Why I'm Not a Pacifist

In the frequently debated essay in The Weight of Glory titled “Why I’m Not a Pacifist,” Lewis asks a simple, provocative question:  “How do we decide what is good or evil?” It seems easy enough. It’s our conscience, right? Lewis says that’s the usual answer, breaking it up into what a person is pressured to feel as right due to a certain universal guide, and what a person judges as right or wrong for him or herself.

The first is not arguable given its universality (something some argue nonetheless), but Lewis warns that the second is often moved and sometimes mistaken.

Enter Reason. We receive a set of facts, we have intuition about such facts, and we have need to arrange these facts to “produce a proof of the truth or falsehood,” Lewis says. This last ability is where error usurps reason or simply a refusal to see and understand the truth.

Most of us have not worked out all of our beliefs with Reason. Rather, we lean in on the authority on which those beliefs are hinged and we are humble enough to trust it.

Why not pacifism then? Here’s his rundown, in brief.

First, war is very disagreeable in everyone’s point of view. The pacifist contends that war does more harm than good, that every war leads to another war, and that pacifism itself will lead to an absence of war, and more, a cure for suffering. Lewis is pointed in his  response:

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terribly by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

Lewis left, taken during WWI

In other words, doing good in tackling immediate evils with deliberate force, does more good than setting up position statements based in some humanistic view that improvement will inevitably come just because… it’s suppose to come.

Hold on. Jesus says a person should turn the other cheek, right? Lewis presents three ways of interpreting Jesus. First, the pacifists way of imposing a “duty of nonresistance on all men in all circumstances.” Second, some minimize the command to hyperbole. The third is taking the text at face value with the exception toward exceptions. Christians, Lewis says, cannot retaliate against a neighbor who does them harm, but the homicidal manic, “attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, [so] I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” asks Lewis, who answers his own question with a resounding, “No.”

Further, Lewis says, “Indeed, as the audience were private people in a disarmed nation, it seems unlikely that they would have ever supposed Our Lord to be referring to war. War was not what they would have been thinking of. The frictions of daily life among villagers were more likely on their minds.”

Lewis ultimately lands on authority, referencing Romans 13:4, I Peter 2:14, and the general tone of Jesus’ meaning.

Here’s Romans 13:3-4: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

And I Peter 2:13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

Do you agree with Lewis’s rationale?  How does your understanding of the Bible and Christian faith influence your feelings toward war?

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