July 23, 2012

Churches, Pacifism, and Gun Control

Ben Witherington is one of the most brilliant theologians in America today.  He is a strong friend of orthodoxy admired by his fellow United Methodists and by many evangelicals across traditions.  He is also a pacifist and teaches that Christians should not serve in the military or police, as noted in this 2010 exchange:  http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2010/12/recently-heard-on-facebook-a-conversation-between-lawson-stone-and-ben-witherington-on-the-bible.html.

In response to the recent Colorado theater shootings, Witherington has strongly demanded tighter gun control laws, as he has in the past after other similar horrors:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/07/21/the-aurora-debacle/.

There may or may not be good arguments for more gun control in America.  But can a pacifist make them?

Pacifism is increasingly popular among many evangelical elites, especially in academia.  A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in government, as Mennonites and their brethren in past times typically did.   They refused to serve in the military, or in any form of government.  They usually did not dispute that government was God ordained.  Nor did they criticize others’ involvement in it.  They largely lived as separatists, accepting the government without trying to influences its policies. 

Modern day neo-Anabaptists are less consistent.  They adamantly reject, for themselves and for everybody else, all “violence” and force, disputing the civil authorities’ vocation especially for military action.  Often they are vaguer about domestic police.  And they very frequently are outspoken in trying to influence government policies, usually in trying to expand state power.  Typically they favor more environmental regulation, government control over health care, more consumer protections, and a more expansive welfare state.  Of course they almost always favor gun control, which superficially at least aligns with pacifist purposes.

Except that it doesn’t.  Gun control is about greater control, by the government.  It requires armed agents of the state, exerting their own force, to disarm others either directly or by implied threat. 

All government is premised on force.  Every government everywhere, at all times, if it has any power, will dispatch armed individuals to apprehend any persons who violate its laws and, ultimately, detain them in places surrounded by armed individuals empowered by lethal force.      

Neo-Anabaptists of today are often strident critics of “Caesar” and of “Constantinianism.”  But they often advocate a state larger, more coercive and more powerful than any Roman emperor ever imagined.  Far more than Constantine, they would deploy the state to enforce their version of faithful obedience to God.

Ben Witherington has declared that Christians cannot serve in the police.  So presumably he believes the nation’s gun control laws, along with all its laws, should be enforced only by non-Christians.  Are there enough Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist people in America to create the massive police and regulatory state to enforce what he and other Christian pacifists envision?  In a nation where 75-80 percent often profess some Christian affiliation, it might be hard to put all the onus for law enforcement on the non-Christians.  It certainly wouldn’t be fair!

Christian pacifism, as commonly conceived today, is mostly a hobby for professors and their students.  It has no practical application for believers striving to be faithful in the real world.   Thoughtful arguments for more gun control might be possible.  But they cannot really come from consistent pacifists.

30 Responses to Churches, Pacifism, and Gun Control

  1. eMatters says:

    Ben is so good on so many topics but way off on this one. Pure pacifism is a moral evil.

  2. Dan Trabue says:

    Wow. Neil, are you arguing that all Quakers, anabaptists, MLK, Gandhi, and all other pacifists are embracing pure evil??

    No, one can’t make a rational real world argument that pacifism (even “pure” pacifism, whatever that means) is evil, but this is a good argument in support of the notion that pure ignorance is pretty evil…

  3. eMatters says:

    Sigh. As always, here is my one-time response and prebuttal to anything false teacher Dan Trabue says. I only post this when he addresses me, because I’ve asked him repeatedly not to. He also continued to try and post on my blog after being banned, continued to email me after being asked not to and even contacted my pastor! The Interwebs can be a creepy place but I refuse to let that impact where I go. I offer this warning out of love for my neighbors. I will not read any of his comments or mention his name again on this thread.

    Blessings to you all, and thanks to IRD for exposing false teachers!

    • Dan Trabue says:

      Brother Neil, just because you ask, doesn’t mean we all bow down to your wishes. I’ve asked you to quit gossiping and slandering like a grade school girl, and yet you continue. Life’s tough, ain’t it?

