Where Have All the Pacifists Gone?
by Shelley Curtis Weaver | 14 April 2023 |
In 2016, the Seventh-day Adventist church got a lesson in sharing: the movie Hacksaw Ridge introduced our own Desmond Doss, Sr., to the world. This big-screen portrayal of his service as a medic in WWII garnered awards and portrayed this Adventist medic as an example of integrity and courage.
Of course, among Seventh-day Adventists, Desmond Doss had long been respected and admired. His significance was not based upon fame or success, as in the case of Ben Carson and other Adventist celebrities. Desmond Doss was an ordinary person who lived out one of our historic values—pacifism—despite some extreme trials. In response to bullying, taunts, and the brutality of war, Doss was calm, humble, and dedicated. He served his country well as a “conscientious cooperator.”
By the time the movie was filmed, however, pacifism had greatly diminished within the Adventist church. Today, it is rarely mentioned.
In Luke 20:24-25, Jesus’s command to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” intentionally leaves the subject of civic obligation vague and open to the guidance of conscience. It’s an interesting study of allegiance and ethics. Some of these considerations of the higher good might also apply to the individual’s decision about military service. (It’s noteworthy that Doss was offered a deferment because of his work building warships, but elected to enlist with the qualification that he would not kill another human being.)
The commandments clearly prohibit killing. But even the people to whom those commandments were given engaged in a lot of wars.
The point has often been made that any nation requires some system of defense. Some idealistic people say we should call it a draw and decide that in a sinful world there’s no answer to violence—but brushing the question away with a simplification dismisses the real need for Adventists, if not all Christians, to reexamine the topic.
What follows are Adventist considerations specifically in North America, but presumably the larger discussion of pacifism and violence has echoes in other regions, too.
It’s important to respect and acknowledge that many of our young people are serving in the military. Their motives are personal, but we should assume it reflects their values. We need only to consider what it took to abolish slavery in our country to realize that evil does sometimes require a forceful response. Hitler’s campaign of death was unmoved by diplomacy, and there are extremes that seem to have no other solution. The military members of our church are responding to that potential with courage and integrity.
While many service people offer service bravely rendered, the truth behind military engagement isn’t always so honorable. Although there are times where evil must be defeated, war has an inherent tendency to pit the mighty against the vulnerable. Situations requiring our intervention to protect lives are fewer than those fueled by territorial opportunities and financial greed. Citizens don’t always discover until the war is over that corporate interests pulled the strings that drew us into these conflicts.
Participation in the military is also illustrative of more immediate economic realities. A good majority of recruits, including Adventists, are seeking training and work opportunities. They find options for employment and higher education in the military that they would not find elsewhere. That reflects admirable goals, of which they and their families should be proud.
It takes a huge commitment and hard work to pursue a dangerous career in military service, yet this is often the best way for young people to find employment and get a college education—which also speaks to the inaccessibility of higher education in our country, and the failure of employers and corporations to establish other options for training.
Big picture pacifism
While Adventists’ pacifist stance on military service has taken a dramatic turn, what troubles me most isn’t the rejection of the Adventist pacifist identity, as much as the broader principles of the Christian faith. For nothing stands in greater contrast with the values taught and lived by Jesus than the current Christian response to the culture of violence.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught the gospel prefaced by the words, “You have heard it said . . . , but I say to you . . . .” The laws in the Torah were full of punishments that were violent and often fatal. In a significant nullification of that precedent, Jesus modeled a different way. He rebuked those who drew swords to defend him, even though the law allowed for self-defense. In his most specific rebuttal of violence and physical force, Jesus pushes back at the instinct to use violence to protect ourselves and our rights.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:38-42 NIV).
Christianity’s violent past—and present
In contrast with the pacifism of Jesus, the Christian church in human hands has a long history of aggression and violence. As soon as the church had legal status and sanction from Constantine, the preservation of power transformed Christianity into a violent faith. The Crusades, massacres, pogroms, battles between sects within Christianity, and the martyrdom of those who objected leave our tradition drenched in blood.
