Hard Questions

Below are some common, valid, and difficult questions nonviolent peace builders have faced. The answers are not simple or short. Military force and intervention is too often a way of speeding towards a resolution - an attempt to solve conflict quickly. Great patience, and sometimes non-resistant sacrifice of life, is required to solve conflict by nonviolent means.

Click on the question to see an answer.

1. What is the difference between being a pacifist and a coward?

There are pacifists who could be cowards and there may be soldiers who are cowards. But that is not the issue. It may actually take less courage to enlist in the military than to refuse to do so, especially when there is pressure or incentives to enlist. It takes even more courage to resist the draft when the government of the land is actively recruiting and drafting people who would not enlist out of their own accord. Some countries threaten imprisonment (or worse) for persons who resist the draft. It takes courage to resist such threats.

2. The Nazis would have won the war if everyone else had been a pacifist.

The flip side to this statement is that if everyone were a pacifist, there would be no war. It is unrealistic to think that Christian pacifists exist only in one nation and not in another. If, at a minimum, Christians all over the world would take a position of refusing to use violence in solving problems, it would make a huge statement to political leaders and international relations. In the long run, there is a better chance that the spiral of violence could be broken by refusing to meet violence with violence. In the case of the Nazi's, read the compelling story on one person who mobilized his community in France to nonviolently resist the Nazi's. "André Trocmé argued that “decent” people who fail to respond to the humiliation and destruction of others around them because of indifference or cowardice pose the most dangerous threats to the world."

3. Why aren’t all Christians pacifists? Why would Christians go to war if Jesus taught us to love our enemies?

Most Christians know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Some believe that nonviolence applies only to their personal lives, and that the state has the right to defend itself through violent means. Some Christians hold the pacifist position to be unrealistic. Other Christians believe that the state is the highest good and must of necessity be preserved. Anything that does not meet this requirement is judged to be unrealistic. And yet other Christians hold that a distinction needs to be made between just and unjust wars and that Christians should participate in fighting just wars. These continue to be areas of disagreement with Christian pacifists.

4. Are all Mennonites pacifists?

No. Many young Mennonite men enlisted in the World Wars. Some were not yet ready or prepared to take a stand at age eighteen. They had not come to a strong enough conviction on the matter to resist the draft. Others were enticed by the propaganda that promised them glory and honour and a vocation or trade at the end of their term of service. Many were lured into service in the military. But others who did enlist have become even stronger in their peace values after their military experience.

5. If war isn't the answer, what can we do to fight injustice and oppression?

We can start with our relationships among families and friends. We can act justly and seek justice for others. The more we refuse to oppress people ourselves and stand up for the oppressed people of the world, the less need there would be for war. It is especially important to address the way richer nations exploit poorer nations economically and socially. It is important also to unmask the real reasons for war. So often wars are fought not to remove injustice and oppression but to make it possible for such injustices to continue. It is a real service to the nation to be critical of all unjust policies and action of the nation.

6. What would a pacifist do if someone attacked his or her family?

It is important that we create conditions that pre-empt violence in all relationships, and when things do escalate, to choose the nonviolent options open to us. However, pacifists are human like every one else. Failure to do what is right does not make the wrong right.

7. How can you live in Canada and then not fight to defend it? What does it mean to be a good Canadian citizen? Why do you not obey the government?

By doing what is right I am defending Canada. By giving my life to justice and peace I am supporting what is basic to the welfare of the nation. War is not necessarily good for the country as is assumed in the question. What is right and just exalts a nation. To live by a higher standard is to be a good citizen. Ultimate loyalty belongs to Christ for the Christian, not to the state. Therefore if the state asks a kind of allegiance that the Christian cannot give, the Christian will refuse to obey the state.

8. Aren't your taxes going to support the military? Isn't that like praying for peace and paying for war?

Peace building Christians are not against the government of the nation. They are not against taxes as such. They believe in supporting the legitimate programs of the government. They do not want to support war and other programs that are counterproductive to the nation. They would very much like to contribute the amount contributed to the military to a special peace fund that would be used for international aid and other causes that would contribute towards peace and good will (for one example, see www.consciencecanada.ca). The government on its part, however, does not want to specify which taxes support war and which do not because this would make it too easy for many people to object to war taxes. War taxes remain hidden as much as possible. We would like to have all governments honour their citizens by allowing those who are pacifists to contribute their taxes to a pool of taxes that are used for humanitarian causes within the country and beyond.

9. Is it ever right to go to war?

When you take the position that war itself is wrong, it is not possible to justify any war.

