Pacifism, War and Sin

December 3, 2011

For the Indiana Yearly Meeting Facebook Page:

Do we regard as Christians people who believe in war? Doesn’t the Bible make it clear that participation in war is a sin?

Suppose your church or meeting had a young man or woman who, when he came of age, enlisted in the military, served in a war zone, returned home, and was proud of his military service.  Would we welcome him/her in meeting?  Would we allow him/her to serve on your Worship and Ministry Committee?  Serve as the meeting’s clerk?  Serve as your pastor?  I don’t think these are far-fetched possibilities: I imagine many Friends meetings and churches have as members those who have served in the military.  So how does this square with the Friends peace testimony, which is deeply grounded in our reading of God’s will as taught to us through the Bible?

As a young man, I was first drawn to Quakerism by the peace testimony.  Quaker mentors helped deepen my understanding of my nascent pacifism.  But I didn’t become a Friend because of the peace testimony; becoming a member took another decade of worshipping with Friends and finding through gathered worship among Friends that an Inward Teacher was always ready to give me comfort and guidance.

Becoming a Quaker, I became comfortable with being among “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9).  In believing that war is wrong, we believe something that few other avowed Christians believe.  And we believe we need to devote our lives to seeking and building peace, even if that should lead us to defy governments.  What makes this stance even more peculiar is our understanding that the Bible is blazingly clear on this point.  As Gandhi once said, “the only people who don’t know that Jesus was a pacifist are Christians.”

To Quakers, I don’t need to provide Bible references, do I?  Participation in war is certainly sinful behavior.  We can note that the Old Testament is full of positive references to war (the sixth commandment notwithstanding), but then note that the New Testament brings new Light on war.  Jesus preaches loving one’s enemies.  God is continually unfolding His hopes for us.

To be fully a pacifist, I think, requires some understanding of why others resist being pacifists.  There are so many common sense arguments that lead to combat.  (“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” 1 Corinthians 1:20.)  Being a pacifist requires being tender to and patient with those who are still persuaded by all those ‘common sense’ arguments.  Think of George Fox’s counsel to William Penn, when Penn wondered whether he should, in obedience to his new Quaker beliefs, give up wearing his sword — something commonly worn by men of standing.  Fox counseled that he should wear his sword ‘as long as he could.’  Fox knew that the day would come when Penn would willingly, even eagerly, take off his sword – as he did.

I try to let people know I’m a pacifist.  I’m always willing to talk about war and peace issues (well, not always, not with my father-in-law who served in Korea).  I try to be forthright in urging against fresh U.S. wars when the occasion arises, and I try not to be a told-you-so when wars go badly as they generally do.  But I don’t disengage from people because they continue to believe in the positive potential of war – because the believe in “the myth of redemptive violence.”  I know what God has called me to do, I try to minister to others, but I trust God to lead others to Truth as they conscientiously seek it.

So if I were to find a member of my meeting who had served willingly I would want to welcome that person.  I would want to be fully in fellowship with that person, always forthrightly letting him/her know I was a pacifist, but not putting myself in judgment.  And I can easily imagine find such a person fit for a leadership role in the meeting.  All of us are God’s works in progress.

Participation in war is a largely voluntary activity today.  The Bible is breathtakingly clear (I believe) that participation in war is sinful behavior.  And yet I would not separate in worship from conscientious seekers who continue to believe that war can be a good thing.  On the other hand, being a homosexual is a given, not a voluntary sexual orientation.  The very few Bible passages on same-sex behavior are very unclear and do not fit at all with Jesus’s central teachings.  Why would I want to separate in worship from lesbian, gay or transgendered Friends?

 I wouldn’t.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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