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Christian pacifism

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Christian pacifism

Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows

Christian pacifism is the theological and ethical position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Christian pacifists state that Jesus himself was a pacifist who taught and practiced pacifism, and that his followers must do likewise.

There have been various notable Christian Pacifists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy,[1] and Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy believed that adherence to Christianity required not just pacifism but, because governments inevitably threatened or used force to resolve conflicts, anarchism. However, most Christian pacifists, including the peace churches, Christian Peacemaker Teams and individuals such as John Howard Yoder, make no claim to be anarchists.


  • Origins 1
    • Old Testament 1.1
    • Ministry of Jesus 1.2
    • Early Church 1.3
    • Conversion of the Roman Empire 1.4
  • Christian pacifist denominations 2
    • Peace churches 2.1
    • Christadelphians 2.2
    • Churches of God (7th day) 2.3
    • Seventh-day Adventists 2.4
  • Christian pacifism in action 3
    • World War I 3.1
    • World War II 3.2
    • Anti-war movement 3.3
    • War tax resistance 3.4
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Old Testament

Whilst pacifism is only a minority practice in Christianity, the concept has scriptural and historical support. For example in the Old Testament, although there are many recounts of war and retaliation, Christian pacifists argue that violence was a mark against someone and never God’s ideal. For example, David was forbidden to build God’s house because he was a man of war and had shed so much blood:[2]

But this word of the Lord came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. (1 Chronicles 22:8)

God’s ideal is further explained by Isaiah, who prophesies a future Messianic Age where there will be peace amongst all humankind:[3]

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Also the commandment You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13) has been viewed as an instruction for pacifism.[4]

Ministry of Jesus

Jesus appeared to teach pacifism during his ministry when he told his disciples:[5]

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28)
Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9)

Early Church

Several Church Fathers interpreted Jesus' teachings as advocating nonviolence.[6] For example:

I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command... Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.
Tatian’s Address to the Greeks 11[7]
Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.
—The Apology of Aristides 15[8]
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.
One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.
Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 19: Concerning Military Service
For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.
Arnobius, Adversus Gentes I:VI[10]
Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.
Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes[12]
How can a man be master of another's life, if he is not even master of his own? Hence he ought to be poor in spirit, and look at Him who for our sake became poor of His own will; let him consider that we are all equal by nature, and not exalt himself impertinently against his own race[...]
—Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies On the Beatitudes[13]

However, many early Christians also served in the army,[14][15] and the presence of large numbers of Christians in his army may have been a factor in the conversion of Constantine to Christianity.[16]

Conversion of the Roman Empire

After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in A.D. 312 and began to conquer "in Christ's name," Christianity became entangled with the state, and warfare and violence were increasingly justified by influential Christians. Some scholars believe that "the accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history."[17] Nevertheless, the tradition of Christian pacifism was carried on by a few dedicated Christians throughout the ages, such as Martin of Tours. Martin, who was serving as a soldier, declared in 336 "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight."[18] He was jailed for this action, but later released.[18]

Since then, many other Christians have made similar stands for pacifism as the following quotes show:

The Scriptures teach that there are two opposing princes and two opposing kingdoms : the one is the Prince of peace ; the other the prince of strife. Each of these princes has his particular kingdom and as the prince is so is also the kingdom. The Prince of peace is Christ Jesus ; His kingdom is the kingdom of peace, which is His church; His messengers are the messengers of peace; His Word is the word of peace; His body is the body of peace; His children are the seed of peace.
Menno Simons (1494-1561), Reply to False Accusations, III[19]
To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.’
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), “Loving your Enemies” in Strength to Love[20]
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one who has love, courage, and wisdom is the one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi.
Ammon Hennacy (1893 - 1970)[21]

Charles Spurgeon did not explicitly identify as a pacifist but expressed very strongly worded anti-war sentiment.[22]

Christian pacifist denominations

The first conscientious objector in the modern sense was a Quaker in 1815.[23] The Quakers had originally served in Cromwell's New Model Army but from the 1800s increasingly became pacifists. A number of Christian denominations have taken pacifist positions institutionally, including the Quakers and Mennonites.[24]

Peace churches

The Deserter (1916) by Boardman Robinson.

The term "historical peace churches" refers to three churches--the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites and the Quakers--who took part in the first peace church conference, in Kansas in 1935, and who have worked together to represent the view of Christian pacifism.


