Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism
Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism
C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis lived from nearly the turn of the 20th century to the early 1960's. He was a British Christian scholar and author. More specifically, he was an expert on medieval European literature, history, and mythology. In practice, Lewis was an Anglican layman. He was not a clergyman nor an academic theologian. Nevertheless, due in no small part to his brilliant creativity and the accessibility of his thought to the popular listener and reader, his work has been broadly accepted as representative of mainstream Christian thought. My own Christian faith is deeply indebted to C. S. Lewis. The radio broadcasts, collected and published under the title Mere Christianity, was instrumental in supplying my adolescent mind with the rational arguments needed to thwart skepticism and cynicism. For even though my heart was renewed by faith in Jesus Christ, my mind was constantly assailed by doubt. Lewis approved of the careful reasoning through of one's faith and provided sound arguments for why faith is reasonable. In fact, Lewis' thought not only freed me to think critically about my faith, but also to think creatively. He is perhaps even more well known for his fiction than for his apologetics. As I mentioned in a recent post, I am currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children before bed in the hope that the stories will have the same positive effect on them that they've had on me. It is because I cherish Lewis' thought so much that it pains me that I must disagree with him—and disagree adamantly. On a great many subjects, even controversial ones such as his Inclusivism, we are in agreement. In fact, it is rare that I have found fault with his thinking at all. However, I certainly find the reasoning and conclusions presented in this essay desperately deficient. That is why I have undertaken to write this critique and entitle it, "Why C. S. Lewis was Wrong About Pacifism."

I. On the Components of Conscience

Before his first criticism of pacifism, Lewis spends a significant portion of the essay setting the stage for his arguments by deconstructing what he presents as the more fundamental question that is raised by the pacifist question: "how do we decide what is good or evil?" Lewis proposes conscience as the appropriate answer, but seeks to parse out two distinct ways of understanding conscience. Conscience is not only our sense of moral obligation, or what he describes as "the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right." Conscience is also that aspect of our being that discerns good from evil, or what he describes as "[a person's] judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are." This distinction is critical for Lewis' overall argument because only the latter sense of conscience is susceptible to change through argumentation. To argue with one's own conscience (taken in the first sense) would be to "incur guilt." Lewis intends to appeal directly to our consciences (taken in the second sense), through argumentation, to demonstrate the failure of pacifism.

A. The Reason Analogy

To make clear the conscience’s susceptibility to argumentation, Lewis compares the conscience (taken in the second sense) to reason. He explains that the structure of reasoning is composed of several specific components. The components of reasoning are: 1) Facts—which are a mixture of personal experiences and reports from sources we deem reliable and/or trustworthy (called “authority”); 2) Intuition—self-evident truths perceived inductively; and 3) Argument—the artful or skillful arrangement of intuitively-perceived truths towards a “proof of the truth or falsehood of the proposition [being] considered.” Lewis goes on to explain that what he is calling “intuition” is essential to all rational human beings, “incorrigible” if faulty, and “not amenable to correction by argumentation.” He writes, “...the intuitional element, cannot be corrected if it is wrong, nor supplied if it is lacking.” Components 1 and 3, however, possess the capacity for error and therefore often need correction. This is made even more certain by Lewis’ final comment on reason as an analogy for conscience. He argues that the failure of human beings to acknowledge self-evident truths is often due not to an inability to intuitively perceive them, but is instead due to alternative passions or a “sloth[ful]” lack of effort. Essentially, we tend to “see” only what want or expect to “see.”

B. The Conscience By Comparison

Returning to conscience, Lewis correlates all the components he has described of reason back to our moral discernment center. The fact component is our collective experiences of war, killing, injustice, et cetera. The intuition component is our inductive perceptions of “simple good and evil as such.” The argument component is the arrangement of the truths intuitively perceived in such a way as to “convince a man a particular act is wrong or right.” But Lewis reassigns the authority component slightly, making it not only a replacement for facts as it was used in the reason analogy, but now also a replacement for skillful or artful argumentation. This could be seen as second difference between reason and conscience in addition to the difference Lewis goes on to highlight. The immediacy of conscience—the fact that we are considering acts that are to be performed or not performed by virtue of their morality or immorality—is the difference between reason and conscience that Lewis emphasizes as primary. Since we would not be considering the morality of an act unless we either wanted to do it or did not want to do it, Lewis argues, we are “bribed from the very beginning.” This is why Lewis gives greater prominence to authority when returning to conscience from reason. Authority is of even greater value for checking our own processes in the case of conscience because of our proclivity toward justifying desirable yet immoral acts. Lewis’ most relevant points from this section are the positions each of the components occupy in our decision-making process, and how easily corrupted and confused we can become at critical points on our way to a moral conclusion. Lewis argues that what many pacifists claim as intuitive and therefore unarguable is especially debatable since it is based on faulty premises. He uses a teetotaler, someone who questions the Shakespearean authorship of Henry VIII, and those who abstain from vaccinations as examples. The teetotaler concludes that “what can always be abused had better never be used at all.” According to Lewis, he bases this conclusion on opinion, or passions, mistaken for unanswerable intuition. For Lewis, all the components of conscience build a cumulative case for the moral conclusion. Intuition cannot be the sole cause for a stance. The facts must be “clear and little disputed,” the inductively perceived truths must be “unmistakably an intuition,” the connecting arguments must be “strong,” authority must be “in agreement,” and last-but-not-least little motive must be found for the secret bribery of passion. These points will serve to support his overall opposition to pacifism throughout the remainder of the essay while Lewis now turns to consider first the facts component of the pacifist conscience.

