So what if…?

When people hear I believe in Christian pacifism, the same question inevitably follows in one form or another.

What if?

I’ve been asked this question countless times in different permutations; sometimes it’s me in danger, sometimes my wife, sometimes an innocent child. But the core is always the same- some faceless sub-human aggressor wants to use violence against me or somebody else and I ostensibly only have two options: counter violence with violence or passively allow the aggressor to do whatever they want. Oh and this is routine crime, not to be confused with persecution specifically for my belief in Christ. As if that is somehow a completely different situation.

I find the concept that violence is ever “just” or “holy” hard to mesh with the scriptures about Jesus. That somehow the command to love your enemies carries the qualifier to only do so if it is comfortable and safe. Some people will say that pacifism is a nice idea, but it just isn’t possible in the real world. I think Jesus showed us he meant what he said and became the ultimate example of just how far it is possible to go when loving our enemies. Most of his disciples followed his example, yet we can’t handle somebody taking our big screen tv.

But don’t confuse pacifism with passivism. Pacifism isn’t laying down to be stepped upon, it is heaping burning coals on the head of one who would do harm to you. Jesus was very good at this. The context behind turning the other cheek, walking two miles, and giving your coat as well as your shirt were as far from passive as they are from violent. All three would bring shame upon the aggressor without becoming an aggressor yourself.

Just to show that I’m not completely dodging the question, here is my honest answer:
– Why would I live my entire life based on what would happen if somebody wanted to hurt me or my loved ones?
– In the extremely rare case that this theoretical predicament comes to pass, I’d do what Jesus did and try to find a third way- a way to resist evil with good instead of evil.
– Failing that, (as that is inevitably the next question) I would sin. I would respond to violence with violence and repent of it afterward without trying to justify my actions with a caricature of God, made in my image.

I grieve for this part of me. I have a heart full of violence. I crave vengeance for the smallest slights. But this isn’t of God, it’s a rejection of God.


Have you ever been asked this question? Have you ever asked it? Help me out here.


11 thoughts on “So what if…?

  1. Walter Wink addresses this issue in his book “Jesus and Nonviolence.” He thoroughly explores all the nuances of difficulty in striving toward nonviolence when violence still resides within us. In talking about Bonhoeffer and the assassination plot against Hitler, he said that in some instances for the sake of justice you choose between the lesser of two evils. The lesser evil being violence. He says something very similar to what you did, that if that happens you should avoid the temptation to justify or “clean up” the fact that it was still an evil.

    I believe our greatest battle is to overcome the violence within us, and when our first questions about pacifism revolve around when retaliatory violence is justified I think it means we have more work to do within.

    • Well said Mandy, I’ll have to check out Walter Wink. I can see many times in my life where I have chosen the lesser of two evils and then exalted that as good.

  2. Unfortunately, both options are painful experiences. Fighting violence with violence hurts physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially (your reputation). Choosing pacifism does, too (in fact, it might be the more mentally/emotionally exhausting of the two).

    Despite that, though, the latter has proven time and time again to be the wiser option. I recently came out of a situation where, while there wasn’t necessarily physical violence, there was indeed an incredible amount of aggression (false accusations, hurtful words, name calling, etc.). Every inch of my being wanted to return the hurt. I mean it — every single part of me wanted to hurt that person. Lucky for me, though, every inch (or shall I say cubit) of the Holy Spirit residing within me did not. Because of that compassionate Spirit (and certainly not because of my own thinking), I chose to answer those accusations and lies with the words, “I love you.” And while the response from that person was, “you’re pathetic”, guess what…. I have peace. Choosing the path of pacifism is choosing peace in so many ways — peace in avoiding violence; peace within your own heart knowing that you did the right thing; peace with Holy Spirit. It was terrible, it was draining, and it was done with tears in my eyes… but now I feel pretty darn good. I look back at that situation with no regrets about how I ended it, and I have peace about it. That is most definitely not something that I can say about those times when I chose aggression.

    I’ve also heard this interesting thought: retaliation usurps God’s justice for that individual. I don’t agree with that 100%, because I believe that God is just and will always accomplish justice in the end (whether through our own condemnation or through the cross). But it does raise some interesting ideas about “justice” or consequences of actions here on earth. Perhaps God has a plan in mind to heap burning coals on that person’s head by letting them deal with the consequences of their actions. So who am I to say no to that; who am I to say that God can’t handle it and that I need to take actions into my own hands?

    Good word, Eric. I’m sure I’ll have to make that choice again, and probably sooner than I’d prefer. Thanks for the encouraging reminder that justice is not violence (sadly, I need that reminder from time to time).

    • Thanks for your comment Katie! I’m sorry you had to go through a situation like that, but your commmitment to striving for peace is encouraging. I also appreciate your perspective that violence need not always be physical, I completely overlooked that in writing this. I think many acts of aggression can leave wounds worse than bruises and blood.

  3. Thanks Eric for your post. I don’t really get why people ask the “what if…?” question. I’ve gotten it several times. I agree with your point that pacifism is not passivism. In fact, it take much more courage and creativity. Unfortunately we often stop short of the creativity and boldness of modern activist like Gandhi or MLK Jr. who showed us a different way to stand up to injustice.

  4. Pingback: Truly *Love* Our Enemies | life of a female bible warrior

  5. I’m learning this very thing! This is a wonderful post, PM. I cannot believe that God could take an extremely violent heart like mine and alter it over time to be more pacifistic; hence more like Him. It’s amazing and beautiful.

  6. Yes, the “what if’s” are perennial and not just with pacifism. But with that, it’s always somebody attacking your wife or kids, which obfuscates the question of taking up arms in war. (John Howard Yoder had an excellent essay on this comparison, don’t know the source offhand.)
    On the general “what if” question (not from my book on pacifism, but another):

    …So many icy cold “what ifs” freeze us
    in our tracks.
    In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis’ characters faced the
    same sort of petrifying predicament. Scrub, Jill (nickname,
    Pole), and Puddleglum have been sent by Aslan to find and
    rescue a fellow citizen of Narnia. They have been instructed
    to memorize certain Signs that will give them direction during
    their journey as to what to do. Like us today in this dark
    world, they are in the Dark Castle. And the critical moment is
    upon them. They recognize the climatic sign for their mission
    and balk.
    “‘Oh, what are we to do?’ said Jill.”
    In the narration which follows that scene, C. S. Lewis
    asks, “What had been the use of learning the Signs if they
    weren’t going to obey them?”
    The heroic characters, two children and a Marsh-wiggle,
    are very fallible creatures. They have already “muffed” the
    previous signs, and, now, they stand before a very dangerous
    situation. The question which they raise—a very pragmatic
    question—is, will “everything come right” if they obey?
    (As Christians, we would do well to listen with great
    care to the answer, even to memorize it.)
    “‘I don’t know about that,’ said Puddleglum. ‘You see,
    Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her
    what to do.’” 36

  7. Pingback: Blogs of Pilgrims On Christ’s Path | Christian Pacifism

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