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Pacifism is a term, derived from the Latin word for peacemaking, that has been applied to a spectrum of positions covering nearly all attitudes toward war. On one extreme pacifist designates any person who desires peace, thus describing those who wage war as much as those who refuse participation in war. On the other extreme pacifism also describes renunciation of force and coercion in all forms. A mediating definition sometimes distinguishes nonresistance, which renounces force in all forms, from pacifism, which rejects participation in war but allows the use of nonviolent kinds of force. It makes most sense to reserve the term "pacifism" for that part of the spectrum which includes at least a refusal to participate in war. Those individuals who refuse to do this are called conscientious objectors.


Pacifism is one of three historic attitudes of the church toward war. In some form it has existed throughout the entire history of the Christian church. Since the fourth century it has often been overshadowed by the just war theory and the concept of crusade, or aggressive war for a holy cause. The early church was pacifist. Prior to A.D. 170-80 there are no records of soldiers in the Roman army. Following that epoch there are both Christians in the army and also writings which opposed the practice from church fathers such as Tertullian. Some Christian writers sanctioned police functions and military service, provided these did not entail bloodshed and killing. Under Emperor Constantine, who closely identified the interests of the empire with the interests of Christianity, Christian soldiers were common. During the rule of Theodosius II only Christians could serve as soldiers.

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When confronted by the barbarian invasions that seemed to threaten Roman civilization and thus the Christianity identified with it, Augustine of Hippo developed the idea, rooted in Roman Stoic philosophy and first given a Christian formulation by Ambrose, which has come to be called the just war theory. It intended not to advocate war but to limit the conditions under which Christians could participate in war, accepting it as an unfortunately necessary tool for preserving the civilization to which Christianity belonged. Since Augustine some form of the just war theory has been the majority position of most Christian traditions.

In the Middle Ages the idea of the crusade developed from another attempt by the church to limit warfare. The peace of God and the truce of God limited times for fighting and banned clerical participation in war. To enforce these limitations the church itself came to conduct warring activity. This act associated war with a holy cause, namely the enforcement of peace. This association developed into the crusades, the holy cause of rescuing the Holy Land from the Moslems. Pope Urban II preached the first crusade in 1095. In either religious or secular versions the crusade has been a part of the church's tradition ever since.

During the Middle Ages it was the sectarians who kept alive the pacifist tradition. Groups of Waldensians and Franciscan Tertiaries refused military service. The Cathari were pacifist. The Hussite movement developed two branches, a crusading one under blind general Jan Zizka and a pacifist one under Peter Chelciky.

The period of the Renaissance and Reformation saw assertions of all three attitudes toward war. Renaissance humanism developed a pacifist impulse, of which Erasmus is one of the most important examples. Humanist pacifism appealed to such philosophical and theological principles as the common humanity and brotherhood of all persons as children of God, the follies of war, and the ability of rational individuals to govern themselves and their states on the basis of reason.

All Protestant churches except the Anabaptists accepted the inherited tradition of the just war. Luther identified two kingdoms, of God and of the world. While he rejected the idea of crusade, his respect for the state as ordained by God to preserve order and to punish evil in the worldly realm made him a firm supporter of the just war approach. The Reformed tradition accepted the crusade concept, seeing the state not only as the preserver of order but also as a means of furthering the cause of true religion. Zwingli died in a religious war; Calvin left the door open to rebellion against an unjust ruler; and Beza developed not only the right but the duty of Christians to revolt against tyranny. Cromwell's pronouncement of divine blessing on the massacre of Catholics at Drogheda illustrates the crusade idea in English Puritanism.

Alongside the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries arose the pacifist traditions which for the most part have preserved their opposition to war until the present time. Pacifism emerged as the dominant position of the Anabaptists, who rejected not only the sword of war but also refused to engage in political life. Although their identification of two kingdoms paralleled Luther's analysis closely, the Anabaptists denied that Christians could in any way exercise the sword of the magistrate in the worldly kingdom. When Alexander Mack organized the Church of the Brethren in 1708, Anabaptism was the major impulse in dialectic with pietism. While Quakers, who emerged in the midseventeenth century, distinguished the kingdom of God from that of the world, they did not utterly despair of the world and involved themselves in its political processes up to the point of war. Appeals to individual conscience played an important role in Quaker nonviolent political activity on behalf of justice and peace. Anabaptists, the immediate predecessors of the Mennonites, were the most withdrawn from participation in government, with the Quakers the least separated. The Brethren occupied a median position.

