Trinitarian Pacifism


Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15.

This Sunday most mainline churches will celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, a day on which more heresy will find its way into the pulpit than at any other time of the year. It will all begin with the invocation of God the creator, God the redeemer and God the sanctifier-or some such similar formula. Don’t misunderstand me here. There is nothing wrong with invoking God in these or other words reflecting God’s mighty acts. The problem arises when they get passed off as Trinitarian invocations, which they are not. The terms creator, redeemer and sanctifier (and any other of the many things God does) are not synonyms for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The former are merely descriptions of what God does. The latter is a testament to who God is.

As Saint Augustine points out, the distinction between the persons of the Trinity exists only within the Godhead. Externally, that is, in God’s dealings with creation and all of its creatures, God is always and only one. Thus, even when the scriptures say that God spoke to Moses or that Jesus raised Lazarus or that the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples at Pentecost, we are to understand that the Trinity is fully present and acting in perfect concert in every case. Thus, to substitute creator, redeemer and sanctifier with the aforementioned terms renders the Trinity a committee of three, each with its own area of responsibility. That hardly comports with Jesus’ words to the effect that “All that the Father has is mine….” and that the Spirit will “take what is mine and declare it to you.”[1]

So who cares? The church, for one. The Nicene Creed was the product of centuries of rancorous ecclesiastical debate over the nature of the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Athanasian Creed, following an exhaustive articulation of Trinitarian faith concludes with this withering declaration: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” Though it seems to me that opining about anyone’s ultimate salvation is beyond the pay scale of any mortal, the Creed makes a valid point: it matters what you believe about God. I hardly need to catalogue the atrocities that have been committed on God’s behalf by adherents of numerous faiths, Christianity included. That Christians have taken up the sword to defend the church, to defend the faith, to defend the nations in which they happen to reside and to defend themselves against their neighbors and fellow citizens continues to discredit the church’s public witness. Worse still, it reflects a woeful ignorance (or willful disregard?) of the profound significance of Trinitarian faith.

Jesus leaves his disciples with a “new” commandment: to love even as they have been loved by God. It cannot be overstated that love in this sense is not a human sentiment. It is the glue that holds the Trinity together. The Holy Spirit, says Augustine, is the love binding the Father and the Son. As such, it pre-exists creation and, for this reason, Saint Paul calls it eternal. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life, then, is to “know God” and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. John 17:3. Jesus’ disciples are “sent” into the world that God so loved just as was Jesus. John 20:21. The trinitarian love at the heart of the Godhead plays out in human history through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus God is on the receiving end of all the worst humanity can throw. But this God, instead of retaliating, raises up the crucified Son and offers him back to the world-which will undoubtedly crucify him again. God overcomes evil by confronting it with love, love without limit and love without end. We might find it hard to imagine that love alone is any match for AR-15s, tanks and long range missiles. But, as we have seen, love is eternal. That means God has all eternity to work with and God is nothing if not patient. The power of God is the patience of God. Against that patience, evil must finally wear itself out.  

This brings me to my final point, namely, that Christian pacifism is grounded in the Trinitarian understanding of God. There is no hierarchy within the Trinity; no coercion; no conflict. God is complete in God’s self and needs nothing besides God. Yet, as the hymn so eloquently says, “the universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 412. Love is, after all, making room for another to be. Of course, when you do that, you take a risk. Couples who make room in their lives for a child experience profound pain when that child rejects their love, makes harmful decisions or suffers injury or death. Yet we continue to have children “in love and hope.” When they hurt us, we forgive them. When they disappoint us, we continue to love them. When they are in danger, we put our own lives on the line to save theirs. We do this because, after all, we are created in God’s image and God is the one who takes the risk of declaring “Let there be.” To take a human life, for any reason, is to insist that someone God has let be should not be. It is as simple as that.

Of course, it bears repeating that pacifism is not the same as passivism. Jesus was hardly passive in the face of oppression, injustice and poverty. His life and ministry consisted of confronting the engines of imperial oppression and its devastating effects on those deemed “the least” in the human family. Yet violence, coercion, threats and manipulation were not arrows in Jesus’ quiver. Neither should they be for Jesus’ disciples. As the Father is one with the Son in love, so should believers be one among themselves. John 17:26. As Jesus was in the world as one who chose death over killing, so should his disciples be in the world. John 17:11.

It is difficult to be a pacifist in these days. It is hard not to respond viscerally when witnessing the brutality of Putin’s Russia against its neighbor, Ukraine. Again and again I have been asked, “So you think the Ukrainians should just lie down and let Russia take their country?” My only response is to say that I have no guidance to give concerning what Ukraine or NATO or Russia should or should not do. But I know that disciples of Jesus, be they Russian, Ukrainian or American, should not take human lives. Jesus refused to allow his disciples to raise the sword in his defense. So if violence in defense of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, how, quite literally in God’s name, can we ever justify it?

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja I have cited previously. It bears repeating as it gives the doctrine of the Trinity its due.


I God

You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.

Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:

We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like a code
Etched within the DNA. If we’re divine,

Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?

II Son

Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Were we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri,
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?

III. Spirit

All the nebular roasries of heaven
Are bounded by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One moment we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges off of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:

The father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:

Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.

Source: Poetry, March 1994 pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeia at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I am mindful of the concern that terms such as “father” and “son” carry a gender bias some find troubling. Much of this problem stems from our English language in which gender is exclusively linked to sexual identity. Such is not the case for the biblical languages. While I welcome invoking God with feminine images and addressing God with feminine pronouns (or plural for that matter), I am not prepared to dispense with the Trinitarian formula set forth in our creeds, our liturgy and hymnody. That said, I think it is possible to speak of the Trinity in other ways that distinguish the persons of the Godhead while affirming God’s oneness, such as, for example, as “Speaker, Word and Voice.” It is possible to be sensitive without being sloppy and imprecise.   

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