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Pacifism Does Not End The Wars

Since the war broke out in Ukraine this week, I’ve had several people ask what a pacifist would say about all this. Over the last month, my co-author and I have been doing a lot of podcasts and interviews about the book, one of which came out yesterday as Russia invaded Kyiv. No author can predict the timing of their book, and a land war in Europe wasn’t on the radar when we wrote it, mostly because violence is an enduring feature of the world, and the occasions for talking about Christian nonviolence in that kind of world are legion.

I didn’t write directly about this yesterday, for two reasons. The first—and this is not a dodge—is that the first action is that of prayer, an appeal to God for safety and for the kingdom to come on Earth. Seriously: stop watching the news, and pray.

But the second reason that I didn’t write about nonviolence yesterday -perhaps the most serious one-is that discussion of nonviolence in the context of a conflict’s outbreak comes across as a judgment upon those who fight. One of the major faults of much pacifist discourse is that it speaks of nonviolence as a possession, a matter of the right structure or right set of tactics and beliefs, and that if employed properly, will end violence. Christian nonviolence, far from this, is a matter of discipleship in the world, and is much better seen, in all of its iterations, as an aspiration, and as a penitent journey. It’s sinners being called by grace into the life of God by way of the work of Jesus: this will involve the renunciation of violence and the embrace of reconciliation, but this is a life we lead within a world of violence, one in which violence always remains both a possibility and a feature in which we participate, structurally, relationally, and politically.

The sooner that Christian pacifists stop talking about war in such high perfectionist terms, the better: it makes a mockery of the deaths of those in war to describe their deaths as examples of what happens when a moral theory is put into motion or when it fails, and not as flesh and blood beings who have died. As such, the time for discussing Christian nonviolence is primarily before and after conflicts: in the midst of things, Christian nonviolence remains no less true, but as a matter of discourse, having an analytic debate about Christian nonviolence makes it sound as if—on top of being exposed to violence—the dying should be judged for their failure of fighting back.

Any proposals for “ending” violence which emphasize the structural first and solely don’t understand that violence always comes out sideways, in the cracks. Part of the legacy of the 20th century which we address in the book is that nonviolence becomes more fulsome as our acknowledgments about violence become more full: violence is not something “out there” in the political realm of geopolitics solely, but within the folds of our relationships, in our economic arrangements, within local politics as well as international relations. And so, violence is not something you can outflank structurally or tactically: it persists as an enduring feature of a world in which sin remains in operation.

Violence is, at it were, a surd, and will persist. So, if it doesn’t solve wars, why Christian nonviolence? The short answer is that because it’s true, that it bears witness to the way of Jesus, a way which frequently fails and is destroyed. Another way of putting this plainly, one which just warriors will agree with (for wrong reasons) is this: Christian nonviolence does not solve wars. I say this plainly, because no other form of moral reasoning about war promises to solve wars either, apart from vile forms of realism which treat war as a phenomenon about which we cannot have moral discussions. [1]

Just war reasoning, the other major option for thinking morally about conflict, sometimes pretends sometimes that it is a mode of reasoning which “takes seriously” violence, but does so at the cost of making violence’s ubiquity a structural liability of Christian discipleship: we have to accept not simply the presence of violence, but the active and disciplined use of it. This to my mind is a bit specious, and the trajectory of just war thought has emphasized the ways in which it links moral action to violence: just war thinking has done careful work for centuries about the conditions of engaging in war and the conduct within it, but little (until very lately) about the post bellum phase, what happens after the conflict. If moral action in war is linked to the right use of violence, then it is predictable that the post-war space has been left out the picture until recently. The predictable results have occurred: by not having this aspect, the peace which just war thinking aims at is better categorized as the cessation of violence, not the promotion of peace. [2]

I say all of this to underscore this basic point: violence, as a feature of a broken creation, is not going anywhere, and so any moral accounting of a response to violence cannot begin from the premise of what “ends” it.

That being said, any number of tropes about nonviolence, Christian or otherwise, persist. Nonviolence does not, contrary to its stereotype, exclude the need for the restraint of evil, the protection of the neighbor, or the long view of hope for a reconciled region, and this is where I think Justin E.H. Smith's essay today is just wrong: the pacifist is not one who exists in a pure state, but one who embraces suffering for the neighbor at their own cost, and who does so in fragmented ways which still entail violence. Do I think that nonviolence is true? Only if by that we mean that it will fail and yet still be true to the revelation of Jesus Christ, and what it means for Jesus’ disciples to be disciples in a violent world. In war, violence breaks open in a way which is equivalent to the demonic taking up flesh and walking around. And in that space, there will be some who continue on, but many who do not, taking up arms in defense of their loved ones. And the pacifist of all people must minister and support ministry in that violence, if for no other reason than to do so mirrors the truthfulness they proclaim, both with respect to violence’s ubiquity and God’s call.

There are many resources which nonviolence has that do not involve washing their hands and walking away, including (and not limited to) praying for those in the fight, dismantling the machinery of war, working for the restraint of the aggressor, making way for evacuations, leveraging influence for conflicts to end, binding up the wounds, and work for reconciliation over and over again. That God accepts us while we were yet murdering God on the cross is the sign of both the depth of God’s love for enemies, and the hope that even death is not the end of the truth of that love.

So, go pray. And then, do the things that your hand finds to do.


1. The fatal flaw here to this line of argument is this: placing wars beyond good and evil is done in a desire to provide solace for those who find themselves involved in them and in morally fraught situations. But if wars are those things beyond good and evil, but rooted in necessity, those who participate in wars always have war as a space that has no continuity with ordinary life and cannot be reconciled with the rest of their lives. Odysseus can never come home.

2. Augustine famously argued that the just war is aimed at peace, and that the violence done by the just warrior is in service to peace. This, to his mind, limited the means available to the just warrior in combat.


Originally posted on Christian Ethics in the Wild, used with permission.


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