Evangelicals and Pacifism

Wednesday, 24th February 2010 at 20:02 UTC 6 comments

Something has been bugging me lately with regards to Christian Pacifism. Its very much the tough position to take, and relies on literal reading of several bible passages, and yet, generally speaking, its far more common amongst “liberal” Christians than “conservative” Christians.

When Literal and Contextualised readings of the bible collide, one assumes its the Evangelicals who will be talking about “literal interpretation”, but not so here. Where groups like the Quakers (those identifying as Christian, at least) will quote chapter and verse at you, Evangelicals are often the ones making up the excuses. When I’ve justified not calling myself a pacifist in front of a group of people from a liberal church, I’ve gotten about as good a response as a gay bishop in your average “bible believing church”. Apparently its OK to contextualise and interpret here.

So why has it become so normal for Evangelicals to define away from Pacifism? And why has it so often been Christians identified with Liberal Christianity who have faced jail for Pacifist beliefs? Evangelical Churches do, after all, use cliches like “reflecting the early church” far more often, and the early church, pre-Constantine, was definitely pacifist; soldiers were encouraged to desert the army in the process of converting, indeed they were assisted in doing so.

Its a pity we’ve lost this activity, and even more so that we identify more with our own armed forces than with Christians in other countries who get caught in the cross-fire. Surely if we want a united church, it should be blind to all political and ethnic borders? So why back military campaigns that ignore this? I’m often told liberals want to water down the bible for an easy life. This can hardly be further from the truth in this instance.

Perhaps its because evangelicals have a pact with governments to enforce morality in society, and therefore this becomes part of the trade off. A sort of “we’ll limit abortion if you don’t criticise us for killing other people’s kids. After all, surely pro-life means pro-all-life, human at the very least. The very Christians who are least prepared to talk choice in the context of abortion seem to view war death as inevitable. There’s certainly some interesting kingdom values going on.

I do think this is one of the greatest inconsistencies along the literal/liberal line, and one that needs clearing up. Once all political context is taken out, it makes little or no sense, and does the Church’s mission in the world more harm than good.


Entry filed under: Church, Ethics, Faith, Peace, Theology.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lizzie  |  Wednesday, 24th February 2010 at 22:22 UTC

    Surely there are parts of the Bible that it would make anyone uncomfortable to read literally? Is there any such thing as a true ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible, that isn’t a picking and choosing interpretation?

    My guess is that it has more to do with consistency in the sort of god we draw from our interpretations of the Bible, or the way our views about God influence our reading of the bible, than consistency in biblical basis.

  • 2. Greg  |  Thursday, 25th February 2010 at 13:12 UTC

    Firstly, literal and contextualised readings of the bible are not necessarily different. The literal meaning of a text is the meaning that it’s actually trying to convey, so reading for context should be an aid to finding this out. This contrasts to the common ‘contextualisation’ which is really an excuse for disobedience by means of “The bible doesn’t really apply to me”. It’s a shame, because those sorts of weak readings have given rise to the equally bad ‘literal’ readings that aren’t literal at all, because they don’t do the necessary digging to uncover the intended meaning of the text. Like metaphor, contextualisation isn’t tool beholden to either ‘side’ of the lib/con divide and it’s a tool that can be misused by both.

    Secondly, I don’t accept your liberal=pacifist, evangelical=non-pacifist divide. If you pick a famous pacifist from the last century, who would it be? King? Bonhoeffer? They weren’t exactly liberal. Closer to home, my Grandad was a conscientious objector during the war, and he was about as con-evo as you can get. On the other hand, I think Tony Blair’s of the liberal Catholic persuasion, while not counting as pacifist. I think you’re extrapolating from the people you know and I don’t think you’re justified in doing that.

    Thirdly, I don’t see that the bible unambigously advocates pacifism. I don’t ned to elucidate on the Old Testament (though the book of Joshua’s a good example) and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is a good counter-example, his words weren’t exactly fluffy either. Jesus doesn’t tell the centurion with the sick daughter to stop fighting in Matthew 8, neither does John the Baptist tell this to the soldiers in Luke 3. In Acts 10, Cornelius the centurion is described as “righteous and God fearing”, Peter doesn’t tell him to stop serving either, or, for that matter, the ‘devout’ soldier serving under him. Just War is a reputable Christian response to violence – indeed, it’s the official line of the Catholic church.

