Why I am uncomfortable with the label “pacifist”: a missiological-messianic critique of universal ethical theories

For all practical purposes, I am indeed a pacifist: I do not believe Christians can or should serve in the military; I reject war and the use of harmful force as sinful, etc. And yet over the course of recent months, I have become more and more uncomfortable with the idea of pacifism or being a pacifist. The reason for my lack of comfort is analogous to Karl Barth’s concerns about universalism, namely, that a system (whether of salvation or of ethics) is erected in place of a person (Jesus Christ). This is a serious problem. The Bible does not present us with a system of doctrine or of ethics. What it presents is Jesus as Lord.

Now, of course, certain things follow from the confession that Jesus is Lord. Systematic theology has a necessary place within the life of the church (hence my pursuit of a PhD in systematic theology). But we have to be careful that our theological formulations are always a matter of intellectual fidelity to the Messiah. For this reason, in theology, we begin with the event of God’s self-revelation, and our theology is a matter of “thinking-after” this event. Once we establish the revelatory norm, our theology becomes an interpretation of this normative reality for our particular contexts here and now under the guidance of Holy Scripture. Certain things, of course, will remain unshakeable, e.g., the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, or the fact that reconciliation with God is purely an event of divine grace. But the overall interpretation of this divine revelation will take on distinctly different forms within particular cultural locations. My conception of what God did and does cannot simply be transposed into an alien cultural environment without being reinterpreted. Missiologists are keenly aware of this issue, as are biblical translators. The conservative polemic against “dynamic equivalent” translations is quite idiotic, since all translation, by the very nature of being a translation, includes dynamic equivalency. The question is not whether dynamic equivalency is involved, but rather whether this dynamism is faithful to the event of revelation within the cultural context of the translators.

I would say something similar is the case for Christian ethical action. The temptation into which the church throughout history has fallen prey is that we will construct a system of morals (often proof-texting the Bible along the way) that we can then apply to any situation in any culture within any time and place. This is substantially analogous to the situation with systematic theology. Fidelity to the Messiah is replaced with replication of an event. The whole thing can be compared (albeit over-simplistically) to Catholic vs. Protestant ecclesiologies. In Catholic ecclesiology, mission involves the extension of an ecclesial structure which is already fixed and established apart from any cultural particularity. In Protestant ecclesiology, in its modern missiologically informed variants, mission involves the translation of the church into a unique cultural situation. The gospel is reinterpreted for a new community.

The problem with “pacifism” is the problem with any ideological system: one becomes faithful to a system that is defined in abstraction from one’s cultural location. For those familiar with the terminology, the problem with pacifism is that it is anti-missional. The same problem is involved in the traditional ecumenical creeds of the church. Mere repetition of these creeds without theological translation is doctrinally equivalent to a Catholic ecclesiology of structural extension.

What I am advocating is fidelity to the messianic event of reconciliation in Jesus of Nazareth—in both noetic and ethical terms. This act of messianic fidelity will take the form of cultural translation/interpretation under the normative guidance of Scripture, always within the obedience of faith in response to God’s self-attestation and illumination through Word and Spirit. Such fidelity will certainly mean that particular actions are, for the most part, ruled out from the beginning. Committing violent and exploitative acts falls within that scope, as does taking an oath of obedience to anyone apart from Christ (which precludes participation in the government and military, for example). Thus, for all practical purposes, fidelity to Christ will look and smell like pacifism. But what we cannot do is construct some moral-ethical system that says what can or cannot be done in every possible situation. We cannot substitute some rule—“all violence is always wrong”—in place of what Paul calls the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

I take it that my position is in basic conformity with Paul’s overall theology within the (undisputed) NT letters, in which he rejects the erection of some new law in place of the old law. Paul instead engages in a radical annihilation of ethical systems of law, replacing the entirety of the old ethical codes with the one rule “love your neighbor as yourself,” since “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 10:9-10). What does this look like in each unique context? Well, that’s where the difficult work of translation becomes necessary.

Paul’s concern is not with figuring out a list of new laws and rules that conform to the gospel; instead, his concern (which should be ours as well) is with the new human person, the new creation, which is ontologically constituted in Jesus and becomes an existential reality for us in the Spirit’s gift of faith. This new creature lives within the power of the Spirit, who bestows the gifts of the Spirit so that we might live in correspondence to the life of Jesus. These gifts are not new laws; rather, they are the elements which constitute life under the eschatological reign of God. They define what it means to be a new creature. Here and now, then, we are to live as a new creation within our particular cultural context. In ourselves we are still part of the old creation which surrounds us. But insofar as we submit ourselves in obedience to Jesus, insofar as we become servants of the Messiah, our old existence is actualized in the Spirit as a moment of the new creation’s in-breaking.

