Why the Church is Not Pacifist

Pacifism is the capitulation of orthodox Christianity to the pagan Enlightenment.

Forty years ago a tide of pacifism swept through the Christian churches as again it is doing today. In 1940, Reinhold Niebuhr tried to stem this tide with a book of essays entitled Christianity and Power Politics. “It is the thesis of these essays,” he wrote, “that modern liberal perfectionism actually distills moral perversity out of moral absolutes. It is unable to make significant distinctions between tyranny and freedom because it can find no democracy pure enough to deserve its devotion; and in any case it can find none which is not involved in conflict, in its effort to defend itself against tyranny.” Then he added a most damning indictment of liberal perfectionism: “It is unable to distinguish between the peace of capitulation to tyranny and the peace of the Kingdom of God.”

Two kinds of essays appeared in Niebuhr’s short volume. First, its “theological essays” were “meant to prove that this kind of perfectionism is bad religion, however much it may claim the authority of the Sermon on the Mount.” Second, its “political essays” were “designed to prove that [perfectionism] is bad politics and that it helps to make the democratic nations weak and irresolute before a resolute and terrible foe.” By August 1940, Europe was already engulfed in a terrible war for the survival of liberty. The United States faced a crucial election fought over the illusion that both candidates, Wendell Wilkie and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, should pledge themselves in American perfectionism to keep the U.S. out of war. Reinhold Niebuhr believed that Christian morality made commitment to that war both just and imperative.

Forty-four years later, we are living through a similar presidential campaign, during whose season the Democratic candidates vie with one another in devising conditions which would render any commitment of U.S. troops abroad impossible, and the Republican candidate feels it necessary to proclaim nothing but perfect peaceful purposes. Liberal perfectionism is still the American way. It is still, as well, bad theology and bad politics. “It does not realize that its effort to make the peace of the Kingdom of God into a simple historical possibility must inevitably result in placing a premium upon surrender to evil, because the alternative course involves men and nations in conflict, or runs the risk, at least, of involving them in conflict.” This is as true in 1984 as in 1940.

In 1940, Niebuhr opened his book with an essay, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist.” Whenever historical circumstances lead to a moment of crisis, he observed, the claim that pacifism is the proper Christian path regains historical vigor. So it has again today. The thesis of pacifism is that Christianity is a new religion based upon “the law of love,” the law of forgiving and loving one’s enemies, the law of turning the other cheek, the law of peaceful capitulation to evil. This, Niebuhr argues, is apostasy. It is both “bad theology” and “bad politics.” Against it, Niebuhr poses a counter thesis. The determination of the Christian church to reject pacifism is based upon moral realism, the necessary and moral conviction that Christianity cannot be reduced simply to “the law of love.” Orthodox Christianity holds that every human being sometimes sins, that the “law of Adam” written into our members makes every human being also a crucifier of Christ. Orthodox Christianity insists upon the continued reality and power of evil in the human heart.

In fact, Niebuhr points out, there are two heresies implicit in confusing the peace of the Kingdom with capitulation to evil. One is the heresy which assigns to the Kingdom of Peace and of Love a premature fulfillment in this world. The other is the heresy which assigns to states a role actually adoptable only by a relatively few individuals and by small and apolitical sectarian groups, which claim to live apart from the normal rules of political history. The first heresy is chiefly theological, the second chiefly political. Together they constitute the embrace by Christians of the false perfectionism inherent in certain rationalistic and romantic streams of the Enlightenment, of thought quite decisively anti-Christian. Pacifism, in short, is the capitulation of orthodox Christianity to heresy, the heresy of the pagan Enlightenment.

It is my intention to recapitulate and to update Niebuhr’s argument of 1940. Attentive readers may wish to consult Niebuhr’s original essay. It is my intention to make his thought my own and to express it in my own words, accounting for movements which have been given impetus since Niebuhr’s essay was written. There are many obvious continuities between the two situations and some obvious differences. Moreover, my own intellectual tradition is Catholic and, while I find much in Niebuhr to confirm that he is one of the most Catholic and Jewish of American Protestant theologians, there remain differences of emphasis.