II. On Facts

Lewis begins his direct criticism of pacifism by attempting to dismantle its supporting facts. He starts by quickly conceding that “all parties” admit that war is “very disagreeable.” This intentionally softened statement, designed to create a semblance of common ground, stands in stark contrast to his next statement which strikes me as quite a leap. He writes, “The main contention urged by pacifists would be that wars always do more harm than good.” Unless this contention is somewhere written or stated in the official objections of the specific pacifist group Lewis is here addressing, it is being entirely assumed—creating a Man-of-Straw. To be sure, not all pacifists would agree with this premise, let alone start from it. One certainly needn’t affirm this “fact” to arrive at a pacifist position. Therefore, the ensuing section on the inherent failure of speculating about alternatively possible historical outcomes is utterly pointless. A pacifist can easily acknowledge that wars have accomplished some good without considering themselves morally obliged to serve in them. He also defends against the mysterious charge that a war such as World War II was “useless” because it did not “cure slums and unemployment.” Again, this amounts to little more than a Man-of-Straw considering a pacifist needn’t expect wars to cure anything to judge service in war wicked or him or herself morally obligated to conscientiously object to service. Lewis concludes this part saying, “On the test of facts, then, I find the Pacifist position weak.” Considering that no legitimate facts on which pacifists must base their pacifism were debunked, Lewis has proven nothing so far—least of all how it could be “morally obligatory” for Christians to serve in wars.

III. On Intuition

A. Thinking Pragmatically About Love and Help

Lewis believes intuition, properly surmised, is irrefutable. It is what “no good man has ever disputed.” He only argues that pacifists are mistaken about their intuition. What he will acknowledge is that intuition clearly teaches is that “love is good and hatred bad, or that helping is good and harming is bad.” This is a crucial concession that will soon lead to a misstep in Lewis’ logic. For from this grounding he proceeds to make an argument of expediency and pragmatism, that inevitably disregards this intuition for a type of realism. He writes,
You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that; and if you do it to these men, you can’t also do it to those. Hence from the outset the law of beneficence involves not doing some good to some men at some times. (p. 41)
On the face of it, who could disagree with such sound logic? A person must prioritize the love or help he or she supplies in a given, specific instance, right? It would certainly seem so. He elaborates:
Hence those rules which so far as I know have never been doubted, as that we should help one we have promised to help rather than another, or a benefactor rather than one who has no special claims on us, or a compatriot more than a stranger, or a kinsman rather than a mere compatriot. And this fact most often means helping A at the expense of B, who drowns while you pull A on board. And sooner or later, it involves helping A by actually doing some degree of violence to B. (p. 42)
That quickly, pragmatism has already led Lewis—quite logically—to violate even his own, irrefutable intuition. Mere sentences beforehand, Lewis explains that pacifism has a misunderstood intuition. A more trustworthy intuition is that love and help are good while hatred and harm bad. Nevertheless, the “law of beneficence” to which Lewis appeals requires that constraint be applied to whom we are able to supply love and help. Then, logically, it follows that if we are permitted to withhold love and help to some due to a distinction, such as one’s citizenship or kinship, we are also permitted to apply violence to the other for the sake of the person closer to us in a social hierarchy of relationship. The moment Lewis’ constructs a hypothetical scenario that requires we choose between a loved one and another, the intuition from which he began this logical progression is rendered entirely irrelevant. For Lewis, is it no longer “bad” to “harm” someone, so long as the person you are harming is further from you relationally than the person on whose behalf you are harming them.

