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John Yoder
Christians Must Draw Clear Ethical Lines

by John Yoder

As a Christian pacifist steeped in the Mennonite tradition, I believe the best model for life is Jesus, who taught and extended love to all, even when that love was met with rejection and violence. While the Jesus strategy does not always seem to make sense, as Tolstoy wrote, we are like bricklayers whose task is to follow the plan of the master architect. It is not our place to set off on our own, thinking we have a more logical, practical, efficient, or moral plan.

Given my perspective, what do I tell students in my international relations and nonviolence classes? More important, what do I say to my ROTC students?  First, I acknowledge the importance of competing and compelling perspectives from scriptures and common sense. The Bible speaks of our responsibility to pursue justice for the oppressed, and most political philosophers regard self-defense as a fundamental right. Therefore, reluctantly and sorrowfully, many serious Christians and serious political thinkers have accepted force, even war, as necessary.

Second, I point out that that the main argument used against pacifists – that pacifism is impractical – should not be accepted at face value. As demonstrated by Gandhi, Mandela, and the people in Eastern Europe who threw off the Soviet Union, nonviolence is far more effective than most imagine. Furthermore, the standard of practicality must also be used to measure all military action, past, present, and future. People who criticize pacifism as unrealistic must consider the fact that violence, as we now see in Iraq, rarely delivers on its optimistic promises of quick and surgical solutions to deeply rooted and complex cultural, political, and economic problems. I often tell my students that political and military leaders might act less precipitously and make fewer mistakes if they had a little pacifist in their heads asking if there might be a nonviolent alternative.

Third, I say that even as a Christian pacifist, I cannot free myself from supporting violence. My position as a citizen of history's most powerful nation links me to a system defended by violence. However, while no one can claim moral purity, all must be clear about where they draw ethical lines. For Whitworth graduate Carol Rose, that line involves leading delegations of Christians who witness for peace in the world's most dangerous conflict zones. For me, the line was to become a conscientious objector and teach high school in the Congo rather than serve in Vietnam. For one of my students, drawing the line meant resigning a military commission, losing an ROTC scholarship, and withdrawing from Whitworth for financial reasons. For another young man, now a naval officer, drawing the line involved joining the military in order to become a strategic planner who would look for viable non-lethal options for national defense. For many students, the line is embracing the Just War Theory, which clearly repudiates torture and pre-emptive war. Where should individuals draw the line?  I never tell students where that should be, but I offer them a wide range of options and ask that each identifies and defends his or her position.

Yoder is a professor of political studies and director of the peace-studies program at Whitworth.

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