Once, after teaching a workshop on the early Christian attitude to war, a fellow urban missionary named Aaron White told me the story of his close friend who was a military soldier. One night Aaron’s friend confessed to him that he hated Mahatma Gandhi. He hated that Gandhi’s pacifist teaching and way of life made his own attempts to work for world peace look evil.
A week later, Aaron and his friend were walking down the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when suddenly they encountered a young homeless man violently beating a helpless, elderly man. Without pausing to think, Aaron’s friend quickly wedged his way between the two men and refused to move. “Just walk away,” Aaron’s friend calmly yet firmly informed the perpetrator. “I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m also not going to let you hurt this man. I’m not moving. Just walk away.” Taken aback, the perpetrator began to walk off, but as he did so he turned around and shouted at Aaron’s friend, “Man, who made you Gandhi!”
Here was a man who did not intellectually assent to pacifism, yet when violence broke out around him, he acted in a way that would have made Gandhi proud. Or more importantly, a way that certainly made Jesus proud.
A few years before this incident occurred, I gathered together with thousands of self-professed Christian pacifists at the entrance to a military base in Georgia. This base runs a training program for Latin American soldiers. Many of the school’s graduates have gone on to commit some of the most horrific atrocities one could imagine, including kidnapping children, raping women, shooting nuns, and assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero while he stood before his congregation.
At one point during the rally, immediately after a very engaging Catholic priest spoke of Jesus’ call to love our enemies, a band started to lead the crowd in a song saturated with all the usual pacifist lingo: peace, love, etc. Suddenly mid-verse, a young lady standing next to me shouted at the top of her lungs, “Bush, if I ever meet you, I’ll kill you!” Utterly shocked to hear such violent and hate-filled language being used at a rally comprised of pacifists, I turned and stared at the woman. There she stood, with the words “Who would Jesus kill?” written in large letters across the front of her T-shirt. Either she forgot what shirt she was wearing or she obviously has a very different answer to the question than I do!
Hopefully the violent pacifist and the peaceful soldier remind each of us to take a much-needed dose of humility. For you see, the moral of these two stories is that none of us know for certain how we will respond when conflict arises. Combating hatred with love, and violence with means that do not inflict harm is almost never our instinctual response. To say it another way, though overcoming evil with good is arguably the most rational approach to cultivating peace, it is certainly the most unnatural. W. H. Auden’s poem says it well:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
That those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return
Returning evil for evil is what comes naturally to all of us. Knowing this, there is a sense in which it is not helpful for any of us to claim to be pacifists. At best we can say, “I want to be a pacifist” or “I am endeavoring to remain committed to Jesus’ nonviolent approach to peacemaking.”
Yet, in another sense, this is true of all the commands of Jesus to which we commit. With our first breath we pledge to follow Jesus’ way of life. With our next breath we pray for God to empower and enable us to fulfill this commitment. And with our third breath, we rejoice that God will graciously help us get back on our feet when we stumble and fail.
One final point needs stated, for it serves as a counter-balance to what has been said thus far. Though it may be slightly arrogant to claim to be a pacifist (for the aforementioned reason), it is important realize that there is great benefit in faithfully employing Jesus’ approach to peacemaking in the small, day-to-day conflicts that arise. If we cultivate a habit of consistently overcoming evil with good in the frequent, small injustices that daily bombard us, then we will be far more likely to employ the same loving means when large and violent confrontations arise.
Well, that’s all I have to share with you today. But as always, I could use your help. One aspect that greatly improves any non-fiction writing is the frequent usage of stories that reinforce and support the points being expounded. So, I would love to hear any stories from your own life that teach some of the lessons I wrote about in this post. Or on an even broader level, any stories that have aided you in understanding Jesus’ approach to peacemaking. Thanks friends.