C.S. Lewis and Pacifism: A Failure of the Imagination

Whenever one disagrees with C.S. Lewis, there is sure to be much fear and trembling. I am a Christian today in large part due to Lewis’ writing, and, if he had the opportunity to respond to me on the subject of pacifism, I suspect I would meet the long shadow of the Great Knock!  A fearsome idea if there ever was one.

I should say that I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of Lewis’ view of war, but he has written a very helpful brief essay on the topic titled, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, found in The Weight of Glory. I recently read this essay in preparation for a sermon on Memorial Day weekend. I was looking for a robust argument against pacifism, but found only a weak description of pacifism and therefore a weak argument against it. Ultimately Lewis’ seemed unable to imagine a theologically robust and courageous pacifism.

I will attempt to show how Lewis got pacifism wrong by first outlining his argument against pacifism and then bringing Lewis into conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. to show how King’s form of pacifism, active nonviolent resistance, answers Lewis’ objections to pacifism with a more imaginative and theologically robust view of the implications of the gospel.


Lewis’ Facts
Lewis makes the case against pacifism from four different angles: facts, intuition (or reason), authority, and passion (or emotions). For Lewis, the facts are less than clear. How do you answer the question about whether war does more good than bad? In the end Lewis finds that “history is full of useful wars as well as useless wars.”

Lewis’ Intuition
Lewis moves on to intuition. By this he means all the ways we reason out the facts. Lewis points out that while we are called to help and not harm, in order for us to help some, we must divert our actions from helping others. Pacifism assumes a kind of utopian ideal where we can help everyone. Furthermore, because only liberal societies tolerate pacifism, we would soon be overrun by totalitarian dictators. As well, Lewis sees pacifism as being built upon a materialistic worldview that assumes suffering and death are the greatest evils. A Christian spiritual worldview must certainly disagree.

Lewis’ Authority
Lewis continues his argument by citing both human and divine authorities. He claims that “general human authority” over all time “echoes with praise of righteous war.” As for divine authority, he points to “Christendom,” the Church of England’s thirty-nine articles, Thomas Aquinas (for Catholics), and St. Augustine (for the early church), and he suggests that the apostolic writings are all silent on or speak against pacifism.

Looking more closely at scripture, he considers Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). Lewis believes Jesus is speaking in hyperbole and his teaching should be limited to neighborly disagreements where the only motivation is retaliation or revenge. He sums up Jesus’ teaching saying, “Insofar as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back.”

While Lewis believes that pacifism is built primarily on this one verse, he points to several other verses that speak favorably of war. Jesus praised without reservation a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10), and Paul (Romans 13:4) and Peter (1 Peter 2:14) speak sympathetically toward participation in governmental authority and presumably the authority of the sword.

Lewis’ Passion
Lastly, Lewis is skeptical of a “secret influence of passion” in the pacifist, because “pacifism threatens you with almost nothing…it offers you a continuance of the life you know and love, among the people and in the surroundings you know and love.” On the other hand, joining the army leads to all kinds of hardships. Lewis never comes out and baldly says it, but he wonders by implication if pacifists aren’t really just cowards hiding behind a philosophical idea.

Lewis sums up an answer to the title of the essay, “Why I am not a pacifist,” saying, “If I tried to become [a pacifist], I should find a very doubtful factual basis, an obscure train of reasoning, a weight of authority both human and divine against me, and strong grounds for suspecting that my wishes had directed my decision.” Case closed. Pacifism sucks.

Martin Luther King Jr.
The primary problem with Lewis’ argument against pacifism is that it describes a pacifism and pacifist I am not familiar with. I am not a pacifist scholar, but I was introduced to some pretty serious pacifists while attending seminary and living in a new monastic community in the ghetto of Durham, NC. The pacifists I encountered were primarily influenced by the John Howard Yoder strain of pacifism as propagated through his student, Stanley Hauerwas, and the active nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr. They look and act nothing like what Lewis describes. I’ve read more King than I have Hauerwas or Yoder so let me bring into conversation with Lewis the thoughts and methods of King.

King’s “pacifist” theology and methodology are prolifically laid out in the first section of a compilation of his writings, A Testament of Hope. I will draw primarily from an essay titled, “An Experiment in Love.”

