Father Louis Vitale, a Franciscan friar, was recently fined by a federal magistrate in Santa Barbara for trespassing at an Air Force base to lead an antiwar protest. Vitale has been arrested hundreds of times over the years during his demonstrations, which he says are inspired by the teachings of Christ and other spiritual leaders who preached nonviolence. Pacifism is a central belief of nearly all religions, but given the dangers we face in the world, to what extent can we truly hope to be nonviolent?
Everyone knows that Jesus taught us to “turn the other cheek.” But we should also remember the Old Testament accounts of how God led Israel into battles in which thousands of enemy soldiers were killed. And in the New Testament book of Romans, Paul cites the valid authority of governments to punish wrongdoers with the sword. A correct Biblical stance on pacifism isn't as clear-cut as some may think.
The “flesh” (or sinful nature) is common to every person in every culture. It is manifested with “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Galatians 5:20-21). Violence, both personal and international, is rooted in these, and will continue until the return and reign of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Though it isn't justifiable, it is a reality we must face and deal with, lest the undesirable states of anarchy or rule by despotic brutes prevail.
We should also distinguish between unprovoked aggression and necessary defense. To physically attack a person who is not directly threatening you is wrong. To allow an attacker to harm your loved ones without interfering, with physical force if necessary, is wrong as well.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Make peace your pursuit. It'll help you be Christ-like, and you'll never be out of a job!
PASTOR JON BARTA
Valley Baptist Church
Jesus did not teach pacifism, and absolute nonviolence is no central belief of Christianity. I would argue that such a thing would actually be immoral because it would allow the unabated proliferation of evil.
Was it un-Christian for those Navy Seals to snipe three bloodthirsty pirates for the sake of kidnapped sea captain Richard Phillips last week? No, and Christ never told soldiers to disarm. He even praised a Roman officer with, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel!” (Luke 7:9). The New Testament teaches that the civil authority is “God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
We believe that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh. As such, He's the same God-in-the-spirit we find in the Old Testament. His personal visitation transitioned us from BC to AD, and we now understand better the heart and motive of the unchanging God. God is often vilified for being bloodthirsty and warmongering, with all His flooding and famines and divinely sanctioned fighting, but really it's about intervention when man's evil peaks. God is fully capable of supernatural smiting, but He more often elicits human participation in the administration of Earth's criminal justice.
God-incarnate taught us to turn the other cheek regarding personal offense, and to never return evil for evil. We aren't to be violently provocative, nor should we propagate Christianity by coercion. But self-preservation, and defense of the innocent, are duties of the godly. Only the evil and cowardly look the other way when someone is being victimized. It's the righteous that intervene, and sometimes that necessitates strong action. Violence does accomplish things, and when necessary, we must not waver with un-Biblical notions.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NIV).
THE REV. BRYAN GRIEM
Montrose Community Church
Conservative Congregational Christian Conference
In this life, we have choices, and sometimes neither choice is an easy one. The old question of whether you would use force or even violence if someone were about to hurt your grandmother usually brings forth an affirmative answer from me.
I do believe there is a call for peaceful solutions in my religion; for example, Jesus, when he was arrested before being crucified, made the famous statement, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” (See Matthew 26:52. Luke and John have similar accounts of Jesus appearing to be against violence.) But later on, in the 4th century, St. Augustine came up with his “Just War” theory. In the 20th century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made the point that those who fought against the evil of Hitler and Nazism couldn't defeat so great an evil without engaging in evil ourselves.
So the issue of whether to engage in violence has always been a thorny one. Great pacifists of history such as Jesus or Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. refused to become like the beast in order to fight the beast. I am afraid that I am not that strong.
THE REV. C. L. “SKIP” LINDEMAN
La Cañada Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Recently, several well-known authors published books describing the evils of religion. One author, Christopher Hitchens, wrote in his book, “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
Is Mr. Hitchens correct, or is religion, as the question above suggests, nonviolent, with pacifism as its central belief (at least for most religions)? Over the centuries, religious people have faced and reacted to moral dilemmas, both small and great. The results have been mixed, with violence being exhibited far too often. For example, were the Crusades, Inquisition or witch trials justified?
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the example to follow. His life, death and gospel message set a standard for dealing with moral dilemmas. We must balance our convictions and zeal with what we believe Jesus Christ would have us do and not do. Unfortunately, all too often, Jesus Christ's example and message have been erroneously interpreted, which has ended with actions that give credence to Mr. Hitchens' observations.
In the United States, the Constitution sets a balance among religion, government and individual freedoms — an important balance. From my perspective, religion should not get into politics, and government should not get into religion. Even so, religion should play an important role in the moral dilemmas of our day. Christians should encourage individuals and society to do and be their best and should defend their faith and values. This does not, however, unilaterally give Christians the right to violate individual rights and freedoms, and Christians have a duty and obligation to know where the line is that should not be crossed.
BISHOP FRED L. CARPENTER
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
I certainly understand Father Vitale's yearning for an end to violence and bloodshed, and I imagine that all people of conscience wish that humanity was free from evil and aggression. In a perfect world, it would be possible to lay down our arms and forever put to rest the notion of war.
However, the sad reality of the world we live in has often taught us the painful lesson that evil regimes and cruel dictators are always ready to go on the offensive if they know they will face no resistance. I believe that if peace-loving countries such as the United States eliminated their military forces, we would only be inviting conflict and countless innocent deaths.
The core teachings of Judaism revolve around peace and the protection of life. But blanket pacifism — the idea of being against all war and violence — is not really a Jewish idea. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not murder,” which is often misunderstood as meaning that all killing is an offense to God. While murder is certainly evil, killing is sometimes necessary to avoid a far greater loss of life. When the need arises to protect innocents, not only are we commanded to defend people from their attackers, but we would be committing a great moral failing and a grave sin if we failed to try.
I have no doubt that Father Vitale's protests are motivated by good intentions, but I regrettably cannot agree with his actions in light of the state of humanity. The fact is that American and allied military forces in many parts of the world stand between groups of innocent people and ruthless tormentors who would like to do them harm. These antiwar protests would be far more effective if, instead of demonstrating against the benevolent power of the United States, they targeted the unquestioned perpetrators of evil — ranging from the Sudanese government to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. The fact that those forces quickly silence all who dissent from their ideology is a testament to their real character.
RABBI SIMCHA BACKMAN
Chabad Jewish Center