Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Four Points of Anabaptist Theology: Part 5 Pacifism


Pacifism is a term derived from the Latin word for peacemaking and is defined as the belief that disputes should be settled by peaceful means and that war and violence are unjustifiable.[1] The early church was clearly pacifist and until A.D. 170-80 there are no records of Christian soldiers in the Roman army. After that time however, there are not only records of Christian soldiers but also writings opposing such service by Christians most notably among them from Tertullian.[2] Thus one of three basic attitudes of the church towards war, pacifism has existed through the history of the Christian church though it has been overshadowed by the just war theory since the fourth century.[3] The idea of a just war was developed by Augustine of Hippo and was intended to limit the circumstances in which a Christian could acceptably participate in war though Augustine himself was a defender of Christian participation in war when it was for the good of the society. It should be noted that the good of society is most certainly open to interpretation. In short, good is decidedly in the eye of the beholder.

Interestingly, since Augustine of Hippo, some form of just war theory has been the position of most of Christendom. From the time of Constantine, Christians were not so troubled about their participation in war. The Crusades are an excellent example of warfare in defense of religious goals. In fact, it was the Crusades that lead theologians to make determinations as to which wars Christians could actually participate in and which they could not. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas lays down three conditions for a just war: it must be on the authority if the sovereign, the cause must be just, and the belligerents should have a rightful intention, intending the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.[4] Similar lists were created by others during medieval times but in the sixteenth century, Francisco de Victoria added the additional condition of the war being waged by proper means.[5] Today this debate continues in earnest though often without the religious implications from centuries past.

During the Reformation, renaissance humanism developed pacifist inclinations. It is Erasmus who is the most important example of this development which appeals to his philosophical and theological ideals. Erasmus, and the Anabaptists he influenced, rejected the notion of a just war stressing Christian pacifism more than all of the other sixteenth century scholars.[6] It was Erasmus’ contention that men who are not ashamed to be called Christian were found to be acting in a manner that is totally inconsistent with what was most important to Jesus Christ. Erasmus sees the life of Christ representing the doctrine of concord and love and His commandments and parables teaching peace and charity.[7] Though both the Old Testament and New Testament call for peace, Christian life is filled with warfare. For Erasmus it was unthinkable that Christ’s ideal was so disconnected with the world of reality around him. This continues to be the case today.

Today the Anabaptists still famously hold to a pacifist reading of Scripture. Anabaptists do not subscribe to the view of a just war instead adhering to “Absolute Pacifism” which states that warfare under any circumstances is forbidden by the Gospel.[8] In the twentieth century moralists argued that there can no longer be a just war since the means of modern warfare are never “proper”.[9] The further development of more potent weapons during World War II and the use of atomic weapons have much to an already robust debate.

The Mennonites most recent confession adopted in 1995 states clearly in Article 22 that they witness against all forms of violence including war among nations, capital punishment, abortion, hostilities among races, abuse of women and children, and domestic violence.[10] Peace is the will of God and the world was created in peace they say. The statement also reminds the reader that the prophets and other messengers of God pointed people towards trust in the Lord rather than depending upon weapons and military force. The statement in its entirety would be something with which Erasmus would find much common ground and likely have approved of enthusiastically. While there continue to be questions of debate within Christendom and without, it is clear that main stream Christian thought has not been supportive of modern pacifism believing instead that there are worse evils in the world.

[1] Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 879.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1731.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cross, 1731-32.

[9] Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1731.

[10] General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. 1995. (accessed October 11, 2011).

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