Pacifism: A Culture of Life, Part 1

pacifismIt’s become common for Christians to speak of the importance of a “culture of life,” a phrase popularized by Pope John Paul II and dealt with extensively in his Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). John Paul II argues against abortion and euthanasia, as well as birth control, the death penalty, and unjust war. He writes,

19. … There is an even more profound aspect which needs to be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.

20. This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus soci- ety becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

The Pope’s point, wisely made, is that democracies do not inherently respect the right to life even of its own people. Absent an overriding commitment to a truth greater than the will of the majority, a nation may well choose to kill its unborn children, its elderly … anyone lacking the political power to defend themselves. Hence, he advocates for a culture of life built on the scriptures’ “gospel of life.”

Of course, his interpretation of the gospel is not universally accepted, even among Catholics, many of whom reject the Pope’s teaching on birth control. Nonetheless, there is a lot of wisdom in this tract. Sadly, the teaching has been distorted by the politicians and by those advocating for more extreme views. And I think there’s an important, subtle flaw in the Pope’s thinking that makes this distortion all but inevitable.

It was partly in response to this teaching that Congress involved itself in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, literally passing an act of Congress to preserve the life of a woman in a persistent vegetative state with very severe, irreparable brain damage.

There’s an important error to notice here. Somehow or other, in the face of the truly great sin of mass abortion, the Pope transforms the “gospel of Jesus” to the “gospel of life,” as though the kingdom of heaven is about the principle that no one should die. But as soon as you say it that way, the contradiction becomes obvious. The gospel came by the death of Jesus and triggered the willing submission of countless Christians to martyrdom. The gospel is about death to this world but life in the age to come. It’s not about keeping people alive — not at its core. It’s about something bigger and much more important. Staying alive is not the most important thing.

It’s not that the “culture of life” is wrong so much as that we can be duped by slogans into overlooking the necessity of framing the value of life within the gospel. I mean, most Christians think suicide is sin, but is it sin to go to Saudi Arabia to teach the gospel, knowing that the odds of being executed are near 100%? I don’t think so.

Moreover, while “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly a command that Christians must honor, it is not the heart of the gospel or even of gospel ethics. The heart of gospel ethics is love —

(Gal 5:6b)  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

(Rom 13:8-10)  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love fulfills the law. So what happens when “Thou shalt not kill” and love are in contradiction? I think, clearly, love is the right choice. It’s not always easy to decide what to do in a given case, but the principle should be plain.

Let me offer a true example from my home town. Several years ago, gunman entered a Christian school and held small children hostage, threatening to kill them all. The police showed up and tried to reason with the man to talk him into giving up. However, they could not risk the lives of the children, who were very young and panicked. The situation was as grim as you can imagine.

A police sniper had the gunman in his sights and, eventually, was given the order to fire. The sniper was a devout Christian — as were the police chief and mayor, who gave the order. He pulled the trigger, the gunman died instantly, and the children all came out alive.

A Christian killed a man quite intentionally. Did he violate the Ten Commandments? Clearly not. It was an act of love, rescuing the innocent children from death. In the real world, sometimes we have to kill people to be loving people.

Love does not equal never killing anyone for any reason. That’s not good Bible. And it’s not what the Pope said. And if I’m ever in a persistent vegetative state, please — PLEASE — pull the plug. I’m going to a better place. You see, the gospel changes how we see those decisions. It’s not about preserving life in this world at all costs. It’s not.

I’ve done a little estate planning, and as part of that, we have our clients sign the Alabama version of a living will. It’s my experience that devout Christians check the box to pull the plug rather than being kept alive in a vegetative state. They don’t really hesitate. It’s an obvious choice. They know they’re going to a better place. Those who are less certain of the afterlife sometimes say that they want all means used to keep them alive — some even say to keep them alive at any cost to their families.

Which decision is truer to the gospel and which is more loving? Life is not always the choice of love.

Now, once we accept this line of reasoning, we have to face some serious problems. The first is that the ethical world gets a little more gray. When I was a kid, the preachers all railed against “situation ethics.” A book by that name had been recently published, and it became standard cant to preach against it. In fact, it still is in many circles. But it’s true that the right decision very often depends on the situation. Yes, it’s wrong to kill. Except to save 30 terrorized children. Or when Jay is in a persistent vegetative state. The situation matters.

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  1. I've been a close friend of Landon Saunders since the 1970's. One of the most memorable points I've ever heard him make was this:

    Death is not the big event.

    And to me, that is an essential premise of faith. If we believe what we say we believe, death is not the big event.

    And, as you have said, circumstances matter.

  2. I don't think that being for a "culture of life" precludes the sacrificing of one's life for God's glory at all – euthanasia, abortion and suicide are all the taking of someone else's innocent life. Giving one's own life is another matter entirely.

