Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism, Parts IV & V

IV. On Authority

When Lewis finally turns to consider the authority component of the pacifist conscience, he divides it further into two parts: general and special, human and divine.

A. On Human Authority

In his exploration of special human authority, Lewis demonstrates one of the most fundamental errors in his thinking. From the very beginning of the essay, to the very end, Lewis considers himself first a citizen of England and second a disciple of Jesus Christ. Several times throughout this essay, including this very section, Lewis refers to England as the society “to which [he] belongs.” This identification is nothing short of treason. The Christian has only one allegiance because the Christian has only one Lord. Jesus Christ does not share his subjects with England, the United States, or any other worldly power. He demands that if he is our Master, he alone rules in our hearts and commands our lives. Lewis mistakenly claims that England’s declaration of war “decided the issue against Pacifism.” But Scripture proclaims clearly, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)

When Lewis broadens his gaze to general human authority, his argument gains no further weight. He writes, “To be a Pacifist, I must part company with Homer and Virgil, with Plato and Aristotle, with Zarathustra and the Bhagavad-Gita, with Cicero and Montaigne, with Iceland and Egypt.” (p. 46) Overlooking this as the shameless name-dropping it is, Lewis here nobly attempts to show that the overwhelming majority of respected sources of culture from a broad span of history and across the globe have all agreed that war is necessary, even heroic. Perhaps an interesting aside: Iceland has had no standing army since 2006 and considers its role in hosting the Reagan-Gorbachev summit which contributed to the ending of the Cold War one of its proudest political accomplishments. I’m fairly certain a pacifist could now remain in Iceland’s good graces. Additionally, it is not insignificant that Gandhi based his his nonviolent political movement (Satyagraha) on the doctrine of Ahimsa (meaning “to do no harm”) found in the Gita. So, apparently this authority source isn’t necessarily as supportive of Lewis’ stance as he assumes. Regardless, I find this sort of argument actual quite counter-productive for Lewis’ case. If Scripture is correct and the whole world is under the control of the evil one (Luke 4:6; I John 5:19; II Corinthians 4:4), then we should expect to see widespread evil and nearly unanimous agreement on violence and killing. Jesus describes Satan as “the thief who comes only to kill, steal, and destroy.” (John 10:10) To be sure, human authority is corrupted to at least some discernible degree.

B. On Divine Authority

Here is where Lewis should shine. As a noted and profound Christian thinker, divine authority should be the subject on which Lewis argues best. This is unfortunately not the case. I grant that Lewis is not a professional exegete and yet I am still highly disappointed with how carelessly he treats biblical interpretation—especially on a matter as weighty as violence and peace. He writes, “When we turn to Christianity, we find Pacifism based almost exclusively on certain of the sayings of Our Lord Himself.” (p. 47)

Several things should be noted here. First, this is plainly inaccurate. Jesus addresses many subjects in the Gospels. If a person is examining any one subject for Christ’s teaching on it, he or she will necessarily find only “certain” of his teachings relevant. That Christ did not teach exclusively on the subject of violence, but also addressed subjects of money, marriage, et cetera does not a case against pacifism make. Therefore, all Christian teaching that seeks to know what Christ taught directly on a given topic will be based on “certain” of his sayings.

1. Apostolic Authority

Second, Lewis rejects the existence of apostolic teaching that confirms the “certain” teachings of Christ which he acknowledges potentially support pacifism. He writes, “Nor, I think, do we find a word about Pacifism in the apostolic writings...” This is blatant error. In Romans 12:14, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” This is nearly a verbatim quote of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount found in both Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28. Paul goes on to say, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil...” (v. 17a) which directly corresponds to Matthew 5:38-42. Regarding Paul’s entire thought in verses 17-21, John Stott writes, “Non-retaliation was a very early feature of the Christian ethical tradition, going back to the teaching of Jesus, and beyond this to the Old Testament Wisdom literature.”(3) Making this particular instance of nonviolent, apostolic teaching especially relevant is its proximity in the flow of Paul’s argument to the opening verses of chapter 13. When read together it is clear that the wrath Paul commands Jesus’ disciples to make room for, is the very same wrath God enacts through the state.

