The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. - Edmund Burke

Do Christian Pacifists tend to argue against the sense of Burke's famous quote by affirming God's Sovereignty and trusting that He will not allow evil to flourish unchecked regardless of the actions of 'good men'? or Do Christian Pacifists expect specific non-violent action to be effective in halting the advance of those committed to achieving their aims by violence without regard to the restraints of the rule of law or basic human compassion such as terrorist groups?

What are some of the important doctrines of Christian Pacifism that speak to these issues and how might they be applied to real world examples such as the Jewish Holocaust of the second world war and the current regime of the Islamic State?

  • There were many Christian pacifists very active in smuggling Jews, and taking other non-violent actions, during the Holocaust. Many people (C.S. Lewis sadly included), seem to think "pacifism" is "passivism", which is decidedly not the case!
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:34
  • @Flimzy I personally don't think that's the case, but it would seem to be a legitimate critique that smuggling thousands of jews to safety is not as effective in actually restraining evil as a military intervention that could actually destroy a genocidal regime. The former treats a symptom of the problem, the latter the root. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:54
  • I'm not sure what a "typical" Christian pacifist would say. I grew up Mennonite, so am pretty familiar with what Mennonite pacifists would say to such a thing... If you want an answer from that perspective, I might be able to put one together.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:57
  • @Flimzy by all means - that would be most welcome. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 18:58
  • 1
    Hindsight is 20/20. For this reason, the holocaust may be an unfair example to demonstrate the "effectiveness" of violence. There were many other situations in history (e.g. the Crusades) where violent intervention only made problems worse.
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 3:43

2 Answers 2


I spent most of my formative years in a Mennonite church, and identify with the Mennonite concept of pacifism. So I will attempt to answer from a Mennonite Pacifist perspective, based primarily on my understanding, as taught to me by Mennonites, of this view (as opposed to my personal opinion on this view, which does vary slightly on a few points), and when possible, will provide references.

First, one must define what is meant by pacifism (and in this case, specifically, Mennonite Pacifism). First, one thing that pacifism is not.

Pacifism is not a "passive" approach to aggression

While "pacifism" bears a resemblance to the often confused concept "passivism", they are not the least bit related. The root of the word "pacifist" is the same as to "pacify" or "peace," whereas the root to the word "passivism" is "passive".

While few people go so far as to claim that "pacifism" comes from the same root as the word "passive" (although I have seen this argued before!), there is still an underlying concept in pacifist critique, that pacifists are, by and large, weak cowards who run from a fight and are, indeed, "passive" when faced with the threat of violence.

Pacifists, especially Mennonite pacifists, are anything but passive! They are generally very active, and even offensive, in their pacifist activism!

An article in The Mennonite magazine describes pacifism as:

[P]acifism focuses on living without harming others at the minimum and as much as possible loving enemies and doing good to those who harm you.

Notice that this doesn't say anything about passively taking a beating from an aggressor!

What is Pacifism then?

If Pacifism is not responding to aggression with violence, and pacifism is not being passive, what is it?

Pacifism is the pro-active non-violent response to aggression. It can take many forms. Some simple examples:

  • Non-violent protests
  • Smuggling of unjustly persecuted people (such as Jews during the Holocaust, or blacks in the US underground railroad) to hide them from a violent/oppressive regime
  • Civil disobedience
  • Voting
  • Speaking against acts of violence
  • Countless others

Naturally, most of these activities attract a lot of negative attention, especially from those who are in favor of a violent response to an aggressor or threat.

What guides a Christian Pacifist?

A Christian Pacifist holds a few Biblical principles in very high esteem. I will spell these out, then help show how they can be applied to a 'rampant evil' situation, such as WWII.

  1. Love your enemy.

    love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you Matthew 5:44 NIV

    This is probably the key verse for Christian pacifists. If we take this commandment from the Sermon on the Mount to heart, it becomes practically impossible to kill our enemy (unless we can somehow justify a mercy killing, but that's ruled out by the next point, which is... )

  2. You shall not murder.

    You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13 NIV

  3. Turn the other cheek

    You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.‘ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. Matthew 5:38-39 NIV

    Here Christ tells us directly do not resist an evil person. This is surely applicable to 'rampant evil', as much as it is to a rude friend who slaps you in the face. Not only are we told not to resist, we are told to make ourselves even more vulnerable to them!

  4. Violence is for God, not man.

    Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Romans 12:19 NIV

    This won't always apply to war situations, but when you consider those who are most quick to criticize pacifists in times of war, it is those who are motivated by a drive for vengeance.

These verses, and others, when considered together in the context of the Bible, and especially the new testament, are taken to paint a picture of non-violent resistance to oppression and aggression. Christ himself lived under an oppressive regime, and among would-be violent revolutionaries (many whom did become violent after Christ's ascension), who even asked him to legitimize their fight against Rome, and Christ responded by saying "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's"--hardly fighting words!