Wars in North America, from Puritan conflicts with the Indians through the Revolutionary War to the world wars, have all been defended in religious and secular versions of the just war theory or the crusade idea. For example, World War I, fought "to make the world safe for democracy," was a secular crusade. Throughout the North American experience Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers maintained a continuing if at times uneven witness against war as well as a refusal to participate in it. In the twentieth century they have come to be called the historic peace churches.

The nineteenth century saw the formation of a number of national and international pacifist societies. The Fellowship of Reconciliation was founded as an interdenominational and international religious pacifist organization on the eve of World War I and established in the United States in 1915. It continues today as an interfaith activist force for peace. In reaction to the horror of World War I and buttressed by an optimistic belief in the rationality of humanity, the period between the world wars saw another wave of pacifist sentiment, both inside and outside the churches. These efforts to create peace included political means such as the League of Nations and nonviolent pressure such as the activities of Mohandas Gandhi to influence British withdrawal from India.

Spurred by the growing possibility of a nuclear holocaust and the realization that military solutions do not fundamentally resolve conflicts, the era begun in the late 1960s is experiencing another round of increasing attention to pacifist perspectives. In addition to the historic peace churches, denominations which have traditionally accepted the just war theory or the crusade idea have also issued declarations accepting pacifist positions within their traditions. Two significant examples are Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which for the first time endorsed pacifism as compatible with Catholic teaching, and the declaration of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), Peacemaking: The Believer's Calling.

Intellectual Basis for Pacifism

Pacifism encompasses many kinds of oppositions to war, deriving support from a variety of overlapping philosophical, theological, and biblical sources, not all of which are explicitly Christian.

Pacifism may proceed from various pragmatic and utitarian arguments. Consideration of the destructiveness of modern warfare and the realization that it fails to resolve conflicts can lead to the conclusion that avoidance of war best serves the interests of humanity at all levels, from the individual person to the human race as a whole. The threat of nuclear war has given these arguments particular weight in recent times, resulting in what has been called nuclear pacifism.

Varying individual and collective impulses may support these arguments. Pacifism can appear as the only logical extension of the categorical imperative. Convictions concerning the uniqueness or sanctity of human life, whether based on intuition, logic, or divine revelation, proscribe war. Others may adopt pacifist suffering not only as a means of unilaterally breaking the chain of violence which more violent acts will only prolong but also as an instrument to touch the conscience of the oppressors and turn them into friends.

Pacifism informs or is an outgrowth of a number of social and political strategies. Some argue that political measures such as the negotiation of nuclear weapons bans and promotion of international cooperation are more effective than war in promoting peace. Nonviolent techniques attempt not only to prevent the outbreak of violence but also to move society, even against its will, toward a more just disposition. Notable examples are the efforts of Gandhi and the movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States to acquire civil rights for black people.

As the dominant view of the early church pacifism stands squarely within the Christian tradition and has theological and biblical bases more specific to Christianity. Pacifists appeal to the authority of the Bible, using specific texts such as the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount. The incarnation and the priestly office of Jesus make his specific teachings authoritative and therefore binding on his followers. Pacifism also finds support in broader biblical injunctions such as the call to express God's love to all persons or to witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The examples of Jesus and of the early church also support Christian pacifism. The incarnation defines Jesus' action as reflective of the will of God. The ideas of imitation of Christ and obedience to his command to "follow me" then demand pacifism of those who understand Christians as followers of Jesus. Following includes specifically the idea that with Jesus they will endure suffering for the kingdom of God without violent resistance. Beginning with the generation that experienced Jesus' personal headship, the church of the first century exemplifies obedience to the pacifist example of Jesus.

Theological motifs central to Christianity also support pacifism. For one, since life is sacred and a gift from God, no individual has the right to take it. This divine source of life leads directly to the brotherhood of all persons and their divinely given purpose of living for God as his children. With every human being then either actually or potentially a child of God, no Christian may take the life of a fellow member of the family of God. The presence of the kingdom of God on earth similarly links all persons under God's rule and therefore proscribes violence toward anyone.

J D Weaver
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

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C. G. Rutenber, The Dagger and the Cross; G. Sharp, Exploring Nonviolent Alternatives and The Politics of Nonviolent Action; R. J. Sider, Christ and Violence; R. K. Ullman, Between God and History; A. Weinberg and L. Weinberg, ed., Instead of Violence; J. C. Wenger, Pacifism and Biblical Nonresistance; J. H. Yoder, Nevertheless: Varieties of Religious Pacifism, The Original Revolution, and The Politics of Jesus.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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