Pacifism and the False Dilemma Dilemma
Written by David Libby
We live in the epoch of the sound bite. In our culture, a catchy sounding cliché usually commands more respect than a sound argument. People have little respect for good critical thinking; they are much more impressed with shallow platitudes that catch the attention but fail to engage the mind. (This in nowhere more evident than in political campaigns – from both sides). Unfortunately, this aspect of the Zeitgeist has infiltrated the visible church.
One of the church’s favorite breaches of sound argumentation is found in its frequent use of the false dilemma. Here's how it works: one position is juxtaposed against another, and then the one is discredited by simply appealing to proof texts that support the other. For example, if you want to prove that the church is not an organization, simply appeal to texts that describe it as a living body (I Cor. 12: 14-27); If you want to prove that God doesn't ordain suffering in the lives of his children, simply appeal to texts that promise us pleasant things (Ps. 103:1-6); if you want to prove that God is not a God of wrath and judgment, simply appeal to texts that tell us that he is a God of love (I Jn 4:16). But here's the problem, and here's what makes these dilemmas false: to say that the church is a living organism, does not mean that it isn't also an organization; to say that God ordains pleasant things for us in this life, does not mean that he hasn't also ordained suffering; to say that he is a loving father to some, does not mean that he is not a God of divine retributive wrath toward others. Both sides of these juxtapositions (understood correctly) are true. There is no real dilemma.
What the proponents of this critical thinking faux pas fail to understand is that the use of the false dilemma actually presents a real dilemma: it forms an argument that deflates itself. Here's why: because the false dilemma can always be turned around and used conversely. For example, if all we need to do in order to prove that God is not a God of retributive justice is to point to texts that show that he is a God of love, then why can't we just as well prove that he is not a God of love by pointing to texts that show that he is a God of retributive justice? The truth is that he is both, and that is what makes the dilemma false.
So, what does all of this have to do with pacifism? It seems very clear to me that scripture teaches both that there is a proper occasion for tangible (active) expressions of love for our enemies, and also a proper occasion for active (even violent) resistance, in the service of justice and righteousness, as proven by the many places where force was used with God's blessing (The entire books of Joshua and Judges, Gen. 14:1-20, Ex. 17:16, Num. 10:9, Deut. 20:1). To pit one truth against the other is to present a false dilemma, and so to fall victim to the false dilemma dilemma.
Before we dive into this important issue, let me first point out that I will not entertain any sort of false dichotomy between the Old Testament and the New Testament along ethical lines. Although it is true that we are under a new covenant, and the ceremonial types and shadows of the old have been fulfilled and abrogated, nevertheless, God's eternal moral law remains unchanged. In fact, the only epistemologically sound possibility for the existence of any objective ethic is for it to be rooted in the very nature of an immutable and transcendent God. Right and wrong are not what they are because God arbitrarily says so; they are what they are because of who and what he is; they are what they are because they are an expression of his unchangeable nature. That which was morally wrong four millennia ago is still wrong today; that which was morally acceptable four millennia ago is still acceptable today. God does not change; his nature does not change, and the ethical standard that flows from that immutable nature does not change.
So, let's take a look, in light of God's word, at the pacifism that the visible church seems to have become so enamored with.
You Shall Not Kill
God's word makes very clear that to take a human life is an extremely serious affair. Murder is an horrific sin against man: it affectively takes away from the victim everything that he has in this life, and it also takes him away from all those who love him. It is an irreversible crime: restitution cannot be made; the loss cannot be replaced. Murder is also a disgusting sin against God, made particularly egregious by the fact that the one stricken down bears the imago dei. Murder is to be taken extremely seriously.
In Matthew 5:21-22, the Lord Jesus taught that the obligations imposed by the sixth commandment run much deeper than an outward application. Murder can even be committed deep within the secret chambers of the human heart. Not all murder is killing.
It is equally true, however, that not all killing is murder. It is made abundantly clear in Scripture that there are circumstances in which the taking of human life is not only permissible, but even commanded by God. It is permissible in instances of self defense and defense of the innocent, and even defense of property, (Ex. 22:2), and instances of justifiable war (Deut. 20:1); it is commanded as an expression of punitive justice in response to capital crimes (Ex. 21:12,17,23,29, etc.). The sixth commandment, then, cannot be seen as a prohibition of all killing, but of murder. In fact, the penalty that God prescribed for a sixth commandment violation was the death penalty (Ex. 21:12). If all killing is murder, then God is guilty of having required what he has forbidden.
