Why Christians Can’t Be Pacifists

Love doesn’t mean you have to roll over and die.


The city of Kenosha, Wisconsin has been the latest to burn. After another harrowing but inconclusive video depicting a police shooting — and after Democrats, in what has become their standard practice, did everything in their power to stoke racial tension — violent “protests” broke out once again. All week, the country has watched rioters burn cars and beat their opponents senseless.

In Washington, D.C., screaming mobs demanded that diners raise their fists in the black power sign or face vituperative abuse. It’s encouraging to see that some brave patriots are defying these demands. But to look in the deadened eyes of those who acquiesce is to feel their helplessness and know how it is that mobs and tyrants win.

Christians often find themselves in a curious position when the bad guys take to the streets. On the one hand, we are told to “turn the other cheek.” There are those who think this means we should forego violent resistance and live as pacifists. Others can’t imagine that the Christian thing to do is to let the most aggressive criminals overrun society for lack of physical opposition.

That was C.S. Lewis’s position. In his day, Christ’s injunctions to love the enemy and turn the other cheek weighed heavily on the two generations of British men who were forced in the World Wars to slaughter or be slaughtered.

But Lewis argued that to refrain from fighting against Hitler would be to pervert the relevant commandments. In a 1944 interview, he said:

You are told to love your neighbour as yourself. How do you love yourself?… I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself…. You [may] dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself…. You may even think that you ought to go to the Police and own up and be hanged. Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.

There is no good for criminals — no love — in letting them continue to terrorize others and mutilate their own souls. Certainly it is not love to leave the innocent at the mercy of strong and violent men.

Lewis made this argument most forcefully in 1940, in front of a society of pacifists in a speech called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” He pointed out that pure nonviolence, if carried to its logical conclusion by all men of fighting age, would leave the pacifist nations defenseless and the world at the mercy of totalitarians and Nazis.

Lewis hoped that the prospect of world domination by the Third Reich would make clear his point that to refrain from violence is hardly the most loving approach in every instance.

He knew his opponents would counter that pacifism, idealist though it was, represented humanity’s only shot at a world without war. But that notion, he responded, “belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life might be curable if only we can find the right cure.”

Another Christian teaching — that sin and misery are permanent fixtures of a fallen world, capable of being alleviated but never escaped — warned Lewis against the alluring but disastrous temptation to cleanse the world of its imperfections.

Lewis did not imagine that the war he was urging upon the young men of Britain was anything other than an unspeakable horror. He had seen the war himself, and described it with ruthless detail in The Screwtape Letters, his fanciful rendering of Hell’s attempts to capture a human soul. The devils in Screwtape relish “the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosives on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching.”

No one should imagine that fighting comes without a terrible cost. No one should take lightly the need for self-defense on our city streets. And none of this justifies vigilantism — it’s self-defeating to fight lawlessness with lawlessness. But self-defense and the rule of law are hallmarks of a free society and perfectly consonant with Christian teaching.

No Christian should consider it his duty to roll over and die. “Love” is not another word for “nicety” or “passivity.” It is as fiercely aggressive as it is aggressively selfless — and sometimes, it means taking up arms.

More from Spencer Klavan: C.S. Lewis On What To Teach Your Kids

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

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