As ceremonies are held this month across the globe to mark the armistice, Maddy Fry explores the complex relationship between Christianity and pacifism.
One of the books to have influenced me the most is Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, the great author’s seminal text critiquing the violence underpinning Russian society, penned in the wake of his conversion to Christianity.
Tolstoy is better known for his masterpiece novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but this smaller, often overlooked work of non-fiction is definitely worth a read.
I received it as a Christmas present the year I turned 16, intrigued by its role in inspiring the nonviolent resistance championed by Mahatma Gandhi.
It would be another three years before I would make the same philosophical leap that Tolstoy had, but The Kingdom of God is Within You set the wheels in motion in a way that most books up to that point had failed to.
I wouldn’t call it an easy read, mostly because a sizable chunk of the text is a rant against the treatment of the peasants under the country’s feudal system, with much of the historic detail easily lost on anyone not au-fait with life in pre-revolutionary Russia.
Yet the first and last chapters are striking for their insistence that Christianity’s value to the world lies not in its proximity to power, which can lead to it being co-opted by the corrupt mechanisms of the state (something Tolstoy claims the Russian Orthodox Church of his day was guilty of) but rather its resistance to any kind of violence, particularly the sort meted out by governments.
He insists that individuals carry within them a sense of the divine calling which demands they speak the truth about the world around them. This compels followers of Christ’s teachings to condemn oppression and call for equality and peace.
I didn’t completely agree with Tolstoy’s quasi-anarchist convictions about the state being an innate force for evil, but I still found the message electrifying for a number of reasons. The carnage brought to the Middle East by the early-2000s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Kafkaesque horrors of Guantanamo Bay were rarely out of the headlines as I read the book, making Tolstoy’s invective against the ‘prisons, forced labour, gallows’, and ‘millions of confused people ready like trained hounds to attack anyone against whom their masters set them’ seem disturbingly relevant.
A distaste for state-sanctioned violence also ran deep in my own family.
My great-grandfather had narrowly dodged being executed for ‘cowardice’, after an accidental discharge from a revolver ensured he was accused of inflicting wounds on himself to escape the trenches of World War One.
Although a good word from his commanding officer meant that he avoided the firing squad, the incident led him to vow that if his offspring tried to join the British army, he would ‘break their legs’ first.
His son, my grandfather, was conscripted into serving in World War Two, but left feeling allergic to militarism or jingoism after watching other allied soldiers take brutal revenge on German civilians.
Furthermore I was raised with a sense of pride in my Quaker heritage, with my forebears, including the 19th century campaigner Elizabeth Fry, having often been part of causes that rallied against state-approved bloodlust, from the abolition of slavery, to prison reform, to the movement to allow people to divert their taxes away from military spending.
Like many who studied the civil rights movement at school, it was hard not to find the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s adherence to non-violent protest inspiring and fruitful. It was not just mindless idealism, but a strategy that yielded results.
At the heart of it all, Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the imperial Roman state suggested to me that counter-cultural, peaceful resistance to evil, even unto death, was more abiding than violent retaliation. As the philosopher Terry Eagleton put it: “The Christian faith holds that those who can look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of history is a tortured body, might just have a chance at new life.”
Christianity and pacifism seemed like natural bedfellows. It wasn’t long before I felt ready to merge the two into my worldview.
Similarly, it didn’t take long to realise that not everyone felt the same way. I was increasingly finding that true pacifists were rare, and as the years passed, I started to wonder if I could count myself as one of them.
Britain’s obsession with being on the ‘winning side’ in World World Two is something I’ve often found grating for its emphasis on victory and the undermining of the moral complexities involved in almost any conflict. Yet the question of ‘what would you do in Nazi Germany’ remains a hard one to dismiss, despite being something of a cliché.
Thomas Aquinas’ theories on ‘Just War’ provide a framework for believers, stating that war should be legitimate, fair, reasonable, proportionate, non-lethal to civilians and perhaps most importantly, a last resort. In practice, it must always be a war of self-defence or defence of another against an unjust aggressor. These ideas still have resonance for anyone wanting to ensure that war is not just an end in itself, even if few of the conflicts in the world can truly be called ‘just’.