We’ve tended to view these incidents as ancient history, and have pushed them to the back of our minds. While Adventism grappled honorably with the question of violence where military service was concerned, we didn’t confront this militant Christian identity. There can be no doubt that a good number of Americans who vote for military spending and expansion are Bible believers—including Adventists.
At best, we might have carried our pacifist convictions beyond the periodic call to military service. We might have rejected the imagery and calls to violence within the faith we encounter each week in our culture and worship.
Our hymns reveal a good deal. “Onward Christian Soldiers,” for instance, employs a driving tempo and depiction of Christians “marching as to war.” It’s a passionate appeal, but not one Jesus employed in his wide and frequent use of metaphor. The fight, battle, and war imagery seeps deep into other hymns, sermons, and terminology.
Most disturbingly, in recent years the concept of fighting evil has given way to another dimension of violent identity. Christianity has battened down the hatches, and declared itself to be “under attack.”
We face a significant challenge as Adventists in the face of this so-called culture war. With all our emphasis on the Three Angels’ Messages, and the specific call to “come out of Babylon,” we now have an opportunity to embrace the ideal of pacifism as proof we’ve left Babylon.
We could bear witness by rejecting the violence that has always compromised the church.
The fruit of violence
This has not been the observable spirit throughout the entirety of NAD Adventist membership. Nor has the world church at large been without an atmosphere of violent attitudes and political alliances. It’s important we examine and reject those policies and attitudes which show that despite calls to “come out of Babylon, we’ve remained in it.
In Jesus, who did not fight against the violence seeking to end his life and ministry, we have a model for our response to perceived threat. In the resurrection Jesus triumphed over violence and death forever, proving that God is all-powerful, and has no need for soldiers. Paranoia that Christianity will be defeated or abolished and requires a violent defense is faithlessness. When we scramble for power and scan for enemies, we disregard the promise that “nothing can separate us” from God, and that grace alone, not violence, makes us “more than conquerors.” Romans 8:31-39 is a wonderful discussion of the source of our power and defense—it uses military words to reinforce that God, not violence, defends us.
If anything is an existential threat to Christianity it is unloving, unreasonable, and violent Christians themselves. Those believers abandoning church affiliation are often those repelled by militant Christians professing to follow a pacifist savior. Conservative Evangelical rhetoric has dismantled Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.” Often their discussions, and even their clergy, preach that security and liberty require unrestricted access to weapons with such power and capacity they serve no other purpose than to obliterate as many human beings as possible in the shortest period of time.
Some Adventists are even editing the endtime tradition. The focus on God’s protection has fallen away to rhetoric of self-defense against the government. That mindset fits conveniently into our anxiety about persecution, but envisions a much different response than the pioneers envisioned. It no longer emphasizes God’s care but whether the means to protect ourselves remain available to us. The concept of greeting persecution with guns-a-blazing is a remarkable switch for a church that avoided bearing arms in an actual war. It reveals that our pacifist identity was superficial, and that our rejection of violence did not go deep enough.
William Fagal of the White Estate responded to a question about guns, “I know of no instance where Mrs. White suggested that Adventists should obtain such weapons for their own protection.” Ellen White herself compares the time of trouble to Jacob’s night wrestling with the angel, and says, “His only hope was in the mercy of God; his only defense must be prayer.”
Pacifism at its best should be more than another behavior on the list of what Adventists don’t do. Instead, we have an opportunity to reject violence by actively following Jesus. In addition to refusing violence as self-defense, Jesus invited us to love ourselves and others to the same extent we would show love to him.
In that spirit we are called to care for the poor in order to alleviate the violence of the fight for survival. We are called to be allies with those to whom the church has slammed its doors. We are privileged to function as peacemakers when calling for reconciliation of God’s wrathful misrepresentation with the truth of God’s unfailing love. All of this is also pacifism.
We honor our pacifist roots by braving different paths from the mainstream. Instead of making battle and attack plans, we can choose service just as Desmond Doss and many others have. The family of Adventism once had a valuable legacy to share with other Christians by embracing the pacifism of Jesus.
Among our many loves which may have grown cold, perhaps it’s time to warm to pacifism in its truest sense.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.