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Saint Augustine
The Problem of Universal Ethics for Christian Pacifism - Contemporary Views of Pacifists
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Article Index
The Problem of Universal Ethics for Christian Pacifism
The Historical View
Contemporary Views of Pacifists
The Link Between Pacifism and Denial of Univeral Christian Ethics
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Contemporary Views of Pacifists

William McGrath, writing for contemporary Amish and Mennonite Christians, also denies that Christians live by the same standards that apply to others. He says, "we conscientiously object to war because we believe the New Testament clearly teaches that it is against the will of God for Christians to participate in war."30 But he also says, "we are not utopian idealists who believe that governments can exist without the use of force or that all armies can be abolished," by which he means they do not think it is wrong for non-Christians to fight as soldiers or to serve in governments that maintain armies. The state is morally obligated by God to maintain armies and to use force for the purpose of maintaining justice, but it is sin for Christians to participate in doing what is not sin for others.31 Because Romans 13:4 'clearly teaches that it is the job of the state to administer justice and execute wrath and enforce the laws,' McGrath must conclude that "state and church have two different callings (with two different ethics) in this age of grace" and that is why “the Christian may not participate in any of the work of the state involving the administration and execution of justice by force" even though God requires the state to do so.32 Although, Earthly governments are ordained by God to keep order among sinful men by use of the sword; . . . . the Christian cannot participate in any office or activity of government which is concerned with executing or administering law enforcement. The law enforcement functions of the government are legitimate for the state, but are outside the sphere of life in Christ.33

Edward L. Long, a contemporary pacifist in the Presbyterian church, while urging that Christians unite with others to promote "peace thinking," nevertheless warns against appealing to a single moral rubric that applies to all the same way. Long denies we can even find moral consistency in the New Testament claiming that,

In the New Testament we find two (moral) attitudes . . . . In Romans 13, Paul contends that rulers who maintain order are ordained by God for our protection against evildoers. . . . (then) In Revelation 13, the beast is portrayed as the enemy of faith and of the freedom of Christians to follow their consciences and way of life . . . Both of these passages are (legitimate) responses to circumstances experienced by their authors . . . . The contrast between Romans 13 and Revelation 13 should help us to see how important it is . . . to recognize the possible errors into which we can fall if we try to deal with human affairs in terms of only one of them.34

This leads Long to suggest a fundamental link connecting "peace thinking" with willingness to accept the validity of multiple approaches to ethics, none of which is truly universal, and so, he says, "There ought not to be a conscription of conscience in the cause of peace any more than there ought to be a conscription of conscience in time of war."35

Dale Brown, writing for present day members of the Church of the Brethren, reports that while some pacifist Christians now try to apply the pacifist ethic universally" to non-Christians as well as to Christians, and to the government as well as to the church," this has not been characteristic of the peace churches through history. Before the rise of this very recent trend, pacifist Christians had always maintained, and most still do maintain, "that one cannot expect unredeemed people to live the Sermon on the Mount . . . . (and so) declared one ethic for Christians . . . and another ethic for the state."36 And to demonstrate ongoing affirmation of what Brown calls "this kind of dualism," he quotes a Mennonite elder from Canada who during the Vietnam war told a group of Americans: "My church holds firmly to the nonresistant way. Not one of our members would ever be found in battle. But we are thankful for the Yankee soldiers who are fighting in Asia to protect us from the demonic forces of communism." 37

Richard Hayes, a contemporary pacifist in the Methodist church, believes pacifism to be so central to Christian ethics that "the transcendence of violence through loving the enemy is the most salient feature of this new model polis."38 But while he believes "all baptized believers" must be pacifists,39 he also believes it is never more than a community value system relevant only to those who join the Christian community. For Hayes, the pacifist ethic that Christians espouse is not for all, but rather comprises a different "righteousness" for a different community composed of Jesus's followers who are called to "intensify and exceed the most rigorous standards" of Israeel's moral law.40 While he recognizes that "the governing authority bears the sword to execute God's wrath (Romans 13:14)", he says, "that is not the role of believers."41 For Hayes, pacifism is an ethic of "higher righteousness" whereby "a radical countercultural communiity" prefigures the "alternative order" of a new world to come.42 It is not an ethic that applies to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Stanley Hauerwas
, also Methodist and perhaps the most widely recognized Christian pacifist of our day, remains in solidarity with historic Christian pacifism in denying that Christians live in a common moral order with the rest of the world. But while Christian pacifists have historically denied the universal relevance of Christian ethics for ostensibly biblical reasons, Hauerwas does so for exactly the opposite reason. He is a pacifist who claims to be Christian, but who denies the Bible contains any fixed truth for anyone including Christians. He claims that Christian ethics has no universal relevance because "there is no such thing as universal ethics" and every ethic requires some sort of a relativizing qualifier.43 For Hauerwas, "the nature of Christian ethics is determined by the fact that Christian convictions take the form of a story . . . that constitutes a tradition, which in turn creates and forms a community."44 He believes that "attempts to identify Christian ethics with a universal human ethic fail to recognize that all accounts of the moral life are narrative dependent,45 and that "in fact we live in a fragmented world of many moralities--one of which is universal."46

