Christian Pacifism and Contrasting Perspectives

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Should Christians practice pacifism? What exactly does pacifism mean?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, argues that Christians should practice pacifism to follow Christ’s example. Other Christians—and other religions—handle the matter of pacifism in a variety of ways.

Keep reading to learn about Christian pacifism and other perspectives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian Pacifism

Bonhoeffer asserts that disciples of Christ should practice strict pacifism. After all, as his disciples, we should model our behavior after his example: Christ loved us enough to die for us, even when we were hostile toward him. Thus, we should love others and treat them with kindness, even when they treat us with hostility. 

Bonhoeffer affirms that we can love people unreservedly without condoning their sin. In fact, he says that non-resistance is the only response that truly condemns sin, because sin reproduces through retaliation: If someone hurts you, and you respond by hurting them, it will likely provoke them to hurt you again, and so on. However, if you let someone hurt you and forgive them instead of retaliating, then the sin they committed against you dies instead of multiplying.

Contrasting Views on Pacifism

Perspectives on pacifism vary widely, both among Christians and people of other religious persuasions:

Groups such the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish promote Christian pacifism in much the same way as Bonhoeffer does.

Contrastingly, the Catholic church and many Protestant churches endorse the view of St. Augustine, who, in the 5th century, argued that use of force in war, self-defense, or law enforcement was justifiable and even obligatory in certain cases. Specifically, Augustine asserted that it is a sin for you to allow a grievous act of evil to be perpetrated, if you have the opportunity to prevent it. This contrasts sharply with Bonhoeffer’s teaching that evil can only multiply through retaliation. In Augustine’s view, there are situations where resistance or retaliation allows evil to multiply by escalating a conflict, but there are also situations where non-resistance allows evil to grow and multiply.

In Islam, use of force in self-defense and military defense of the Muslim community are generally considered not only permissible but mandatory. This is based on the concept of “jihad,” which refers to a Muslim’s duty to strive against evil, both on an internal, spiritual level, and also externally against people who perpetrate acts of evil. This resembles Augustine’s view and contradicts Bonhoeffer’s.

In Buddhism, pacifism is widely endorsed, because Buddha is said to have taught that all creatures share the same life force, and so violence against another creature (human or animal) was never justifiable. However, some Buddhists take exception to this teaching. For example, Buddhist monks of the Shaolin monastery practice martial arts and use force for self-defense or defense of others.
Christian Pacifism and Contrasting Perspectives

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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