King’s Active Nonviolent Resistance
The first thing which should be said is that King didn’t like the word “pacifist.” He thought it sounded too, well, passive. King preferred the term “active nonviolent resistance,” which he says was first developed in the United States primarily in the black church around discussions of what Christian love should look like in the struggle for civil rights. He says:

Nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist…if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight…The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

Watching old newsreels of the civil rights movement, I’m hard pressed to see how Lewis’ implied virtue assassination of pacifists as cowards really sticks. These were no cowards who faced down crowds of antagonistic civilians, mounted police with billlysticks, German shepherds, and water canons with nothing but their bodies. In another essay, King says they marched into hostile territory with “no other weapon than their own bodies” (“A Gift of Love”). I think it is worth asking the question, which ideology and action requires more courage?

While King does not engage Patristic teachings, I cannot neglect to do so myself. Much of Lewis’ own theology seems to be based upon the authoritative theological tradition of the church and its supposed antipathy toward pacifism. Lewis makes the claim that the apostolic writings are all silent on or speak against pacifism. Lewis is simply wrong on this account. The Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus but written or compiled probably in the third or fourth century is very skeptical of any new Christian convert’s involvement with the military. Those who convert and are in the military may continue if they do so without wielding a weapon, and those who are not in the military are not allowed to join the military. The Apostolic Tradition, an earlier Christian tradition or authority than any Lewis appeals to, has a vision for Christian life that looks less like Lewis’ objections to pacifism and more like King’s active nonviolent resistance.

King’s Eschatology
While Lewis’ claims that pacifists have a materialistic world view that sees suffering and death as the greatest evil, King most certainly does not have a materialistic world view. He and his followers were willing to suffer and even die for a greater good. Why? Because King’s eschatology led him to believe that in the end God wins. He says that active nonviolent resistance “is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice,” and as King is fond of saying elsewhere, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

King’s Theology of Agape Love
Contrary to Lewis’ suggestion that pacifism is built entirely around one verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, King builds a theology of active nonviolent resistance upon a broad theological vision of God’s agape love as described throughout the entirety of the biblical witness. King says that agape “is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Cor 10:24)…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” This agape love has practical implications for Christian community.

King’s Beloved Community
King called this community the “beloved community.” His vision of the beloved community where God’s agape love reigned was the ultimate goal for King. This goal predetermined the methods. If King was seeking ultimately to build community between enemies, then the methods he used to attain that end couldn’t put more obstacles in the way of that beloved community than it tore down. He says that active nonviolent resistance:

Does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding…The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

King’s theological imagination for the eschaton determined the way his imagination worked out the means.

King’s Theology of the Cross
King saw this kind of agape love as most fully expressed not so much in Jesus’ teaching like the Sermon on the Mount, but in Jesus’ death on the cross. He says, “The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community.” When compared to King’s theology of the cross, Lewis’ own theology of war seems rather thin when referencing the centurion and Paul and Peter’s statements about governmental authority. This is especially true when we take into account that in none of these verses is violence or war actually mentioned; whereas Jesus’ non-retaliatory actions on the cross are in direct response to violence.

King’s methods and theology could be summed up when he says:

To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate [our opponent], but to win his friendship and understanding.

Failure of the Imagination
Elsewhere I have written of Lewis’ powerful use of the imagination as a means of God’s grace in my own life. The Chronicles of Narnia were a window that Lewis opened on my imagination that allowed the light of God’s grace to shine into my life. I am forever thankful for his past and continuing influence on my faith. I regularly go back to him for guidance on how to think critically about various issues I must articulate as a pastor. And yet Lewis, perhaps because of the kind of pacifists he was interacting with during the World Wars, didn’t seem to be able to imagine a courageous pacifist with a robust eschatology who goes into conflict without a weapon. For this kind of imagination I am left to look elsewhere. In the end King has a bigger theological and methodological imagination.

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Tom Arthur is a contributing writer for the book Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C. S. Lewis and founding past president of the C. S. Lewis Festival in northern Michigan. He regularly blogs for Duke’s Faith & Leadership website Call Response: www.faithandleadership.com/blog. While attending Duke Divinity School he organized the Duke Socratic Club in the spirit of Lewis’ Oxford Socratic Club where he cut his teeth debating theological essentials and inanities with a wide spectrum of ecumenical friends.

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