifist wouldn’t distinguish between the officer’s actions and the assaulter’s action, correct? Assuming that is true, then the pacifists ideals would have been fulfilled had he accepted the severe injury or death that may have resulted from the attack. The officer’s (State) intervention prevented him from the ultimate fulfillment of his principles, and resulted in a moral wrong – the use of violence against another human being to coerce him into action, even if it saved the pacifist from injury or death.

    Or is this based on ignorance (because I am) of pacifist philosophy? Is that an overly simplistic application of pacifist philosophy?

  • Sarah

    “An unconditional rejection of war, so far as we know, arose first among the early Christians”

    As Lorna points out, the Buddhists and Jains unconditionally rejected violence whether in war or not. You can see some early Buddhist writing on non-violence at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/nonviolence.html

    “the refusal of military service”

    I’m not sure if there was any compulsory military service in ancient India for Buddhists/Jains to reject.

    “Is pacifism, by its nature, a movement which will always exist on the fringes of the established order, forcing that order to answer for its decisions?”

    Where is Brock getting all his pacifist examples from? People who refuse to kill in the service of their government may still agree to risk their own lives to help others and be socially active in many other ways.

    For example, my grandfather was a Quaker living in Britain at the outbreak of WW2. He worked in the East End of London, in the thick of the bombing, helping rescue people from the bombed buildings. Later in war, he and his wife (also a pacifist) helped to run a war nursery for children who lost their homes in the bombing.

    And consider the social actions of non-violent activists of recent years: Martin Luther King; Gandhi; Nelson Mandela; Aung San Suu Kyi; Thich Nhat Hanh… you can probably add many more. None of these could be accused of being socially irresponsible because they refused to kill in support of a cause.

    “And is it morally defensible to insist that something is 1) true and 2) incapable of being applied on a national, global scale?”

    Well, if pacifism were applied on a global scale, then there’d be no problem, right ? 🙂

    I imagine you’re asking, what if one country is entirely pacifist and a non-pacifist country attacks them. This has happened (to some extent) in the case of Tibet. It’s an open question whether armed resistance could have improved the Tibetan situation.

  • Leigh

    I’ve been lurking around this blog for a long time and have enjoyed getting to “know” you. We use a lot of Peace Hill Press products in our school (my 1st grader is even now pushing his bedtime because he just HAS to finish the chapter in his audiobook of “The Story of the World”) and it’s been a lot of fun to see a more complete picture of a curriculum author!

    I’m commenting now to encourage you to keep writing about your pacifism exploration. As the wife of a career Army officer, this is not a topic that frequently comes up in my daily life! Yet I love the philosophical and theological issues it raises.

    So thanks, Susan, for challenging me to think. Thanks for lifting my eyes above the monotony of laundry and 2 year olds and emergent readers and tricky subtraction facts. Keep the hard questions coming.

  • Meredith

    Hey Susan, great post. I think about stuff like this a lot, since my dissertation is about war and religion and personal motivation and the function of Christian government. I think you are spot on when you say that there can be no pacifist government, because those kinds of governments die. Tibet is an excellent example of that — it has lost its sovereignty to an aggressor nation.

    I suppose in an extreme sense, pacifists are ‘moral parasites’ since the principles of nonviolent resistance can only be effectively practiced where there is a state protection of their exercise, e.g., the police officer in the comment above. Personally I have never understood pacifism, mostly because it doesn’t work. Like Communism, it is a lovely ideal that isn’t effective in practice, not in the world we inhabit where total depravity is a fact.

    As to whether a principle can be true for an individual but not a state — that is a fantastic question and I would not be surprised if there were more than one right answer. It depends on the principle doesn’t it? Everyone applauds Robin Hood, but if it were a state that stole from some to give to others, there would be an outcry, I think.

    Thanks for stimulating me to think more about this!

  • Evelyn

    My father was in the military all while I was growing up, and so maybe I am a bit biased, but I believe pacifism a principle that would only work in a near-perfect world. Our world is not perfect, and we have the right and responsibility to defend ourselves and others from people who would either take or control our lives. I am a Christian, and I believe in the teachings of Christ, but even Christ used force when necessary to defend a principle (at the temple). The question, for me at least, comes down to when is war/fighting for a ‘good’ cause or not? Defending freedoms and rights, and people’s lives, I believe will always be moral reasons for using force.
    On the other hand, I very much admire and respect people who are able to accomplish these goals without the use of force. I just finished reading a biography of William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s who lead the movement to abolish the slave trade and free the African slaves. It took him and those who worked with him 45 long years of heartbreaking work, but they accomplished it. Here in America, as we all know, it took a Civil War and many lives were lost. I do not believe those lives were lost in vain or wasted, but how much better to accomplish it without bloodshed. However, what took 45 years in England was completed in 4 years in America.
    Is there a better way? I’m not sure. I think as we do our best to stand for correct principles, and be willing to defend them in the different ways we can, we will be a force for good in the world.