Although the group had already separated from the Campbellites, a part of the Restoration Movement, after 1848 for theological reasons as the "Royal Assembly of Believers", among other names, the "Christadelphians" formed as a church formally in 1863 in response to conscription in the American Civil War. They are one of the few churches to have been legally formed over the issue of Christian pacifism.[25] The British and Canadian arms of the group adopted the name "Christadelphian" in the following year, 1864, and also maintained objection to military service during the First and Second World Wars. Unlike Quakers, Christadelphians generally refused all forms of military service, including stretcher bearers and medics, preferring non-uniformed civil hospital service.[26]

Churches of God (7th day)

The different groups evolving under the name Church of God (7th day) stand opposed to carnal warfare, based on Matthew 26:52; Revelation 13:10; Romans 12:19-21. They believe the weapons of their warfare to not be carnal but spiritual (II Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:11-18).[27][28]

Seventh-day Adventists

The general Adventist movement from 1867 followed a policy of conscientious objection. This was confirmed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1914.

Christian pacifism in action

From the beginning of the nonviolence, and some either have members who would not consider themselves Christians or are explicitly interfaith. However, they share historical and philosophical roots in Christian pacifism.

In some cases Christian churches, even if not necessarily committed to Christian pacifism, have supported particular campaigns of nonviolent resistance, also often called civil resistance. Examples include the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a grouping of churches in the southern United States) in supporting the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s; the Chilean Catholic Church's support for the civic action against authoritarian rule in Pinochet's Chile in the 1980s; and the Polish Catholic Church's support for the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.[30]

Walter Wink writes that "There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: fight or flight."[31] This understanding typifies Walter Wink's book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.[32]

World War I

Ben Salmon was an American Catholic pacifist and outspoken critic of just war theory, as he believed all war to be unjust.[33] During World War I, Salmon was arrested for refusing to complete a Selective Service and report for induction. He was court-martialed at Camp Dodge, Iowa on July 24, 1918, and sentenced to death. This was later revised to 25 years hard labor.[34] Salmon's steadfast pacifism has since been cited as an inspiration for other Catholics, such as Fathers Daniel Berrigan and John Dear.[35][36]

World War II

The French Christian pacifists André and Magda Trocmé helped conceal hundreds of Jews fleeing the Nazis in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.[37][38] After the war, the Trocmés were declared Righteous Among the Nations.[37]

The radical Christian pacifist[39] John Middleton Murry, changed his opinions on Christian pacifism in light of the Holocaust. In his early years as a writer of The Necessity of Pacifism (1937) and as editor of the weekly London newspaper, Peace News, he argued that Nazi Germany, should be allowed retain control of mainland Europe, arguing Nazism was a lesser evil compared to the horrors of a total war.[40][41] Later, he recanted his pacifism in 1948 and promoted a preventative war against the Soviet Union.[42]

Vera Brittain was another British Christian pacifist. She worked as a fire warden and by travelling around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union's food relief campaign. She was vilified for speaking out against the saturation bombing of German cities through her 1944 booklet Massacre by Bombing. Her principled pacifist position was vindicated somewhat when, in 1945, the Nazi's Black Book of 2000 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.[43] After the war, Brittain worked for Peace News magazine, "writing articles against apartheid and colonialism and in favour of nuclear disarmament" from a Christian perspective.[44]

Anti-war movement

Having been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, Thomas launched the White House Peace Vigil in 1981; the longest running peace vigil in US history.[45] Over the years, he was joined by numerous anti-war activists including those from the Catholic Worker Movement and Plowshares Movement.[46]

War tax resistance

Opposition to war has led some, like Ammon Hennacy, to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their income below the tax threshold by taking up a simple living lifestyle.[47][48] These individuals believe that their government is engaged in immoral, unethical or destructive activities such as war, and paying taxes inevitably funds these activities.[49]