B. The Hierarchy of Relationship

Another fascinating aspect of Lewis’ logic on this point is the strata of relationship he outlines. First, those to whom we have promised help are to be prioritized over those to whom we have promised nothing. Second, those who have helped us are to be prioritized over those who haven’t. Third, “compatriots” are to be favored over “strangers.” Finally, family are to be favored better still over compatriots. Surely, when Lewis refers to this hierarchy as the “rules” which have “never been doubted,” he forgets the Bible. For the Bible directly calls into question such “rules.” What’s to prevent such a hierarchy from producing injustice? In what way does such a hierarchy reflect the nature of God? If I have resources with which I am able to help, by these “rules” I would never help or love anyone but my own family, country, and those who’ve helped me first. Then again, if these “rules” are as universal as Lewis takes them to be, neither would anyone else. Each family, community, nation, and so on would only care for themselves. As Lewis explained, love and help have to be applied discerningly, and a discerning person certainly doesn’t apply love and help to the “other.” Jesus, however, teaches a much different ethic:
You're familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. (Matthew 5:43-48, The Message)
Enemy-love is scandalous precisely because it runs counter of our intuition informed by the type of logic Lewis here applies. Jesus’ original audience would have thought just like Lewis. Yet Jesus called them to a different and greater ethic, and by extension he calls us to that very ethic as well. It is the ethic of God’s Kingdom. More on this later.

C. Is Violence Justifiable?

Lewis does not entertain any other possible ethic in this portion of his essay and his ethic continues to deteriorate the further he proceeds down the rabbit hole of pragmatism. After assuming the pacifist society to which he writes his address agrees with him thus far (p. 42), he continues to assault what he considers the only two remaining pacifist positions possible. The first is that violence against an individual who seeks to harm someone higher up on the hierarchy of love and help is permissible short of killing the person. The second is that killing such an individual is lawful, only war or “mass killing” is not. In his efforts to debunk these two possibilities he makes at least one logical error and one historical-cultural error. Lewis’ logical error happens during his discussion of the first pacifist position he wishes to debunk: the position that violence is permissible against person B, provided they seek to harm person A, who is closer in relationship to you. In this argument Lewis writes,
I admit the general proposition that the lesser violence done to B is always preferable to the greater, provided that it is equally efficient in restraining him and equally good for everyone concerned, including B, whose claim is inferior to all the other claims involved but not nonexistent. (p. 42)
This entire section is predicated on the previous discussion of how love and help are not general but specific, and that when the choice must be made between a person of closer relationship over the “other,” violence is justified. This assumes an inequality of good to the two parties. In the proposed scenario, A receives love and help while B cannot. Lewis even uses the example of two people drowning. Person A, your fellow countrymen or someone who has lent you money, is to be saved over the “stranger.” Now Lewis is saying that, if possible, less violence is preferable to greater violence when qualified by two criterion: 1) the less-violent tactic must be equally efficient at restraining person B; and 2) it must also be equally “good” for “everyone concerned, including [person] B.” This is of course logically impossible. Any violence, either lesser or greater, enacted upon person B for the sake of person A, will necessarily be less good for person B than person A. In fact, the very reason violence is being enacted on anyone at all is because Lewis has forced us to choose which one we will love or help over the other.

D. Is War the Greatest Evil?

The second possible pacifist position Lewis now seeks to debunk is the stance that killing an individual person in certain circumstances is lawful, but it is war or “mass killing” that is wrong, evil. To build his case, Lewis attempts to prove that war is not the greatest evil. And two examples he uses of greater evils strike me as particularly alarming. He writes,
The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or even a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. Nor am I greatly moved by the fact that many of the individuals we strike down in war are innocent. That seems, in a way, to make war not worse but better. (p. 43)
Several things should be said here. First, it is entirely unnecessary for a person to accept the doctrine Lewis describes to affirm a pacifist stance. War needn’t “always” be the “greatest evil” for it to be prohibited by Christian faith. Adultery is not the greatest evil yet it is clearly precluded from permissible Christian activity. Christian pacifism is not predicated on the evil nature of war, but on righteous discipleship of Jesus Christ. Second, Lewis accuses this thinking of ascribing to a materialist ethic that values life and health above all else. This accusation strikes me as surprising. Could not the same be said of the Just War proponent? Is not the Christian who claims it is necessary to protect life through war also valuing life above all else? The only difference is that the Just War proponent values the lives of their fellow countrymen over their enemies’ lives. If the Just War proponent did not value life and health, would they not gladly accept that injury or death are preferable to disobedience and/or dishonor of Christ? Third, Lewis provides two examples of evils he considers greater than war. The first example he uses is the suppression of what he calls a “higher religion” by a “lower” one. Obviously he does not give us any examples of these “lower” religions he speaks of, but let’s not forget the historical-cultural context in which this address is being delivered. Lewis is a former soldier and proud English patriot living in 1940—perhaps merely months after the invasion of Poland. Nevertheless, even though Nazism was certainly an evil, racist, fascist, totalitarian, nationalistic and ideological movement, one is hard-pressed to argue that it was primarily a religious movement. In fact, Nazi-controlled Germany maintained at least the facade of a Christian civil religion. In what sense, then, could Lewis consider the relevant war on the minds of his hearers primarily a religious war? Or, if we broaden the scope of this statement, what are we to make of the many, many wars fought by “Christians” on both sides? Both England and France were “Christian” nations when they engaged in war. And both sides of the Civil War claimed the divine support of the Christian God. What greater evil is there than Christians killing each other in obedience to the civil authorities of their respective nations? Finally, Lewis also suggests the suppression of “higher cultures” by “lower” ones is a greater evil than war. Again, since Lewis does not elaborate and provide us with examples of these “higher” and “lower” cultures he speaks of, we are not capable of fully ascertaining his meaning. However, I must say that this point made me very uncomfortable. The judgment of one culture as “higher” than another shows concept for the Creator’s reflection in every human culture. Are industrialized, “civilized” cultures superior to agrarian, tribal cultures? What standard is being applied to determine the value of culture? To be frank, this statement smacks of an European ethno-centrism that deeply concerns me and dishonors Lewis’ legacy.

