Frequently, when Christian pacifists claim that Jesus taught His followers to never use violence, critics respond with a barrage of “But what if…” questions: “But what if someone comes to rape your wife?” “Christian pacifism sounds lovely, but what about Hitler? If you were a Christian during WWII, would you just let him commit genocide?” “But what if you have the ability to violently prevent one terrorist from killing hundreds of innocent victims?” “But what if someone comes to hurt your children?”
These hypothetical scenarios and extreme examples from history are designed to make pacifism appear impractical. “It’s a nice ethical ideal, but it just doesn’t work in the real world,” is the common conclusion resulting from these questions. These “But what if…” scenarios typically thwart Christians from ever seriously considering Jesus’ actual teaching on violence, treatment of enemies, and approach to peacemaking. The argument goes like this: If refusal to use violence is so impractical, then surely it is not what Jesus taught.
Now admittedly, an entire book could be written in response to the classic “But what if…” questions (and indeed one has, see here). Since that is not the direction I want to go in this post, let me just take a few lines to reveal three misconceptions and false assumptions typically hidden within these “But what if…” scenarios:
- Pacifism is erroneously equated with being passive, as if pacifists promote doing nothing in response to evil.
- What is ethically right is determined by what produces a good end result, not the means we use. In other words, fruitfulness trumps faithfulness.
- It is assumed that nonviolent means of resisting evil will be fruitless while violent means will succeed and will do so without triggering a downward spiral of escalating violence.
Here’s my aim for today’s post: I want us to finally put “But what if…” questions in their proper place. Contrary to what you might be thinking, I do actually believe these questions have a valid function in our efforts to understand Jesus’ teaching on violence, peacemaking, and treatment of enemies.
When I teach on Christian peacemaking, one of my first activities is to have the class brainstorm a list of all of the “But what if…” questions and other stumbling blocks that are preventing them from affirming pacifism. Usually we have quite a long list by the end of the activity! Once we are done compiling our list, I inform the class that I will indeed take one or more classes to address each of the scenarios and issues they have raised. Their list of stumbling blocks deserves to be taken seriously and discussed. However, we must put these “But what if…” questions in their proper place. Thus, I intentionally wait to address these hypothetical scenarios until near the end of our time together.
Dethroning “But What If…” Questions: If used properly, “But what if…” scenarios can be quite helpful. However, they tend to be used in a very harmful way. Ultimately, as Christians we must look to Jesus, and allow our ethics to be determined by His life and teaching. Jesus is our Lord. Because of this, we intentionally put everything else aside and commit to following and obeying the teaching of Jesus wherever that may lead. If in the end, your study of Jesus’ life and teaching lead you to not embrace pacifism, then at least we will have all rallied around the lordship of Christ! At least we will have all committed to following Jesus, no matter where that leads.
Using “But What If…” Questions To Ground Jesus’ Teaching In The Real World: Once we have committed to following Jesus’ teaching on violence, war, and treatment of enemies, and once we have ascertained what it is that Jesus in fact teaches, it will then and only then be helpful to consider the plethora of “But what if…” questions that are usually raised as objections to pacifism. The hypothetical scenarios and extreme examples from history help us determine how to apply Jesus’ teaching in specific situations. In other words, these questions help ensure that our Christian ethics are not merely high ideals inapplicable in our fallen world. After all, when Jesus called His followers to love their enemies, He surely meant for them to apply this ethic in the midst of our fallen world, for in heaven there will be no enemies.
My Appeal To Each Of You: “But what if…” questions need to be dethroned. Jesus is Lord. They are not. “But what if…” questions need to be put in their proper place. We should not look to these questions to determine how we ought to live. We look to Jesus for that. Today, let us recommit to follow Jesus wherever that may lead. Then we can use these “But what if…” questions to help us ground Jesus’ teaching in the events of real life. That is their proper function.