See also


  1. ^ Colm McKeogh, Tolstoy's Pacifism, Cambria Press, 2009, ISBN 1-60497-634-9.
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Rev Dr Gordon Wong. "Pacifism Or Peace? War, Peace And Justice In The Old Testament". 
  4. ^ Bailey, Wilma A. (2005). "You shall not kill" or "You shall not murder"?: the assault on a biblical text. Liturgical Press. pp. 72, 73 and 74. 
  5. ^ Orr, Edgar W. (1958). Christian pacifism. C.W. Daniel Co. p. 33. 
  6. ^ Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, ISBN 0-664-22810-0, p. 125: "There is no doubt that the early church was pacifist, teaching that Christians could not be soldiers."
  7. ^ Tatian's Address to the Greeks (Roberts-Donaldson)
  8. ^ The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher
  9. ^ Hyppolytus, "The Apostolic Tradition"
  10. ^ Arnobius, Adversus Gentes, Book I, Chapter VI.
  11. ^ Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle I, to Donatus, 6.
  12. ^ Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 6, p. 179: Disputation of Archelaus and Manes
  13. ^ Gregory of Nyssa On the Beatitudes, in Ancient Christian Writers, Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord's Prayer & The Beatitudes, tr. Hilda C. Graef, (The Newman Press, London, 1954), pp. 94-95
  14. ^ J. Daryl Charles, Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just war and Christian tradition, InterVarsity Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8308-2772-2, p. 35.
  15. ^ Gregory M. Reichberg, Henrik Syse, and Endre Begby, The Ethics of War: Classic and contemporary readings, Wiley-Blackwell, 2006, ISBN 1-4051-2377-X, p 62.
  16. ^ John Helgeland, Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, in Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung, Walter de Gruyter, 1979, ISBN 3-11-007822-8, pp. 724 ff.
  17. ^ Roland Bainton, quoted in Robin Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics, 3rd ed, Continuum, 2006, ISBN 0-567-03112-8, p. 194.
  18. ^ a b Kurlansky, Mark (2006). Nonviolence: Twenty-five lessons from the history of a dangerous idea, pp. 26-27.
  19. ^ The Complete writings of Menno Simons: c.1496-1561, tr. Leonard Verduin, ed. John Christian Wenger, Herald Press, 1966, p. 554.
  20. ^ Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), Strength to Love, quoted in Martin Luther King, Jr: Civil rights leader, theologian, orator, Volume 1, David J. Garrow, Carlson Pub., 1989, ISBN 0-926019-01-5, p. 41.
  21. ^ Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon, p. 149
  22. ^ Long have I held that war is an enormous crime; long have I regarded all battles as but murder on a large scale. India's Ills and England's Sorrows," September 6, 1857
  23. ^ The New conscientious objection: from sacred to secular resistance Charles C. Moskos, John Whiteclay Chambers - 1993 "The first conscientious objector in the modern sense appeared in 1815. Like all other objectors from then until the 1880s, he was a Quaker.4 The government suggested exempting the pacifist Quakers, but the Storting, the Norwegian "
  24. ^ Speicher, Sara and Durnbaugh, Donald F. (2003), Ecumenical Dictionary: Historic Peace Churches
  25. ^ Lippey C. The Christadelphians in North America
  26. ^ Bryan R. Wilson Sects and Society 1961
  27. ^ Doctrinal Points of the Church of God (7th Day)
  28. ^
  29. ^ "Network of Christian Peace Organisations". 
  30. ^ Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6, pp. 58-74, 127-143 and 197-212.
  31. ^ Walter Wink, writing in Roger S. Gottlieb, Liberating Faith: Religious voices for justice, peace, and ecological wisdom, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, ISBN 0-7425-2535-X, p. 442.
  32. ^ Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Augsburg Fortress, 2003. ISBN 0-8006-3609-0
  33. ^ Robert Ellsberg (1997). All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. p. 77. 
  34. ^ "WW1 Conscientious Objectors Database". Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Retrieved February 24, 2010. 
  35. ^ John Dear (February 23, 2010). "Ben Salmon and the Army of Peace".  
  36. ^ Berrigan, Daniel. "The Life and Witness of Benjamin Joseph Salmon". Jonah House. Retrieved February 24, 2010. He brings to mind the buried treasure of the Gospel story, this unlikely hero 
  37. ^ a b Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There Philip P. Hallie, (1979) New York: Harper & Row, ISBN 0-06-011701-X
  38. ^ Brock and Young, p. 220.
  39. ^ "Quotation by John Middleton Murry". London: 1944, Peace News. 
  40. ^ Richard A. Rempel, "The Dilemmas of British Pacifists During World War II", The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 50, No. 4, On Demand Supplement (Dec., 1978), pp. D1213-D1229.
  41. ^ Lea, pp. 310-12.
  42. ^ David Goodway,Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006), Liverpool University Press, 2006. ,ISBN 1846310261, p. 208.
  43. ^ Berry, Paul and Bostridge,Mark, Vera Brittain: A Life, 1995, ISBN 0-7011-2679-5 (p. 445).
  44. ^ Loretta Stec, "Pacifism, Vera Brittain, and India". Peace Review , vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 237-244, 2001
  45. ^  
  46. ^ "Significant Peace Park Vigilers from the Past". 
  47. ^ "Anarchists and War Tax Resistance".  
  48. ^ "Low Income/Simple Living as War Tax Resistance". NWTRCC. 
  49. ^ "What is War Tax Resistance?". NWTRCC. 

External links

  • Collection of works on Christian pacifism at Internet Archive
  • - Christian nonresistance and nonviolence.
  • Bible Pacifism
  • A Practical Christian Pacifism by David A. Hoekema
  • Myth of Redemptive Violence
  • Five Questions Your Pacifist Friends Are Tired of Answering
  • On Earth Peace
  • International Fellowship of Reconciliation
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