Christological Pacifism

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SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

Luke 6:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 27-31.

It was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Smoke was still rising from the Pentagon and what remained of the Twin Towers. All flights were grounded. Our state of shock was just beginning to wear off, only to be replaced by growing anger. On my way to church with my family, I passed a van in downtown Ridgewood, New Jersey where I lived at the time. On one side was written, “God bless America.” On the other, “God Damn Afghanistan, may you all burn in hell.”

I can understand the raw anger. As a bedroom community for New York City, our town lost more than a few people in the attack. Some of the cars of our loved ones were still parked in front of the commuter rail station where they had been left on the morning of September 11th. Their owners would never return to claim them. I should also say that there is nothing wrong in expressing anger and sorrow. The Book of Psalms is filled with prayers seeking not merely salvation from enemies but God’s punishment for them, often in very graphic and horrible images. See, e.g., Psalm 137. But however much the psalmists might have liked to see their enemies punished, they knew enough to leave that responsibility to God. And that, Saint Paul reminds us, is where it belongs. Romans 12:19. For our part, we are to show only kindness to our enemies, thereby overcoming evil with good rather than allowing ourselves to be drawn into the cycle of vengeance and so being overcome by evil. Romans 12:20-21. So, too, Jesus’ teaching in Sunday’s gospel could not be clearer. Violence, even in self defense, is not an arrow in our quiver when confronting enemies.

I have been asked many times how I can morally justify my pacifism. I have been barraged with numerous hypotheticals, i.e., “what would you do if a crazed serial killer were lunging at your child with a knife?” I have repeatedly been confronted with the “Hitler question” or some variation of it, that is, “So, you think the world should have stood by and done nothing while Hitler slaughtered the Jews?[1]Would you just let the Nazi’s take over Europe? Would you let the Japanese march right over us?” I don’t have answers to these questions. But the question I would pose in response is this: hearing the words of Jesus in Sunday’s gospel and knowing the life Jesus lived and the death he died, how can I claim to be Jesus’ disciple without being a pacifist?

My pacifism does not derive solely from any particular chapter and verse of scripture. It is Christologically based. Jesus did not merely call upon his disciples to turn the other cheek. He did so when struck, beaten and spit upon. Jesus did not merely tell his disciples to offer up their shirts when their coats are demanded. He gave up his last stich of clothing to the soldiers who crucified him. He gave up his last few loaves and fish to the hungry crowd. Most significant of all, he did not unleash the angelic army that might have rescued him and he refused to allow his disciples to take up the sword in his defense. So I have to ask, if it is not permissible for a disciple to employ violence for the purpose of defending the Incarnate Son of God from torture and death, when is it ever permissible?

To those who might call me unrealistic, dreamy and out of touch with reality, I will plead guilty to an even greater offense. I am a fool. As Paul points out in his letter to the Corinthian church, this “weak” God who endures the agony of the cross rather than employ armies of angels in self defense is “foolishness” to the nations of the world (the gentiles) who cannot imagine a world without justice, law and order enforced by the threat of violence. I Corinthians 1:18-25. Yet, foolish, impractical and hopelessly idealistic as it might be, such is the wisdom of God, such is the power of God and such is the way of Jesus. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” says Jesus. “And where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. When it comes to circumstances seeming to call for the use of violence, we need not ask “What would Jesus do?” We only need to remind ourselves of what Jesus did.

As I said before, I don’t have an answer to the “Hitler question.” I am not convinced that I need one. I am not at all sure that it is the job of Jesus’ disciples to tell Caesar or Joe Biden how to run their empires. Jesus is not in the business of empire building and maintenance. Perhaps his disciples should not be in that line of work either. Maybe it is time for the whole church, particularly that part of the church residing in the United States, to re-evaluate the symbiotic relationship it has allowed to develop between itself and the nation states within which it resides. Maybe we should begin to consider what it would mean for the church to be what it says it is, namely, one, holy and catholic. Perhaps the church should be less concerned with transforming America into a kinder, gentler empire. Maybe we should be more concerned with being transformed into a transnational community formed by the mind of Christ and mirroring the great multitude consisting of all nations, tribes and tongues described by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation so that the Body of Christ and God’s gentle, just and peaceful reign become visible to the world. Revelation 7:13-17. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you have love for one another.” John 13:35. In this community called church, the mystery of the gospel is revealed: that the universe is held together not by law and order under the threat of violence, but by love that would rather die than kill.

Here is a poem by Wilfred Owen ripping the glorious façade of patriotic romanticism off the naked horror of war. As the clouds of war gather once again, this time over eastern Europe, we would do well to contemplate what we clinically refer to as “military action” actually entails and ask ourselves whether the sacrifices we so freely make for the maintenance of empire are really worth the price.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.[2]

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was much influenced by his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, and stood in contrast to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by other war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Owen enlisted with the British armed forces in 1915 and fought in the First World War during which he was seriously wounded. His experiences inspired several poems graphically portraying the horrors of war. Upon recovering, he returned to the front, though he might have honorably remained at home. His decision was motivated less by patriotism than his passion for unmasking the grusome realities of the war. Owen was killed in action in the fall of 1918, just one week before the Armistice. You can read more about Wilfred Owen and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] In point of fact, that is pretty much what the world did do. The United States rejected the immigration application of Anne Franke’s family and turned back a ship with almost 1,000 Jewish refugees from the port of Miami due to “security concerns.” I doubt the rest of the world would have batted an eye if, instead of embarking on the mad warpath of world domination, Hitler had been content to keep his army at home and murder the Jews within his borders.

[2] Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. Quotation from the Latin poet, Horace, meaning“It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.”

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