Thoughts on Pacifism

I was once Chair of the Methodist Peace Fellowship. I sought to be a pacifist. I was aware that my pacifism had never been tested. Many members of the Fellowship had had their pacifism tried. At least one argued that our commitment to pacifism must be held even when there was injustice. My opinion then was that there could be no peace where there was injustice.

I was trained for ministry alongside an Anglican who had left the Army to train for the Priesthood with the intention of returning as a Chaplain. He had been disheartened by Chaplains who, in his opinion, had not known what it was like to be serving in the regular Army. He was, in no sense, arrogant. I trusted him and valued our conversations. I think my recollection is correct, that he believed that the world would never be free from war. Reflecting now I believe that we are genetically determined to enable our own survival. We are programmed to fight if we ae threatened. Biologically my friend was probably correct. To be pacifist is against our natural instinct.

The Spirit infects every word, every labour
of those who will follow, of those who will go,
through life full in step with the one some called ‘Master’,
the gentle word crafter of all that we know.

This golden tongued preacher, this living believer,
vivacious in Spirit, courageous in life,
in patient humility waited his moment,
to interpose love in the focus of strife.

And those who had heard him, and ones who came after,
would make the assertion, they’d looked in God’s eyes;
and if we can take up the challenge to follow
this Spirit will graciously love and surprise![i]

Reflecting on the gospel records of Jesus’ execution it seemed, and it still seems, to me that Jesus approach to violence was to interpose himself between the aggressor and the victim. This he did pre-eminently when his embodiment of love met those who would have him dead. He did not resist. He did not fight back. He forgave those who ‘knew not what they were doing’. To do otherwise would be a denial of the love with which he beheld his persecutors. For me this is the seemingly impossible expression of pacifism to which we are called.

It seems inhuman, who could kill
a single mother’s child?
What bitter hatred fires a man?
It seems they had run wild.

Good God, could you not intervene?
Yet once upon a cross
you interposed your human life
and suffered utter loss.

Is this the answer that you give:
use love to counter hate?
And have we courage, dare we risk,
before it is too late.

These children died as martyrs to
the violence we can spawn,
and still we pray, but will we act
to bring a peaceful dawn?[ii]

I remember a previous Chair of the Fellowship, Norwyn Denny, saying that if we were to emulate Christ we would go into wars as human shields. Emulating Christ we would put ourselves in the place of danger. The idea is utterly foolish, in no way expedient, yet I found this to be compelling. After all, the cross was not expedient.

 I pause…

I still believe in my heart that pacifism is an ideal to which I should aspire. Intellectually I would wish to be pacifist.

But I found a get out clause of sorts. Peter, the apostle, failed Jesus. This was not his intention. He said he would stand beside Jesus, yet he denied him. Jesus’ response, following the resurrection, was not to criticise or condemn Peter, but to extend peace to him and offer him a vocation. I still believe that our intention is the most important part of our Christian vocation. But we are human. We will not always succeed, We should intend to be pacifist, understanding that we will probably fail in our pacifism. Yet God will not abandon us.

And where am I now? Conscious that my own sense of pacifism is both frail and probably likely to fail. Conscience says to me that I cannot live in the political climate that pervades the world without offering some sort of resistance.

The question remains, just how passive can my response be? How long can I simply be a bystander in a world of injustice, simply writing, simply waiting? Just watching…

We hear the news in anguish to know what has been done, 
the cameras and recordists show hatred being spun, 
the sound of rockets falling fill broadcasts round the earth, 
Great God, what are we doing while children come to birth?

Our aspirations shudder, our hopes become as dust, 
through war machines are broken, dismembered, turned to rust. 
Our conversations stutter, our talks of peace – hot air, 
Great God, may acts of justice grow from the seeds of prayer.

No place is ever neutral when hatred fuels the fire, 
humanity unites us, let love be our desire.
Join hands across the barriers that other hands have made, 
until your world is mended and violence has been stayed. [iii]

[i] Andrew Pratt

Words © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[ii] Andrew Pratt

Words © 2014Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[iii] Andrew Pratt 28/2/2022 Written while watching the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

Words © 2022 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.