  • Rose

    Buddha did NOT suggest that we should abstain from military service or from establishing an army. He said that kings with armies and soldiers in armies should live rightly. Leaders should meet in harmony and leave in harmony. Soldiers are supposed to always think and examine. The only prohibition against military service was for monks. A person was not allowed to be a monk and a soldier; they had to pick one or the other.

    I’ve always taken that to mean there is such a thing as a pacifist army, and with the right strategy, it could be just as successful as any other. Most Buddhists, I believe, interpret it to mean that sometimes we have to defend ourselves because we haven’t all attained enlightenment yet, but we should be working towards alternatives very actively at every moment.

  • Rose

    Occurred to me you might want sources for my claims, having, you know, asked for them in the original post. This website cites the literature: http://www.beyondthenet.net/thedway/soldier.htm

  • Cynthia

    I find this subject quite interesting, too. My research shows that early Christians refused to participate in the wars or politics of their day.

    In The Early Church and the World, one historian tells us that “up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius at least [161-180 C.E.], no Christian would become a soldier after his baptism.”

    In The New World’s Foundations in the Old, another says: “The first Christians thought it was wrong to fight, and would not serve in the army even when the Empire needed soldiers.”

    Our World Through the Ages, by N. Platt and M. J. Drummond, says: “The behavior of the Christians was very different from that of the Romans. . . . Since Christ had preached peace, they refused to become soldiers.”

    And The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon, states: “[Early Christians] refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. . . . It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers.”

    At as late a date as 295 C.E., Maximilianus of Theveste, son of a Roman army veteran, was conscripted for military service. When the proconsul asked him his name, he answered: “Now, why do you want to know my name? I have a conscientious objection to military service: I am a Christian. . . . I can’t serve; I can’t sin against my conscience.” The proconsul warned him that he would lose his life if he did not obey. “I won’t serve. You may behead me, but I won’t serve the powers of This World; I will serve my God.”—An Historian’s Approach to Religion, by Arnold Toynbee.

    The Catholic Herald of London stated: “The first Christians . . . took Jesus at His word and refused to be conscripted into the Roman army even if the penalty was death. Would the whole of history have been different if the Church had stuck to its original stand? . . . If the churches of today could come out with a joint condemnation of war . . . , which would mean that every member would be bound in conscience to be, like the Christians, a conscientious objector, peace might indeed be assured. But we know that this will never happen.”

    “Origen [who lived in the second and third centuries of the Common Era] . . . remarks that ‘the Christian Church cannot engage in war against any nation. They have learned from their Leader that they are children of peace.’ In that period many Christians were martyred for refusing military service.”—Treasury of the Christian World.

    The prominent church historian C. J. Cadoux noted: “The early Christians took Jesus at his word . . . They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture.”—Isaiah 2:4.

    “Early Christianity was little understood and was regarded with little favor by those who ruled the pagan world. . . . Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. . . . They would not hold political office.”—On the Road to Civilization, A World History (Philadelphia, 1937), A. Heckel and J. Sigman, pp. 237, 238.

    Notes historian E. G. Hardy in his book Christianity and the Roman Government: “The Christians were strangers and pilgrims in the world around them; their citizenship was in heaven; the kingdom to which they looked was not of this world. The consequent want of interest in public affairs came thus from the outset to be a noticeable feature in Christianity.”

    “The Christians stood aloof and distinct from the state, as a priestly and spiritual race, and Christianity seemed able to influence civil life only in that manner which, it must be confessed, is the purest, by practically endeavouring to instil more and more of holy feeling into the citizens of the state.”—The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries (New York, 1848), Augustus Neander, translated from German by H. J. Rose, p. 168.

    I do not believe that Jesus or the early Christians were pacifists in the true sense of the word: “Opposition to war or to the use of military force for any purpose; especially, an attitude of mind opposing all war, emphasizing the defects of military training and cost of war, and advocating settlement of international disputes entirely by arbitration.”

    Rather, I believe the word conscientious objectors describes them more appropriately: “A person who refuses on moral or religious grounds to bear arms in a military conflict or serve in the armed forces.” Jesus and the early Christians made vows of dedication to God and preached God’s Kingdom as the solution to all man’s problems. This vow was superior to Ceasar’s requirements and, therefore, they would not fight in his wars.

