On Pacifism

Many of the first Christian saints, martyrs and converts were Roman soldiers. The chief and original Christians and saints of the Franks were the same. Where somebody does not fear to get hurt, and does not think of the body of another person as intrinsic to that person, they have found a fact of religious and spiritual experience.

The fighting man is very like the saint. In an adult, the desire to fight in an army, and if necessary to die, brings to light the way that there are more important things than the ease and pleasure of the physical body. Or, pains and hardship is preferable where the loss of important things would be the alternative.

Life in the body, that is, is not the highest most sacred thing, and the soldier and the saint prove this. Some thing or some person that you love can be more important than life.

You might make two objections. Namely, that a bully or playground fighting boy is simply reckless and bad. You could also point out that Christ preached meekness and peace, which proves that a soldier cannot be a saint. I don’t agree with these objections, and I’m not debating any of them. For me, the soldier is in a position to recognise ideals after, or in life, which are more important than common human existence in the same way that a Christian ought to do.

I will offer this explanation of Christ’s apparent ‘pacifism’, however. I do not think that the Christian religion should preach, or that Christ himself preached, pacifism.

It is true that the Quakers refuse to engage in violence of any kind because they believe that Christ instructed this. The classic statement of Christ’s, adduced in support of this idealistic pacifism, is the ‘turn the other cheek’ part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

‘But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5: 39).

However, this should be read in context, as follows: Christ says that he is come to fulfill the Law. The Law was meant to make men obedient to God. The commandments of the old Law taught him how to do this by setting out punishments and warnings.

But Christ comes so that we can be actual Sons of God; and for this, it is not enough to be a moral person with good conscience, in conformance to the Law. The letter kills, and the commandments will lead you astray. Rather, the higher fulfillment of the commandments is that you will become the sons of God. Therefore, it is not enough that you do not kill, or do not steal, or that you do not bear false witness; rather, to become worthy of the Spirit, and to become the Logos in your intellectual life, you must be stripped of your whole body and your entire personality – so that you can become Christ. This is what the Sermon on the Mount essentially means. And that line in particular says that you should not be concerned with getting revenge or mixing your intellect with a fight with evil because such concerns are based in self-esteem, and personal pride.

Therefore, it is not enough that you confront evil and remain a good man: you must, rather, let evil have no effect on you at all; that is, you must remain spiritually impassive and unmoved by it. To interpret the words on 'turning the other cheek' correctly, then, they should be understood to mean something like:

'Don't let you enemy touch your relationship with the Holy Spirit, or, don't take your quarrel with him to heart.'

- I suppose by extension, that it should also be possible to engage in 'soldiering', so long as the relation to God is not ruined by it.

The Bible is read incorrectly by those who read it in a literal sense. If we read the words of Christ to mean that we should turn the other cheek when facing an enemy, then we misunderstand: its not a question of physical violence against or by us: it is a question of the spiritual and intellectual equanimity of the mind as it turns its back on any fixation with physical things. The spiritual stillness and the love of God is the primary object of this teaching; the primary object of this teaching is not instruction about how to face enemies or other people; it is about how to comport your emotions and intellect.

And the sheepishness, or the pacifism of Church of England pastors and higher clergy in our land, particularly today, has done the religion of Christ no good, with its absurd paradox that a Christian should not defend himself when threatened – which no Christian community has ever successfully adhered to for long in historical terms. This is not only a policy for self-destruction of the institution, but also willfully obscures what Christ meant in his words and his example, and what he intends for us. I can think of no better of way of letting a church be removed from the face of the earth than by letting it give up self-defence.

Here is how St Maximos advises a reading of the Scriptures, saying that Christ’s law is a spiritualising of the old set of commandments, because it allows us to see the natural law of things; Christ’s words in Scripture are not a hyperbolic and literal intensification of the old law, but a spiritualisation of them, so that we are made ready for deification:

‘Everyone who does not apply himself to the spiritual contemplation of Holy Scripture has, Judaic-wise, also rejected both the natural and the written law; and he is ignorant of the law of grace which confers deification on those who are obedient to it. He who understands the written law in a literal manner does not nourish his soul with the virtues. He who does not grasp the inner principles of created beings fails to feast his intellect on the manifold wisdom of God. And he who is ignorant of the great mystery of the new grace does not rejoice in the hope of future deification. Thus failure to contemplate the written law spiritually results in a dearth of the divine wisdom to be apprehended in the natural law; and this in its turn is followed by a complete ignorance of the deification given by grace according to the new mystery’ (St Maximos, ‘Fifth Century of Various Texts’, No. 31, Philokalia, Vol II).

The focus of the Church should be on inner stillness and the cultivation of the intellect, so that it can attain wisdom; and to allow the Holy Spirit to come; and finally, that the ultimate end of Christian practice is to be close to God, as the lover of God. In this way, the entire New Testament is concerned with gaining wisdom and inner strength, abstraction of the self out of the world. Christ, that is, should be understood as preaching and embodying, supreme wisdom and spiritual purity.

The Philokalia, in St Maximos, insists that the New Testament does not teach ethics as its principle object. In fact, ethics and obedience to the commandments, so to speak, can be and in this case are, an obstacle to communion with God. Quakers and the like, have replaced the immediacy of the relation to God with their insistence on being pacifist, and on showing no resistance to others. And, as Johnson noted somewhere, the Quakers and their like paid no attention to the next statement made by Christ on the Mount, namely that they should ‘Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of the turn not thou away’ (Matt. 5: 42). They were very careful bankers, after all.

If we recognise Christ’s example to us as the example of the man who is with God, and the man who has divine wisdom; then the question for any soldiering or fighting man is, can you be a soldier and yet also retain the stillness and dispassion which are the essential characteristic of the Christian? The stillness and self-mortification of the soldier is very nearly the same thing as the self-mortification and self-denial of the saint.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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