An appeal made to the sixth Commandment in an attempt to prove the pacifistic position, then, falls into the fallacy of the false dilemma. There is no real dilemma: some killing is murder, some killing is not. An appeal can just as easily be made to the many texts where deadly violence is executed in service of God, with his blessing. Therein lies the false dilemma dilemma.
We Christians are citizens of a different kingdom, and so we fight a different kind of war.
I have often heard this argument offered in support of pacifism. It is argued that God's kingdom is spiritual, not physical, and so the warfare that we wage is spiritual, not physical. Since the Lord Jesus clearly said that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), therefore we are to take up the “sword of the spirit” in our struggle against the forces of evil, not the “sword of the flesh”.
Here again, we find an argument derived from the fallacy of the false dilemma. The naïve notion that the sword of the spirit has somehow replaced the sword of steel makes several philosophically suicidal assumptions.
First, it assumes that the sword of the spirit (The Word of God – Eph. 6:17) was not available and active in Old Testament times. This is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture (Deut. 6:1-17; Ps.119:11). God's word had just as vital a role to play in the lives of the elect then as it does now. It's true, of course, that God's word was not yet in its final inscripturated form, but this does not mean that it did not exist at all, or that it wasn't available in other forms - like direct revelation through the voice of the prophets. How absurd to assume that the sword of the spirit was unavailable at a time in history when Moses spoke with God "face to face as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Yet the argument under consideration makes this assumption unavoidable. If we say that the reason why we no longer use the sword of steel is because we now have the sword of the spirit, then we have to assume that the reason why they used the sword of steel in Old Testament times was because they did not have the sword of the spirit.
If the sword of the spirit has replaced the sword of steel, and since the roles intrinsic to the former were active in Old Testament times, then the assumption becomes necessary that those roles
must have been carried out by the latter. II Timothy 3:16 tells us that "all scripture (the sword of the spirit) is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The assumption becomes necessary that, in Old Testament times, the Old Testament Scriptures (which are full of “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness”) were not to be used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, but instead that role was assigned to the sword of steel. Absurd! But if the one has replaced the other, then this is a necessary assumption.
The third assumption is this: if the sword of the spirit has replaced the sword of steel, then the latter no longer has any role to play in the cause of righteousness and justice. It clearly did in Old Testament times. When Abraham formed a small army and led them in pursuit of the confederation of kings who had sacked Sodom and Gomorrah, and defeated them in battle, he was commended by God for his action (Gen. 14). Here is what was said about him: "Blessed be Abram by God most high, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God most high, who has delivered your enemies into your hand". When Jael lured Cisera into her tent, tricked him into going to sleep, and then drove a tent peg through his head, she was commended for it (Jdgs. 4:17-21). Here is what was said about her: "most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent dwelling women most blessed" (Jdgs. 5:24).
The argument under consideration would have us believe that the physical weapons wielded by Abraham and Jael have now been replaced with spiritual weapons, so actions that were commended then would now be condemned. But the God who commended these actions does not change, and his moral standard does not change. What was commendable then is still commendable now. And we also find the use of force commended in the New Testament, for example in Romans 13:4, where the one making a proper use of the sword is described as being a servant of God, in the cause of righteousness.
The fourth assumption that this argument makes is this: that, since the Lord Jesus described his kingdom as being "not of this world", therefore it must not have any real physical manifestation in this world. Now, I realize I need to be careful here. The proponents of this argument would likely accuse me of attacking a straw man. They would no doubt say that of course the kingdom is manifested physically, and that they aren't claiming otherwise. But I insist that this is a necessary (though unwitting) assumption. After all, the reason why the physical sword is rejected as a possible tool for kingdom work here and now, is because the kingdom is spiritual. In order for the argument to make any sense at all, it would have to look something like this: the kingdom is spiritual; the sword is physical; therefore, there is no place for the sword in the service of our king.
That the kingdom of our Lord is manifested physically here and now is undeniable. We are very real members of that kingdom, and we are physical beings with physical assets, and we use these bodies and assets in physical ways for the work of that kingdom. What the Lord Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom is not of this world is this: that his kingdom has not yet come to this world in its fullness; His subjects are, for now, living in enemy-occupied territory. One day the enemy will be vanquished, and this world will be fully restored to its rightful owner, and the kingdom of our Lord Jesus will arrive in all its fullness, but that day has not yet come. Until then, our Lord's kingdom is "not of this world". Its headquarters are elsewhere.
Although the kingdom of our Lord is “not of this world”, it is present and active physically, even while it is present and active spiritually. If we say that there is no place for fighting our battles physically because we are to fight our battles spiritually, then we would have to denounce all Christian participation in just and righteous police work, criminal justice, and all physical suppression of evil. Yet, Romans 13 tells us that when the civil authorities engage in such things they are acting on God’s behalf, as His ministers of righteousness. Are we to assume that it would be wrong for the citizens of God's kingdom to act as his ministers of righteousness?
If we claim that it's wrong to fight our right and just battles physically on the grounds that we are supposed to fight them spiritually, then couldn't we just as well turn the argument around and say that we should not fight our battles spiritually on the grounds that we should fight them physically? You would no doubt recognize that as being absurd, and so would I, and therein lies the false dilemma dilemma.
The Lord Jesus, meek and mild.
Any truly regenerated child of God knows Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord, and submits to that Lordship through the clear teaching of God’s inscripturated word. This means that we need to take very seriously every word that our Lord has spoken to us. It also means that we need to carefully consider how he modeled perfect ethical obedience for us; (although I believe that "what would Jesus have me do?" is actually a far more appropriate question than the axiomatic "what would Jesus do?").
So, did our Lord Jesus teach us, by his words and actions, to be non-resistant pacifists? Certainly we are forbidden from holding a hateful, vengeful, vindictive disposition; we are told by our Lord to pray for and do good to those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43-47) and, when slapped in the face, to turn to the offender the other cheek, rather than striking back (Lk. 6:29); we are commanded to love our enemies.
But does any of this mean, necessarily, that there is no place for a proper use of resistant force in the cause of righteousness and justice? What assumptions need to be made in order to make this sort of an inference?
First, we would have to assume that there is a necessary contradiction between any and all judicious use of force, and our Lord’s imperatives. I can't, for the life of me, see how this is the case. At best, a possible inference could be drawn, but never a necessary one. I won't make the mistake that some commentators have made by dumbing down the definition of love to a mere disposition of the heart, by arguing that it is permissible to use force against our enemies so long as our "heart is right". Love is more than a disposition of the heart; love is active. But neither will I make the mistake that other commentators have made by elevating love to a status that trumps (and even nullifies) all other virtues. As Machen is credited as having said "God is love, but God is not only love; God is love, but love is not God."
Yes, we are commanded to love our enemies, and yes, love is active. To love our enemies does mean to actually be kind to them, and to do good things for them. When our enemy speaks ill of us, we do not revile in return; when our enemy persecutes us, we do not lash out in vengeance; when our enemy slaps us in the face, we do not return the offense, but instead turn to him the other cheek; when he is hungry, we feed him; when he is naked and cold, we sacrifice our own goods so he might be cared for; we do not repay evil with evil, but instead we repay evil with good. But none of this means that there can never be a legitimate circumstance where love for our enemies is trumped by the need for judicious force in the cause of justice and righteousness.
Should rapists and murderers go unpunished? Should terrorizing armies be permitted to brutalize the innocent unopposed? God's word clearly says "no". In fact, God’s civil law prescribed the death penalty for rape and murder, and over and over again God's people were called into military action to defend against invaders. Had the good Samaritan happened upon the robbery victim before the beating was over, then love for his neighbor would have found itself at irreconcilable odds with love for his enemies and virtue would actually demand the use of the sword.
To "turn the other cheek" means to suffer reproach, insult and persecution without retaliating in kind. In fact, we are to do good to those who persecute us. But this does not mean that there is never a proper occasion for a judicious use of force, in the cause of righteousness and justice. There is no real contradiction between the two. Dear Lord, please grant us wisdom to discern honorably!
