The two most common arguments I hear against the kind of pacifism I articulate follow along these lines:
(1) Surely it is wrong to stand by and let someone vulnerable suffer harm, when you have the power to step in and stop it
(2) The restraint of evil is a necessary part of Godly order in a fallen world, and so Christians must employ violence to do so, but it is not the Church’s role.
In this post I want to explore some of the logic that undergirds or plays into these positions. Firstly, I want to consider how the former argument is often based on a kind of utilitarianism that ends up in logical convolutions of increasing counter-intuitive absurdity.
(1) is based on the premise that ends can shape, and fundamentally alter, the moral dimension of means. What is the end or consequence that is in view in (1)? Let’s suppose that it is some violent crime, murder or rape or the like. These things are truly horrendous, and are to be stopped. Let’s further suppose that the prospective victim is someone dear to me, a family member. Suddenly our hypothetical is taking the shape of, “What sort of moral monster would you have to be to stand by and watch a family member get murdered?”
I have already critiqued in other places the kind of deterministic logic that says only violence can solve this situation, and your only options in this situation are (a) violence, (b) acquiescence. Instead, this time I wish to point out how this hypothetical makes two other problematic moves. Firstly, it atomises the corporate.
Is it right for the church to willingly accept martyrdom? I would think the scriptures and the history of the church teach us yes. And yet, the kind of example above breaks down that solidarity, and says that if its in the power of individuals to prevent, by means of violence, other individuals from dying, then they should do so. The church as a collective, then, would never be a church that accepts martyrdom, but one in which individuals never practice self-defence, but instead always practice other-defence. There is a mis-translation of individual and corporate sensibility here that I want to engage further below.
Secondly, it absolutises this life. If the greatest evil we could suffer would be the deprivation of mortal life, then death would be the great evil to be avoided. But this is untrue in several dimensions. The greatest good is to know God and his gospel. Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to say that to know God and his Son is eternal life (Jn 17:2). So when I make the lives of those nearest to me the highest value in a life-threatening situation, I over-value temporal existence, and under-value eternal existence. Because the eternal life of those dear to me in Christ is secure. The eternal destiny of those that threaten them, almost certainly not. Should I choose to save that which cannot be prevented (i.e., the mortal death of Christian loved ones is certain), at the price of the enemy’s life, thereby ending all hope for their redemption? By this utilitarian logic, Christians should prefer to kill each other to prevent the deaths of non-Christians, in the hopes of their repentance to eternal life. This logic won’t do at all. Indeed, it makes Jesus a moral monster, since he indeed has the power to prevent the deaths of his brothers and sisters, those who he loved to die for, and he prefers their death to their life. Why does Jesus stand idly by?