      And I will note again that rather than address my cogent comments, you respond with an ad hom attack. Poor reasoning, my brother.

      I forgive you for the personal attack, but for your sake, repent of this ongoing sin you’ve embraced. For such is not of the kingdom of God, my brother.

  4. Dan Trabue says:

    Mark, you’ve said so much that is so wrong here, it’s hard to know where to begin…

    Christian pacifism, as commonly conceived today, is mostly a hobby for professors and their students.

    A “hobby…”? Striving to follow Christ’s teachings – as done by pacifist quakers, anabaptists, Catholics and other protestants – is hardly a “hobby,” and certainly not only amongst “professors and their students…” That is a pretty ignorant (no offense, “ignorant” as “uninformed by real world evidence” is all I mean – you appear to not know of which you speak).

    Knowing you rarely (in my short experience here, anyway) answer holes in your holey arguments (see what I did there???), I’ll ask some questions that will likely go unanswered, but here it goes.

    How are pacifists, striving to take Jesus’ teachings pretty danged literally “inconsistent…”? What is inconsistent about believing that Jesus taught us to live lives as peacemakers, loving our enemies (which, to us, would include “don’t kill ’em, and certainly don’t target and kill their children or the people around them…”), turning the other cheek… how is striving to take those teachings seriously “inconsistent…”? Inconsistent with what?


    they often advocate a state larger, more coercive and more powerful than any Roman emperor ever imagined.

    This is not nearly as true for most progressive/pacifist types I know as it is for most conservative types. We’d SHRINK the gov’t by cutting our military budget by hundreds of billions of dollars a year. A hundred billion here and a hundred billion there and pretty soon, you’re talking some real money…

    Or the example of spending $1 million on prisoner education programs rather than the $2 million conservatives would advocate instead for higher recidivism rate expenses.

    Being in favor of pro-active investments is nothing like being in favor of a larger, more coercive, powerful gov’t…

    • mrskbw says:

      Mark, Please keep up the good work and continue to speak truth. It is evident that those who attack you have very little understanding of Biblical history.


  5. This short essay could not reasonably deal fairly with all variations of pacifism, so I extend some grace to the author, however any blanket statements about what pacifists believe, used to believe, etc are nonsensical. Mennonites heartily disagreed with each other 100 years ago, just as they do now.

    I have a Mennonite background so let me tell you from an insider point of view my snapshot of pacifism. My Mennonite grandfather voluntarily enlisted in WW1 serving under the Russian white army when he was 17 years old. He enlisted as a conscientious objector and so was in the medical corp and never lifted a gun. My Mennonite father voluntarily enlisted in WW2 at 19 years of age as a conscientious objector and was in the medical corp stationed in England with the Canadian troops.
    There was a lot of pride of country in both these men and a desire to serve when needed.

    I am proud that Mennonites have a heightened sense that each individual life is sacrosanct. However, we live with that constant tension of being in the world and the world systems of govt and yet not wanting to participate in what we deem counter-Kingdom principles. Like many aspects of faith, pacifism is the expression of “now and not yet” in the Kingdom of God.

    I do not intend to try to defend or deny any or all types of pacifism here. Books have been written on it. For me it is a personal calling, and I do not place judgment on other believers for how their conscience leads them. Just make sure it is the Holy Spirit speaking through your conscience that leads you, and that you are not just wearing the pacifist teeshirt because its hip and cool and progressive.

    Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

  6. […] Churches, Pacifism, and Gun Control Mark Tooley, Juicy Ecumenism There may or may not be good arguments for more gun control in America. But can a pacifist make them? Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name Required: […]

  7. Dan says:

    I think that this piece is describing the “comfortable pacifism” that only our liberal intellectual elites can engage in within their protected communities, be they ivory towers, gated communities, or other enclaves of the upper middle and upper classes. Nothing makes pacifism more attractive than a safe existence.

