Monday, August 21, 2006

Debating Pacifism

Dr. Joseph Cathey asked pacifist readers:

Suppose that a loved one (wife, child, parents) was going to be murdered - (You had no doubt of the intention of the person doing the murdering) and you had a gun – would you shoot the person?

As usual, there was much dodging back and forth and a lot of fantasy scenarios along the lines of "I'd shoot the gun out of his hand."

Jonathan Marlowe's non-answer was:

Here's a simple question: Have you stopped beating your wife? "yes" or "no?" It's a simple question; why don't you answer it?

Because it's got too many assumptions pre-packed into it.

Wrong. It's completely fair to ask pacifists (or anyone else) if they will live by the principles that they themselves espouse.

That was the point of my post on the subject. When I contemplated buying a gun, there was much holier-than-thou braying from parties that I suspected would use force to defend themselves and their families. The difference is that I was willing to admit it.

I get this same sense whenever I read Stanley Hauerwas -- incessant sniping about the evils of America, made while hiding behind the protections of that same America. The sheer pomposity of much of pacifism is deeply irritating. A more humble voice would say "I'm ashamed of it, but I'd probably pull the trigger."

In these various connected posts, there have been a number of pacifists who said outright "No, I won't use violence, period." I admire their forthrightness.

NOTE: Yes, I'm working on the MLK quote.


Jonathan said...

As I said, Yoder has a long and direct response to this question, and I provided a link to it here. I agree with Yoder's answer, but you can't appreciate that without going through all of his reasoning. Yoder's answer, which I agree with, is, "No, Christians are not called to use violence, ever." But that only becomes intelligible once you see all that Yoder goes through.

As I also said, many times in Scripture Jesus does not answer his questioner using the same terms and framework that his questioner uses (Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Who sinned, this man or his parents? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, etc...)

Einstein once said that you cannot solve a problem using the same framework that created it, and if you think that is the most important question for Christian disciples to answer about nonviolence, then we will not get very far past that conversation stopper.

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


When you are ready for a gun drop me an email. I have many and can help you with your choice. I have taught classes in armed self defense.

For what it is worth, I applaud your willingness to explore this issue. Keep up the good work.

By the way, I share your disdain for Stanley Hauerwas - he makes me quite ill.

John said...

Yoder doesn't answer the question. In fact, at the end of his speech, he says:

I do not know what I would do if some insane or criminal person were to attack my wife or child, sister or mother.

Henry Neufeld said...

While I think that many people are too quick to resort to violence, I have to regard the pacifist position as self-defeating. I do appreciate consistent pacifists.

I find it odd that Yoder can complain, for example, that the question of defending your family is not analogous to war, while others can compare it with the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" cliche. The essential issue of that question is that it assumes certain behavior is occurring. If that assumption is untrue, then a yes/no answer is misleading. That is totally unrelated to: "Would you kill to defend a member of your family?" This second question asks whether a particular line of behavior is a possibility. It doesn't assume you're being attacked right now.

I think it's an excellent hypothetical question. My answer to it is absolutely yes, and without any twinge of conscience.

Yoder's lengthy discussion seems to say that the situation is complex, and so the pacifist must be right. As someone who is not a pacifist, I have every option that Yoder mentions as well, and I will certainly consider whatever I have the time to consider. But killing the guy is an option, and my primary consideration in my choice of options will be simply which action has the best chance to successfully protect my loved one.

I was particularly unimpressed with Yoder's comments on Bonhoeffer's involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. With 20/20 hindsight we might suggest not trying, but he made his decision with his knowledge, and it was reasonable for him to believe that the assassination would shorten the war and save lives.

I apologize for the excessively long comment.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, most uses of guns in self-defense do not even involve pulling the trigger. Once you pull a gun on someone who is threatening to assault you, he is likely to have a very sudden change of plans and head elsewhere. In communities where most people are known to have guns in their homes, burglaries are rare and violent crime rates are low. Guns deter as well as defend.

Thomas Sowell

Jonathan said...

By the way, I share your disdain for Stanley Hauerwas - he makes me quite ill.

This is not a theological argument. I could give you a list of people who make me ill, but that would not help us discern any theological truth.

John, the sentence you quote out of context does not demonstrate Yoder's intellectual uncertainty, but rather his personal modesty.

The entire paragraph is:

I do not know what I would do if some insane or criminal person were to attack my wife or child, sister or mother. But I know that what I should do would be illuminated by what God my Father did when his "only begotten Son" was being threatened. Or by what Abraham, my father in the faith, was ready to sacrifice out of obedience; Abraham could ready himself to give up his son because he believed in the resurrection. It was "for the sake of the joy that was set before him" that Christ himself could "endure the cross."

This was written to explain what Yoder had said on the previous page:

Committed Christians see in their life of faith not merely an ethical stance in which they want to be consistent, nor a set of rules they want to be sure not to break, but a gracious privilege which they want to share. They guide their lives not so much by "How can I avoid doing wrong?" or even "How can I do the right?" as by "How can I be a reconciling presence in the life of my neighbor?" From this perspective, I might justify firm nonviolent restraint, but certainly never killing.

John, you still have not responded to my comment on my blog that explains how you depend on an argument from silence, which is a logical fallacy.

John said...

That's swell. So are you ready to answer the question, or do you have more dodging to do? Or do you have more authors to hide behind and names to drop?

Jonathan said...

What is it about "No, Christians are not called to use violence, ever" that you don't understand?

What is it about "certainly never killing" that you don't understand?

John said...

Good. Now was that so hard to say? It was a simple 'yes' or 'no' question. Eventually, after you got your chance to show off how much you've read, all you needed to say was 'no' to make your position clear.

Try an economy of words next time.

Anonymous said...


I find it hard to take your complaints about the "pomposity" of pacifists too seriously when I read the tone of many of your replies in the comments. You seem to have given yourself full permission to be and do everything you complain about in those with whom you disagree. So is it your position that you counter any perceived pomposity you encounter with a double dose?