The basic theological point of departure, of course, is the power of evil and of the Father of Lies, who roams through this world, seeking whom he may devour, until the Last Day. Jesus wondered, in fact, whether when the Son of Man returns again on the Last Day, he will find even “ten just men.” Jesus does not command the Roman centurion, to whose true faith he testifies, to cease being a soldier. The Book of Revelations envisages before the Last Day terrible trials, devastations, sufferings, wars, and blights, with the forces of evil virtually universally triumphant. And we are told that there will always be, while time lasts, wars and rumors of war. These are not the teachings of a church expecting to achieve within history — indeed, even within a single human breast — the complete realization of “the Kingdom of Peace and of Love.” Christians are taught to regard history as an exile; a time of strife and of continuous combat with the world, the flesh, and the devil; a time during which even the just man will sin seven times daily, and in which every man without exception should tremble in the sight of a just God and attend upon God’s mercy.

In a word, the Christian church has been taught from the beginning to bear contradictory truths in mind. On the one hand, Jesus by his death and resurrection has fulfilled the promises of a Messiah, a Redeemer, who has made all who so choose to be dwelled in by God, to be called, and to be, “the friends of God.” The transformative power of God’s grace begins immediately in this world. On the other hand, the victory of Love is not simply completed, not final, not wholly grown up into the stature of Christ. It is like a mustard seed. It is like leaven. It is hidden, often overlooked, often betrayed. No one exemplifies it fully. Objective and cynical eyes, beholding the character of this world, will often — even in looking over a community of believers assembled in worship — find this Kingdom invisible, mocked by the naked eye. Christians will have to live in this ambiguous world, unable to judge the extent even of their own inner transformation by grace, tasting the foulness of their own mediocrity, betrayals, and sin, and always in need of daily forgiveness. In short, the transformation by grace has begun and is not yet.

In this context, the claims of pacifism dissolve the contradiction inherent in Christian orthodoxy. Pacifism clings to the truth of transformation in Christ. Pacifists imagine themselves to be wholly what Christians in fact only partially are, “other Christs.” Pacifism neglects the other side of Christianity, the power of evil and the Lie, which corrupt both every institution of this world and every human heart and which, far worse, are voluntarily given habitat and historical force within institutions and within individuals that choose evil as their mode of existence. In denying half the truth of Christian orthodoxy, pacifists fall into heresy.

Here, of course, a distinction is necessary. Since the Christian church is responsible for making a twofold witness, and since it is a body within which there is a natural division of labor, it is always meet and just that some Christians give themselves to one witness, some to another. No one can witness to everything. No human being, not even Christ, can witness to the infinitude of God. Becoming incarnate, Jesus could not be both man and woman, both warrior and man of peace, both wealthy and poor, both of the ancient and of the modern world, both Jew and Gentile, both free man and slave. In similar fashion, the Christian community affords a diversity of vocations. There have always been some who chose to witness to the peace loving, suffering, forgiving, gentle Christ of the pacifist tradition. From an early stage, for example, the Christian clergy were prohibited from carrying arms, even if they served with the Roman army. Some lay Christians also refused to serve. And church buildings themselves, once such were established, were declared to be “sanctuaries,” which troops or officers of the Empire were forbidden to enter — although, of course, by brute force they more than once did sacrilegiously enter them. Simultaneously, other Christians were instructed to live in the world in its manifold occupations, including the military, acting in an upright and estimable manner so as to “Let their light shine before men.”

Corresponding to the double witness of Christianity, therefore, both to the new power of grace and to the perduring power of evil in the world, there have been two tendencies in perennial Christian life: the sectarian tendency to “live apart” from the world in order to live a life as close as possible (not very) to the transformative message of the gospels; and the incarnational tendency to live in the historical structures of this world as leaven in dough, using such discretionary room as circumstances allow to make more civil and kindly the life of the world. The one may be thought of as the monastic or sectarian tendency, the other as the lay or civilizing tendency.