E. Is Pacifism Dangerous?

Moving beyond the two types of pacifism previously considered, Lewis now considers a pacifist strategy for preventing war and the question of whether there is any “cure” to human suffering. The strategy Lewis considers is another strange idea that seems to come from nowhere. Unless Lewis is addressing some written or spoken pacifist campaign it seems to be yet another Man-of-Straw. He counters the plan to eliminate war by the spread of pacifism as a philosophical idea by the use of propaganda. The plan is apparently to inundate nations with so many pacifists that an army could not be formed. Lewis sharply rebukes this plan saying that only “liberal societies tolerate Pacifists” and that a nation with so many pacifists that it would not fight would be overtaken by a nation that does not tolerate pacifism and therefore pacifism would become extinct. In the second century, (c.178ad) a pagan philosopher named Celsus accused Christians of being irresponsible and unsupportive of justice because they refused to hold public office, fight in the army, nor swear oaths of allegiance to the state. Origen (c.185-251ad), an early church father and theologian, responded to Celsus’ criticisms in a six-volume work called Against Celsus. One of Celsus’ pointed concerns was that if Christianity gained popularity, with its nonviolent ethic, the Roman Empire would be rendered vulnerable and defenseless to attack by “barbarians.” Origen’s response is instructive and relevant to Lewis’ argument. We say that if two of us agree upon earth concerning anything that they shall ask, they shall receive it from the heavenly Father of the righteous... For they will pray to the Word, who said of old to the Hebrews when they were pursued by the Egyptians: ‘The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall be silent’; and, praying with all concord, they will be able to overthrow far more enemies who pursue them than those whom the prayers of Moses—when he cried to God—and of those with him overthrew...But if, according to Celsus’ supposition, all the Romans were to be persuaded, they will by praying overcome their enemies; or (rather) they will not make war at all, being guarded by the Divine Power, which promised to save five whole cities for the sake of fifty righteous. For the men of God are the salt that preserves the early order of the world; the earthly things hold together (only) as long as the salt is not corrupted. (Against Celsus, 8.70) Against Lewis’ argument I would defer to Origen and Scripture. The Christian response to the threats of enemies is increased trust in God. Prayer and righteousness seem to be the only ways to ensure the safety of God’s people, not weapons or war.

IV. On Authority

When Lewis finally turns to consider the authority component of the pacifist conscience, he divides it further into two parts: general and special, human and divine.

A. On Human Authority

In his exploration of special human authority, Lewis demonstrates one of the most fundamental errors in his thinking. From the very beginning of the essay, to the very end, Lewis considers himself first a citizen of England and second a disciple of Jesus Christ. Several times throughout this essay, including this very section, Lewis refers to England as the society “to which [he] belongs.” This identification is nothing short of treason. The Christian has only one allegiance because the Christian has only one Lord. Jesus Christ does not share his subjects with England, the United States, or any other worldly power. He demands that if he is our Master, he alone rules in our hearts and commands our lives. Lewis mistakenly claims that England’s declaration of war “decided the issue against Pacifism.” But Scripture proclaims clearly, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29) When Lewis broadens his gaze to general human authority, his argument gains no further weight. He writes, “To be a Pacifist, I must part company with Homer and Virgil, with Plato and Aristotle, with Zarathustra and the Bhagavad-Gita, with Cicero and Montaigne, with Iceland and Egypt.” (p. 46) Overlooking this as the shameless name-dropping it is, Lewis here nobly attempts to show that the overwhelming majority of respected sources of culture from a broad span of history and across the globe have all agreed that war is necessary, even heroic. Perhaps an interesting aside: Iceland has had no standing army since 2006 and considers its role in hosting the Reagan-Gorbachev summit which contributed to the ending of the Cold War one of its proudest political accomplishments. I’m fairly certain a pacifist could now remain in Iceland’s good graces. Additionally, it is not insignificant that Gandhi based his his nonviolent political movement (Satyagraha) on the doctrine of Ahimsa (meaning “to do no harm”) found in the Gita. So, apparently this authority source isn’t necessarily as supportive of Lewis’ stance as he assumes. Regardless, I find this sort of argument actual quite counter-productive for Lewis’ case. If Scripture is correct and the whole world is under the control of the evil one (Luke 4:6; I John 5:19; II Corinthians 4:4), then we should expect to see widespread evil and nearly unanimous agreement on violence and killing. Jesus describes Satan as “the thief who comes only to kill, steal, and destroy.” (John 10:10) To be sure, human authority is corrupted to at least some discernible degree.