    I would love to see some of these Christian academicians go public with their beliefs someplace like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or even China.

    I can understand the Mennonite approach to pacifism, and I deeply admire those who served in wars as conscientious objectors, who nonetheless tended to their fellow soldiers as medical corpsmen. My question about pure pacifism is will there every be enough innocent blood shed to satiate the evil in this world. Will there ever be enough violence, rape, and murder to slake the desire for more evil? I simply do not know, but I keep remembering the following statement about gun control and a citizens constitutional right to defend himself or herself; “when seconds matter, the police are only minutes away.”

  8. Dan Trabue says:

    Other Dan…

    I think that this piece is describing the “comfortable pacifism” that only our liberal intellectual elites can engage in within their protected communities…

    But I would wager that that is only a small minority of those who lean pacifistic. The majority of us are simple anabaptists, Quakers, and various other protestant and catholic peacemakers who truly believe that this is the Way that Jesus taught and, if it doesn’t “feel safe” or comfortable, well, that is the path to which we’re called nonetheless.

    Other Dan…

    My question about pure pacifism is will there every be enough innocent blood shed to satiate the evil in this world.

    I’m wondering what people here mean by “pure pacifism…”?

    Pacifism is defined in Merriam Webster as simply, “Opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes…”

    Is that what you mean by “pure pacifism…”? I mean, that IS pacifism, and what it looks like from there is a matter of debate and opinion. Beyond that definition, there is no strain of pacifism which I can imagine would qualify as “pure pacifism.”

    My guess is that you are speaking of extremely passive pacifism, those who believe we ought to take no overt actions against evil acts of violence. Is that it? If so, there again, I would guess you are speaking of an incredibly small minority of pacifists in the pacifist/peacemaker spectrum.

    Other Dan…

    Will there ever be enough violence, rape, and murder to slake the desire for more evil? I simply do not know…

    I’m not sure of the point you’re making here. Are you suggesting that if pacifists don’t eventually kill “the bad guys” then eventually the bad guys will kill everyone?

    There are at least three problems with the suggestion that we must “do something” when faced with deadly violence and the only “something” that qualifies is more deadly violence in response…

    1. Believers in violent redemption have been employing violence against violence forever, and violence has never brought an end to violence (as if it could!).

    2. There are at least four ways to deal with deadly violence:
    a. passivism – meekly being gunned down, heads bowed;
    b. running away;
    c. meeting deadly violence with more deadly violence;
    d. Non-Violent Direct Action

    The truth is that none of these are perfect solutions. All of them can and do fail to one degree or another. People intent on violence can often find a way to engage in it. Yes, Germany employed massive violence in her lust for power in WWII, millions were killed. And so we engaged in a World War. Millions MORE were killed. Could we have found a way that resulted in fewer deaths, more justice, more peace? Well, we can’t say for sure. All we can say for sure is that, in an effort to fight Germany’s violence, the resulting violence kicked the death toll up from millions to tens of millions.

    I would suggest that it is questionable that that deployment of violence was successful.

    3. NVDA has a record of reducing/stopping violence. It is not a perfect solution, but it has worked. See Nicaragua’s fight against the contra terrorists, for instance.

    My suspicion is that the vast majority of peacemakers/pacifists support “doing something,” they/we just don’t believe in the efficacy of violence as a solution.

  9. […] He is a native of Virginia and a life-long Methodist.  This article first appear at the IRD blog ‘Juicy Ecumenism’ and is used with […]

  10. Rich says:

    I agree with Professor Witherington. Full disclosure: I was in the Army. That was the last time I carried a gun. I became a Mennonite because of their non-resistant obedience to Jesus. As for the idea that pacifism is a hobby, obviously the writer does not take into account the commitment of Amish and Old Order Mennonites to the practice. Actually, as Myron Augsberger pointed out, there is a difference between the non-resistance policy of Mennonites and related groups, and pacifism. But, in practice, it works out the same. Christians committed to both will not carry arms for self-defense. To do so would be to disobey Jesus. It was Jesus who said that all who live by the sword will die by it. There is no other consistent Christian position.