That both these tendencies could be combined even in one group is shown by the example of the Benedictine monks who from the fifth century onwards spread their influence through new monasteries from Italy to France, Switzerland and Germany, creating in a sea of then migrant, barbarian tribes, islands of civilization. Simultaneously, the monks as clergymen taught the virtues of the Sermon on the Mount, while as scientific agricultural workers they also taught to tribes heretofore satisfied with subsistence economies the arts of profit, saving, the building of centers of art and learning, and other fruits of hard-earned leisure. That such monks later accompanied, at times led, the Crusaders, is an index of their own self-understanding as less than one sidedly pacifist.

In times of crisis, of course, those of pacifist tendency rebel against the “worldliness” of the incarnational Christians. They regard the “leavening” tradition as a grand betrayal. They demand a more pure and perfectionist witness. Soon enough, of course, they must cope with manifest sinfulness, mediocrity, weakness, and decaying fervor within their own ranks. And they, too, must see to their own daily living. Cries of betrayal, hypocrisy, and dualistic speech are heard within their own ranks. No more than the incarnationalists are the perfectionists able to banish evil from the world, even their own world, even their own hearts.

Furthermore, it is one thing for such sectarian com-munities to see themselves as living apart from and in pro-test against the sinful world. It is another when they hold themselves up as a model, which the sinful world ought to emulate or be coerced into emulating. For in the latter case they can no longer rely simply on the legitimate impulse to give witness to an indispensable part of Christian orthodoxy. They must go beyond orthodoxy in claiming that evil can and must be banished from their kind of world. The pacifist become imperialist ends up in that case bearing a terrible swift sword, burning at the stake, imposing dreadful punitive humiliations, banishing and expelling recalcitrants.  Beginning by renouncing arms, such perfectionists end up brandishing arms with fierce righteousness, forgiving neither self nor others.

Indeed, the historical record of perfectionist Christian communities is so saddening that, from time to time, its own idealism is discredited for generations. This is the allegory Dostoevsky draws upon in his potent “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” It is, alas, the memory history retains of Savonarola in Florence, of the Inquisition in Spain and Italy, of Geneva, of Muenster, of Salem, even of the Scopes trial. On the other hand, the incarnationist ideal of “being in the world but not of the world” has also been shown by history to have become corrupted into excessive worldliness, of which the Renaissance popes, the Prince-bishops of Reformation Germany, the behavior of Cardinal Richelieu in France, and the lamentable failures of the Christians of Germany under Adolph Hitler have left so many vivid and deplorable images.

Contemplating Christian history, then, who can hold that the “transformative power of grace” is by normal historical measures everywhere, or anywhere, efficacious? The power of evil within Christianity itself — and in our own hearts — is undeniable. The orthodox twofold teaching of Christianity is everywhere vindicated.

One can allow, therefore, for the valid witness of individual Christians or of sectarian communities which attempt to live according to standards “not of this world,” as a sort of witness of what Christians hope for after the Last Day. It is important for all Christians to feel the pressure of that witness. But that witness is not the Christian imperative. The moment it becomes a model for this world, a statecraft for this world, it lapses into heresy, putting in the place of orthodox Christian teaching a perfectionism which is, ironically, pagan and destructive.