B. On Divine Authority

Here is where Lewis should shine. As a noted and profound Christian thinker, divine authority should be the subject on which Lewis argues best. This is unfortunately not the case. I grant that Lewis is not a professional exegete and yet I am still highly disappointed with how carelessly he treats biblical interpretation—especially on a matter as weighty as violence and peace. He writes, “When we turn to Christianity, we find Pacifism based almost exclusively on certain of the sayings of Our Lord Himself.” (p. 47) Several things should be noted here. First, this is plainly inaccurate. Jesus addresses many subjects in the Gospels. If a person is examining any one subject for Christ’s teaching on it, he or she will necessarily find only “certain” of his teachings relevant. That Christ did not teach exclusively on the subject of violence, but also addressed subjects of money, marriage, et cetera does not a case against pacifism make. Therefore, all Christian teaching that seeks to know what Christ taught directly on a given topic will be based on “certain” of his sayings.

1. Apostolic Authority

Second, Lewis rejects the existence of apostolic teaching that confirms the “certain” teachings of Christ which he acknowledges potentially support pacifism. He writes, “Nor, I think, do we find a word about Pacifism in the apostolic writings...” This is blatant error. In Romans 12:14, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” This is nearly a verbatim quote of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount found in both Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28. Paul goes on to say, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil...” (v. 17a) which directly corresponds to Matthew 5:38-42. Regarding Paul’s entire thought in verses 17-21, John Stott writes, “Non-retaliation was a very early feature of the Christian ethical tradition, going back to the teaching of Jesus, and beyond this to the Old Testament Wisdom literature.” Making this particular instance of nonviolent, apostolic teaching especially relevant is its proximity in the flow of Paul’s argument to the opening verses of chapter 13. When read together it is clear that the wrath Paul  commands Jesus’ disciples to make room for, is the very same wrath God enacts through the state. Also not to be overlooked are the apostolic teachings of Peter. In precisely the same fashion as Paul, Peter couples the teaching of submission to governing authority with the peacemaking and non-retaliation ethics of Jesus. I Peter 2:11-25 begins with the exhortation to view ourselves as sojourners in this world, present to the world but not belonging to it. Nevertheless, our calling as Jesus’ disciples requires us to live as witnesses to the Gospel through good works. Peter, like Paul, commands believers to submit to worldly leaders in so far as they carry out their God-given duty to punish evil and reward righteousness. Also like Paul, Peter commands believers not to retaliate against enemies, but rather points to Jesus’ unjust suffering as an example for us. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (v. 23) Taken together, these passages of apostolic teaching are impossible to legitimately dismiss as Lewis attempts here. They represent an undeniably nonviolent ethical motif.

2. Three Christian Traditions

Third, Lewis briefly surveys a spattering of broad Christian traditions which have immense internal diversity, lends to each either a comment of violence endorsement or an out-of-context quote, then concludes that on the whole Christianity has nearly unanimously supported war. In the span of only a few short sentences, he has already enlisted Anglicans, Presbyterians, and “Papists” to his coalition of Christian war-supporters. Perhaps another interesting aside: Not all Christians in these traditions have agreed on the subjects of violence and war. Notable exceptions to Lewis’ generalization are the Peace Pledge Union (1934) out of which was later formed the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (1937). For the Presbyterians, persons of note include the Revs. Alun Richards, Lex Miller, and Basil Dowling. Each of these Presbyterian men protested conscription and opposed war on Christian grounds. For their beliefs they faced legal battles, fines, and imprisonment. All this took place before 1940, when Lewis would make the remark “...I can refer them to the history of the Presbyterians, which is by no means Pacifist.” (p. 47) For Roman Catholics, Lewis ignores the powerful Catholic Workers Movement founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Since its birth during the Great Depression, the Catholic Workers Movement has been a highly influential Christian witness that continues to this day. Thomas Merton wrote for the group’s newspaper and in the past 77 years it has formed over 130 communities throughout the world. Lewis’ drastic overgeneralization can perhaps be seen best in his most sweeping statement of this section: “All bodies that claim to be Churches—that is, who claim apostolic succession and accept the Creeds—have constantly blessed what they regard as righteous arms.” (p. 48)