The second assumption is that the use of force is necessarily evil. In Romans 12:17 we are told to "repay no one evil for evil". This is consistent with the very clear teaching of the Lord Jesus in the gospels. But if we take this to mean that there is never any place for resistant force, then we are assuming that the use of the sword is always and necessarily evil. This would mean that it would be evil for the police to arrest violent criminals, and for judges and juries to prosecute and punish them; it would mean that the Holy Spirit was wrong when, in Romans 13:1-4, he described them as ministers of righteousness; it would mean that the Lord Jesus is evil when he calls the birds of the air together to feast on the flesh of his enemies, slain by his own sword, in Revelation 19. The judicious use of the sword in the cause of righteousness and justice is not to return evil for evil, but to return good for evil. A proper use of the sword is not evil; it is virtuous. In fact, when a just and necessary cause warrants its use, it is evil to leave the sword in the scabbard.
The third assumption is this: that to denounce the use of force where it isn't warranted (or is counterproductive) means that the use of force must be denounced even where it is warranted. A fine example can be found in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of our Lord's arrest. When Peter (in an act of under-appreciated valor) drew his sword to defend his master against the advance of a malicious throng, that same master commanded him to put his sword away. But if we assume that this means that the sword must always be put away, then we have entirely missed the point. The Lord Jesus told Peter to sheath his sword because it's use was, in that particular case, contrary to the divine objective: (so Jesus said to Peter, "put your sword in its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the father has given me?" John 18:11).The Lord Jesus came to die on our behalf, to pay the just penalty for all the sins of all of God's people. Peter's brave sword wielding was actually contrary to this plan of redemption. When he stood in the way of our Lord's arrest, he was standing in the way of the plan of God.
But we can't point to an instance where the use of force is counterproductive, and therefore wrong, and infer that it must, therefore, always be wrong. If there is never any warrant for the use of the sword, then why was Peter in the habit of carrying one around with him in the first place? Why didn't the Lord tell him long before to do away with his sword? Why did he instruct his disciples to sell their valuables so they could afford to purchase swords (Lk. 22:36)?
Yes, the Lord Jesus meant every word that he said. I sincerely hope that nothing I've written here detracts from the full weight and authority of these imperatives: we are commanded to suffer reproach, to turn the other cheek, to do good to those who persecute us, and even to love the enemies who abuse us. We are to be merciful and forgiving. We should pray for and labor for the conversion of our most hateful enemies, so we might have the privilege of embracing them as brothers. We need to remember that if not for the regenerating grace of God, he would make bird food of us all (Rev. 19:17- 19).
However, the same Lord Jesus who gave us these very difficult admonitions is also the one who appeared to Joshua in a pre-incarnate Christophany, with drawn sword, as the commander of the army of the Lord of Hosts, just prior to the Canaanite invasion (Josh. 5:13-15). He was the same Lord Jesus who often spoke harshly to the Pharisees (Mt. 3:7;12:34;23:33; Jn. 8:44), and who used a whip to violently drive the moneychangers out of the temple (Jn. 2:15), and to whom the Father has given the nations of the earth so He can smash them to pieces with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9), and who will soon return in the flesh to slaughter all of his enemies (Rev. 19:17-21).
If we can point to the mercy and lovingkindness of our Lord as proof that there is never any warrant for a righteous use of the sword, then why can't we just as easily point to the sword of the Lord as proof that there is no place for mercy and lovingkindness? Here again, pacifism leaves its proponents hopelessly entangled in the false dilemma dilemma.
In Matthew 5:44-45 we are told to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, because, by so doing, we emulate our heavenly father, who extends a measure of his common grace to both the just and the unjust. However, that same God is also the one who bears the sword to administer retributive justice, to protect the innocent, and to put down unlawful rebellion. God's word is absolutely brimming with examples of the use of force in the cause of righteousness. To emulate our Lord, then, is to do both, each in its proper place, even as he does. There is a simple solution to pacifism's false dilemma dilemma: "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter... a time to kill, and a time to heal... a time for war, and a time for peace", Ecc. 3:1-8. There is a proper time to take up the sword, and a proper time to leave it in its sheath; there is no real dilemma, except for those who invent a contrived dilemma.