    • Dan says:


      While I respect your position, I guess I am more in line with Bonhoeffer when it comes to deciding to act when faced with an “in extremis” situation. Also, I would make a differentiation between “live by the sword” and defending against the acts of those who “live by the sword.” If someone was in the act of trying to kill or maim a member of my family, I would not hesitate to shoot them dead where they stand. BTW, is there a generally agreed upon position within the pacifist and non-resistance religious groups regarding abortion? Do they consider it a violent act tantamount to murder? I am asking because I find the official position of the UMC to be totally illogical. The UMC is completely against capital punishment and wants to ban gun ownership by private citizens, yet helped found and continues to actively support the RCRC (religious coalition for reproductive choice), one of the most virulently pro-abortion groups out there.

      • eMatters says:

        Excellent point. Pro-choice pacifists are a remarkably oxymoronic lot. Hopefully the Amish and Mennonites are anti-abortion, but every pacifist I’ve come across (literally 100%) has been pro-legalized abortion and usually pro-taxpayer funded abortion. They think one way to improve society is kill even more unwanted human beings — and with the taxes of pro-lifers!

        Since it is a scientific fact that abortion kills an innocent human being, this is something they should strongly oppose. The Methodists and others are huge hypocrites on this topic.

    • eMatters says:

      I suggest that the Amish and Mennonites live more consistently with their beliefs by moving to countries where citizens can’t own guns. Wait, what’s that?! They wouldn’t last 30 minutes there, but they are proud to moralize against us while we protect their religious freedom? Interesting.

      I am glad they are peace-loving people and very family oriented. But I also appreciated this comment left on my blog by someone with Mennonite family members:

      “I am always astounded at the hypocrisy of many pacifists who courageoulsy live in countries where they can live pacifist lifestyles because there are others willing to do violence on their behalf. Mennonites, for one, moved from country to country across Europe into Russia, and then finally North America, always running away from one type of persecution or other. In North America they found people who would not only tolerate them but to kill others that would take away the Mennonite people’s freedoms from them. Predictably, said Mennonite peoples condemn the violence done on their behalf.

      Hiding behind the guns of young men and women willing to die for them and then condemning those men and women for their actions is beyond belief.”

  11. […] is it Neo-Anabaptism? Over at the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Mark Tooley explains, A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in […]

  12. Dan Trabue says:

    They wouldn’t last 30 minutes there, but they are proud to moralize against us while we protect their religious freedom? Interesting.

    You say “protect our religious freedom,” we say, “Get in the way of God protecting our religious freedom…” We’ll continue to trust in God, not your guns, my brother. Thanks just the same.

    “Hiding behind guns…” um, wouldn’t that be YOU, not us?

    Don’t try to impugn the bravery and moral fearlessness of the anabaptists until you’re prepared to give up your guns for protection and face down “the bad guys” armed only with a faith in God, my young brother.

    I find it amazing that those who cling tightest to their guns for their “bravery” are oft-times the first to impugn the bravery of those willing to trust in God and God alone.

    Cowardice is as cowardice does.

  13. Sara Anderson says:

    If Christians choose not to be employed in law enforcement, what does that mean for the police forces and FBI and Secret Service agencies? I would hope our country would never be without the leaven of Christian people in these professions.

    • eMatters says:

      Excellent point, Sara. Why would anyone want to live where everyone in law enforcement and the military was explicitly non-Christian?

    • Dan Trabue says:


      If Christians choose not to be employed in law enforcement, what does that mean for the police forces and FBI and Secret Service agencies?

      May I ask you something, Sara (or anyone willing to address the question)? If you’re in the FBI, is it okay to engage in torture to do your job? Is it okay to seduce a target, having sex with them, in order to do your job? Is it okay to lie or cheat to do your job? Bombing a city where children are known to live?

      In short, is there ANY behavior that these agencies engage in that you think is off-limits to Christians hoping to engage in only Christian behavior?

