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April 24, 2004


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Patton notwithstanding, I think that you may be drawing a false dichotomy between the honor of dying for one's country vs. making the poor S.O.B. on the other side die for his. Of course the utility to us lies in our soldiers' ability to kill the enemy rather than die at their hands. Nevertheless, the real sacrifice of the soldier - and the reason we honor him so - lies in his willingness to to risk dying. Nearly anyone who isn't a pacifist would kill for his country, if he could do so without putting himself at risk. Few are willing to die for it.

Jonathan Dresner

Actually, though many may claim to be willing, very few people are capable of killing for their country without intensive training, including desensitization and unit-building. Many's the soldier who's said that they fought for each other, or their family, rather than their country. Killing carries its own damage, even in thoroughly justified circumstances.

I'm not sure what that does to the calculus of sacrifice, but I don't think you can neatly separate the death-dealing and death-defying aspects of soldierdom.


One cannot be a pacifist in the face of a holocaust, a pearl harbor, or a 9/11.


Scof: With all due respect, one can only respond to the greatest extremes of human evil with the most extreme form of love -- the refusal to reply with the same methods used by the aggressor. It isn't rational; but pacifism, as its greatest theoretician of the 20th century, John Howard Yoder, pointed out, isn't based on human reason -- it's based on a faith that tells us that obedience to Christ and His cross is more important than anything else.

Jonathan Dresner

Hugo: I think it is entirely possible to construct a rational pacifism, one that speaks to those of us out of the communion of Christ. I wonder how familiar you are with the work of Starhawk? I'm not a huge fan of her as a novelist (speaking of non-erotica...), but "Fifth Sacred Thing" included some of the most dramatic aggresive pacifism ever imagined.

Jonathan Dresner

Scof: One can indeed be a pacifist in the face of provocation, if responding with force forseeably produces worse results than not responding with force. Unlike Dr. Schwyzer, I am not a pacifist: I believe too strongly in the value of self-defense and the virtue of defending others where plausible. Unlike most non-pacifists, however, I think that exploring pacifism as a viable alternative to shoot-first policy is worth a great deal of effort.

The Holocaust is a false analogy, because none of the Allies against Hitler's Axis took their position because of the Holocaust, nor did the Holocaust play a significant role in mobilizing support for the war against Hitler, et al. If all Hitler had done was exterminate Jews, it's entirely conceivable that the "good guys" might have done exactly what they did when the Turks exterminated Armenians: nothing.

Pearl Harbor is also a false analogy: it wasn't really a suprise attack, but a predictable response to a provocative position (embargo) intended to produce either capitulation or an attack that would justify US entry into the war. We had no intention or desire for a pacifistic response. I had the pleasure of reading through Joseph Grew's diplomatic papers (Grew was our ambassador to Japan in the years leading up to WWII) a few years back, doing research for someone who couldn't get there physically, and was quite intrigued and suprised to realize that Grew had predicted Pearl Harbor as a possible first strike target about two years before the attack occurred. Roosevelt had been conducting aggressive patrols off Japanese waters, hoping for a Maine/ Gulf of Tonkin-type incident. Got more than he bargained for, but didn't change the game plan one whit.

September 11, 2001: There's an interesting case. While the destruction of the Taliban regime was satisfying to observe, in the short run, it has not proven to be a long-term answer to the challenge either of creating responsible states in traditionally unstable regions or to the danger of nihilistic terrorism.

I'm reminded of Chesterton's comment, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." The same is true of pacifism.


Really terrific stuff, Jonathan. Where I responded to Scof with bumper stickers, you responded with great thoughtfulness and excellent examples. Thank you.

Jonathan Dresner

Thanks. Those particular examples always seem to come up, and they're terrible cases for discussion. Now if someone wants to discuss, say, Amsterdam under Nazi control, we'd have some fun.


Guys thanks for your responses. Pacifism is a good thing to look at as a viable alternative to shoot first, and I certainly believe in Christ's message & example as my savior.

Still, I'm not talking about what we did in the Holocaust. What about the Jews themselves? They did not rise up and millions were slaughtered as a result. Now they did not rise up because they were being expressly pacifists, but still doesn't love somehow demand defending yourself and your family?

The point with pearlharbor/9-11 is the idea of the sucker punch. Is turning the other cheek really a viable option? If you do you will simply live by the dictates of another person, by their threats of violence upon you. They in some sense control you. As Thomas Aquinas said, "The highest manifestation of life consists in this: that a being governs its own actions. A thing which is always subject to the direction of another is somewhat of a dead thing."

I realize a response to this is non-violent protest ala Gandhi and MLK. It would seem this works when those oppressing you abide somewhat by the rules of law and tradition of the west, as the only examples I can think of this working are under the gov'ts of the british and US, two countries dramatically different than those most of the world have known (i.e.- you can visit both places and be assured of respect for your freedom, etc.)

