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.