  3. As a Registered Nurse, I believe that living wills are necessary, as I view extraordinary means as violence and lacking a trust in God and in the resurrection. When a person is brain dead or in a persistent vegetative state, it is mercy to "pull the plug", and this is not killing, but allowing our bodies to follow the course of nature and die. As a Christian our hope is in the resurrection of the Body.
    It is my belief that Christians should not be on SWAT teams as snipers. Leave killing for the pagans.

  4. Jay,

    Excellent analysis to set the stage. This is an extraordinary topic that has been ignored way too long. But I also think it is larger than just the issue of war or participation in government. I think the issue at the heart of this discussion is the application of the 2 greatest commands from the law: "Love God… Love your Neighbor…" and the only command Jesus ever gave, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." (John 15:12). As I read the new testament, these are the only legal commands we have for daily life that survived the fulfillment of the law– the death burial and resurrection of Christ.

    In my mind, the only way to answer the issue at hand is by asking the question, "Can the basis for war ever be love?" As you've already pointed out, there are actions and decisions in everyday life where the basis for the decision to take life can be love. And as Chris pointed out, there is no greater love than to give one's own life for another (See John 15:13). So, clearly when it comes to individual action, violence/killing can be motivated and truly justified by love. But can the action of one government/nation against another be so motivated and justified as to allow the Christian's participation?

    I just have the question on this one. I have reached no conclusions. I will continue to listen and follow the discussion.

  5. Jay,

    First, i fail to see how Christian pacifism necessarily implies that "staying alive is the most important thing."

    Second, you deny that "staying alive is the most important thing." Yet you provide an example where you judge that a sniper makes the most morally valuable choice by shooting a gunman to protect those children–*as though keeping those children alive is the most important thing.* How is that not flatly inconsistent?

    i really don't see how this post is about pacifism at all. Christian pacifism is not committed to the claim that "thou shalt not kill" is the central tenet of Christianity. Christian pacifism doesn't use "keep everyone alive" or "avoid death at all costs" as master ethical criteria. That's really not pacifism at all, Christian or otherwise. It's a strawman.

    Regarding your particular example:

    (a) To whom was the sniper's act loving? Was it loving toward the gunman?

    (b) If killing the gunman was the most loving thing to do, why didn't God strike the gunman dead before any police/snipers showed up?

    (c) Since God did not strike the gunman dead, and since the sniper did kill the gunman, and since killing the gunman was the most loving thing to do, does that mean the gunman is more loving than God?

    –Guy

  6. Guy,

    Clearly, the sniper's was motivated to protect the children — victims of a situation they did not create. Does "love" mean "deny punishment"? How does that thought apply to Proverbs 13:24? 1 Corinthians 5? True, killing someone could be considered taking "hand this man over to Satan" a little too literally, but a gunman holding children hostage presents as much danger to the physical lives of those children as a sexually immoral brother does to the spiritual lives of a congregation…

    If killing the gunman WASN'T the most loving thing to do, why did God allow the sniper to hit his target?

  7. Stewart,

    Some of the questions i asked were strategic, not expository of my own position.

    Regarding the immoral brother in the church, as you allude, church discipline doesn't entail killing. And neither does parental discipline. What i don't see anywhere in the NT is that a *Christian* is ever allowed to employ violence against another person; in fact, i see plenty of scripture that forbids it. i do see, however, where the NT says that it's the state's job to use violence to punish evildoers. i, as a disciple of Christ, am commanded to love my enemies. i don't see where the state is commanded to do so. i do see where the state is an agent of God's wrath. i do not see where it says that i'm supposed to be an agent of God's wrath. In fact, i see where that is forbidden and i'm instructed to leave room for God to handle it, and to imitate Christ who did not retaliate, but left it all up to the justice of God. The person in Jay's illustration was a Christian and an agent of the state. Based on my best current attempt to understand what God wants of me, i don't believe a person can rightfully be both because of these incompatible instructions.

    i see how Jay's example stirs up common intuitions and seems to appeal to 'common sense.' But i'm not under the rule and reign of intuition and common sense. However "obvious" it might seem to me or anyone else that what the sniper did was right, that isn't what i, as a disciple of Christ, am interested in. What i'm interested in is where Christ teaches or exemplifies (personally or through His apostles) that it is okay for me, *a Christian,* ever to kill or perpetrate violence. Where do the teachings of Christ ever state that there are exceptions to turning the other cheek? If there are such obvious and intuitive exceptions, and Christ knew that, then why did He and His apostles state matters so categorically?

    But about the post directly, again, Jay seems to criticize Christian pacifism for thinking that staying alive is the most important thing (though i have yet to see how pacifism necessarily implies such; in fact, i understand pacifism to imply the opposite). Yet the "intuitive-ness" of his own counter-example *depends* on that very thing (as you remarked, the gunman presented a danger to the physical lives of those children). The set of claims are self-defeating.

