A Theology of Nonresistance
Man's ultimate liberty cannot be defended by war; indeed, the very act of going to war marks its loss.
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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I propose to set before you a theology of nonresistance. Let me insist at once that a theology of nonresistance is not the same thing as the case for nonresistance. Rather, what I have to say proceeds from the profound conviction that the only adequate basis for a truly Christian pacifism must come from a committed reading of the New Testament, must signify obedience to Christ's teaching and counsel. Theological explanations come later. But since the human mind seeks to understand that which it is called on to obey, it is proper to set forth a theology of nonresistance and use rational constructs to fill in behind first-order convictions of faith.

I. The "Scale of Liberties" Approach

Having relegated theological arguments to a second place, I now relegate arguments of prudence to no place at all. More often than not, pacifism is sold as a social and political technique. It is asserted that ways of peace would be more effective in attaining our national goals than ways of war could ever be, that love can do everything war can do and do it better. This may very well be true in most if not all situations. But for a Christian to propose this as the ground of his position is to betray his own intention. For he has thus moved the question into the realm of casuistry, has sacrificed any ultimate appeal to religious principle in the interest of arguing cases. He has, in effect, deserted his religious authority and given the matter over to the political scientists and statesmen. And although these gentlemen's findings today should support the view that nonresistance is the more effective technique, there always remains the live possibility that under the altered circumstances of tomorrow the findings might honestly point to a different conclusion. Considerations of expediency well may recommend a policy of peace, and Christian pacifists of course are happy when competent social scientists come to this view. But such a finding is in no sense the basis for a specifically religious, or Christian, position.

In this connection, the term "nonresistance" seems preferable to "pacifism." "Nonresistance" has biblical rootage in Jesus' "Do not resist one who is evil" (Mt. 5:39); and the very word "pacifism" has come to suggest the argument of expediency, the use of love as a calculated technique for achieving social and political goals.

Having then, for present purposes, disavowed all prudential arguments, I proceed to theology proper. Actually, the distance between a Christian pacifist and a Christian nonpacifist is not so great as might appear. ("Nonpacifist" is an awkward enough term, to be sure; but on the other hand, it is manifestly unjust to refer to all who are not pacifists as "militarists".) No Christian takes joy in war; the nonpacifist is as much "against" war as is the pacifist. In extreme cases, however, the nonpacifist feels bound to affirm that liberty--which itself is just as much one of God's good gifts as is peace--is of such value that it must be preserved even at the cost of war. And the Christian certainly will figure the "cost of war" as much in terms of the damage he will be forced to inflict as in terms of that he will have to suffer.

The theology I propose steals a march on the nonpacifist (to use a military metaphor) by building upon the very same principle; namely, that liberty is of such value that it must be preserved whatever the cost. This statement can only mean that there are certain liberties which must be preserved; for it is obvious that liberty in the abstract is so vague as hardly to be defendable, and equally obvious that men are quite willing to sacrifice certain liberties precisely that they may defend certain others. In reality, then, each man holds to a scale of liberties (perhaps, or probably, without being aware of it), and is willing to sacrifice any and all the liberties below a given point in order to preserve those that lie above. Thus--to use an illustration that contrasts a very low liberty with a very high one and so makes the distinction easy--during World War II we were willing to forego the liberty of indulging our taste for sugar in the interests of preserving the higher liberty of national existence. Toward the top of any person's scale surely would lie the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Probably most Christians would be willing to sacrifice their liberty' to vote if this were the only way they could present freedom of worship; and so on.

In most cases the liberty that stands at the top of the scale, the freedom for which one would be willing to sacrifice every other, is the fundamental freedom of living, of simply staying alive. For many men, however, and particularly for Christians, this top-ranked freedom must be further defined; for these people are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to preserve the freedom of living for others, whether those "others" be thought of as the nation, the family back home, or the buddies in the foxhole.

Clearly, too, on this scale of liberties each nonpacifist--and, theoretically, each "prudential pacifist" as well--has a point at which he would be willing even to go to war in order to preserve the liberties above that point. Of course, in view of the Christian assessment of the cost of war, that point will be high up indeed.

Positively the only thing wrong with this scale-of-liberties thinking as used by the nonpacifist is that it overlooks a liberty which the Christian must put at the very top; namely, man's ultimate liberty, for which he should be willing to sacrifice all others. But, strangely enough, this is a liberty which need not and indeed cannot be defended by war; and what is even more strange, the very act of going to war marks its loss.