In conclusion, I propose a messianic-pneumatic theology of evangelical fidelity to the apocalyptic event of the eschatologically new creation. Our life of messianic fidelity will take the existential form of “ad hoc” correspondence to Jesus. In other words, in place of an ethical-moral system, I propose that we respond in each new moment in obedience to the Messiah; in each new time and place, we are to hear and respond in faith to Word and Spirit. This fidelity to the gospel will establish a form of life that has certain basic contours—including, e.g., life in community, self-donating love for both neighbor and enemy, rejection of violence, giving and sharing of material property, etc. This is messianic and pneumatic because, as Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah; and it is no longer I who live, but it is the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). And this life is a life in the new creation, because as Paul says elsewhere, “If anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:15).


David, there is a word missing from your title - indeed, from the essay altogether! I expect you to rectify the situation in some appropriate way.
What's missing, exactly?
Think about it - it will come to you. ;-)
Anonymous said…
I learned an ethic, which was labeled "Faith ethics;" it is rather similar to what you are getting at --- albeit coming at it a different way.

The point of commonality, is the urge to get away from "decision-centered ethics" and engage in an "ethical-norm" that is informed and shaped by our union with Christ, through the power and 'shedding abroad of the Spirit' --- thus reshaping and reconstituting 'our' values with the 'New Creation's' values --- providing daily living (even missional) with a shape that takes its cue from the apocalyptic future, inbreaking into the crossroads of the present.
byron smith said…
taking an oath of obedience to anyone apart from Christ (which precludes participation in the government and military, for example)
Not to mention precluding ordination in episcopal churches, or women getting married using traditionally-worded promises.
Anonymous said…
The high point of the essay was, "I propose that we respond in each new moment in obedience to the Messiah." Unfortunately the essay then imeediately backed off into culutral norms.
Some of the difficult passages in the NT are when Jesus made a whip of cords, over threw the money changers and proceeded to drive the people out or when he tells the foriegn woman whose daughter is sick to basically bugger off. And yet Jesus is acting in obedience to the HS, I think if our response does not allow us to to defy cultural norms temporarily we do not yet 'live to God.'

How exactly did I fall into "culutral [sic] norms"? Unless you think that living in community in self-donating love for neighbor and enemy is a cultural norm -- in which case, I have to ask, how is it living in the New Jerusalem?

Also, where exactly do you get the idea that those two examples from the gospels are things to which Jesus calls us? I very quickly get exasperated with people who want to use the money-changers story as a justification for being a violent asshole, which is pretty much what I hear you advocating. Unfortunately, I don't see that justified anywhere else in the Bible. Jesus gives no such command. He says "love your neighbor" and "love your enemies." That's it.
Halden said…
I want to know what Travis is talking about.
Same here. I haven't the faintest clue.
Not one use of the term 'dialectical'!
Anonymous said…
Good post, David. I've been reading Yoder's book on Barth so I've been thinking about similar issues.

It seems Barth's worry is quite similar to yours, namely, the idea that absolute pacifist positions tend toward what amounts to an ethical "system." From what I can tell, Barth wants to leave open the possibility for God to speak otherwise. So, this is basically a problem of God's freedom for Barth.

Yoder points out that Barth really had no idea what this would look like, which of course is part of it. If Barth had a good idea what it would look like for God in God's freedom to speak a different word then God wouldn't be so free after all! This would become just another form of casuistry, something that Barth is keen on trying to avoid.

Yoder also points out that Barth was much less skeptical of Christian participation in war than other forms of violence.

Anyway, good post. I guess I'm wondering how you see your position vis a vis Barth.

Ah, I see. I assume you're pleased, then? :)

I would say I am certainly animated by the same spirit that animates Barth's concerns in CD III/4. But the concern is more directly related to Bultmann, who is more vocal on this matter.

