With these principles found in the law, along with the three contexts noted above (including especially the natural law context, which the law essentially republishes on this subject) we can return to our central subject of pacifism. The first thing that must be acknowledged when analyzing a thing like pacifism is that there is not just one kind. Rather, many rationales are offered by different individuals and traditions for a common practical end, that of nonviolence. This means that any attempt to determine whether a position is pacifist, or to refute pacifism, is more complicated than one might anticipate. However, one useful way to classify the position is based on scholastic types of law. Aquinas famously subdivided law into four categories: eternal, natural, human, and divine. The first category is not relevant to our question, as it is too broad: it refers to the order that the entire universe participates in, including inanimate and sub-rational creatures. Further, human law is not relevant, since we are seeking the answer to a moral question, and since human law has clearly not been pacifist in many cases. Rather, the kinds of pacifism we are interested in come in two major varieties: those based on an appeal to natural law, and those that appeal to divine positive law. 1
In my encounters with pacifistic advocates, I have encountered six recurring arguments for absolute non-violence which fall under the category of natural law arguments. They are:
The first rationale argues that violence always provokes further violence, and so never really solves anything. The second argument claims that human beings can never truly determine the guilt of another person, and so coercive judgment can never be verified as just. The third approach directly attacks the idea of punishment, asserting that the very idea of retribution and vengeance are immoral and barbaric. The fourth type of criticism contends that violence is inconsistent with the virtue of love. The fifth argument attempts to show that violence can never truly achieve real justice or common good, even while claiming that it can. And finally, the sixth argument alleges that any sort of hierarchy is unjust intrinsically, and thus so too for one person to punish someone under their authority. One characteristic that each of these arguments have in common is that they all imply pacifism is transhistorically mandatory. That is, because they appeal to aspects of reality that remain true across redemptive history, they must imply that non-violence has always been ethically obligatory.
And then there is the other kind of rationale for pacifism, the one based on ceremonial or divine positive law. In this kind of position, the reason for non-violence is not strictly moral; rather, it is based on divine fiat, a subversion of the natural order in favor of a transcendent grace. The reason for prohibiting violence does not derive from the nature of human beings, nor of the current state of the created order (including the presence of evil), as such, but rather derives strictly from an additional divine command given in history, the new law of the gospel. With this kind of rationale, pacifism need not be ethically mandatory in every age, but it is nonetheless binding for Christians and an essential element of the New Covenant.
What all these arguments have in common is a specific conclusion. They all entail, at minimum, that no Christian can participate in the state use of violence, especially in the form of killing another person. The moral/natural approaches entail a stronger conclusion: that no one could rightly participate in such activity at all.
The next post will discuss how the Old and New Testaments both affirm the content of the context mentioned in the previous post, and then will determine whether any of these pacifistic arguments, and thus pacifism in general, are consistent with that content.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.