If you find time, I'd sincerely like to know how one can reconcile pacifism in the face of an enemy who at best will impose a dramatic loss of freedom and a radical change of life, and at worst just wants you dead?


Scof, let me direct you to those who can answer your questions better than I. Two of my heroes, Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas, had a discussion on exactly these topics in Sojourners:



We have just had ANZAC Day here. Annika is absolutely right that "freedom don't come cheap". Our veterans (God bless them) paid, and keep on paying, so that I didn't have to worry about a Japanese landing on the beach 10 k from my house, Japanese administration reducing white farmers to slavery (Their words, not mine), and a racially divided society based on cruelty, barbarism and Emperor-worship. I am thankful indeed to still have the touchstones of my philosophy intact (The crown and the bible), not to mention my own family. That, I owe General Freyberg, Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, George VI and Earl Mountbatten, not John Howard Yoder, Menno Simons or George Fox. That, I owe my grandparents, and Peter Fraser (Lab!), who had the courage to stand against a "terrible and pagan evil". I owe the ANZAC veterans, and I cannot and will not say that their sacrifice was wrong, or in any way theologically suspect. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends". Or in defence of his nation, religion and Law. "Their name liveth forevermore", for a reason. Quite literally, the policeman's truncheon saved us from extermination by the Japs. Pacifism didn't.

Ralph Luker

"the Japs"? John, it sounds like you're carrying a heavy burden. You might want to let some of that go. Hugo had some very interesting things to say about the incomparability of the death of Jesus and the death of soldiers in war. You might want to read them again.

Jonathan Dresner

John: Yes, military force defeated the Japanese. The proper question, though, is "why was there a Japanese threat in the first place?" And a lot of the answer comes back to Western imperialism, both the proximate European and American forces and the racial and social and strategic theories which underpinned imperialism. If you want to pile on, you can include the concept of nationalism (there's a lot of debate in Japanese studies circles about pre-Meiji nationalism, and the best summary I can give you is "no, except perhaps when threatened by external societies") and the legal stuctures which the Japanese borrowed to establish the chauvinistic Imperial state.

In other words, as much as I am proud of my grandfather's and great-uncle's service in WWII, and my father's years of contribution to the technical abilities of our military, I would rather consider the situations broadly and deeply enough that similar situations are prevented in the future.

Jonathan Dresner

Scof: First, we have to distinguish between pacifism and passivity. Pacifism, to be viable, cannot simply be a negative response. It must include active opposition to the violence and repression which it faces.

I cannot and will not speak for the Jews (and others, including pacifists) who perished in the Holocaust, but they were, in spite of their numbers, alone. This was very much by design: the groups targeted for extermination were marginalized, separated out, taken sequentially instead of simultaneously. Most made a strategic choice to attempt to survive through compliance, and I will not criticize that: it was a rational choice, though we now know that they did not have the information necessary to effectively consider alternatives. Active pacifism requires community and solidarity to function properly. And I'm not the right person to speak to a pacifists' response to the Holocaust: anyone who comes for my family or my friends will suffer.

The proper pacifist response to unprovoked violence, as in the 9/11/01 attacks, is not capitulation. It is determination and persistence. Preferably coupled with intelligent consideration of the stated and actual roots of the violent act and, if necessary, adaptation and other creative responses.



Mate, if I wanted to be racist or degrogatory about the Empire of Japan or any of the citizens thereof, as opposed to what I actually was (in a hurry, having 7 minutes to finish and get to a lecture), I could have done much better (or worse!) than a shorthand "Japs". Nevertheless, for the sake of tender consciences, those who might have been affected, and the record, I do not hold a grudge, even against those militarists who caused so much suffering. They were devotees of an evil cause. Am I passionate about this subject? Yes. It's April 26th, so sue me. Did I read what Hugo said? Yes. Do I agree? No. This is not an unusual phenomenon ;-). Although, of course, there is no real comparison between Jesus and an ordinary soldier, the principle is worthy of honour. They sacrificed their lives so that I could have freedom from an ideology of "terror and barbarism". (There are many Japanese who say the same). I respect the conscience of pacifists. But sometimes, when you are dealing with an enemy who has a seared (or non-existent) conscience, a clonk on the head is the only, and the right thing to do. But, I'm what Hugo and Yoder call a "Constantian". I would say that.


Scof: With all due respect, one can only respond to the greatest extremes of human evil with the most extreme form of love.

Sometimes war may be the most extreme form of love, Dr. Schwyzer. It obviously should not be equated with Jesus' command to take up the cross for obvious reasons, but no one really has a very good idea of anything Jesus truly said anyway. Radical Islam is the enemy of all civilization including the people of the Middle East. Our troops' sacrifice should not be demeaned or undermined by your anti-war anti-Bush sermons.