Also not to be overlooked are the apostolic teachings of Peter. In precisely the same fashion as Paul, Peter couples the teaching of submission to governing authority with the peacemaking and non-retaliation ethics of Jesus. I Peter 2:11-25 begins with the exhortation to view ourselves as sojourners in this world, present to the world but not belonging to it. Nevertheless, our calling as Jesus’ disciples requires us to live as witnesses to the Gospel through good works. Peter, like Paul, commands believers to submit to worldly leaders in so far as they carry out their God-given duty to punish evil and reward righteousness. Also like Paul, Peter commands believers not to retaliate against enemies, but rather points to Jesus’ unjust suffering as an example for us. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (v. 23) Taken together, these passages of apostolic teaching are impossible to legitimately dismiss as Lewis attempts here. They represent an undeniably nonviolent ethical motif.

2. Three Christian Traditions

Third, Lewis briefly surveys a spattering of broad Christian traditions which have immense internal diversity, lends to each either a comment of violence endorsement or an out-of-context quote, then concludes that on the whole Christianity has nearly unanimously supported war. In the span of only a few short sentences, he has already enlisted Anglicans, Presbyterians, and “Papists” to his coalition of Christian war-supporters. Perhaps another interesting aside: Not all Christians in these traditions have agreed on the subjects of violence and war. Notable exceptions to Lewis’ generalization are the Peace Pledge Union(4) (1934) out of which was later formed the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship(5) (1937). For the Presbyterians, persons of note include the Revs. Alun Richards, Lex Miller, and Basil Dowling.(6) Each of these Presbyterian men protested conscription and opposed war on Christian grounds. For their beliefs they faced legal battles, fines, and imprisonment. All this took place before 1940, when Lewis would make the remark “...I can refer them to the history of the Presbyterians, which is by no means Pacifist.” (p. 47) For Roman Catholics, Lewis ignores the powerful Catholic Workers Movement founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.(7) Since its birth during the Great Depression, the Catholic Workers Movement has been a highly influential Christian witness that continues to this day. Thomas Merton wrote for the group’s newspaper and in the past 77 years it has formed over 130 communities throughout the world. Lewis’ drastic overgeneralization can perhaps be seen best in his most sweeping statement of this section: “All bodies that claim to be Churches—that is, who claim apostolic succession and accept the Creeds—have constantly blessed what they regard as righteous arms.” (p. 48)

3. Patristic Authority

Fourth, Lewis’ consultation of “patristic authority” is perfunctory at best. He cites only Augustine, a ringer for the Just War position since he invented it! There’s not one mention of a church father who lived prior to the fourth century. The significance of this convenient omission is not easily lost on those with even a cursory familiarity with church history. It is what Yoder calls the “Constantinian Shift.” The fundamental transition in the identity of global Christianity from “a persecuted minority cult into an established majority religion.”(8) Since space prohibits me from a thorough listing of the myriad church fathers who adamantly opposed violence and war due to their commitment to discipleship, a summary from early church research back by references to further reading must suffice. Origen and Tertullian, two adamant voices of opposition to violence, echo loudly throughout church history. Only amplifying their testimony is the deafening silence of church history records of Christian soldiers. It is the overwhelming consensus of researchers and historians, that no single piece of credible evidence remains for the existence of Christians soldiers from c. 50ad (which may have been only Cornelius and one or two soldiers) until c. 170ad, the time of Marcus Aurelius.(9) Cadoux underlines this point citing the silence of Pliny on the matter in his letter to the emperor Trajan, saying it is “perfectly compatible with the supposition that the Christians would not serve,” because “there was nothing in the circumstances of the time to bring about a collision between the imperial government and the Christians on the subject of military service.”(10) Similarly underscoring the significance of this profound historical omission, Roland Bainton pokes fun at authors who down-play this fact:

...Celsus knew of no Christians who would accept military service. The comment of Moffatt must be regarded as distinctly inadequate when he says of Celsus: “It is fairly obvious that he had met Christians who were holding back from military service.” Umphrey Lee’s version is a masterpiece of under-statement: “Whether there were in the second century those who held that a Christian could not serve in the legions we do not know; but Celsus... seems to imply that there were.” Celsus said quite distinctly that there were no Christians who would serve...(11)

The extreme lack of evidence for any Christian military personnel from the earliest New Testament epistles to nearly the third century, coupled with the dramatic testimony of early church fathers Origen and Tertullian, makes for an impressive Early church witness in favor of a consistent nonviolent Kingdom ethic extended directly from the essential teachings of Christ by way of the apostles.