You could say that I am trying to avoid any ethical worldview, in the same way that I think we should avoid any intellectual worldview. Both are equally departures from the gospel, in that they presume a posture or perspective from some Olympian height, abstracted from historical particularity. It seems to me that far too many theologians are quite willing to reject theological worldviews but remain attached to ethical worldviews on the basis of their specific theological commitments. This is a widespread tendency: we're OK with our theology being culturally and historically situated, but we want a universal ethics that is somehow above such factors.
wag said…
While I don't have any concern for the bulk of your argument, I must say that I was perplexed by the utter ignorance associated with your opening statement, “I am indeed a pacifist: I do not believe Christians can or should serve in the military...." When did military service become mutually exclusive to loving and serving Jesus Christ as Savior? If it boils down to the use of "harmful force as sinful" then it is easy to see that there are countless roles of both the military and its service members that doing nothing of the sort (humanitarian and peace keeping roles in addition to its involvement in scientific research come to mind at the military level). It is even easier to think of these types of roles on the individual level (doctors, lawyers, scientists, finance personnel, etc...) What runs most glaringly counter to your rejection of the compatibility of Christianity with military service is the role of military chaplain (which I'm sure that you undoubtedly have your opinion on).
Regardless of this fact, I believe there is a larger issue at play when it comes to this blanket statement concerning Christianity and military service. It may come out clearer by analogy. Your statement is analogous to someone stating that they didn't believe that a Christian could have more than $5 dollars in their bank account because you can’t serve two masters, God and Money. It is ironic that it's statements like these (yours concerning pacifism included) that go about doing exactly what you are stating you are against, erecting a system in place of a person. I’ve addressed primarily the “can” serve in the military rather than the “should”. The “should” of course represents an individual choice and as such it is entirely up to that individual. I think that the same goes for pacifism. It is an individual choice, and not one that I am a particularly against, but it is not a pre-requisite for serving Christ. It is a challenging and honorable position to take—again analogous to the act of self-imposed poverty—and each have their own purpose and associated blessings, but neither should to be accepted as universals. I believe this is true because, in addition to the blessings associated with serving Christ by taking either respective position, they by definition prohibit one’s ability to serve Christ in other ways. Poverty does not have the ability to serve Christ and bless others through philanthropy, and similarly, a pacifist is limited in their means and may not be able to help defend a defenseless victim. That’s my two-cent rant. Thanks.

Your analogy between the military and money in the bank account makes no sense whatsoever. Do you take an oath of allegiance to your money? No, of course not. It's not money itself that Jesus attacks; it is the sin in which we view that money as our personal possession with which we can dispose as we please. When that happens, we inevitably become the "slaves" of our possessions. The problem with taking an oath of military service is that we inevitably become the "slaves" of the military leaders. Our oath of allegiance to these leaders binds us to obey them when they command us to kill our enemies.

Now, of course, the problem is that Jesus commands something quite different: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Throughout history, as I'm sure you know, Christians have justified military service with the notion that the killing of our enemies is, in fact, our way of loving them. I take it as pretty much self-evident that such an argument has no merit.

Having said that, my entire argument, as you rightly stated, is against the notion of a universal ethical law. But as I also said, I think that fidelity to Christ will "look and smell" like pacifism. In that sense, faithfulness to Christ will have to be practically pacifist. That's a limit set by the biblical witness - more specifically, by Jesus himself. Obviously you disagree. In that case, show me that your exegesis is more faithful to the event of God's self-revelation in Jesus and isn't simply a capitulation to things like "natural law," "Christian tradition," etc.
wag said…
All analogies have their shortcomings as does this one, but you point to the problem of your own argument through its same critique. The problem in each case has to do with slavery. This can happen with or without an oath, making the oath a non-factor. Now the oath is only a problem when it constitutes blind robotic loyalty (i.e. slavery) and it is followed even when in direct contradiction to following Christ. As I stated before being in the military does not mandate that you kill anyone and does not have to be in direct contradiction to following Christ. Plenty of jobs exist within the Armed Forces that have nothing to do with the use of "harmful force" which you label as sin.

Furthermore the oath taken by military members is essentially identical oath taken by the President (or anyone in public office rather) "to support and defend the Constitution". I just wanted to make this clear and point out the shortcomings associated with your definition of pacifism. Based on your definition it seems that members of the police force could also not be Christian because they use harmful force to do their jobs (and I’m sure they too take some kind of oath).

Bringing the history of the Christian church into the fray neither adds weight to your argument nor works to the demise of my point. People acting in the name of Christianity have done many terrible things with or without using harmful force--and I would concede that none who has done so should be considered as being truly Christian.

As I stated before I respect the pacifist position. On the whole, choosing to not cause harm to someone is far closer to Christ's life and teaching then the opposite case, but the pacifist position comes increasingly close to become a system in itself, particularly when you look at refusing to use force (as a last resort I hope) to defend the defenseless. To turn the other cheek and thus your eyes away from can’t possibly be the answer. This is totally cliché but I believe things like the Holocaust (where force seems to be the only answer) must be stopped at any cost. That I guess is where we may differ fundamentally.

