It is intriguing how a discussion can take you down a path that you had not traveled in years. It is a reminder to me how experience can influence my relationship with Jesus and his Gospel.
A good friend, Elle, asked for my thoughts regarding pacifism. Elle and her friends were discussing pacifism and its manifestations: is it absolute? Is absolute pacifism moral? Is it a true representation of the teachings of Jesus? What, exactly, is pacifism anyway?
I found myself traveling back to my childhood and my experiences being bullied by a pair of kids across the street. These two kids would beat me up with disturbing regularity. My early childhood was filled with bloody noses and loose teeth. These beatings were painful and deeply humiliating.
Yet, at school, the nuns taught me that Christians were to turn the other cheek and not fight. Jesus wanted his disciples to be peacemakers. But every time I turned the other cheek, Tommy or Stevie would punch it with a vicious right cross. I wish the nuns had taught me that Jesus probably was speaking metaphorically to an occupied people about how to deal with Roman legions, not Tommy or Stevie; it would have saved me a lot of pain and distress.
Just in the nick of time, we moved to a new, larger home on the other side of the neighborhood, leaving the bullies behind. I was never beaten up again, but to this day it is a lens through which I consider concepts such as pacifism.
Personal experience is not a corruption of perception or discernment. It is in keeping with the “context-text-action” methodology of reading the Bible. Context is the context of my life, all those thoughts and experiences that I bring to the page when I read; text is the passages of Scriptures themselves, those words through which the Holy Spirit speaks; action is how I then live my day, based on what I heard from Scripture. When I return to Scripture tomorrow, I bring a new context with me and the cycle starts anew.
Being beaten up as a kid is a part of my context. It has a seat at the table when I ponder over the text and have my daily graduate seminar with God.
I want to be a peacemaker, as Jesus taught us on his Sermon on the Mount. I also know first-hand what it is like to be a victim of violence. It is horrific, and apparently omnipresent. As I sit here, composing this essay, I am hearing on NPR that a bomb went off yesterday in Turkey, killing 156 people. My childhood experiences pale before the carnage of mass murder, but they infuse me with great empathy towards the victimized. Does Jesus want people to be passive victims of violence? Overall, from what I’ve read in the New Testament, as well as what I hear from the Holy Spirit, the answer is no. And if that is true, then absolute pacifism is morally flawed. There is another way, however, between violence and victimhood.
I discovered this via media some year ago when I read Matthew 10:16 and it spoke to me in a vivid way. It said we are being sent into the world like sheep among wolves; we are to be as innocent as doves, but as shrewd as snakes. “As shrewd as snakes?” I thought. “Really?” That was a revelation to me. It occurred to me, then and there, that we can be peacemakers but we don’t have to be naive about it.
It helped me define my formula of “never a perpetrator, never a victim”.
We should never use violence to impose our will upon another, either on a micro-level or a macro-level, yet we should not allow violence to be perpetrated on us, and we should never allow violence to be perpetrated on the innocent. Violence is a last resort, but violence in self-defense or to protect the innocent is morally permissible, even required: ask any cop who has ever had to break down a door and tackle a drunk to keep him from beating his wife and kids to death – what the cop did was a moral imperative.
Let me be clear that actual, living, breathing pacifists would not stand by and let that drunk beat his family to death either, but the concept of pacifism, as attractive as it is, has its limits and flaws. I opt for “non-violence” instead, which looks for ways to deal with the world in a non-violent way, but will not allow people to be victims of violence, and is ready-willing-and-able to protect the innocent even if violence is required.
This is more nuanced than total pacifism, and it requires discernment and consensus, but it is much more in keeping with Matthew 10:16, as well as Matthew 25:40, which says that whatever we do for the poor and defenseless among us we do for Jesus himself. Not all intervention to save ourselves or the innocent need be violent, but it should not be off the table as an option, either. To be able to do something constructive to stop violence yet not stop it is immoral.
My next post will be on the violence of hunger.