3. Patristic Authority

Fourth, Lewis’ consultation of “patristic authority” is perfunctory at best. He cites only Augustine, a ringer for the Just War position since he invented it! There’s not one mention of a church father who lived prior to the fourth century. The significance of this convenient omission is not easily lost on those with even a cursory familiarity with church history. It is what Yoder calls the “Constantinian Shift.” The fundamental transition in the identity of global Christianity from “a persecuted minority cult into an established majority religion.” Since space prohibits me from a thorough listing of the myriad church fathers who adamantly opposed violence and war due to their commitment to discipleship, a summary from early church research back by references to further reading must suffice. Origen and Tertullian, two adamant voices of opposition to violence, echo loudly throughout church history. Only amplifying their testimony is the deafening silence of church history records of Christian soldiers. It is the overwhelming consensus of researchers and historians, that no single piece of credible evidence remains for the existence of Christians soldiers from c. 50ad (which may have been only Cornelius and one or two soldiers) until c. 170ad, the time of Marcus Aurelius. Cadoux underlines this point citing the silence of Pliny on the matter in his letter to the emperor Trajan, saying it is “perfectly compatible with the supposition that the Christians would not serve,” because “there was nothing in the circumstances of the time to bring about a collision between the imperial government and the Christians on the subject of military service.” Similarly underscoring the significance of this profound historical omission, Roland Bainton pokes fun at authors who down-play this fact:
...Celsus knew of no Christians who would accept military service. The comment of Moffatt must be regarded as distinctly inadequate when he says of Celsus: “It is fairly obvious that he had met Christians who were holding back from military service.” Umphrey Lee’s version is a masterpiece of under-statement: “Whether there were in the second century those who held that a Christian could not serve in the legions we do not know; but Celsus... seems to imply that there were.” Celsus said quite distinctly that there were no Christians who would serve...
The extreme lack of evidence for any Christian military personnel from the earliest New Testament epistles to nearly the third century, coupled with the dramatic testimony of early church fathers Origen and Tertullian, makes for an impressive Early church witness in favor of a consistent nonviolent Kingdom ethic extended directly from the essential teachings of Christ by way of the apostles.

