It's presently only in print, not online, but CT's "Village Green" feature for September 2010 is as apt a representation of the vacuity of Christian pacifism that we can imagine.
The question for the symposium-style column is, "Should the US stay militarily involved in Afghanistan?" The contributors are Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethicist from the University of Chicago; Chris Seiple, president of the Institute of Global Engagement; and fabled Methodist pulpiteer and bishop Will Willimon.
Elshtain and Seiple both argue eloquently for the inevitability and moral necessity of ongoing military engagement. Their moral reasoning is clear: not to be engaged is to consign Afghanistan's people and perhaps others to brutal oppression. The victims who would suffer most are those least powerful and most vulnerable.
Willimon, like his Duke Divinity buddies famously influenced by Anabaptists, argues for disengagement, or at least seems to. Asking, "how should American Christians think about this war?" he answers with an anecdote about the late Jerry Falwell, then invokes Jesus, and finally accuses some ill-defined object of having greater loyalty to Caesar than to Christ.
We take his answer to the actual question asked as, "No, because Jesus was a pacifist." We infer that answer from his insistence that we ask "What would Jesus say about this war?"
That we take as a question baiting us to offer a dominical saying as a proof-text that Jesus' disciples can go to war. Surely, Willimon prods tacitly, the Jesus who urged love for enemies and turning the other cheek cannot be invoked to justify all the killing in Afghanistan.
Well, we rise to the challenge. Here, Bishop Willimon, is our proof: Jesus told us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and serve at the cost of our own lives.
It is not love to let my neighbor suffer oppression, whether my neighbor is the family next door whose home is invaded by brigands or a wife abused by her husband or a nation across the world terrorized by totalitarians with a perverse ideology. The fact that I haven't acted until the danger threatens me only heightens my own fallenness; it does not obviate my responsibility. The fact that in trying to do good I may do some harm, even much harm, does not excuse me from making the best effort I can. Choosing not to act--excusing passivity by saying I can't impose my views on others because I am not perfect, despairing of action because I cannot bring about an ideal outcome by acting--does not make me righteous. It does not love my neighbor to turn the other cheek when my neighbor is being victimized.
It isn't even love for my enemy to let him brutalize someone. My shameful recognition of my own fallenness tempers my view of my actions, so I aim as best I can to put a stop to the immediate evil and bring a modicum of peace to the victims, not to satisfy my viscerally distorted view of retribution (though the retributive element always remains in the act of intervention). I intervene with a mournful sense of grim necessity, not a triumphant sense of self-righteousness. But I still intervene, mindful that letting evil operate unchecked does not demonstrate love, even for those who do the evil. They need to be stopped, even with force if force alone will stop them. One did not show love for Pol Pot by letting him massacre fellow Cambodians.
Further, I act knowing full well that it is not the coercive power of "the good" that will transform the evil enemy. Force can only restrain evil. Something else, the self-sacrificial power of the Incarnate Son of God, transforms. Still, I cannot sit by if I have some limited power to liberate, however imperfectly, with the sword that Jesus' apostle Paul spoke of more directly than did the Lord himself.
Bishop Willimon, what do I say to those in my pastoral care who have volunteered to bear arms to liberate Afghanistan? Do I call them dupes of the corrupt, Christless military-industrial complex? Failures in Christian discipleship who have traded their birthright for a mess of patriotic pottage? Or do I affirm what their understanding of the gospel has led them to: that in playing a dangerous part in ending oppression, they are loving their neighbors and their enemies and so should proceed with caution, thought, care--indeed with reluctance and sorrow--but with determination to see the thing through to the best outcome that lies within the power entrusted to them in a fallen world still awaiting the arrival of the New Jerusalem?
Pacificism kills. It doesn't make me pure. Choosing not to act is not the action of love.