Hugo - I agree with your post.

(and I can't stand Toby Keith!)


Great stuff, folks.

I think that one can make a "Constantinian" case for a Just War without stooping to the depths of popular Toby Keith theology. My quarrel in this post was not with the merits of the war itself, but the conflating of the "carrying of the cross" with the carrying of firearms. That is unacceptable, and even John notes that.

As long as Just Warriors really know and adhere to the tenets of their theory, they can make a plausible argument for war. But one cannot claim that Jesus is one's personal savior, and then refuse to take seriously his pronouncements on violence. One way or another, serious Christians (and I assume that President Bush is one) must wrestle with this.


And the Lord said to Moses, "The man shall be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." Numbers (15:35)

Are there any instances in the New Testament where Jesus renounces any Old Testament passage that promotes war, massacres, slavery or putting homosexuals to death? One of the most brazen insults ever offered to God that He is responsible for somehow inspiring this collection of violent pronouncements. We are lucky to have political leaders with the insight, sensitivity and intelligence to propose policy morally superior to that suggested by the Scriptures.


i feel like the person who enters the room late and everyone gets quiet because they've been talking about me.

Anyways. Hugo, you deserve 10 times 20,000 more hits, you have a great blog and great commenters.

Toby Keith's song may contain a theologically indefensible analogy, but its emotional effect on me was obvious and powerful at that particular moment. So i quoted it.

As a student and admirer of pacifism, who is not a pacifist, i am curious about the sources you and your commenters have cited, whom i haven't read. i will try to check them out. i don't know when i will have time to read any new books, though. When i get done with the WWI book i'm reading now, i had planned to start a book on the African campaign in WWII. [tongue in cheek]

i generally agree with Scof here. The greatest achievements of Pacifism in the last century occurred in India and the U.S. i have always held that the Palestinians would get almost everything they wanted if they would stop killing and do what Gandhi did. (i say "almost everything" because i think what they want most of all is simply to kill jews.)

If only our enemies believed in pacifism. What do we do if they don't? If Pat Tillman had died holding a protest sign instead of an M-16, would his sacrifice have been greater or less? It's an interesting debate.


Thanks again, Annika. I think the larger issue is one of what we want pacifism to be. Is pacifism a tool to win a victory by morally shaming the enemy, or is pacifism simply about obedience to Christ. If it is a strategy, then it must be adapted depending upon one's opponent. The British were a people who "could be shamed" in a moral sense by Gandhi's actions. Al-Qaeda's morality is obviously different, and so as a tactic, pacifism may be suspect in the current war on terror.

But as Yoder pointed out over and over in his seminal and magisterial "Politics of Jesus", real pacifism is more about obedience than efficacy!

The Angry Clam would tell us that "passive" has its roots in the Latin "passus sum", which means to suffer. Pacifist has its roots in "pax facere", to make peace. Pacifism is NOT merely passive endurance of injustice; it may involve the strategic and imaginative use of ANYTHING other than lethal force. Exactly what that might mean is something that pacifists debate a lot.

We had a huge hullabaloo at the Mennonite Church a while back over a self-defense class someone wanted to offer. We couldn't agree on what methods could -- and could not -- be used. We pacifists are often struggling to draw boundaries ourselves.

Jonathan Dresner

Hugo: The dichotomy between pacifism as strategy of moral shame and pacifism as obedience to Christ is a false one. First and foremost, there are non-Christian pacifists. Second, pacifism permits (I would argue, encourages) civil disobedience, the success of which may due to moral shame or may be because it raises the cost of doing something objectionable so high that it is no longer viable.


Pacifism kills. It sound good in theory, but their are just umpteen examples of it being precisely the wrong form of idealism in the real world. Millions killed in Cambodia by Pol Pot, the massacre of 70,000 in Bosnia as Dutch "peacekeepers" sat nearby, the slaughter of millions in Rwanda are but a few examples. If Clinton hadn't started dropping bombs when he did in Bosnia and Kosovo, many more lives would have been lost. It might be a difficult thing to believe, but the swift and decisive use of military force as others here have noted saves lives. This "obedience to Christ" pacifism is unacceptable and pure nonsense - we would all be walking around with one hand. I'm all for Germans being pacifists mind you, but it is not an option for American foreign policy anymore.

The Angry Clam

Something about "not this world, but the next..." springs to mind here, D-Rod.

While that's a great secular argument against pacifism, I don't see it being particularly strong against religious pacifism.


I like how Neil Young put it.

I know I said I love you I know you know it's true I've got to put the phone down And do what we gotta do One's standing in the aisle way Two more at the door We've got to get inside there Before they kill some more

Time is running out
Let's roll

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