One hears much of this heresy today. “Our security is in the Lord, not in arms” a peace activist tells us in a discussion of whether the United States needs a replacement for the aging B-52 bomber. In this ambiguous and contingent world, he is quite right- there is no infallible military security. Such political decisions as a free society may arrive at are inexorably uncertain, prudential, and fallible. The Maginot Line afforded France no ultimate security against Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Neither did the pacifists of France. “Security” spoken of in the political and military affairs of this world is so far different from the “security” which the Lord affords to those who love Him, that one marvels at the sleight-of-mind of contemporary peace activists (not excluding certain Catholic bishops and archbishops). This confusion of realities is due both to theological and to political error. It is theological error because its premise is that God intends to transform this world into the Kingdom of Love and Peace before the Last Day. It is political error because its premise is that evil, injustice, and aggression will yield to piety.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Leo Tolstoy are often cited by Christian pacifists who wish to show that pacifism need not be based upon political and theological illusions, but may be based upon hardheaded calculations of political efficacy. Pacifism, in this view, is not solely an end but a means. If this is true, then pacifist methods must be judged according to normal standards of prudence. It may, indeed, be true that non-violent methods sometimes “work.” This admission, however, entails no more than the observation that diplomacy, reasoning together, and negotiations also sometimes work. This position falls into error only when it claims that non-violent resistance must always work. Manifestly, this is not the case. Here, typically, the pacifist renounces prudential argument, claiming that, nonetheless, non-violent resistance is the only resistance a Christian may offer to evil. But this is heresy.

In his doctoral dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr, Mar-tin Luther King, Jr., tried to show that the latter, in emphasizing the pervasiveness of sin, sold too short various creative techniques of non-violence which hold greater promise than Niebuhr would allow. This point may very well be true. One may doubt that non-violent techniques will work, while being grateful, nonetheless, for a demonstration that in particular circumstances they do. Yet Niebuhr himself often took part in strikes and demonstrations which, while falling far short of armed insurrection, he interpreted as being significant demonstrations of force. His point was that piety alone would not supply political muscle, that civilization goes forward by using the least violent methods possible, and that resort to arms, nonetheless, cannot always be ruled out.

This argument meets the claims of many uncertain peace activists today who, while giving support (how deep is unclear) to the cause of nonviolence in the United States, speak ominously of a “bloodbath” yet to come (which they do not always speak of without morose anticipation) in South Africa and admiringly of armed guerrilla revolutions in Central America, the Philippines, and elsewhere. They seem to grant to “the oppressed” the right to armed revolution, while not perhaps allowing themselves to participate in it except vicariously. They cannot, at least, bring themselves to denounce it as unjust.

There is, in brief, an unprincipled pacifism which is really a preference for capitulation to violence as long as the violence comes from certain quarters. Facing Marxism – Leninism, such an unprincipled pacifism has a traceable consistency. Its real claim is that “the tide of history” is Marxist- Leninist, and that it is the Christian obligation to surrender to it as early and as peaceably as possible. This principle allows both for non-violent resistance to any effort by the United States to arm itself to meet Marxist-Leninist aggression and for moral approbation of Marxist-Lennist forces which employ arms to overturn “right-wing” regimes. There is high consistency here. This consistency is violated if those who pretend to it claim that the “revolutions of the oppressed” in the Third World are not really Marxist-Leninist, but actually Christian, democratic, popular, etc. In that case, pacifism is not the principle, since they allow some Christians to employ arms.

Again, one hears often today that someone or other is not a “conventional pacifist” but a “nuclear pacifist.” Such a position is required by those who wish to maintain the consistency just described, They are in favor of the resort to conventional arms by “oppressed peoples” of the Third World. Only they are opposed to the “arms race” between the superpowers, which, they say, might result in nuclear war. One occasionally encounters someone who is demonstrably serious about this position. Such a person, for example, will staunchly support an increase in the U.S. and NATO military budget in order to build up a sufficient deterrent of conventional arms, thus making reliance upon a nuclear deterrent in Europe at least unnecessary. Such a position one can admire (without being any sort of pacifist I hold it myself). But most such spokespersons appear to be less than serious. In Niebuhr’s words, they place “a premium upon surrender to evil, because the alternative course involves men and nations in conflict, or runs the risk, at least, of involving them in conflict.” Perfectionism leads them to prefer surrender.