    Fourthly, I think Lizzie hits the nail on the head in her second paragraph. Assuming for a moment that your lib/con pacifist/not distinction exists, I’ll make a generalisation no worse than those you’ve made, liberal Christians are people who don’t like to think about anyone being destroyed after death, and therefore ditch the doctrine of Hell. It’s a small step to then decide they don’t like to think of anyone being destroyed here and now, so they’ll pronounce violence as always wrong, never justifiable. This is simplistic moral reasoning on a par with the biblical reasoning of fundamentalist inerrantists. One group can’t bear the thought of a God who’d give us anything other than a perfect bible, the other group can’t bear the thought of a world where violence may be necessary so they decide that it never is. This is ducking the issue, it’s a reflection on the individual pacifist’s preferences rather than on the bible and it ties in very well with the other foibles of liberal Christians.

    Oh and fifthly, I’d like to know what pact this is that evangelicals supposedly have with the state. What’s the state ever done for me as an evangelical durin my lifetime?

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 26th February 2010 at 14:42 UTC

      The answer to “fifthly” could turn into a Monty Python sketch!
      I think most Christians duck or sideline some or other issue. I certainly wouldn’t paint Evangelicalism as somehow the happy middle of the road.
      The debate surrounding the old and new covenants and pacifism is interesting, but long. That Jesus promotes a form of non-violence towards people appears to me to be certain.
      I am aware of several examples of Evangelicals siding with pacifism, though this is definitely becoming rarer. I did state that this was a generalisation; there is a correlation, and its notable that some outstanding individuals buck the trend. Do remember that King was not exactly celebrated as a conservative; he was basically threaten to overthrow what many whites (and even some blacks) believed was God’s ordained structure of society.
      As to Just War theory and the Catholic Church, one only has to look at the dubious circumstances under which it was written to understand that it was a hugely convenient position at the time. Its authors (Augustine included) basically set out to show a way the bible could support certain wars that the emperor wanted to fight. A case of “It doesn’t really apply to me” IMHO.
      Your reference to Blair as liberal catholic strikes me as a bit odd; his wife at least is in with Opus Dei; Dan Brown aside, its still a pretty hardcore sect.

  • 4. Greg  |  Friday, 26th February 2010 at 22:50 UTC

    Since when have Christian couples come from the same churchmanship? I know plenty that are very different, you can’t judge Blair on his wife’s faith. You’re also confusing religious and political meanings of the word ‘liberal’ again when you speak about King. If you use someone’s political leanings to describe their theology, you’ll define every single pacifist as a religious liberal and your question will be a tautology.

    I was aware of the Monty Python reference when I wrote that, but I’m seriously interested to know about this supposed pact. In the light of Harperson’s recent equality bill, you’ve got to be kidding.

    By the way, thanks for not answering any of my points, notably the actual bible references. To remind you (and Lizzie), just because everyone has some blind spots, the practice is not rendered acceptable.

    • 5. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 27th February 2010 at 0:09 UTC

      I was genuinely confused by the suggestion Blair was a liberal Catholic, I hadn’t seen him as such previously. Then again, perhaps his “we don’t talk about faith” attitude to political leadership has something to do with that.

      I was being very serious about King’s view. He came at a time when people of faith were still prepared to point to the bible to back up segregation. It might have been horrifically bad theology, but he was definitely a progressive Christian, though perhaps you can be progressive and Evangelical (thinking aloud here).

      Whilst I could copy and paste a large chunk of Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation” to explain the nature of the pact I refer to, there’s a few clear UK examples. Apart from Section 28, religion as recognised motivation in a hate crime and blasphemy laws, church schools, foundation schools run by Evangelicals, what has the state done for Evangelicals? That was only a recent-ish list of possibilities.

  • 6. Greg  |  Tuesday, 2nd March 2010 at 16:42 UTC

    So you’re saying that because King was more biblical than his contemporaries who used their own reason to make the bible say something acceptable to them, he was the theological liberal? No wonder you confused me. How do I put this without sounding rude … you’re practically inverting the definition of liberal Christianity. (Since you’ve not used the word ‘progressive’ before here, I’m not letting you use it – stick to your original terms please.)

    You could copy and paste Boyd if you like, but since he’s American I don’t care. I’ve never been to the USA, I don’t recall that you have either and we were previously talking about Tony Blair, it’s completely irrelevant.

    Section 28 was repealed several years ago so it supports my case not yours. As for church schools, why on earth are they a special dispensation from the government? The church has been in the education business since monks transcribed bibles, so approximately 100 times the age of this government. If you think it’s the state is doing churches a favour by continuing this, you’re taking a frightening turn for the authoritarian. Remember that in this country people don’t even have to send their kids to school, only to educate them.

    So, what remains on your list of state favours? Would you like to tell it to all the Catholic adoption agencies that have just closed because they didn’t fit with the government’s morality – that same morality that allows dodgy MPs expenses and peerages for cash?


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