II. The Nature of Man

My argument here builds upon a conception of the nature of man (and of God) that is not uncommon in contemporary theology, but which I have derived most directly from such men as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Emil Brunner and Hugh Vernon White. Man fundamentally is to be understood as a spiritual person (or a personal spirit), whereas God is understood as the spiritual Person. "Personhood" (a more awkward but much more accurate term than "personality") is constituted in one's actions as a free moral agent. A person acts within a real, concrete, living milieu, and in his acting he makes choices--not only in the simple sense of deciding between two offered alternatives but in the more complex sense of creating and molding new alternatives and higher syntheses. Therefore the "person" in his actions is, above all, free; he is responsible and answerable. The integrity of his action is such that he must be considered as an entity complete and whole in himself, never as a part or particular within a larger system.

This is not to overlook or deny that man is dependent on God, that he becomes a true person Only as he recognizes and lives within this dependency, even though the acceptance of the relationship is a free act on his part. Just as the baby becomes a human being in response to and imitation of the human beings who confront him, so men become true persons only as they respond positively to the confrontation of the spiritual Person, God. This positive response we call "faith," and in the faith relationship is found a person-to-Person communion, an I-Thou fellowship in which the two spirits coinhere without loss of personal identity. They remain distinct but not separate. On the other hand, a negative response to God's confrontation, in which the human person asserts his freedom in the face of God, in defiance, disobedience and disdain--this response we call "sin." And it results in alienation and disharmony, in "distance" between God and man.

From the foregoing it follows that man's ultimate liberty is precisely this freedom to become a true person--to respond to God in faith, to know even as one is known. If need be, the Christian will relinquish every other liberty in the interests of preserving this one, for "if the Son [i.e., the One in whom the Christian confronts God] makes you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn. 8:36).

III. The "Ultimate Liberty" of Every Person

Observe, in the first place, that this freedom cannot be threatened by evil men and therefore need not and cannot be defended through war. Though a man be imprisoned, tortured, deprived of all his customary liberties, his freedom of access to God is not touched. If he be killed--Paul says that it actually is better to depart and be with Christ, and Jesus assures us that we need not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

In theory at least, there is one way in which a human oppressor could threaten this ultimate liberty. If he suppressed religion so successfully that children grew up without knowledge of the gospel, then their freedom of access to God would seem to be abrogated. Historically, however, things have not worked in this fashion. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Godless regimes never have proved an insurmountable obstacle to the spread of the gospel. Warfare may be effective in preserving other liberties, but it is neither necessary nor useful in preserving man‘s ultimate liberty.

Is there, then, any quarter from which this liberty can be threatened? Is it possible for this liberty to be lost? Yes. A man himself, through his own Sin, Can and does destroy his freedom of personal access to God. And there is one manner of sinning through which this loss of freedom becomes acute. Whenever I deny or fail to respect the "personhood" of another man I effectually deny my own personhood. I cannot be in a positive relationship to God while refusing another the possibility of that same relationship. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn. 4:20).

To treat another as though he were anything less than a person (in the full meaning of that term) is, of course, a sin against that man. But even more it is (like all sin) a sin against God; for consider the lengths to which God has gone, the price he has paid in enabling that man to become a person. Through creation, God endowed that man (as he did me) with the freedom, the positive capabilities, and all gifts that make personhood possible. And God gave his only Son for that man (as he gave him for me) in order that that man might become a true person. To recognize a man's personhood, then, actually means to recognize him as "a brother for whom Christ died." To fail to respect this identification is to fail to respect God in his greatest act; it is, in effect, to deny the efficacy of Christ in one's own case and thus one's own relationship to God.

< p>So I impair the ultimate freedom of mankind every time I fail to respect the other man as a person, every time I fail to honor him as a brother for whom Christ died. And since military warfare is the human institution in which men are treated least like persons, it follows that war--no matter how effective it may be in preserving lesser liberties--inevitably destroys our ultimate liberty.

IV. The Basic Evil of War

In this view, the final evil of war does not lie specifically in what is done to the enemy. It is quite conceivable that one man could take another's life while still respecting him as a person. Such certainly would be the case in so-called "mercy killings," and it might be argued that gunning down a homicidal maniac ultimately works for his own good as well as society's. No, the basic evil of war lies in the estimate of other persons that it demands from and engenders in us.

"But," the nonpacifist may object, "this is a misunderstanding of war. Hate is not a necessary or even desirable concomitant. The soldier who fights coolly, objectively, doing it as a job that has to be done, is a much better soldier than the recruit who becomes emotionally involved, who sees red and feels hot hatred toward the enemy."

