Pacifism and Reality: An Honest Opinion

This is from Dr. Richard Beck’s blog “Experimental Theology” It is his Veteran’s Day Reflections. Technically, I think his conclusion is wrong. But the post is so honest, so powerful, that I had to share it. Know this though. I am a pacifist. And this post deeply touched and moved me. I now have a language, words, to name how I feel when I talk about pacifism in a violent world. “I don’t belong here.”

Grandpa and Pacifism: A Veteran’s Day Meditation

I think of my grandpa a lot on Veteran’s Day, and on Memorial Day and on the 4th of July. He fought in World War 2 and was wounded in France. He was lying down, facing the enemy lines, when a bullet entered his hip, ran the length of his leg, and exited near the foot. He survived, convalesced in France, and came home with a Purple Heart.

When I think about my grandpa I often ask myself questions about pacifism. I do think John Howard Yoder is right. The grain of the universe goes with the pacifists. Theologically, I get that. I know that non-violence is the Christ-like ideal.

But psychologically, I tend to identify with Reinhold Niebuhr. In my heart I’m a realist. I think, like grandpa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that if I had a chance to kill Hitler I would have tried to kill the son of a bitch. If I saw a man raping a child and I had a baseball bat in my hand I know I’d hit him with it. And if I had to hit him in the head to get him to stop I’d hit him in the head. And if I had to kill him to get him to stop then I would kill him. I know myself, despite my intellectual sentiments and pontifications I know how I’d act in that situation.

Mainly, if you care to know, it has to do with how I feel about bullies. I cannot abide a bully. And when I see someone hurting someone weak and vulnerable a rage takes over. Psychologically, I’m not a pacifist. I hate, I despise, bullies.

But this makes me very sad. Because I know that in trying to kill Hitler or hitting the rapist with a bat that I’m sinning. It’s wrong. And I’m guilty. Again, I know Yoder is right. Violence isn’t going with the grain of the universe.

In short, and I think Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer would agree with me on this point, the issue of pacifism isn’t an ethical issue, as it is often framed. For me, it’s a theodicy issue. The world is evil. And I’m stuck in it. And to fend off these evil people, to protect the “least of these”, I also commit evil. It’s a shitty situation.

But to be clear, I believe in turning the other cheek. My rage isn’t self-interested or self-protective. It’s other-directed, protecting the weak and small. Hit me all you want. Just don’t hit other people, particularly those who can’t defend themselves.

But I strongly believe there should be pacifists. As I’ve argued before, I think communities of pacifism must and should exist. They are like monastic communities in this regard. The pacifist is an eschatological person. Pacifists show us the Day. They show us the grain of the universe. As such, pacifists don’t fit in or function well in this Present Age. They will look irrational, paradoxical, inconsistent, immoral and irresponsible. Why? Because pacifists don’t belong here. This is not their time. They come from Heaven. They are forerunners of the eschaton.

In short, I think there are Christians who will fight bullies. There are not a whole lot of other options in this broken world. Evil to fight evil. The best you can do is fight mightily within yourself so as not to become a monster in the process. But on this side of heaven we are all monsters. Struggling to hold on to our humanity.

And at the same time I think there are Christians called to pacifism. They walk with the Lamb Who Was Slain, carrying crosses with the grain of the universe. They show us a time to come.

Is this position paradoxical? Yes it is. But it’s the only way I can reconcile the tensions in my own heart. I think both Yoder and Niebuhr were right. I embrace them both.

I hope there is never another Hitler. But if there was I think I’d join up. I can’t abide a bully. And yet, I’d love and agree with my pacifist brother or sister who called me a sinner. They would be, of course, exactly right about that.

Thinking of you grandpa.
Posted by Richard Beck


  1. Very thought provoking, and moving too. Thank you for sharing this. I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I’ll add Beck’s blog to my Google Reader!

    This reminded me of a video we used in the Young Families class at Southwest a couple of years ago. It’s on Youtube: Some photos start coming up about 30 seconds in.

  2. Greg –

    That song is so fitting. There are so many powerful songs on Derek’s Mockingbird album, that I forget about that one.

    How are you doing these days? You’re not covered up in books or studies are you? (HA!)

    Peace –


  3. Of course I think that Dr. Beck is wrong about his conclusions. I don’t think that, if “Yoder is right” and “pacifism goes with the grain of the universe” that only a select few are called to it. I think the whole church is called to be the witness to the world that love overcomes evil. And to whatever degree I can’t be faithful to that on my own, the indwelt church is there to remind me of that calling. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “I tell people I am a pacifist, so that maybe they’ll keep me from killing somebody.”

  4. I am covered up in books and studies. In fact I’m sitting at my desk at home, surrounded by notes for a paper I’m writing for which I interviewed three generations of the Burton family! A paper which is due Friday. So why am I wasting time commenting on this blog?! I have to get back to work!!!

  5. Greg –

    HA! Glad you are into the think of your work at Mizzou. Sounds like you are busy. I hope you still find time to stop by here and stay in touch! We miss you guys! I miss Wesley and Samuel!

    Peace –



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