What is “Pacifism”?

Pacifism is on the way out in some circles, even as it’s trending in others.

I’m certainly not the first or the only one to have noticed this. Many churches and individuals with historic or traditional ties to pacifism are shrugging off that label, while many others are trying pacifism on for size, and liking the fit very much.

A large part of what’s going on in all this is that “pacifism” means different things to different people.

For some it is associated almost entirely with “conscientious objection,” refusing to participate in military service or specifically combat roles. For many it is understood to be all about “nonresistance,” passively accepting harm done to you even if unjustly deserved. Most of the people that I’ve talked to who have rejected pacifism have understood it in one of these ways.

However, those who are newly embracing pacifism—the “new pacifists,” one might say—see these understandings of “pacifism” as far too narrow, and perhaps even missing the point. In fact, because of those common understandings of the term—along with connotations of “cowardice” and the like—many neo-Anabaptists and other “new pacifists” prefer not to use the word “pacifism” at all.

I’m one of those “new pacifists” or neo-Anabaptists. Sure, I grew up going to an evangelical Anabaptist church, but my thinking there was shaped more toward evangelicalism than Anabaptism. It was not until much later, when I began studying and teaching the New Testament in an academic context, that I found myself articulating an Anabaptist theology—including pacifism.

So what do I mean when I talk about “pacifism”? If it’s more than “conscientious objection,” if it’s not about “nonresistance,” if it’s got nothing to do with “cowardice,” what is it?

Here’s my attempt to encapsulate “pacifism” in a nutshell—more technically, this is a “theistic pacifism,” even a “Christian pacifism” shaped very much by my understanding of Jesus and the Christian gospel:

God’s goal for all things is a comprehensive peace: humans living in harmony with God, one another, and the rest of creation, together experiencing the flourishing life of God. God uses peaceful means to achieve that goal, and calls us to do the same: resisting evil nonviolently, including the sin within us, the sins against us, and the systemic or structural sin among us as human societies; seeking reconciliation with others across all divisions and despite all harms; and building relationships and social structures and systems that promote harmony and well-being and flourishing life for all people and all creation.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl