Are pacifists against policing?

Another common objection to Christian pacifism takes the form of “If you’re against war, what about policing?” For instance, Peggy once asked, “Is there a place for civil government to punish those who break the laws of society?”

Historically there have been a diversity of pacifist responses to this question, but this very diversity indicates there are many pacifists who accept policing as a legitimate function of government, and more, as a legitimate occupation for Christians, and so would answer “yes” to Peggy. Of course, even then there is some debate over the use of lethal force, but the fact remains, you wouldn’t be alone if you affirmed pacifism and policing.

The important question of course is: can war and policing be differentiated? In response to this I would like to draw your attention to John Howard Yoder’s comments on Romans 13 in The Politics of Jesus:

The function of bearing the sword to which Christians are called to be subject is the judicial and police function; it does not refer to the death penalty or to war.

The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment, since the Romans crucified their criminals. It was not the instrument of war since it was but a long dagger. Like the pistol worn by the policeman or the sword worn by the Swiss citizen-officer, it was more a symbol of authority than a weapon. This is not to say that the Roman government was mild or that this weapon was only symbolically present. But what it symbolizes is the way a given government exercises dominion over its subjects by appeal to violence, not the execution of capital offenders or the waging of hostilities against other nations. At this time Rome was not carrying on major military hostilities against other nations. They were fact no neighbour “nations” with whom Rome could very meaningfully wage war. The brushfire hostilities along the frontiers were more like police action than like war.

The distinction made here between police and war is not simply a matter of degree to which the appeal to force goes, the number of persons killed or killing. It is a structural and profound difference in the sociological meaning of the appeal to force. In the police function, the violence or threat thereof is applied only to the offending party. The use of violence by the agent of the police is subject to review by higher authorities. The police officer applies power within the limits of a state whose legislation even the criminal knows to be applicable to him. In any orderly police system there are safeguards to keep the violence of the police from being applied in a wholesale way against the innocent. The police power is generally great enough to overwhelm that of the individual offender so that any resistance on the offender’s part is pointless. In all these respects, war is structurally different. The doctrine of the “just war” is an effort to extend into the realm of war the logic of the limited violence of police authority – but not a very successful one. There is some logic to the “just war” pattern of thought but very little realism. At the very most the only relevance of Romans 13 to war would be to a very precise operation carried on within the very clear limitations of all the classic criteria that define the “justifiable war.” The more we would attempt to define and to respect such criteria, the more clearly we would see that as far as any real or conceivable war is concerned, in the name of any real or thinkable government, it is not honestly possible to include that function under the authorization given government by Romans 13.

So again, if wars, realistic wars, are to be justified by Christians, their legitimization needs to be found elsewhere.

12 thoughts on “Are pacifists against policing?

  1. In policing the weapon is there as a last resort to stop someone from harming someone else in enforcing civil justice.
    In warfare, the weapon is deployed for a different reason – to maximise harm to other side, including their total eradication for political and military gain.
    In policing you kill because there is no other choice left to you to stop the criminal from doing harm in a life-threatening situation.
    In warfare you kill because that is your role. Mostly the choice is made by the chain of higher command and therefore it is usually not a last resort situation.
    Sharp differences!


  2. Practical example here of policing aimed at violence de-escalation through community education: The Ministry of Justice in The Netherlands has introduced an interactive billboard in Amsterdam and Rotterdam to challenge public apathy towards aggressive behaviour on the streets.


  3. …and I think that it would always be more helpful is there could be a significant conversation with all of the various options equally defended by someone with the ability to understand the facts they defend, but is also open to seeing a bigger picture.
    Too much posturing and other macho-type behavior goes into international (all?) relations … and this is what I mean by coercion not being a good tool. Wisdom and discernment need to increase and emotion and partisan spin needs to decrease, IMO.
    But this takes a significant investment in time — and too many are too impatient with the process of peacemaking and relationship.
    Our fast-paced world is full of frustrated people (about so many different things, really) looking for a way to vent that frustration … anger is a very real problem, especially in the church.
    It is a paradox, really … our valuing of all life as precious bumping up against our call to lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. How do we lean into this call to cross-bearing with obedience and still show proper responsibility for protecting life?
    Well, for myself, I find that I must struggle moment my moment to set down my agenda and wait for God to reveal his agenda and show me my part. Many times my part is to stand still and watch God work … and not mess things up by my enthusiasm or frustration or impatience.
    …okay, I’m gone again.


  4. “…this is what I mean by coercion not being a good tool.”
    But Peggy, what is war if not coercion of the most aggressive and bridge burning sort? I’m confused how you can affirm violent coercion as an acceptable tool for the military and police yet distance yourself from nonviolent coercion as though it’s tainted. If you advocate war as a “last resort” surely it should be the other way around?


  5. PS. For me it’s a paradox to talk of protecting life with a weapon of death. Introducing a gun into a tense situation is counter-productive to violence de-escalation tactics.


  6. Matt, in relation to your last comment…UK and NZ cops have policed very effectively in the main for decades without guns being the main or first `tool’ of choice.
    There have been official reports over the past 2 decades from the UK arguing that introduction of guns into policing would result in criminals reacting by tooling themselves far more readily with guns as well. Those reports reflected the views of bobbies on the street.


  7. I was at one time a cop on the beat (30 odd years ago).
    At times I carried a pistol. And at other times I did not. Depended upon what my bosses wanted back then.
    I hate guns. Hate what they do to people when used. I hate what they are for, which is essentially killing of another human being.
    I am abhor violence and the fact that our world is now probably – and I’m speculating here – a even far more violent place than it was before, given that our weapons technology and the intercultural deterioration of social civility has made it a far more violent world I suspect.
    I think the best discussions of this topic need to weigh up the ideals against the human realities by asking valid questions. e.g. What would be a legitimate, realistic, and morally just response today by a nation to a Pearl Harbour attack scenario on it by another another nation? If we were in the victim’s shoes what would be a reasonable immediate response of action as opposed to that over the longer term?
    In short, its easy to argue cases idealistically one way or the other. But our arguments also need to take into valid consideration the experienced realities of humans when framing arguments about what is justifiable and what aint.


  8. So if pacifism is utterly and totally against use of violence under all circumstances, how does that translate consistently within home situations, such as discipling (policing ?) children as parents?
    Is spanking a child as a disciplining method which is a violent act acceptable with many Christian parents, in conflict with their being a true pacifist or being a bonafide practitioner of biblically-based non-violence?
    Is the sort of pacifism, or non-violence, often being advocated just one of varying degrees or measures, or relativistic, or what?


  9. Two questions I will pose: Is non-pacifism a sin? Is God a pacifist?
    Also if God wasn’t always a pacifist, did God later rethink God’s position on it all and change God’s own mind, then radically reorientate God’s-self in a brand new direction (repentance) toward a non-violent Way actualised with and through the coming into history of the personage and ongoing mission of Jesus Christ?


  10. Andrew, I agree we need to look at concrete situations and the moral complexities and ambiguities that crop up, but I’d also suggest we need to look at conflicts holistically, which means looking to tension build up well prior to actual outbreak of violence. Peacemaking rests heavily on de-escalation techniques. We don’t wait till our Pearl Harbours are attacked before we act nonviolently. To resort to the home invasion scenarios beloved of war advocates, hostage negotiators work on different time scales to snipers.
    “So if pacifism is utterly and totally against use of violence under all circumstances…” Well, I’d say that “so” is a big assumption. I’ve already said many pacifists differentiate between war and policing. By implication many also differentiate between lethal and nonlethal violence. What do we mean by violence anyway? Is jail “violence”? Is mild restraint “violence”? Is talking firmly “violence”? I think we need to resist tendancies to go to extreme definitions then project it back onto pacifist thought. The primary objection is to lethal violence precisely because it cuts off the prospects of reconciliation fairly decisively.
    And remember, we’re not perfect and we know it. We all commit violence from time to time. I have. We just don’t try and justify it. We ask for forgiveness instead.
    As for God, I’ve referred to Romans 12 a number of times but I don’t think too many have understood yet so I’ll keep trying…
    14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
    17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. 20On the contrary:
    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e] 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
    Note the line: “leave room for God’s wrath”.
    Now why would I emphasize that?
    I wouldn’t say violence is “intrinsically” sinful, for to say that would be to call God sinful. But “insofar” as it expresses a lack of faith in God and his ability to act, yes it is.
    I think I can feel a post coming on about the difference between apocalyptic pacifism and universalist pacifism. Universalist pacifism, more typical of liberals, denies the Old Testament wars and YHWH the warrior. Apocalyptic pacifism, more typical of Anabaptists, does not. Rather, it affirms the Old Testament and recognizes the wars of Israel as the outworking of the faithfulness / faithlessness of the kings of Israel, with the history of Israel climaxing in the coming of the king of kings, the one who was faithful unto death. In rising from death he dethroned the power of the sword and the powers who ruled through death. He has revealed the mysteries hidden since the creation of the world, the way to reconciliation with God, self and each other through faith in his sacrificial love.
    So yes, apocalyptic pacifism recognizes a radical reorientation in ethics entered the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Old Covenant ethics were the shadow of what was to come, New Covenant are what we are now called to live by. The shift from law to grace wasn’t just a soteriological revelation, it was also an ethical revelation. There were horizontal consequences as well as vertical ones. Does that make sense?


  11. What I mean is, just war theology is a very legalistic and ungracious way of looking at war from a pacifist perspective.
    One of the complaints of the radical reformers was that the magisterial reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) didn’t take the Reformation far enough. They were willing to explore the soteriological (vertical) implications of law versus grace but shied back from the full ethical (horizontal) implications.


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