    Jesus would not hold political office; he refused to be king since his kingdom was no part of this world. His early disciples likewise remained neutral as far as politics and wars of this world.

    Pacifists are generally involved in politics, demonstrations that lead to civil disobedience, and are against all war and violence of any kind, yet, the Bible speaks of God’s future war of Armageddon against all nations who oppose the Kingdom of his Son. Psalm 110:4-6 (AS) says: “The Lord at thy right hand will strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He will judge among the nations, he will fill the places with dead bodies; he will strike through the head in many countries.” Read the graphic description of this royal warrior of God, at Revelation 19:11-16. As King of Kings and Lord of Lords Jesus is certainly no pacifist and neither are the heavenly armies that accompany him.

    Righteous, theocratic warfare (war at God’s command) of the Hebrew Scriptures and that which will come at Armageddon in the future should be acceptable to Christians. In the meantime, though, Jesus Christ disarmed his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when he told Peter to return his sword to its place and has not told his disciples to take up arms since so Christians today should still be busy preaching about God’s Kingdom instead of getting involved in the politics and wars of our day.

    Manmade warfare has often involved Catholics killing Catholics and Protestants killing Protestants. Since these individuals claim to have made a dedication to God this should be superior to their duty to their country. Ceasar or governments stand in a relative position to God. God commands that Christians love their brothers so if Catholics kill Catholics and Protestants kill Protestants how are they loving their brothers?

    Because conscientious objectors refuse to fight manmade wars does not, in my opinion, make them parasites (persons who receive support, advantage, or the like from another or others without giving any useful or proper return) since they pay taxes and are generally model citizens in all other areas of life just as the early Christians were.

    Writing to Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.), Justin Martyr claimed that Christians, “more readily than all men,” paid their taxes. (First Apology, chapter 17) In 197 C.E., Tertullian told the Roman rulers that their tax collectors had “a debt of gratitude to Christians” for the conscientious way in which they paid their taxes. (Apology, chapter 42)

    In his book The Rise of Christianity, E. W. Barnes relates: “In its early authoritative documents the Christian movement is represented as essentially moral and law-abiding. Its members desired to be good citizens and loyal subjects. They shunned the failings and vices of paganism. In private life they sought to be peaceful neighbours and trustworthy friends. They were taught to be sober, industrious and clean-living. Amid prevailing corruption and licentiousness they were, if loyal to their principles, honest and truthful. Their sexual standards were high: the marriage tie was respected and family life was pure. With such virtues they could not, one would have thought, have been troublesome citizens. Yet they were for long despised, maligned and hated.”

  • Justin

    To Rose who commented above: thanks for posting the article on Buddhism and the Soldier. It’s an interesting essay, but I’m not sure that its author, Major General Ananda Weerasekera, is the best source for these things. In 2000, for instance, he was charged with multiple war crimes including murder and torture in Sri Lanka. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/859179.stm
    I don’t think he was convicted…he was in ill health at the time, which made a trial impossible, and i don’t think a full trial ever took place…I could be wrong. Later he became a Buddhist monk. I’m not pronouncing him guilty of the crimes he was accused of; nor am I disputing the sources he cites. I’m just saying that this information makes me leery of accepting him as an unbiased source in this matter. Does anyone know if he was exonerated?
    In addition, there are suttas he doesn’t cite. This sutta, for instance, from the Tipitaka, seems to show the buddha as advising AGAINST “warrior” as a career choice:


    In it, when asked by a warrior whether warriors who are slain in battle go to a good place or a bad place, the buddha responds:
    “When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle.”

    So it’s complicated. I’m no expert on Buddhism, but it seems that the issue is not as straightforward as General Weerasekera portrays it. Do you know of a better source from a Buddhist point of view?
    Thanks to Rose, Susan, and all for this challenging discussion.

  • Meredith

    It might be interesting for everyone to know that from the fourth century, Christians were obliged BY THE CHURCH to serve in the army as part of obedience to Romans 13. After the Edict of Milan in 313 decriminalised the Christian faith, the pendulum swung to the other extreme with the Church proposing at the Council of Arles in 314 to excommunicate Christians who refused to perform military service.

    That was a neck-snapper for me the first time I found out, because I had only ever heard that ‘the early Christians’ were against military service. Yep, true, but fourth century is pretty early, I think. It’s not like it changed only in the eleventh century with the Crusades or something.

  • Cynthia

    Interesting information, but I find it thought-provoking that the 1st and 2nd century Christians had Rom 13 and obviously did not view these higher powers (governments) as absolute. When what they required conflicted with God’s requirements to love neighbor, worship only God and not the emperor, etc. they refused to comply even if it meant persecution or death.

