A New Kind of Pacifist

I am not a pacifist.  I don’t see how pacifism squares in any way with Genesis 9 or Romans 13, two passages that clearly indicate that God has delegated a measure of authority to certain people to use violence in order to restrain evil in society.  A denial of this authority results in a failure to employ one of God’s primary means of keeping sin in check, and the results of such a failure would be disastrous.

Having said that, I do want to say that I have a great deal more respect for the pacifism of old than I do of the new form of pacifism that has arisen in recent years.  Historically, Christian pacifists have grounded their opposition to violence in their affirmation that vengeance, expressed in terms of violent judgment, belongs only to God.  The reason we do not take up the sword is because the sword belongs to God, not us.  I see much merit in this view, and I believe in the realm of personal ethics, it is right on target (see Romans 12:19-21).  The place where this view goes wrong is in its failure to recognize that God wields the sword in part through the state, an authority he has ordained for the purpose of punishing evil and rewarding good (Romans 13:1-4). 

But the new pacifism makes a different argument.  Instead of saying that the sword belongs to God, not us, the new pacifist says that the sword belongs to no one.  Violence is inherently immoral, no matter what the context.  I don’t know the philosophical roots of this view, but I can say that it has no place in the historic teaching of the church (or, for that matter, in Scripture).  It has a lot more of Rene Girard in it than Jesus. 

Brian McLaren, in his most recent book Everything Must Change, espouses what sounds like the new pacifism: “Many of us have been increasingly critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular.  Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination become not only permissible but in some way godly.”  Again, he writes, “The eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly.” (I do not have a copy of the book; I am quoting from an article that quotes from the book.  If it turns out that the article has totally distorted McLaren’s meaning by quoting him out of context, and that he doesn’t mean what he appears to say in these snippets, then I will retract these comments). 

McLaren’s error here is in thinking that whatever God does is okay for us to do.  Those who believe that God acts violently will pattern their behavior accordingly and will see violence in the human realm as a godly pursuit.  But that is simply not the case.  The absurdity of his argument may be shown with a human analogy.  Suppose a group of police officers receive knowledge about a meth lab in their jurisdiction.  At a particular time when they know the operators of the lab are at home, they bang on the door, identify themselves as the police, and demand to be let in.  When the perpetrators refuse to comply, they kick the door in and come in with guns drawn.  Still finding the perpetrators resistant, they wrestle them to the ground and forcibly cuff them before locking them inside their cars and driving them to the local jail. 

Now suppose that a mother with two small sons who lives across the street witnesses the whole episode.  What is she going to say?  If she plays the role of McLaren, she would say this: “I can’t believe the police acted so violently.  If my sons grow up in a world where this kind of violence is acceptable, they will feel that they have an obligation to invade the property of others, point loaded guns at them, and then wrestle them to the ground and bind them.”  But of course, no sensible person draws that conclusion!  The reason ordinary people don’t have a right to do that kind of thing, as everyone knows, is because the police are the ones who do that kind of thing.  The moment private citizens begin acting like police officers, vigilante justice takes over, and there is no more justice or stability in society.  Sensible people know that copying the actions that police are uniquely authorized to perform is wrong and illegal. 

In the same way, copying the actions that uniquely belong to God (and to those whom he has authorized specifically, i.e., the state) is likewise wrong.  The primary reason why I will not act violently toward those who persist in unbelief is because I know that is God’s unique prerogative, to be carried out in his way at his timing and discretion.  It is not because violence is inherently wrong.  If McLaren and the other new kinds of pacifists really believe that violence has no place in Christianity, then they will have to revise virtually every doctrine of the faith, especially the atonement.  But I guess they have already done that anyway.  After all, “everything must change.”    


6 Responses to “A New Kind of Pacifist”

  1. reformedninja Says:

    Separate topic, but that is very similar to why I believe in the death penalty.

  2. Phil Mollohan Says:

    That’s a great ending point regarding the atonement. The cross was indescribably violent. Good post. 🙂

  3. myles Says:

    who are you reading for “new pacifism”? I’d love to email about it: myles_werntz@baylor.edu

  4. fenderpooh Says:


    I was thinking primarily of those who advocate a nonviolent view of the atonement, or who criticize penal substitution for legitimizing violence (McLaren being one example). So this would include anyone who has followed Rene Girard (almost every contributor to Mark Baker’s book _Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross_), J. Denny Weaver, feminist writings on the atonement.

    Basically, anytime somebody argues that when we construe God as doing anything violent (or saying he will do something violent), we therefore legitimate human-human violence in all its forms, then we are dealing with a new kind of pacifism.

  5. mwerntz Says:

    Oh, Weaver’s crap. Don’t read him. And I think McLaren’s a lightweight. Check out Hans Boersma’s book on atonement: it challenges me on the violence of the atonement.

    I’d agree that the anthropocentric argument is a weak one: it’s a confusion of categories. Yoder explains the warfare in the OT as inculcating faith in the people that it’s God fighting on their behalf, which is a better explanation, but not entirely satisfactory, I don’t think. The problem is one of the OT, as the NT takes a decidedly different approach to this question of warfare: if we see Jesus as the lens of Scripture–which as Christians, we should Jesus as the telos of Scripture (not ecplipsing the OT but its fullness), in this case on the issue of violence.

    Girard is right on this point: that in the cross, we see an unmasking of violence and its abolition. He’s wrong in that he assumes that violence is a fundamental part of humanity that has to be undone, as this makes creation itself a corruption even prior to the Fall. But he’s right on that, that the cross is a condemnation on violence and a legitimation in the resurrection of Jesus’ way and life: that in Christ, the world is made right, and that this demands a new present way of life, of which non-violence is a part. But this can never be detached from Jesus: as Christians, we are non-violent because we believe in Jesus, not because we believe in NV first.

  6. fenderpooh Says:

    I appreciate those nuances, Myles, and I’m glad to see that you distance yourself from Weaver. I have read Boersma, and even though I mentioned in an earlier post how disappointed I was with the book as a whole, I do very much appreciate Boersma’s argument against a purely nonviolent atonement. That was the strongest part of his book.

    On OT/NT issues, I agree there is a difference, but it is owing to a covenantal shift that has occurred in redemptive history. The theocracy has ended (or, I should say, it has been suspended for a time). The church, as an international movement that cannot be confined to any one locale or attached to any civil government, has no mandate from God to engage in violence, as did OT Israel. But that’s not because Jesus somehow “corrects” the OT. It is, rather, that a new dispensation has now been inaugurated. But one day this age will give way to the next, and when Christ returns to reinstate the theocracy with himself as the Davidic King of a renewed Israel, there will be violence again. (How one sees that playing out has to do with where one might be on the spectrum between dispensationalism and covenant theology; I am somewhere in the middle).

    I think you and I must part company on Girard. I think of the atonement in categories almost totally different from what he proposes. By my reading of Scripture, the atonement is not intended to unmask violence (though it does in certain ways; see my “What Is the Gospel? Part 3” post). The atonement represents God’s sovereign, violent response to sin, a prolepsis of the final judgment. It beckons us to renounce violence (not totally, but certainly in a significant way) because it makes God the one responsible for judging sin, not us. So the real issue is not exposing the scapegoat mechanism but rather the demonstration of God’s righteousness in his punishment of sin (Romans 3:21-26).

    I hope you don’t mind discussing these things here in the comments section instead of by email. Other readers can benefit (and maybe even join in?) this way.

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