I will give up now. Thanks for reading
Unknown said…
I'm in general agreement that "fidelity to Christ will look and smell like pacifism," insofar as we define pacifism as "opposition to war or violence as a means of solving disputes."

It doesn't seem to me that policing efforts and individual cases of self-defense are within the purview of a pacifist ethic. Maybe there's a better word out there for what I desire, i.e., anti-war, versus what it sounds like you're aiming at — all or nothing.

I guess I'm a little cynical about us being able to resolve this one: pacifism has its problems, but what's the alternative? I wrote about this not too long ago myself.

Thanks for the good post.
Unknown said…
Also, shouldn't it be: "messianic-pneumatic theology of evangelical fidelity to the apocalyptic event of the eschatological new creation"? Unless, of course, you were wanting to modify only the adjective new
Unknown said…
And for further clarificaton, by seeing your views as "all or nothing" I simply am reacting to the statement: "I do not believe Christians can or should serve in the military."

I want to say this too, but I find myself running smack into the reality of the two kingdoms when I do.

Good point, incidentally, on the contextualization (not relativizaton) of revelation across cultural divides.
Unknown said…
Since you've eliminated the entire tradition of thought on this subject that you don't agree with on account of its self-evident lack of merit, what's the point of writing the blog post? I would think very carefully before pronouncing anything Thomas said to be self-evidently wrong.

I say this only to point out the fact that your arguments for some kind of practical pacificism lose all logical force at this point. If you think anon is using "the money-changers story as a justification for being a violent asshole" then I suggest you extend the logic of the gospel more thoroughly to your blog comments and grant him a bit more charity. He's simply pointing out that the situation is more complicated than a facile, absolute ethic of pacificism based on a limited reading of the imitatio Christi, which I thought was your point in writing this article.
Anonymous said…

So i'm clear, do you think that even though disciples will "smell like pacifists," there may be times when faithful translation of the fidelity to the messiah in various cultures may go against this "limit set by Jesus himself?"

I would say that, in principle, we have to be open to that concrete possibility. Though I would add that the conditions for this possibility are as difficult to imagine as the eschatological new creation is. Which is another way of saying that such possibilities cannot be described ahead of time by ethicists and systematicians, which is why Barth was wrong to specify a situation where violence would be justifiable in Church Dogmatics III/4.

In a sense, what I'm doing is undermining all situational ethics. If a Christian is going to speak about ethics, they can speak about (1) Jesus Christ and (2) the ontology of the ethical person. What they cannot do is then describe situations and explain what a person should or should not do in that situation. Such efforts should go under the description of philosophical ethics; they are not part of the self-understanding of the ecclesial community, even if followers of Christ draw upon them at times. Christian ethics must be radically different, corresponding to the radicality of Paul's statement that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Christian ethics is a theological exploration of precisely that axiom: that we are one in Christ Jesus.
Unknown said…
Yet we are all one in Christ Jesus simul peccator et iustia. And moreover, quite literally couched in this world. While not denying what you're wanting to say in principle, I'm not sure how in practice you're able to avoid something close to legalism.

Saint Paul, like it or not, was as much a proponent of situational ethics (understood in light of Christ) as anything else.
Anonymous said…

Thanks for the response. I think that i'm getting closer to understanding your take on this. If you would indulge my curiousity a bit more, i would really appreciate it.

1.) How can the community draw on philosophical ethical theories for use within the community, and not somehow "absorb" them within their self-understanding as a community?

I know that you are wanting to guard against letting anything else define the nature of the ecclesial community, but doesn't the act of translation itself require such an amalgamation? For example, when engaging in ethical reasoning with people, Jesus used rhetorical strategies common at the time, like a fortiori reasoning ("from the lesser to the greater").

Of course, Jesus could easily have simply judged that type of reasoning irrelevant or idolatrous, but instead He condescended and revealed His will through those categories (a microcosm of the incarnation itself perhaps; solidarity with culture). So, all that to say, if the "body" takes it's cue from it's "head," how can the body argue that such a strict separation is possible and preferable, other than in theory?

I hope this doesn't sound combative. In truth, i find myself resonating with much of what you say, but think it is worth my time to probe a bit more.

I have a couple other q's but you might answer them if you would respond to this query. Thanks for the great blog David.

Blessings, Derek