From this outlook, Hauerwas discusses what he describes as "two different ethical perspectives . . . the one based on the Gospel, the other deriving from natural law assumptions. By the former (the Gospel perspective), war is the unambiguous sign of sin and can never be called good. By the latter (the natural human perspective), war can sometimes be a good, indeed a moral duty, necessary to preserve human community."47 He claims that if moral order is "a law written on the conscience of all men and women by God," then it would seem "that war must be . . . the outgrowth of legitimate moral commitments." But if war "is the compromise we make to sin then it is not clear on what grounds, given the Gospel ethic . . . , (how) Christians can (ever) participate in war."48

Hauerwas argues for what he calls an "eschatological pacifist ethic" and rejects what he calls "optimistic political pacifism," referring to the assumption that peace can be achieved by turning unrepentant states into centers of pacifist government.49 He says we should not think "that Jesus has given us the means to achieve a warless world,50 and claims that "Christians do not choose nonviolence because we can rid the world of war, but rather in a world of war we cannot be anything but nonviolent as worshipful followers of Jesus the Christ."51 So although Hauerwas is not restrained by biblical authority and denies any fixed moral truth, he ends up agreeing with historic Christian pacifism in also concluding that "the church does not ask the state to do more than it was meant to do," which he says means that "when Christians speak to the state they must "use (moral) criteria that are intrinsic to the state's purpose," that being to see that "the good are . . . protected" and that "evil doers are . . . restrained." And therefore, he says, government use of force "cannot be condemned in principle."52

Finally, we will conclude this survey of the rather pervasive link associating Christian pacifism with denying the universality of Christian ethics by considering the work of Ronald Sider, a contemporary evangelical who while espousing Christian pacifism also tries hard to apply the pacifist ethic beyond the Christian community to society at large. Sider, who connects with both Mennonite and Brethren traditions of Christian ethical thought, clearly means to be associated with what Dale Brown refers to as the newly emerging "nonviolent resistance" strain of Christian pacifism as distinguished from historic Christian pacifism now classified simply as "nonresistant" Christian pacifism.53 Unlike most pacifists who throughout history have always denied, and even now still continue to deny, the present universal relevance of Christian moral standards in favor of ethical dualism, Sider wants very strongly to take another path. While debating Oliver O'Donovan in 1984, Sider said, "I want to reject all these versions of ethical dualism. I do not believe that God has a double ethic, that God ordains a higher ethic for especially devout folk and a lower ethic for the Christian masses. I do not believe that God intends Christians to wait until the millennium to obey the Sermon on the Mount."54 But despite strong intentions to the contrary, even Sider also ends up struggling with affirming Christian pacifism and also maintaining the universality of Christians ethics.

Unlike traditional Christian pacifists, Sider does not think that Christian ethics modeled on the cross is "limited to family and church."55 While he views the moral order in which Christians live to be eschatological in the sense that "Jesus . . . expected its completion to occur in the future,"56 Sider argues that "the messianic age" is in the process of breaking "into the present" as Christians cooperate with what God is doing through their efforts.57 And so, while "Jesus's taching excludes lethal violence as an acceptable option for Christians," Sider believes that using power "is not inherently evil . . . and should be used by Christians in loving nonviolent ways in search for justice."58

But Sider struggles when asked to "comment on Romans 13 in relation to Jesus's teaching" and especially in regard to how "Paul's teaching on the use of lethal violence" relates to what he considers "Jesus's eaching on nonviolence."59 In responding, Sider can neither discount the ongoing relevance of Paul's teaching, nor can he say it is consistent with his view regarding the ethics of Jesus. Sider is reduced to saying,

I know that in the Old Testament lethal violence was commanded and so some kind of distinction between public and private is assumed because murder is forbidden. One could then conclude that that is exactly the assumption that explains the alleged difference between Romans 12 (urging peace) and 13 (warranting government use of lethal force to restrain evil and uphold justice) . . . . at the very least he (Paul) means that although governments should do that sort of thing (use lethal force to restrain evil and uphold justice), Christians should not. That is certainly what the early Christians thought for 300 years.60

In other words, when confronted with Romans 13, Sider is forced back to affirming moral dualism which denies that Christians stand in a moral order that applies universally, or to somehow deny the relevance or reliability of what Paul teaches about God ordaining government use of lethal force to restrain evil and uphold social justice. It therefore looks very much as if Sideer's version of Christian pacifism rejects ethical dualism, except when confronting Romans 13. At which point he must either revert to denying universality or consider denying biblical authority.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 December 2011 10:12