  14. Dan says:

    I finally had a chance to read Witherington’s posts on guns, and his writing is pretty weak. He may be a good theologian, for an Arminian :-), but he certainly is off base on his rhetorical skills regarding gun control. His reading of the Second Amendment is particularly off base. The “well regulated militia” argument just doesn’t hold up. When the Constitution was written, it was assumed, a la Switzerland, that all able bodied men would be in their state militias; therefore, possession of firearms by the general populace was to be protected, as a means to prevent government tyranny. Maybe we need to upgrade the states’ National Guard units, mandate compulsory universal service, and require that those serving in the guard keep their weapons and ammunition at home. There is objective evidence (from John Lott and others) that properly trained and armed citizens are actually a deterrent to violent crime.

  15. Donnie says:

    One of the most evil things I’ve read online was said by a self-proclaimed Christian pacifist. She said that if a child molester was kidnapping one of her children, she’d not use violence to stop him because it goes against her pacifist beliefs. Not even non-lethal force like pepper spray or a stun gun.

    If that isn’t evil, I don’t know what is.

    I have no problem with any adult who does not want to defend themselves. That’s perfectly within their rights. But if you refuse to defend your own children, you are evil. Period.

  16. cynthia curran says:

    Well, a lot of evangelical smart proplr on history and theology are on the left in other fields. I’ve listen to him and since I like Roman History its interesting enough. Ben W for example takes the church pacifists view like Martin of Tours and so forth in the early church what is interesting is that their is from the church in Meggido a mosaic that was given by a Roman Centurion and it pre-Constantine. I would not agrued with pacifism in the early church since I’ not trained in that field. But I think the whole issue on it in the early church was more complex if a centurion gave a mosaic for a church.

  17. cynthia curran says:

    Well, 70 to 80 say they are christian but a lot of them attend church infrequency. So, maybe they should be nomial christians like Constantine above who was a worshipper of Sol Invictus before he was a christian. Maybe those borderline christians should.

  18. cynthia curran says:

    be the ones that are police and soldiers according to Ben W

  19. […] shortcomings. It has shortcomings because life has shortcomings in our own subjective evaluations.Churches, Pacifism, and Gun Control Mark Tooley, Mark TooleyThere may or may not be good arguments for more gun control in America. But […]

  20. Ben is right about this and I respect his scholarship. I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam and a Navy Corpsman. I became a pacifist at the age of 20. I am 65 now. The way of Jesus is one of non-violence and the non-use of weapons. The churches which do not preach and teach pacifism are evil. Think about it, read the Gospels and what Jesus said: “Love your enemies!” It is ontologically impossible to love your enemies and then kill them.

    • eMatters says:

      “It is ontologically impossible to love your enemies and then kill them.”

      But God will do exactly that.

      And it is impossible to love your neighbors and stand by while they are abused or killed. Sometimes violence is required.

  21. D. Tudor says:

    I realize that i am a bit late to this conversation, but I AM a Quaker, technically a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and want to clarify part of the Quaker testamony on pacifism. It is not only a call for nonviolent confrontation, but a call for an end of the CAUSES of violent confrontation. Most wars/violent confrontations are CAUSED by fear, anger and hatred. Most Quakers believe very firmly in the commandments of Jesus: that thou shall love they God, and that thou love thy neighbor as thyself. Note that Jesus did not qualify “thy neighbor.” Basically, in this view, thy neighbor is anyone who is not yourself. So, if you wish to be held in love and respect, it follows that you should in love and respect all who are not you. So how can this possibly be a moral evil?

    As to answering the threat of physical violence, a Quaker is more likely to offer themselves up in exchange for the CHANCE of saving the lives of those around them — and there are many stories of Quakers following this course of action. Most recently there is the story of Tom Fox who, while servinig with Christian Peacemaker Teams, was taken hostage and killed in Iraq. But since Quakers are mostly silent, their stories are buried in hisotry.

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