War and Peace: Christian Pacifism

Submitted by: Jim Bacik

In the early Church there was a strong movement toward Christian pacificism, based on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: Put away your sword for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (26:52); If someone strikes you on the right check turn to him the other also (5:38-39); Do good to those who hate you (5:43); Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (5:8).

In the first centuries of the Christian era, some followers of Jesus refused to serve in the Roman army and were martyred for their civil disobedience. Important early scholars including Origen (d. 254), Tertulian (d. 220) and Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) taught that Christians should not fight in the Roman army or engage in violent actions.

Throughout subsequent Christian history, there have been many important witnesses to Christian pacifism. One of the most influential was Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), son of a wealthy Italian merchant who renounced his privileged life, lived a life of poverty, founded the Franciscan order and was known for his embrace of lepers and his appreciation of nature. His commitment to Gospel non-violence is represented in the story of his effort to be a peacemaker during the Fifth Crusade to liberate the holy land from Muslim control. As the story goes, Francis made the hazardous journey to Damietta, Egypt, where a fierce battle was raging, crossed enemy lines with a companion was badly beaten but eventually reached the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil and pleaded with him to stop the bloodshed. The Sultan was impressed with Francis and his courage and let him return to the crusader lines without further harm. Francis did not stop the war but he gave an inspired witness to Christ’s call to love our enemies.

Dorothy Day (d. 1980), the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, was a consistent advocate of Christian pacifism. When World War II stated with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Day wrote in the Catholic Worker: “We are still pacifists. And “We will not participate in armed war or in making more.” In the 1950s during the height of the Cold War, New York State mandated citizens to take cover during civil defense drills, Dorothy Day refused to comply, sitting on a park bench where she was arrested five times and spent some six weeks in jail.

In response to the Ukraine war, William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University published an article in the May, 2023 issue of Commonweal, suggesting that nonviolent active resistance to the Russian invasion might have been a better option since it would have avoided the carnage of war and could have made it impossible for the Russians to control the country of Ukraine.

In this regard, we can recall the important book by Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia University Press, 2012) which studied over 300 cases of violent and nonviolent resistance and concluded that active nonviolence is actually more effective in the long run with less carnage and a better chance of more humane outcomes. Two of the more striking examples of the effectiveness of active nonviolence are Gandhi’s liberation of India from British colonial rule and Martin Luther King’s success in securing civil rights for black Americans.

In his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis, made official his effort to replace reliance on the just war tradition with commitment to Christian pacifism that reflects the teaching of Christ to love our enemies and avoid violence.


What is my opinion of Christian pacifism?

About the Author

Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.

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