THE BLOG

Should Christians Be Pacifists?

12/26/2010 10:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bryan Fischer is right.

The American Family Association's director of issues analysis recently caused a stir with his assertion that awarding the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Salvatore Giunta for saving lives during a battle in Afghanistan has "feminized" the award.

So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?

I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. So we find it safe to honor those who throw themselves on a grenade to save their buddies.

I will leave the argument of why "feminizing" anything is a bad thing to others. What Fischer is right about comes in his response to the firestorm around his original assertion. In the midst of his defense of violence and killing over saving lives, Fischer asserts:

"Christianity is not a religion of pacifism."

And he's right, in a sense. Of course, historically, he's terribly wrong. Anyone with ten spare minutes and access to Google can find numerous quotes from early Church fathers asserting the pacifism of Christianity.

"We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord." - Origen of Alexandria

"A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all." - Hippolytus

Even Tertullian refutes Fischer's assertion "that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers who came to him to lay down their arms, even when they asked him directly, 'what shall we do?'" (Luke 3:14), by reminding us it's not what John did but what Jesus did that we should follow: "For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier."

Early Christians took that directive from Jesus seriously and refused to join the military. That changed, however, when Constantine converted to Christianity and made the pacifists a minority within the church. Since then, Christians have served in the military and see no problem with serving both the government and God.

So how can Fischer -- after being rebuked by church history -- still be considered right in his view? Because Christianity is not a religion of pacifism, but neither is it a religion of "valor and gallantry in waging aggressive war in a just cause against the enemies of freedom, even while inflicting massive casualties in the process," as Fischer believes.

Instead, the fact that we are even arguing over whether Christianity is a religion of "pacifism" or "war" shows just how utterly religion -- as a whole -- has failed us. Instead of creating camps of doves and hawks, religion should be about dispelling any fear that leads us to war against each other. As German theologian Eugen Drewermann asserts, "religion promotes a healthy and moral community best when the concrete, living individual is permitted by the collective to feel psychologically and spiritually healthy and true to herself."

The collective, however, fears those who are healthy in this way, and we even fear ourselves becoming that healthy. Society represses our penchant to become healthy and instead plays on our fears and seeks to reinforce them. We act out these fears, Drewermann says, by making war on one another. Those fears also compel us to think of God as Fischer does -- a deity that "honors" our battles against each other, no matter how high the body count.

Drewermann notes that

"in the background of all wars lies an ambivalent, psychically violent God-image, often not explicitly present but rather repressed and disguised by absolute claims to power and recognition, which are the result of a projection of life under the spell of spiritual fear. Only if fundamental anxiety and the experience of 'lack' bind a group together does aggression become dangerous in a group."

Fischer sees "freedom" as something worth defending, therefore it must be something he and others who seek to defend it see as lacking. It is that spiritual fear that something will be taken from us, or we will be "defeated" and "annihilated" that compels us to battle one another -- to assuage our fear of non-existence.

Those who would seek to defend Christianity as pacifist, however, argue that the antidote to such fear lies in the church's teachings about love, grace, mercy and peace. If only we emphasized this part of the religion we could find balance with our violent natures and create ultimate peace. Unfortunately, Fischer, and those who believe as he does will have none of this -- because this, as Drewermann observes, is the feminization of Christianity: "Christianity, in its current form, speaks much of love, but it fears love as feeling. It speaks of freedom, but this passion of the subjective, this most feminine of all attributes, is fought like a cancerous evil."

What, then, is the way out? How can we escape the dichotomy of "pacifism vs. war" within Christianity and reclaim the power of this religion? Drewermann recommends that we take a fresh look at Jesus.

"Traditional Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus came to suffer and die to save the world from its sin. Drewermann offers a different view. Instead of glorifying suffering and redemptive violence, Jesus "lived so that humans would receive back their dignity as creatures of God, so that they would regain their innocence and uninhibitedness in relation to God. "

In other words, Jesus came not just to die on a cross for sins, but to show us how to live as full, empowered, fearless human beings. He could do that because he trusted so deeply in God and in God's vision for humanity, that he could stay loyal to that vision. Jesus knew that fear would not have the last word and he lived into his knowledge that God is unconditionally accepting and can be trusted, even unto death.

This is the true and amazing danger of religion practiced well. When we dare to live fully as human beings, the social order is challenged, the powerful are put on notice, and the status quo is shattered. This is the real power of religion -- but we are too afraid to embrace it and truly live into it. Instead we find it easier to "escape into power, lies, and destruction," Drewermann concludes.

So, in a sense, Fischer is right; Christianity is not a religion of pacifism, nor should it be. Sadly, however, it's true power has been neutered and it has become a religion of fear and violence. It's not Fischer's fault, though -- each of us is to blame because when Jesus offers us the choice of living into the truth of our existence or fleeing into fear, we always choose the latter and kill that which would let us truly live.

In the end, this is not a matter of whether Christianity is a religion of pacifism versus war -- but instead it is a matter of trust versus fear.

Can we truly drink from this cup?