4. An Alternative Interpretation of “Turn the Other Cheek”

Finally, after believing he has proven pacifism to fail the test of authority on the grounds of apostolic teaching, a quorum of Christian traditions, and patristic testimony, Lewis now addresses what he considers the final bit of authority to which pacifists might appeal: Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.” He argues that there are three possible interpretations of this command (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29a). The first he labels “the Pacifist interpretation” and describes as unqualified, universal, for “all men in all circumstances.” The second he labels “the minimising interpretation,” and describes as a hyperbolic way of saying we should “put up with a lot.” Both of these he rejects. In their place he proposes his own interpretation that he believes to be a somewhat mediating position. He asserts that the Lord’s original hearers would have understood several obvious qualifications to the command. For Lewis it is obvious that Jesus only prohibits personal retaliation. He summarizes his view thusly, “Insofar as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back.” (p. 50) There can be no broader corporate implications for Jesus’ teaching in Lewis’ view since it is obvious to him that Jesus would expect his followers to whatever violence is necessary to protect others. Furthermore, Lewis sidesteps any rational explanation for this assumption, and instead proceeds directly to an emotionally-charged hypothetical. “Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get to his victim?” This appears to be as good a place as any to put to rest the mistaken notion that hypothetical scenarios, such as the one put forth by Lewis here, are effective arguments against Christian nonviolence. Such attempts by non-pacifists to illicit a concession on emotional grounds is very common. Nevertheless, it should be stated that such hypothetical scenarios prove only that human beings are easily corrupted by their passions—against which Lewis wisely warns readers in the beginning of this essay. The fact is: Jesus had many hard sayings that require his disciples to wrestle with their implications. Discipleship necessarily demands cost-counting (Luke 14:25-33), undivided allegiance (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), resolute commitment (Luke 9:61-62), and personal sacrifice (Mark 10:28-30). To be Jesus’ disciples, we must walk as Jesus walked (I Peter 2:21). We are to be his imitators (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 2:1-11; I Thessalonians 1:6), and to imitate Jesus Christ we must love the way Jesus Christ loved (1 John 3:15-17, 4:16-18), by laying down our lives, even for our enemies (Romans 5;10; Colossians 1:20-22). The implications of this calling are not provided for every possible situation, nor need they be. Disciples of Jesus have been given the Holy Spirit of God as their Guide (John 14:15-21, 25-27; Mark 13:11; I Corinthians 2:11-16; Galatians 5:15-17). To all the innumerable, possible scenarios one would have to address, there would be no end. Rather, we have but one answer: faithful discipleship that witnesses to the love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ as guided by the Holy Spirit. It appears a misunderstanding of the historical context is Lewis’ primary interpretive error. For he concludes that Jesus has in mind here the “frictions of daily life among villagers” rather than violence between members of unequal social roles. As examples of instances where retaliation would be expected, he uses parents struck by children, a teacher struck by a student, a “sane man” struck by a “lunatic,” and a solider struck by a “public enemy.” I will take each in turn. First, let’s assume Lewis is correct. Parents whose children are in a rage and strike their parents should be struck in return. Surely Jesus would not have prohibited this, right? One must wonder, though, is this sort of striking of a child discipline? Is it measured, and carried out in love for a purpose? Even parents in favor of spanking could legitimately disapprove of returning a blow sustained by a child in retaliation. Perhaps the child has lashed out in such as way because he or she knows no other way to communicate their anger than through physical violence. A parent who loves that child would be entirely justified in using force to discipline him or her, however they may find this an opportunity to model a more constructive mode of communicating frustration. It’s possible that a parent might find it more wise to demonstrate restraint in this case to deescalate the child’s rage. All in all, I’m not entirely certain this example supports Lewis’ case as well as he may think. Next, Lewis thinks a teacher is justified in retaliating against his or her student if struck. Oddly enough, many nations have laws against such action since they consider it abuse for an adult teacher to strike a child student. As in the example of the parent, this may serve as a “teachable moment” for the pair. The teacher has the opportunity to model forgiveness and civility. The example of the sane man striking a “lunatic” is perhaps the most disturbing. I’m fairly certain this is abuse. A mentally-ill person should not be punished for their illness, as if it were voluntary. Suppose a sane person’s disease caused them to convulse uncontrollable and they inadvertently struck their physician. Should the doctor return the blow? The blows of a mentally-ill person a no more deliberate. Of course, if the example of the soldier returning the blow of his enemy were the open-and-close case that Lewis here assumes it is, would he even need to be addressing a pacifist audience? It would seem from Lewis’ assumption that there should be no Christian pacifists. It just so happens, however, that Jesus’ teaching is precisely in the context of unequal social roles. The Jewish audience Jesus addresses with this teaching are a politically oppressed people group whose primary opponents are not other Jewish villagers, but their powerful, pagan overlords. In the very same context he has taught them saying, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (v. 41) I’m not sure to what frictions of daily village life this could refer. But we do know that Roman soldiers often required Jewish peasants to carry heavy equipment for them for one mile—a practice called angaria. Considering the immense oversight of Jesus’ socio-political milieu, I’m certain we cannot fully support Lewis’ interpretation of this verse. Lewis concludes his interpretation of Jesus’ command for his disciples to “turn the other cheek” not with discussion of the lexical, syntactical, historical or cultural context, but rather with four proof texts which even taken together amount to less than a modicum of biblical support for Christian warring. Let’s take them one by one. 1) “St. John Baptist’s words to the soldiers.” (p. 50) This is all Lewis says of his first biblical support. One might expect to find in John’s words to the soldiers, “Good job!” or “Keep up the good work!” This is far from the case. To the soldiers who approached him, John the Baptist said, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14b KJV) Or perhaps one might say that using the King James which translates the Greek to English as “violence” is staking the deck. To that one I would ask, “How does a soldier justified in injuring or killing his enemy if he is expressly forbidden from even intimidating them or extorting money from them?” It is true that the Baptist did not command the soldiers to leave the military. He did however command them to stop using military means. They are left themselves to extrapolate the implications. At best this “proof” is an argument from silence, and at worst it serves to further support the pacifist position. 2) “Our Lord praised ...a Roman centurion.” (p. 50) Yes, it is true Jesus praised the faith of the centurion. However, this is another argument from silence. Jesus does not endorse soldiering, much less war, by failing to condemn the centurion for his position. In fact, if we were to apply this same logic to others Jesus praised, we would need to believe Jesus endorsed tax collecting (Luke 18:9-14), and prostitution (Matthew 21:31-32). Members of both these professions are also held up as examples of faith, without reference to the sinfulness of their lives. Proof texts 3 and 4 are Romans 13:4 and I Peter 2:14. In both cases, it has already been shown above that each endorsement of the “magistrate’s use of the sword” is coupled with the apostle’s prohibition of the Christian wielding that same sword. (See the section on “Apostolic Authority”). Therefore, Lewis’ string of proof texts fail to obtain and he is left now to assert that a pacifist interpretation of Jesus’ command is novel—appearing only in modern times. Having demonstrated that on each point of his appeal to “divine authority” it can be shown that Christian nonviolence is either present in church history or Scripture, Lewis’ attempt to refute pacifism fails.