And make no mistake. Some “nuclear pacifists” do advocate surrender. The Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Catholic Bishops (1983) at the last moment included just this possibility. It seemed to imagine the following scenario. The U.S. unilaterally disarms itself; Soviet troops invade the U.S.; massive resistance on the part of nonviolent Christians renders total pacification by the invaders difficult. It is suggested that the beauty of Christian witness will eventually, although probably not at first, convert the invaders, or at least force them to allow at least the level of freedoms afforded, say, in Poland today. Some seem to find these tolerable.

One notes with breathless admiration the self-image of such pacifists, concerning their personal virtue, spiritual heroism, and willingness to endure the Gulag. They imagine themselves to be Solzhenitsyns, Sakharovs, Orlovs. But they forget one thing. Their conquerors will not overlook the fact that such brave persons failed to lift a finger to help the five million persons now in the Gulag Archipelago; that such persons bowed docily to “the tide of history,” and that such persons abandoned their Christian obligation to come to the defense of innocent peoples already suffering from unjust aggression. Faced with the naked power of the executioner, what further principles will they now betray? Will they not assist the authorities in urging the captive population to remain non-violent? Will they not repeat, with the executioners, that the citizens of the United States, perpetrators of “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound,” deserve the most severe retribution? Will they not help to convict their fellow citizens who urged earlier armed resistance of “crimes against humanity”? Will they themselves, in purest consistency, now testify against the generals, soldiers, journalists, theologians and others who supported deterrence earlier, in show trails designed to prove no more than what such pacifists have already alleged? Will they deny their own words? As the numbers of executions of Americans mount — the Soviets have executed 65 million of their own Soviet citizens since 1923 for lesser crimes — will they not rise in protest? And what will they do when “mistakes” are made, and some of their own numbers are unjustly dragged through the night?

Those brave pacifists who counsel surrender and imagine glorious martyrdom do not imagine themselves as quislings. No one does. Confident in their own virtue, they betray not only their own country but their Christian faith. It is nowhere commanded that Christians must join in complicity with Pilate’s armies in crucifying Christ.

Finally, peace activists today sometimes seem to fall into magic. Some appear to hold that those who say “peace” actually make peace. The Beatitude is quite clear. It does not say: “Blessed are the peace-sayers.” It says: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Between the cup and the lip is the slip. The nuclear pacifist thesis seems to be that deterrence of nuclear war by a dissuasive nuclear force cannot succeed; therefore, it is immoral to try to deter. Another thesis is thereby overlooked. It cannot be guaranteed that, if the United States lays aside its nuclear deterrent, nuclear war will thereby be avoided. What if China and the U.S.S.R. engaged in nuclear war? What if factions within a triumphant Red Army, ruling for a generation over Europe, North America, Africa, and the Soviet Union fell apart through internal power struggles and went to war? It is not easy to see how a world in the hands of Marxist-Leninist factions would guarantee a nuclear-free humanity. Preemptive surrender to Soviet arms in no clear way advances the Kingdom of Peace and Love. Those who desire it, or with passionate intensity permit it, know not what they do. Grant them the world of their desires; its hypocrisy reeks.

It is a great slur upon Christian orthodoxy to have pretenders like these wear its disguise. Theirs is not the Christianity of Chesterton or Maritain, John Courtney Mur-ray or John Paul II. Theirs is not the Christianity of the battles of Vienna and Lepanto. Theirs is not the Christianity of St. Augustine or Aquinas. It is, in fact, a betrayal of Christianity, a betrayal to the false rationalism and sentimentalism of the Enlightenment. Capitulation is a despicable paganism. On December 23, 1983, Pope John Paul II cut their epitaph in stone:

Even if dictatorship and totalitarianism temporarily suppress the complaint of exploited and oppressed human beings, the just person clings to the conviction that nothing can justify this violation of the rights of man — he has the courage to intercede for others who suffer and he refuses to surrender in the face of injustice, to compromise with it — and likewise, however paradoxical it may appear, the person who deeply desires peace rejects any kind of pacifism which is cowardice or the simple preservation of tranquility.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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