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The Bible and Suicide

Is Pacifism Treason?

Some argue that pacifism is immoral and treasonous

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The enormity and near-incomprehensibility of the terrorist attacks on the United States in September, 2001, provided a serious challenge to Christians' ethical and intellectual consistency. The question which they had to face was: should they support violent retaliation, or should they advocate peace? If they chose the latter, were they guilty of treason?

A vast majority of Americans appeared to approve of, or even desire, a violent, military reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. People who genuinely renounce violence, like those who renounce wealth, represented a serious challenge to the way society normally does business. Both reminded Christians that the status quo is not their only choice in life, and that both material possessions and violence can cause us to forget that there are other, sometimes more important values in the world. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1940:

We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this testimony of the absolutist against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives and the risk we run of achieving no permanent good from the momentary anarchy in which we are involved.

Christian pacifists have always been a minority in America, a minority often regarded with suspicion and occasionally accused of treason by their Christian brethren. Even today when there is such religious diversity, we can only find approximately 1 million people in America who could be considered members of "peace churches" - Christian denominations which emphasize Christian pacifism.

It certainly hasn't been easy for them, personally or socially, to maintain this position. Personally, of course, many have experienced the same feelings of horror and outrage which have led others to volunteer to fight against aggressors. Reigning in those passions in order to remain true to their pacifist principles requires a strong character and serious dedication.

Socially, many have suffered greatly for sticking to those principles. During World War I, for example, men who refused the draft were imprisoned. Several died from mistreatment while in custody. In 1935, a couple of groups, including Quakers and Mennonites, formed an alliance that eventually convinced the government to adopt sympathetic policies towards conscientious objectors.

Even today they face a nation which has taken the attitude that questioning military retaliation against terrorists is un-American and treason. Michael Kelly of the Washington Post went so far as to say that "Pacifists are not serious people" and that, in situations where one's country has been attacked, "pacifism is, inescapably and profoundly, immoral. Indeed, in the case of this specific situation, pacifism is on the side of the murderers, and it is on the side of letting them murder again."

Kelly is not alone is his condemnation of those who object either to full-scale warfare, or simply to military retaliation in this case. George Orwell made a similar argument in 1942:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, 'he that is not with me is against me.'

Of course, the very idea that "you are either with us or against us" is commonly a central credo of fascist states, used to keep people in line with the decisions of the government and prevent dissent from developing. It is strange, however, to think of Bruce Birchard, general secretary of the Philadelphia-based Friends General Conference, as immoral and "evil" (to use Kelly's language), much less guilty of treason. Birchard wrote after 9-11: "We believe Jesus meant what he said about loving our enemies."

Imagine that - taking seriously a direct command from the person who is ostensibly the inspiration and founder of their religion! Birchard does not consider pacifism to be some sort of "neo-hippie" opinion lacking justification or reason, and he doesn't relegate it to an unthinkable utopia. Michael Kelly, however, thinks that it is immoral and treasonous for a Christian to take the words of Jesus seriously.

So if someone is just trying to follow the Bible and take seriously what they consider to be the message of Jesus, is there any way that they can justify a call for violent retaliation? Or must ethical and logical consistency require them to take a more pacifist line? For some Christians, the answer to this latter question is a very strong "yes."

That does not appear to have been the answer for George Bush, which was quite interesting. During his election campaign, he made a deliberate effort to draw attention to his Christianity, and when asked who was his favorite political philosopher, he named Jesus Christ. How did Jesus inform Bush's decisions to go to war in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Certainly it isn't easy to be a genuine and consistent pacifist - sometimes it isn't even necessarily a good idea. Nevertheless, we live in a democratic system which honors the right of people to be pacifists, and to object conscientiously to engaging in war, whereas people like Osama bin Laden wish to create something quite different.

Indeed, that is one of the reasons our system is worth fighting to defend - and that is also why, even when people disagree with pacifists, it is important to stand up for them and to defend them. Defending them, like defending dissent, is to defend the moral difference between our system and others. It's the American thing to do and it's the moral thing to do. Accusing them of treason, however, is not.

More: Problems with Pacifism

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