4. An Alternative Interpretation of “Turn the Other Cheek”

Finally, after believing he has proven pacifism to fail the test of authority on the grounds of apostolic teaching, a quorum of Christian traditions, and patristic testimony, Lewis now addresses what he considers the final bit of authority to which pacifists might appeal: Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.” He argues that there are three possible interpretations of this command (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29a). The first he labels “the Pacifist interpretation” and describes as unqualified, universal, for “all men in all circumstances.” The second he labels “the minimising interpretation,” and describes as a hyperbolic way of saying we should “put up with a lot.” Both of these he rejects. In their place he proposes his own interpretation that he believes to be a somewhat mediating position. He asserts that the Lord’s original hearers would have understood several obvious qualifications to the command. For Lewis it is obvious that Jesus only prohibits personal retaliation. He summarizes his view thusly, “Insofar as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back.” (p. 50) There can be no broader corporate implications for Jesus’ teaching in Lewis’ view since it is obvious to him that Jesus would expect his followers to whatever violence is necessary to protect others. Furthermore, Lewis sidesteps any rational explanation for this assumption, and instead proceeds directly to an emotionally-charged hypothetical. “Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get to his victim?”

This appears to be as good a place as any to put to rest the mistaken notion that hypothetical scenarios, such as the one put forth by Lewis here, are effective arguments against Christian nonviolence. Such attempts by non-pacifists to illicit a concession on emotional grounds is very common. Nevertheless, it should be stated that such hypothetical scenarios prove only that human beings are easily corrupted by their passions—against which Lewis wisely warns readers in the beginning of this essay. The fact is: Jesus had many hard sayings that require his disciples to wrestle with their implications. Discipleship necessarily demands cost-counting (Luke 14:25-33), undivided allegiance (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), resolute commitment (Luke 9:61-62), and personal sacrifice (Mark 10:28-30). To be Jesus’ disciples, we must walk as Jesus walked (I Peter 2:21). We are to be his imitators (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 2:1-11; I Thessalonians 1:6), and to imitate Jesus Christ we must love the way Jesus Christ loved (1 John 3:15-17, 4:16-18), by laying down our lives, even for our enemies (Romans 5;10; Colossians 1:20-22). The implications of this calling are not provided for every possible situation, nor need they be. Disciples of Jesus have been given the Holy Spirit of God as their Guide (John 14:15-21, 25-27; Mark 13:11; I Corinthians 2:11-16; Galatians 5:15-17). To all the innumerable, possible scenarios one would have to address, there would be no end. Rather, we have but one answer: faithful discipleship that witnesses to the love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ as guided by the Holy Spirit.

It appears a misunderstanding of the historical context is Lewis’ primary interpretive error. For he concludes that Jesus has in mind here the “frictions of daily life among villagers” rather than violence between members of unequal social roles. As examples of instances where retaliation would be expected, he uses parents struck by children, a teacher struck by a student, a “sane man” struck by a “lunatic,” and a solider struck by a “public enemy.” I will take each in turn. First, let’s assume Lewis is correct. Parents whose children are in a rage and strike their parents should be struck in return. Surely Jesus would not have prohibited this, right? One must wonder, though, is this sort of striking of a child discipline? Is it measured, and carried out in love for a purpose? Even parents in favor of spanking could legitimately disapprove of returning a blow sustained by a child in retaliation. Perhaps the child has lashed out in such as way because he or she knows no other way to communicate their anger than through physical violence. A parent who loves that child would be entirely justified in using force to discipline him or her, however they may find this an opportunity to model a more constructive mode of communicating frustration. It’s possible that a parent might find it more wise to demonstrate restraint in this case to deescalate the child’s rage. All in all, I’m not entirely certain this example supports Lewis’ case as well as he may think. Next, Lewis thinks a teacher is justified in retaliating against his or her student if struck. Oddly enough, many nations have laws against such action since they consider it abuse for an adult teacher to strike a child student. As in the example of the parent, this may serve as a “teachable moment” for the pair. The teacher has the opportunity to model forgiveness and civility. The example of the sane man striking a “lunatic” is perhaps the most disturbing. I’m fairly certain this is abuse. A mentally-ill person should not be punished for their illness, as if it were voluntary. Suppose a sane person’s disease caused them to convulse uncontrollable and they inadvertently struck their physician. Should the doctor return the blow? The blows of a mentally-ill person a no more deliberate. Of course, if the example of the soldier returning the blow of his enemy were the open-and-close case that Lewis here assumes it is, would he even need to be addressing a pacifist audience? It would seem from Lewis’ assumption that there should be no Christian pacifists.

It just so happens, however, that Jesus’ teaching is precisely in the context of unequal social roles. The Jewish audience Jesus addresses with this teaching are a politically oppressed people group whose primary opponents are not other Jewish villagers, but their powerful, pagan overlords. In the very same context he has taught them saying, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (v. 41) I’m not sure to what frictions of daily village life this could refer. But we do know that Roman soldiers often required Jewish peasants to carry heavy equipment for them for one mile—a practice called angaria.(12) Considering the immense oversight of Jesus’ socio-political milieu, I’m certain we cannot fully support Lewis’ interpretation of this verse.

Lewis concludes his interpretation of Jesus’ command for his disciples to “turn the other cheek” not with discussion of the lexical, syntactical, historical or cultural context, but rather with four proof texts which even taken together amount to less than a modicum of biblical support for Christian warring. Let’s take them one by one. 1) “St. John Baptist’s words to the soldiers.” (p. 50) This is all Lewis says of his first biblical support. One might expect to find in John’s words to the soldiers, “Good job!” or “Keep up the good work!” This is far from the case. To the soldiers who approached him, John the Baptist said, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14b KJV) Or perhaps one might say that using the King James which translates the Greek to English as “violence” is staking the deck. To that one I would ask, “How does a soldier justified in injuring or killing his enemy if he is expressly forbidden from even intimidating them or extorting money from them?” It is true that the Baptist did not command the soldiers to leave the military. He did however command them to stop using military means. They are left themselves to extrapolate the implications. At best this “proof” is an argument from silence, and at worst it serves to further support the pacifist position. 2) “Our Lord praised ...a Roman centurion.” (p. 50) Yes, it is true Jesus praised the faith of the centurion. However, this is another argument from silence. Jesus does not endorse soldiering, much less war, by failing to condemn the centurion for his position. In fact, if we were to apply this same logic to others Jesus praised, we would need to believe Jesus endorsed tax collecting (Luke 18:9-14), and prostitution (Matthew 21:31-32). Members of both these professions are also held up as examples of faith, without reference to the sinfulness of their lives. Proof texts 3 and 4 are Romans 13:4 and I Peter 2:14. In both cases, it has already been shown above that each endorsement of the “magistrate’s use of the sword” is coupled with the apostle’s prohibition of the Christian wielding that same sword. (See the section on “Apostolic Authority”). Therefore, Lewis’ string of proof texts fail to obtain and he is left now to assert that a pacifist interpretation of Jesus’ command is novel—appearing only in modern times. Having demonstrated that on each point of his appeal to “divine authority” it can be shown that Christian nonviolence is either present in church history or Scripture, Lewis’ attempt to refute pacifism fails.


A. Are Pacifists Simply Cowards?

Lewis uses the occasion of his concluding remarks to return to a very pertinent point he made at the outset of his essay. Since, unlike the reason, the conscience deliberates over matters which will require either action or active abstinence, and since we typically consider those matters which we either want to do or do not want to do, we are “bribed from the beginning.” Lewis fears that pacifists overlook the clear influence of our passions. He suspects of his audience that somewhere deep within the process of constructing their moral opposition to war and violence, they secretly or unconsciously seek to preserve their own lives, status, and wealth. He spends a large portion of his closing remarks detailing all the many sacrifices a soldier must make aiming to demonstrate that no selfish passion would lead a man to falsely justify such a career.

Again, I find that Lewis’ logic may work against him. For just as accuses pacifists of being unconscious of their own hidden motives, the one that seeks to support violence and war might be just as guilty. Patriotism and nationalism are powerful forces that are often as unnoticeable to citizens as water to a fish. Furthermore, human beings are prone to violence as it possesses the appearance of effectiveness and productivity. No better solution can be found than violence if one seek instant gratification for a wound or an offense. Revenge and the semblance of justice are often conflated to be one and the same.

I think it is entirely clear from Scripture that it takes greater bravery to entrust oneself to the unseen God for protection and victory, than it does to trust in the might of weapons and armies. Trusting in the strength of guns and tanks takes no faith at all; their power is fully evident. Trusting in the power of armies requires no faith either; their impact is demonstrable. The courage to which the Christian is called is greater than that of the soldier’s. For the Christian is required to believe in the resurrection. That though he is slain, God has not been defeated, because Jesus Christ is risen and has victory over both hell and death! (Romans 6:8-10; II Corinthians 4:10-18; Hebrews 11:6, 17-19; Revelation 12:11)

B. Kingdom Citizenship

The primary reason why C. S. Lewis was wrong about pacifism, is that he was wrong about citizenship in the kingdom of God. Throughout his essay, Lewis presupposes a type of dual allegiance to both the kingdom of God and the particular instance of the world’s kingdom in which he finds himself—the United Kingdom. This is Lewis’ most fundamental error. Christians, as citizens of God’s kingdom have only one allegiance—to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When his birth was heralded the revolutionary overtones of its announcement were not lost on its original hearers. A Son is given, the Son of God, to bring peace to the earth and all men. He is the Lord. He is the King of his people, and to his reign there will be no end, for his is an eternal kingdom. Called directly into conflict was the allegiances of every hearer. Would they, by rejecting the lordship of Caesar, risk their lives for this King? Would they, by accepting Jesus’ Lordship, lay down their own lives in his service? Many made the choice to follow Jesus and it meant their deaths. Jesus in fact demanded that his followers count the cost of discipleship and decide if they are willing to risk it for the reward of eternal life with him, their King. He promised that though they would be persecuted for their faith, he would be with them by his Spirit and would raise them from the dead. No one misconstrued his words for a “God and Country” message. No one heard his Gospel and thought it meant dual citizenship. No, his disciples proclaimed a Gospel of One Lord—Jesus Christ.

In modern times, governments have often had a facade of Christian civil religion that has masked this dichotomy. Many have been deceived into believing they can serve both God and country faithfully. Scripture clearly commands us to “honor the emperor” (I Peter 2:17), but Scripture also clearly commands us to live as “sojourners (foreigners) and exiles” (v. 11) because this world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), and called to manifest the soon-coming, holy city of God (Revelation 21:2) where mourning and pain will be over and the nations will be healed (v. 4; 22:2).

About the coming kingdom Christians are called to reflect now, the prophet Micah wrote,

“[The Lord] will teach us his ways,
   so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
   the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
   and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
   and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
   nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
   and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
   for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”

(Micah 4:2b-4)

As kingdom citizens, all Christians must reject violence and war, and in their place manifest the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ. For he is our Lord and we are his disciples.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Galatians 1:3-5)

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
(Hebrews 13:20-21)

(3) John Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 334.
(4) Peace Pledge Union (
(5) Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (
(6) Prebyterian Research (
(7) Catholic Worker (
(8) Charles Matson Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.
(9) See End Note 1.
(10) Cadoux, 99.
(11) Bainton, 195-196.
(12) "Angaria" Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press. (; Th. Mommsen. (Latin) -

End Notes:
1. The summary of the early church’s stance toward violence and war from Part IV, section (B) “On Divine Authority,” is based on the following sources: John C. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (London: Headley Bros. Publishers, 1919), 97; Roland H. Bainton, “The Early Church and War” in Christian Life: Ethics, Morality, and Discipline in the Early Church (NY: Garland Publishing, 1993), 195; John Friesen, “War and Peace in the Patristic Age,” in Essays on War and Peace: Bible and Early Church. Edited by Willard M. Swarthy (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1986), 135-136; Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 71; Stanley Windass, Christianity Versus Violence: A Social and Historical Study of War and Christianity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 10.

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