If "hate" is thus narrowly defined, the ultimate evil of war is not even in the hatred it arouses. In fact, from the viewpoint I am developing, hate is less insidious than this "cold objectivity"; for hate is at least a "personal" relationship (though inverted), whereas cold objectivity means precisely to treat the other man as though he were a thing rather than a person.

[A short extract from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls appeared at this point in The Christian Century article that well illustrated the discussion that follows, however House Church Central could not get permission from the Hemingway estate to reproduce that material on the Internet].

A revulsion toward war must be natural to every Christian--it is a true instinct. The atrocities of war hardly can represent God's will. Those who conscientiously participate in war give way to the voice logic, the psychology, by which Christians overcome their revulsion.

War becomes possible to a Christian only as he considers himself an "instrument to do his duty" and considers the enemy a "target," not a whole man but a point to be shot at. How subtly and yet how inevitably these impersonal thought forms take over is well illustrated by Paul Ramsey's Century article (July 20 issue) in defense of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I submit that, as a Christian ethicist, Ramsey felt uncomfortable in defending "war" and so shifted his terminology to talk about "arbitration [or even arbitrament] of arms." And what is an arbitrament of arms, for goodness' sake? It is a couple of old-fashioned gallants covered from head to toe with steel mesh, riding at each other with clubs until one of them falls off his horse; whereupon the victor alights to help the vanquished to his feet and lead him to the castle where they can continue their arbitrament over a bowl of mead. "War," everybody knows, is hell; but an "arbitrament of arms"--now there is a concept at which even the nicest Christian need not blanch!

V. Conclusion

But this way of thinking is a denial of that freedom which is worth much more than all the freedoms that may be preserved in consequence. In the first place, men are persons and will remain so regardless of how we choose to view them. Thinking of them as instruments and targets does not make them so. And war is war--nothing else--and getting more that way all the time. But to even greater point: what insult is it to the other man, what damage to my personal relationship to him and to God, what affront to that God who gave his only Son that both I and my enemy might become true persons, when I deliberately suspend my Christian understanding in order to consider men mere things.

Yet this is what war does and must do. In what conflict may come, the only expediency that will enable an American Christian to launch a missile wiping out hundreds of thousands of men, women and children is that he will not have to aim the missile at persons--not even at a city. His aim will be simply to hit a target, only to direct a radar blip to a given set of coordinates. So far can persons be impersonalized.

If our faith is right that God and God alone is the Lord of history, then is it not somewhat presumptuous for man to claim the prescience to recognize the turning points of history, the wisdom to see what must be done at that point, and the authority to take the matter into his own hands? Can it conceivably be the will of God that his holy intentions for history be accomplished by man's renouncing the Christian estimate of persons?

Of course one dare not base an argument on what might have happened if what did happen hadn‘t; yet it is plain that numerous battles and wars in which Participating Christians considered victory crucial for the future of the race were in fact lost--and lost without jeopardizing the race or frustrating God's purposes for it. The Christian's responsibility is to act in obedience and faith; it is God's responsibility to oversee history and its turning points.

"All of this is well and good," the nonpacifist may reply, "but it overlooks one very painful dilemma. If when one nation overruns another I stand by and do nothing, I actually am treating the victims as less than persons in the interests of treating the oppressors as persons. If, for instance, because of nonresistant principles I allow the Vietcong to take over, I am in effect impersonalizing the South Vietnamese."

This argument is at best only half true. To refuse to come to the military defense of the victim could be a sign of unconcern, but it is not inevitably so. The Christian pacifist is obliged to do everything possible in behalf of the victim--short of treating the oppressors as less than persons. He will bring to bear all appropriate political and moral suasions in the effort to prevent the oppression; he will use every opportunity to minister to the victim in the way of sympathetic concern, moral support, relief and rehabilitation; he will pray unceasingly in behalf of both victim and oppressor. Surely such an attitude and such activity cannot be classified as personal unconcern and irresponsibility. Indeed, the Christian pacifist and nonpacifist part ways only at the point of war and preparation for war; their political and social activity can be in concert up to that point.

War is out of order because of the impersonalization it fosters. But, it might be objected, this impersonalization is the mark of many other institutions as well--business, labor, public education, mass communications, government, etc. True; and the Christian must be alert to the threat wherever it appears in our social life. But the difference is this: these other institutions need not be impersonalizing; the Christian can and will work at reforming them. War, however, is an institution whose very existence depends on man‘s ability to impersonalize. Reform of it is out of the question. Thus the Christian is obliged to work for war's abolishment. And until war is abolished the Christian must refuse to participate in it lest he abet the jeopardy of the one freedom that is infinitely more precious than any and all other freedoms he might defend.

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Copyright (c) 1966, The Christian Century