So both the commandments given by Christ, especially the one about loving one's enemy, and his actions in light of his oppressive situation, suggest to Christian Pacifists that non-violence is the model we are intended to follow.

Now finally to the core of your question...

How does a Pacifist respond to 'rampant evil?'

Quoting the article from The Mennonite again (emphasis mine):

Pacifism assumes that punishment and retribution do little to bring about change and tend to escalate the cycle of violence. It is not moral or even possible to “kill all the bad guys.” It is only possible to identify and address factors leading to violence in the environment, such as unemployment. As a pacifist there are causes for which I am prepared to die but none I can imagine that would lead me to kill.

The four principle verses mentioned above suggest directly that a Christian's response to aggression and evil ought to not be violent, and they imply (and it is elsewhere in scripture spelled out) that they ought to trust in God for liberation from evil.

A Christian Pacifist will be willing to die for a cause, but not be willing to kill for a cause.

But does it work?

This is a common criticism... "But if the US had responded with pacifism to Hitler... we'd all be speaking German now!"

We have no way of knowing that, because we did not have a large-scale pacifist response to Hitler. If we had, the world today would undoubtedly be much different. Would we all be speaking German? Probably not. But even if we were, according to a Christian Pacifist, we might be living under oppression, but we would be living free from the guilt of murdering hundreds of thousands of Nazi and Japanese soldiers in the 1940s, and hundreds of thousands of civilian bystanders.

A Christian Pacifist may "lose" in the eyes of the world, and be conquered, but they will uphold a higher standard, and will have won in the eyes of God. "Blessed are the peacemakers."

Even though the Christian Pacifist will say that "even in military defeat we have won", this does not mean that pacifism doesn't work in the world's eyes, as well. There are many examples where it clearly has worked. Look at the independence of India, led by Gandhi, after WWII. A few Indians lost their lives in some peaceful protests, where the British responded with overwhelming violence. But without a doubt, fewer Indians (to say nothing of the British!) died as the result of a non-violent revolution than would have died if the Indians had taken up arms against their oppressors.

  • I have a feeling I've overlooked some important points, but the post is long enough that I'll stop now. Please ask if you want me to clarify or expand on anything for you.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 19:42
  • You have given an excellent answer, the only other point I would add is Jesus refutation of the Old Testament saying of an eye for an eye.
    – BYE
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 19:52
  • @Bye: That's the preamble to "turn the other cheek"... I can add that context to the quote :)
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 19:58
  • @Bye: ... And done
    – Flimzy
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 20:00
  • I am not sure about your conclusion regarding India. Your view is the popular one - there is also a factual one that you might wish to investigate. What factual history proves is that pacifism works if there is massive disruption. In India there was an economical war that resulted in most Indians that could leaving the country - while millions died from starvation and disease. India then embarked on horrific wars and ethnic cleansing. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 6:57

the only thing i might add to Flim's answer is a link to a classic (once appeared in Sojourners in the 70s) article of John H Yoder called Living the Disarmed Life. an important point made is that Jesus faced the same "rampant evil" issue in His day and still loved His enemies, even at the risk of other innocents. i think He expected followers might also get the cross (or something similar) for loving their enemies.


Christians love their enemies not because they think the enemies are wonderful people, nor because they believe that love is sure to conquer these enemies. They do not love their enemies because they fail to respect their native land or its rulers; nor because they are unconcerned for the safety of their neighbors; nor because another political or economic system may be favored. The Christian loves his or her enemies because God does, and God commands his followers to do so; that is the only reason, and that is enough."

and one more:

Someone will be asking, is this the whole picture? Is there not, after all, a moral difference between freedom and tyranny? Is it not our duty to care and even to sacrifice for the preservation of our civilization? Certainly not all such sacrifice can be accounted for as "selfish desires." Are we not socially responsible?

The Christian who has been disarmed by God would here have several things to say, but they may be gathered up into one question. Did not Jesus Christ face the same problem? Was not he, who was just as human as you and I, concerned for the victims of oppression? Was he not, with the thousands who gather around to make him king, a man before whom the path to political responsibility was opening? Did he not believe that it was God's prophetically announced will to glorify himself by establishing righteousness among the nations and to make Zion the center from which justice would go out to all peoples?

And yet, somehow, all of this did not swerve the Son of Man, in whom we see what God wants a person to be, from his certainty that to seek and to save the lost, his path must be one not of power, but of humility; not of enforcing justice, but in incarnating love.

  • 2
    Please edit for proper grammar. Otherwise it is a good post.
    – user3961
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 20:02
  • why thank you, Fred, for your affirmative evaluation and advice. Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 15:29
  • oh gee, i can comment here. but nowhere else. Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 4:47

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