When you think of people who believe in nonviolence, what image comes to mind? Is it someone you find distaste in? Is something about them other than their commitment making you dislike them? Now picture someone who is like you or someone you admire in every way. Then imagine them truly believing in nonviolence. Would you call them a sissy? Coward?
In my last post I introduced the chapter-by-chapter review of A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, a collection of essays on Christian nonviolence, specifically questions often asked about it by skeptics, or just curious seekers.
The first chapter opens with a common misconception worded in this question: “Isn’t Pacifism Passive?”
We come to see that this argument against peacemaking has not roots in logic or theology, but comes from what I’ve found is a mixture of semantic misunderstanding and aesthetic distaste. In her essay C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell addresses this question very well.
[note: for the sake of clarification when I speak of pacifism I will speak of it in broad terms, meaning a commitment to nonviolence, which we will see is based on the word for “passion”. Whether that means a decision never to use violence ever, we shall see as we read along.]
As with the rest of the book, Ewell leads the discussion based on five assumptions for Christians:
1) Jesus and his story are real
2) We are to be witnesses of Jesus
3) We “see thru a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12), but “we do see Jesus” (Heb. 2:9)
4) Faith is a journey in which we question ourselves and shine our light for others
5) It all goes back to the life (and death, and re-life) of Jesus
Ewell strongly defends Christian pacifism against the misconception that it is synonymous with “passivity“, of sitting back and doing nothing in the face of evil, of being inactive. When we hear this we might hear that misquote of Ed Burke, though we’re not really sure who said it for sure: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good men to do nothing.” Very true, in most cases. But firstly, there are occasions when “nothing” is the best course of action, and secondly, Christian pacifism is far from “doing nothing”.
The Greek word “pascho” and the Latin “passio” are where we get our English word. As with the passion of Jesus, we are speaking of the sufferer. “It is anything but sitting back and doing nothing,” says Ewell, but “taking on suffering in a very active way.” Paul told us of the pacifism of Christ that was very active and revolutionary, “obedience to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phillipians 2:8).
This really helps us deconstruct the image here, because what we might be tempted to see in pacifism is someone who just wants to bum around all day and “doesn’t know the cost of freedom/security/prosperity” or whatever. That is mere passivity, mere cowardice and laziness. Christian passion/peace-n-passion-ism is active, subversive, challenging, revolutionary, submissive, dangerous—not always all of these at once, but they can take on these roles, and often do at least one.
When we are passionate, we pursue the object of our passion. Jesus said we must love our enemies, so therefore we must actively pursue them.
Ewell gives us reasons why Christian pacifism is in no way “passive”:
“Christian pacifism is not passive because it creatively seeks alternatives to the violence of the world. Christian pacifism is not passive because it actively engages the powers of violence, even to the point of death. Christian pacifism is not passive because it is courageous enough to act like Esther and to face the earthly powers—to the point of putting one’s own life on the line.”
As Jesus was put to death because he was a political threat, among other reasons, the powers and kingdoms of the world are equally threatened by the pacifist witnessing of Christians, because we expose the claims, desires, goals and philosophies of these worldly powers.
Ewell ends with a contrast which demonstrates that pacifism is a golden narrow path between two wide roads: To reject pascho-ism is to embrace “the pride of self-determination and a lack of trust in divine providence”. And yet, to merely be passive is to be “deterministic”, “fatalistic”, and reject the power of prayer.
So, what does your image of a peaceful witness look like now? Has it changed?
How does the passion of Christ move you to peace?
Is it more brave to kill? Or to die? And if so, can a man willing to die but not kill be called cowardly?
Continue to Part 2: Can we just watch our neighbors die?