Not long before my grandfather had been sent out to northern Germany in 1945, the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been executed by the Nazis after a tenure with the military intelligence wing of the anti-fascist resistance movement. He had initially disavowed violence, but changed his mind in the face of Hitler’s rise to power, reasoning that armed struggle in this context was more in line with his Christian beliefs.
While I’ve always admired Bonhoeffer, I still can’t help feeling more of a kinship with the conscientious objectors who chose to grow food and tend to the wounded rather than take up arms against other human beings. Many suffered greatly for it in both the world wars, enduring rejection by their families, imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution.
One of the many reasons I’ve found it hard to engage in Remembrance Day in the UK is that the sacrifices of those who played an important role without fighting are left out. It rarely feels like a chance to remember the awfulness of war and more a reason to bully people into venerating those who had to kill others during wars, without challenging the reasons why they do so and without reflecting on the big question, namely why war remains such an unquestionable part of modern statecraft.
The right not to engage in conflicts engineered by the powerful, or to try and play a peaceful, though often overlooked, role in the face of incorrigibly violent global forces is to me an important part of the Christian life.
But there have been examples in the late 20th century of Christians engaging in armed struggle. The system of thought known as ‘liberation theology’, which gained popularity among Catholics and evangelicals in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, argued that churches should ally themselves with working class movements to overcome the poverty and deprivation experienced by ordinary people. Some priests were involved in politics and trade unions, but others, controversially, joined forces with Marxist armed revolutionaries against oppressive political regimes in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Is it really so evil to be willing to use a weapon in the pursuit of justice for others?
From this perspective, is pacifism merely the same as being passive? And is it simply burying your head in the sand to insist that we need to encourage a more peaceful world by never countenancing the idea that there can be such a thing as ‘righteous violence’, particularly if, to quote Eagleton again, a major aspect of the Christian life is ‘protecting the poor from the violence of the rich’?
Or what do you do if you simply feel like you have no choice – and that if you don’t defend yourself or others, you all might perish? Martyrdom is, after all, not everyone’s calling. And do you just stand by when genocide is unfolding?
The honest answer to such questions is that I still can’t say for sure how I would react if I found myself in such a position – which in itself is an extremely privileged place to be, given that many people in the world have little say in how much they engage with violence. The instinct for self-defence can often trounce reason and principle.
A bewildering and amusing piece of information that came my way recently was that a sizable number of children in Kosovo are named after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (semantically slurred into the moniker ‘Tonibler’), himself a deeply religious man.
For those of us who came of age when the Iraq war began, it is easy to forget that once upon a time, Tony Blair’s track record regarding foreign interventions was considered by many to be proportionate and laudable. British troops were among those deployed by the UN to prevent the carnage from the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s from escalating, a mission which is widely regarded to have been successful in bringing the bloodshed to a halt.
As a result I’ve been forced to ask myself whether I would take less umbridge with warfare in all its forms if it was more collaborative and less jingoistic, divorced from the cavalier disregard for human life displayed by so many politicians – not to mention the military industrial complex that means so many corporations and governments have a vested interest in keeping our world in chaos.
Then there are the choices individuals unwittingly make which help to sustain violence through supply chains. In the hit Netflix series The Good Place, the reformed demon Michael questions whether granting or subtracting points from humans in their earthly lives is the best way to decide whether they should be rewarded or punished in the next life. He argues that even buying a tomato “means that you are unwillingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labour, contributing to global warming. Humans think they are making one choice, but they are actually making dozens of choices.”
To have any kind of power, even consumer power, is to be ethically compromised, and financial and time barriers to ethical behaviour are often prohibitively high.
I sense I’m not alone in being unsure how to even begin to address all this. I would like to say that I am still a pacifist, but perhaps rigid, catch-all terms are hard to truly live by in a complicated, morally compromised world.
I still can’t help feeling that Tolstoy, who himself had been born into the aristocracy, preempted this among his readers: “I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are a Tzar, minister, judge or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.
“If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognise the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.”
To be a Christian is to speak truth to the powerful, even at great personal cost. Sometimes, that might include renouncing violence in a world that has grown far too used to it.
Enjoy Maddy Fry’s informative style? Click here to take a read of her recent article on the tribalism that continues to stalk the streets of Northern Ireland.
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