    –Guy

  8. So Guy what would you do if you saw a man who was holding a group of children at gunpoint? Would you call the police knowing that the gunman could (and many times have been) killed. If the gunman gets killed you have played a part in his death being you are who called the police.

    So would you just ignore the situation and not call the police?

  9. Sure i'd call the police. Police are agents of the state. Paul says in Romans 13 its their job to bear the sword and be agents of God's wrath. Paul said in Romans 12 that it's not my job.

    Did i play a part? Christ already commanded me to pay taxes. Last time i checked, American tax dollars paid for abortions (let alone whatever other questionable things the US does with its money). Obviously then Christ doesn't hold me accountable for "playing a part" in the way you suggest.

    If calling the police wouldn't do given the scenario, i might stand between the gunman's weapon and the children.

    And lastly, what i *would* do and what i *should* do aren't always the same seeing as how i'm a sinner in need of the grace of God.

    –Guy

  10. Wow, you would stand between the children and the gunman, the gunman will set his gun down and you will have helped those children or you will startle the gunman and his gun will go off killing a child.

    Btw, our tax money does not pay for abortions.

    You have the choice to leave this country and find a deserted Island to live on.

    Seems you like to boast a lot and you come across as very arrogant, is that how Jesus tells you to act?

  11. I am all things to all people. If I am the person God has put in place to come upon a man holding a group of children at gunpoint . . . and if I have the means to act for God . . . then act for God I will. I may be able to speak words . . . godly words that would turn the man's heart. It has been done before. But if my words do not pierce his heart, then the sword God has put in my hand will. And afterward I would praise God for his love . . . knowing that I am forgiven of all sin.

  12. And if I believed words were a waist of time . . . I would use the sword first. Guess what . . . I still get to praise God for his love . . . knowing that I am forgiven of all sin.

  13. Anon,

    i'm not sure what to say other than i've never said anything in this entire discussion with arrogance in my heart. i'm here to learn and be challenged same as anyone.

    Why do i need to leave this country? Does God require me to do so? i understand that regardless of what country i live in or its regime, my job is to live a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity (1Tim 2:2).

    If there is even one single person in the country who used any part of a check that was issued by the government to pay a doctor's bill that performed an abortion, then tax dollars paid for an abortion. However, the only point i intended to make was that tax money can be used for things that are unethical. Yet Christ told me to pay them. Similar, i'm not playing a culpable part in the gunman's death by calling the police as i would be if i actually pulled the trigger myself.

    -Guy

  14. Will you take communion with someone who serves in the military or police force, seeing you say someone can't serve in the military or police force and also be a Christian?

  15. Question: Was Christ violent when he drove out the moneychangers? Do you think the whip drew any blood? Was anyone filled with fear?

    Assume you are worshiping this coming Sunday and someone comes in with a whip made of cords who them proceeds to drive everyone out of the place of worship . . . wouldn't you say that person was acting violently? What if the whip strikes you? Would there be any doubt in your mind that the guy was violent?

    I think Christ showed us that doing the work of God may sometimes include the use of force. It may seem like violence. But it is actually an expresion of love. Love for the Lord and for others.

    Those who were at the temple that day Jesus drove out the moneychangers may have thought he was acting violently. But he wasn't. He was just cleaning out his own house. He did act with force. He did not act with violence. Even if the whip drew blood or left scares . . . there was no violence. Jesus' actions were based on love. There was no hate in the Son of Man.

    Use of force that is an expression of love is not violence. It is not ungodly. It is actually an expression of Christian character.

  16. I never said you need to leave this country, i said you have the choice to. This country does have a good military defending the people. And knowing God has guided many men in military positions I know many of the Christian men protecting us are guided by a moral, loving, and just God.

  17. Stan,

    Yes, Anon brought up the temple cleansing too. i admit i have to think about how it challenges my overall view and what it all means. Your point about a clearer definition of violence is a key, seeing as how parental discipline could also be thought of as "violence."

    It still doesn't convince me otherwise for at least this reason: Christ did not retaliate or kill even under life-threatening circumstances. Now it'd be easy at that point to say Christ had a unique reason to behave in this way. However, Peter explicitly states that we are required to follow Christ's example in this regard (1Peter 2:21f). But that doesn't mean i don't still need to chew on how the temple-cleansing example fits into my scheme and what it might force me to give up.

    i have taken a more radical position of no-violence. But many pacifists are softer, sticking with just no killing and no physical retaliation. Since Christ didn't kill anyone, i don't see how the temple-cleansing example counters this weaker position even if it does challenge my position.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking,

    –Guy