    Christians thinking that Rom 13 gives their government supreme or absolute power over them no doubt explains why many supported Hitler in Germany. Most now recognize how wrong that was.

    Sad to say by the 4th century many false teachings and false leaders found their way into Christianity as was foretold would happen with the death of the last apostle.

    “Men have discovered that it is far more convenient to adulterate the truth than to refine themselves.”—Charles Caleb Colton, 19th-century English clergyman

    “In the early part of the third century,” says the book From Christ to Constantine, “the church was beginning to become respectable.” But respectability had its price, “a lowering of standards.” Accordingly, “Christian living was no longer seen to be a requirement of Christian faith.”

    The gospel light had waned to a glimmer. And “by the fourth century,” says the book Imperial Rome, “Christian writers were claiming not only that it was possible to be both Christian and Roman, but that the long history of Rome was in fact the beginning of the Christian epic. . . . The implication was that Rome had been divinely ordained.”

    Sharing this view was the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. In 313 C.E., Constantine made Christianity a lawful religion but also fused pagan Roman teachings with it.

    “The fourth century was a period of astounding growth of the Christian Church. The century opened with the persecution of the Christians, still a small minority of the population, by a pagan emperor. At its close, Christianity was the sole official religion of the empire, . . . protected by a Christian emperor who issued persecuting laws against . . . all who departed in any way from the accepted doctrines of the state church.

    “But this rapid growth was not all pure gain to the church. The influx of great numbers of the indifferent or self-seeking inevitably lowered the general average of morality and religious zeal in the church, while at the same time introducing non-Christian elements into its doctrine and practice.”—A Survey of European Civilization, Ferguson & Bruun.

    The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Constantine brought the church out of its withdrawal from the world to accept social responsibility and helped pagan society to be won for the church.”

    The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Constantine was entitled to be called Great in virtue rather of what he did than what he was. Tested by character, indeed, he stands among the lowest of all those to whom the epithet [Great] has in ancient or modern times been applied.” And the book A History of Christianity informs us: “There were early reports of his violent temper and his cruelty in anger. . . . He had no respect for human life . . . His private life became monstrous as he aged.”

    Evidently Constantine had serious personality problems. A history researcher states that “his temperamental character was often the reason for his committing crimes.” Constantine was not “a Christian character,” contends historian H. Fisher in his History of Europe.

    Scholars Henderson and Buck say: “The simplicity of the Gospel was corrupted, pompous rites and ceremonies were introduced, worldly honours and emoluments were conferred on the teachers of Christianity, and the Kingdom of Christ in good measure converted into a kingdom of this world.”

  • Ken Renard

    The Christian doctrine of the depravity of man is the reason pacifism will never be effective on a wide scale. A group of people who are pledged to nonviolence present an ideal target to those who have malicious intentions. In the real (fallen) world, evil must be resisted by force. Only when evil is completely done away with will it be practical (or for that matter moral) to beat our swords into plowshares. Even so come quickly Lord Jesus.

  • Jon

    I have done a lot of research in this field. Try “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder for a modern classic on Christian pacifism. The other person to read is Stanley Hauerwas, who is an occasional writer, but “The Hauerwas Reader” gives an excellent overview of his work as well as interesting critiques of his opponents with a Christian “just war” view, such as Niebuhr. He doesn’t quite get Martin Luther’s theology of two kingdoms right, but these are some of ‘the’ authors on the pacifist side of the conversation today (though Yoder is deceased).

  • Samuel

    Regarding you question “Or is pacifism, by its nature, a movement which will always exist on the fringes of the established order . . . ” John Stackhouse, Jr., whose work I believe you appreciate, has recently argued for just this position in “Making the Best of it: Following Christ in the Real World,.” The gist of his position is that he’s glad that there are people like Yoder and Hauerwas, but he also thinks it’s necessary that there be realists like himself. He lays his position out in some detail in the final chapters of the book. I thought you might be interested.

  • Angie Vogt

    THANK YOU! I have been searching for evidence of pacifism as a legitimate option for years. I have noted (in my teachings) that the only two pacifist movements I ever hear referenced by activists are Ghandi’s and Martin Luther King Jr’s.

    Though in these modern examples, the leaders and their followers were not rejecting military service, but they were peacefully rejecting compliance with the law.

    Both of these courageous men led movements against governments formed by the RULE OF LAW. Their success depended on a system of justice and representative government.

    Hello? That can hardly be counted as a successful pacifist campaign!

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