10. Pacifism and nonviolent resistance is too idealistic and it would never work on a large scale.

This statement assumes that we have to achieve a certain end and pacifism does not guarantee a certain end. But that is not the point. War too does not guarantee a certain outcome. It only professes to do so. As Christians, it is our calling to do what is right and to stand up for what is right. Because of our faith, we can leave the outcome to God. Because of the biblical record and stories from our own past, we know that God can use our feeble efforts to achieve certain ends – but we may not know when. Our task is to attend to the means and not to guarantee ends. But there are examples in recent history of nonviolent resistance that has brought about change: witness the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004-05), the opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, the Civil Rights Movement in America, and the Gandhi-led movement for India’s independence from Great Britain. See the film "A Force More Powerful" for more examples.

11. How did pacifists think that Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Germany, would be stopped or defeated?

Christians in East Germany resisted government directives in many and subtle ways. When the collapse of the Soviet regime came the banner in the victory parade in East Germany read: "Wir danken dir Kirche!" or "We thank you, Church!" The silent but persistent resistance of the church was recognized and honoured by the population. If more people would have spoken with their lives and if the church had not been, to a degree, in complicity with Hitler, the program against the Jews might not have happened the way it did. Hitler could have been defeated in his program if the people had not played his game.

12. Why should I care about pacifists when soldiers sacrifice so much more?

In fact, pacifists have sacrificed their lives – but there are many more soldiers who do so. And since military might is the predominant worldview, we hear more about the risks and sacrifices soldiers make via the mainstream media. Nonviolent peace builders are increasingly acknowledging that they need to take the same risks in working for peace as does a military that seeks peace through force. A recent story about pacifists who made a sacrifice comes from the war in Iraq. American Tom Fox of Christian Peacemaker Teams lost his life in Iraq, when he and fellow peace workers James Loney, Norman Kember, and Harmeet Singh Sooden were taken hostage. Though rescued by the military, this was not their choice; they knowingly committed their lives as a sacrifice for their beliefs. They knew what they were getting into, they knew this could happen, and they had previously agreed that in such a situation, they would not seek to be rescued by force. Many others in history have made the difficult choice to risk death for their beliefs, as recorded in the Martyrs Mirror. See also the Christian Peacemaker Teams web site.

13. If you believe we are called to live for peace then how do you explain all the warfare in the Old Testament?

This is a good question, and one that peace building and peace acting Christians are often called to defend.

Indeed, there is a lot of human warfare and forceful oppression cited in the Old Testament. But it does not necessarily follow that this is how God intends things to be.

The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 in the Old Testament set the foundation and God’s ideal for peaceful living. Out of the chaos and darkness God calls creation into being with the power of words rather than violent force. Very quickly though, personal violence and warfare enter the human story; but this is the result of the fall of humanity, not the will of God. In the great exodus, God chooses to advocate for the Hebrew people (Exodus 14:14), not with conventional military means but by plague and pestilence (Exodus 7-15). While these acts are still violent by our present day standards, their miraculous nature hint at what will only be more fully revealed in Jesus Christ; namely that the way God saves and delivers us is not by reliance on human warfare. The difficult but appropriate role of the Hebrew people is to trust God’s methods and not the method’s of military leaders to deliver them.

The Hebrew people of the Old Testament respond to God’s desire in a number of ways. At times they are obedient and allow God to save them using God’s ways (God’s victory at Jericho, Joshua 6) At times they co-operate and assist God (the battle of Ai, Joshua 8) and at times they resort to full military preparation and human fighting which is a failure of faith and trusting in God (the battles of King David).

While the Hebrew people experience war and inflict warfare on other nations, the Old Testament criticizes warfare: When the Hebrew people demand to have a human king to rule them as other nations have (1 Samuel 8), God reminds them of the oppressive nature of kingship and military might.

As an expression of sacred desires for humanity, God chooses prophetic leaders who are outside conventional political and military structures.. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when the nations will not fight and when the tools of war will be transformed into productive farm implements that provide for the needs of people (Isaiah 2:1-4). Prophets like Jeremiah proclaim that in God’s view, strong nation’s are not measured by military might but for how they care for the most vulnerable in society – the refugee, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 22:1-5).

God’s ultimate redemptive strategy has nothing to do with the conventions of human force and warfare. God’s method is that of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 40-55. From a human perspective this is suicide. But God’s strategy is both mysterious and miraculous: God’s servant will suffer rather than cause others to suffer and in that suffering God will be victorious and the world will come to experience the peace that God desires for all of us.

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