Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


I have never been able to take the idea of pacifism seriously. I have friends I deeply love who call themselves pacifists, but I also have friends who believe in socialism or think that evolution can create life out of nothing more than random genetic mutations combined with a mysterious force called natural selection. I do not think my socialist or Darwinian friends are mentally deluded or morally culpable, but I do think they are seriously wrong. Nonetheless, I admit that Socialism and Darwinism are powerful theories. Pacifism, by contrast, has always struck me as utterly indefensible on an intellectual level, and not just because it is absurdly idealistic. The pacifist is in an impossible social position. To be human is to depend on the protection of others, which makes the promotion of pacifism both a logical contradiction and a surly act of social defiance. At the very least, pacifism is profoundly ungrateful. It is an attempt at self-exemption from the social fact that we all participate in structures of compulsion and constraint that depend, in turn, on the threat of violence.

Stephen H. Webb Nevertheless, pacifists, at least the ones I know, can be very enthusiastic about the rightness of their cause. Since there is no rational justification for pacifism, defenders typically turn their rhetoric against their critics by casting them as stooges of the status quo. Since pacifists are against all forms of violence, anyone who disagrees with them must be in favor of violence. What this ploy misses is obvious. In a fallen world, not only is violence pervasive but it is also a toxin that, when legitimately used, can cure as well as kill.

I once defended vegetarianism as a form of dietary pacifism. By linking the two, I did not mean that either vegetarianism or pacifism were viable personal or social practices. I meant that neither could be morally mandated or socially legislated but both could be commended as supererogatory acts that deserve our admiration and praise. I would now put it a little differently: Because neither is possible, practically speaking, both ideals are deeply misleading. All diets take away resources from non-human animals, just as every human life is implicated in social orders that protect and prosecute.

Two recent news items, one concerning John Howard Yoder, the great Mennonite theologian, and the other Malala Yousafzai, the sixteen year-old Pakistani advocate for girls’ education, shed further light on the nature of pacifism. A recent New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer, an acclaimed religion writer, discusses Yoder’s sexual abuse of many women and the Mennonite Church’s formation of a group to help with their healing. Yoder admitted to groping and other aggressive conduct shortly before he died in 1997 but denied any sexual intercourse. These acts, however much he wanted to minimize them, were sexually violent. He died with his reputation intact and was even praised by fellow pacifist Stanley Hauerwas for coming to terms with “his inappropriate relations with women.”

Needless to say, such conduct is all too human, but only an intellectual could rationalize it with a new theology of sexual freedom. Yoder, who always insisted on the importance of suffering as a criteria for Christian faithfulness, came to terms with his violent behavior in an unpublished 1975 essay on how “nongenital affective relationships” can help men heal their traumatized “sisters.” According to Oppenheimer, one of Yoder’s victims imagined him thinking in this fashion: “I have created this great peace theology, and you and I are developing a new Christian theology of sexuality.”

So we now know that Yoder was a violent man who believed so wholeheartedly in his own non-violent theology that he thought he could re-order human sexual relations. This single case does not invalidate pacifism, but it does reveal just how delusional the pacifist goal can be. The pursuit of peace at all costs is just as dangerous as any other dream that cuts against the realities of human nature.

The case of Yousafzai is equally revealing. She left Jon Stewart speechless with admiration after an appearance on his show where she said the following:

I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, “If he comes, what would you do Malala?” then I would reply to myself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.” But then I said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.” Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that “I even want education for your children as well.” And I will tell him, “That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”

We should not subject the words of this remarkable young woman to philosophical analysis, but the widespread applause they have garnered is another matter. The idea that hitting a Talib with a shoe is no different from throwing a bomb at a school is, needless to say, worse than silly. And when she says that you have to fight the Taliban with peace, she underscores how pacifism is inherently self-contradictory. But pacifism is a friend of sentiment, not logic, so misty comments like this will always stir soft hearts before hard heads prevail.

Peace making is every Christian’s vocation, but casting peace alone as the solution to every conflict is a foolhardy game. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that some Christians are called to be pacifists of a certain kind. Christian pacifists are what the Church calls “martyrs,” and they do not try to persuade others that their actions are rationally defensible or socially useful. Martyrs are the exception, not the rule, since their actions speak of Jesus Christ, not a social agenda. Indeed, they have no word but the Word to explain themselves, but that should be enough.

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things . He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity . His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles