Nonresistance Versus Pacifism

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At first glance, one could suggest that these two terms might be synonymous. In fact, one hundred years ago they sometimes were used interchangeably.1 but as the English language continues its evolutionary process, it becomes necessary to define these terms separately.

What is nonresistance?
The term nonresistance is taken from Matthew 5:39, where Jesus tells us to “resist not evil.” It is not resisting in any form, militarily or personally. It means showing genuine love to all, friend or foe.

In the Old Testament dispensation, God allowed and even at times commanded His people to go to war and execute punishment on the lawbreakers. But in the New Testament, Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Nonresistance is for the Christian and the church, not the unbeliever and the state. It permeates our lives with one exception: to “resist the devil” (James 4:7). But this is referring to a personal or church responsibility. Never are we told to resist the evils in society. It includes a willingness to pray for and submit to earthly authorities even if we cannot obey them in a situation where obedience to them would constitute disobedience to the Bible.

What is pacifism?
The root word pacifici is a Latin word taken from Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The dictionary defines pacifism as “opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes.” At first glance this seems very similar to nonresistance, and as was previously noted, they can be interchanged. But there is an activist or particular forcefulness that is often associated with it. For example, we use a “pacifier” to quiet fussy babies. It conveys a forced peace.

Pacifism could also be considered nonviolent resistance. It is a rejection of the use of physical violence to obtain political, economic, or social goals, the obliteration of force except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to advance the cause of peace.

The pacifist aims to establish a better world by eliminating war; he attempts to bring peace and harmony among the unregenerate nations of earth by working through political influence.

Why is pacifism wrong?
A pacifist apparently believes that man is basically good because man’s efforts can bring peace to a fallen world (Mark 7:23).

A pacifist sees no distinction between the church and state, and therefore the concept of the two-kingdom principle is lost. Because of this, the pacifist often fails to recognize the role of the use of force in the peacekeeping function of the state. In Romans 13:4 we are told that “he beareth not the sword in vain”; to war and to punish the transgressor is part of the responsibility of the state.

Pacifism is not peaceable. A pacifist is not at peace with his surroundings. Pacifists attempt to use peace itself as a tool or weapon to accomplish their goals. Someone has said, “I am a pacifist—with the emphasis on the ‘fist.’”

A pacifist is unable to accept that there are injustices, sin, and strife in a fallen world. The world’s greatest need is Jesus, not peace. Pacifists are often unwilling to suffer personal reproach quietly, unlike the example of Jesus Himself (1Peter 2:20-23).

History of pacifism
After Napoleon’s wars ended in the beginning of the 1800’s, several peace organizations merged under an American organization called the American Peace Society. It was founded by a theologian named David Dodge. In 1816 a similar organization was founded in London called the London Peace Society. These groups and others similar to them grew out of a frustration with armed conflict and a desire to rid the world of war.

The famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was a fervent supporter of pacifism. He was very influential and inspired many followers, among them Mohandas K. Gandhi (the leader of the so-called peaceful revolution of India), who in turn influenced a young black preacher in Birmingham, Alabama, with the name of Martin Luther King. 2 Following World War I, there was a great push by society and civic groups for the elimination of war. Even world governments were concerned enough that the League of Nations was formed as a way to prevent the world from taking up arms and killing thousands of soldiers and thousands more civilians in another global war. Today there are many world organizations devoted to world peace (pacifism), from churches and religious based organizations to secular groups like the United Nations. In the 1960’s the theme was civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War; in the 70’s and 80’s it was nuclear disarmament.

Pacifists are not just involved with issues relating to war. They have shifted their focus to other social justice issues like unequal distribution of wealth, racism, sexism, prejudice, gun control, and poverty. Today the march toward social justice continues with the environmental movement and socialized health care.

The pacifistic ideas of today are sometimes called the social gospel, and the liberal Mennonite church is right there marching in lock step with it. How did it get there?

(to be concluded)
1 Nonresistance in Colonial America, EMP, 1985, by Wilbur Bender, p3
2 Love and Nonresistance, Christian Light Publications, 2007, by John Coblentz, p107
~ Peach Bottom, PA
December 2012