A. Are Pacifists Simply Cowards?

Lewis uses the occasion of his concluding remarks to return to a very pertinent point he made at the outset of his essay. Since, unlike the reason, the conscience deliberates over matters which will require either action or active abstinence, and since we typically consider those matters which we either want to do or do not want to do, we are “bribed from the beginning.” Lewis fears that pacifists overlook the clear influence of our passions. He suspects of his audience that somewhere deep within the process of constructing their moral opposition to war and violence, they secretly or unconsciously seek to preserve their own lives, status, and wealth. He spends a large portion of his closing remarks detailing all the many sacrifices a soldier must make aiming to demonstrate that no selfish passion would lead a man to falsely justify such a career. Again, I find that Lewis’ logic may work against him. For just as accuses pacifists of being unconscious of their own hidden motives, the one that seeks to support violence and war might be just as guilty. Patriotism and nationalism are powerful forces that are often as unnoticeable to citizens as water to a fish. Furthermore, human beings are prone to violence as it possesses the appearance of effectiveness and productivity. No better solution can be found than violence if one seek instant gratification for a wound or an offense. Revenge and the semblance of justice are often conflated to be one and the same. I think it is entirely clear from Scripture that it takes greater bravery to entrust oneself to the unseen God for protection and victory, than it does to trust in the might of weapons and armies. Trusting in the strength of guns and tanks takes no faith at all; their power is fully evident. Trusting in the power of armies requires no faith either; their impact is demonstrable. The courage to which the Christian is called is greater than that of the soldier’s. For the Christian is required to believe in the resurrection. That though he is slain, God has not been defeated, because Jesus Christ is risen and has victory over both hell and death! (Romans 6:8-10; II Corinthians 4:10-18; Hebrews 11:6, 17-19; Revelation 12:11)

B. Kingdom Citizenship

The primary reason why C. S. Lewis was wrong about pacifism, is that he was wrong about citizenship in the kingdom of God. Throughout his essay, Lewis presupposes a type of dual allegiance to both the kingdom of God and the particular instance of the world’s kingdom in which he finds himself—the United Kingdom. This is Lewis’ most fundamental error. Christians, as citizens of God’s kingdom have only one allegiance—to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When his birth was heralded the revolutionary overtones of its announcement were not lost on its original hearers. A Son is given, the Son of God, to bring peace to the earth and all men. He is the Lord. He is the King of his people, and to his reign there will be no end, for his is an eternal kingdom. Called directly into conflict was the allegiances of every hearer. Would they, by rejecting the lordship of Caesar, risk their lives for this King? Would they, by accepting Jesus’ Lordship, lay down their own lives in his service? Many made the choice to follow Jesus and it meant their deaths. Jesus in fact demanded that his followers count the cost of discipleship and decide if they are willing to risk it for the reward of eternal life with him, their King. He promised that though they would be persecuted for their faith, he would be with them by his Spirit and would raise them from the dead. No one misconstrued his words for a “God and Country” message. No one heard his Gospel and thought it meant dual citizenship. No, his disciples proclaimed a Gospel of One Lord—Jesus Christ. In modern times, governments have often had a facade of Christian civil religion that has masked this dichotomy. Many have been deceived into believing  they can serve both God and country faithfully. Scripture clearly commands us to “honor the emperor” (I Peter 2:17), but Scripture also clearly commands us to live as “sojourners (foreigners) and exiles” (v. 11) because this world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), and called to manifest the soon-coming, holy city of God (Revelation 21:2) where mourning and pain will be over and the nations will be healed (v. 4; 22:2). About the coming kingdom Christians are called to reflect now, the prophet Micah wrote,
“[The Lord] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.” (Micah 4:2b-4)
As kingdom citizens, all Christians must reject violence and war, and in their place manifest the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ. For he is our Lord and we are his disciples.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3-5) Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16) Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
End Notes: 1. The summary of the early church’s stance toward violence and war from Part IV, section (B) “On Divine Authority,” is based on the following sources: John C. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (London: Headley Bros. Publishers, 1919), 97; Roland H. Bainton, “The Early Church and War” in Christian Life: Ethics, Morality, and Discipline in the Early Church (NY: Garland Publishing, 1993), 195; John Friesen, “War and Peace in the Patristic Age,” in Essays on War and Peace: Bible and Early Church. Edited by Willard M. Swarthy (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1986), 135-136; Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 71; Stanley Windass, Christianity Versus Violence: A Social and Historical Study of War and Christianity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 10.

Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism (PDF)