Why I Am Not a Pacifist


Last week our ten-year-old son was encouraged by his teachers to write a letter to Tony Blair protesting the war in Iraq. I was grateful that the school was instilling an interest in current events and Christian morality, but I wasn't impressed with their attempt to help the children understand both sides of the question.

Dwight Longnecker

The underlying assumption seemed to be that the war could only be wrong.

To help him see the other side I asked Benedict what he thought we should do if we had a neighbour who we knew tortured his dog, abused his children and beat his wife. Benedict wasn't sure. 'What if we knew he did all those things, and suspected that he might actually have killed somebody and buried them in his garden.' I asked. 'What if this man was seen out at night stalking young children. Do you think we should call the police and ask them to investigate?' 'Yes,' he answered. 'And if he was guilty should the police take him away and lock him up?' 'Yes,' he answered. 'What if they had to break into his home. What if somebody might get hurt in the process. Should they take the risk?' The answer was 'Yes.'

The reason I am not a pacifist is that I am realistic about the world. I think there is such a thing as evil. I think evil must be confronted. Because I am realistic about the world I am also realistic about human nature. Every human being is created in the image of God. It is true that deep down, each and every human being remains essentially good. But it is also true that God's image in each of us is soiled. What was clear and good has become polluted. What was straight has developed a kink. The image of God is wounded in us. Because I am realistic about human nature I realise that each one of us, if we are left to our own way, will slide down into selfishness, greed, anger and violence. For the twist in our nature to be straightened we need discipline, and discipline means applying pressure.

This is true within our own personal lives, within our homes, our schools, our parishes, our country and on a global scale. Goodness, justice and peace don't just happen. They have to be created with hard work, sacrifice and the application of force. Whenever possible that force should be applied gently, but if gentle force and persuasion don't work, then sterner measures may be called for. In his sixth century rule for monks St Benedict shows a clear understanding of human nature. He advises the abbot of the monastery to use all means to nurture his monks towards goodness. He should 'employ arguments, appeals and rebukes. He must behave differently at different times, sometimes using threats, sometimes encouragement. He must show the tough attitude of a master, and also the loving affection of a father. Thus he should sternly reprimand the undisciplined and unruly, but entreat the obedient, the meek and the patient to go forward in virtue; as for the careless and the scornful, we instruct him to rebuke and correct them. He should not pretend he does not see the faults of the offenders.'

Benedict's last line reveals the weakness of the pacifists. To be a pacifist you have to pretend not to see the faults of the offenders. This sounds like a pacifist is optimistic about human nature, and in a way they are. However, I am not opposed to pacifists for being optimistic, but because they are not optimistic enough. The true optimist is not only positive about what is, but he is positive about what can be. In other words he sees potential. He also sees what needs to be done for the potential to be realised. He sees that sometimes a lesser peace must be broken in order for a greater peace to be won. He sees that conflict is necessary for evil or weakness to be conquered.

When I am fighting against the weaknesses in my own life, or in the life of my home or community the battle might seem straightforward. But when that battle becomes an international war the situation seems far more complicated. In the face of the Iraq war we get confused because we suspect that America and Britain may not have pure motives. We know that they do not have a clean history. In the past they have supported brutal dictators, used their power to suppress the weak and grabbed wealth that wasn't theirs by military might.

We are right to ask these questions, but we mustn't dismiss the efforts of those who are fighting for a good cause simply because their motives might be mixed, or because of past weaknesses and failures. We don't get rid of the police force because there have been some corrupt coppers or those who were only in it for the money. We don't get rid of judges because some have taken bribes or been drunks. Neither do we stop our own personal battle against evil simply because we have often failed. All of us are hypocrites. All of us have fallen down. What matters is not how often we fall, but how often we get up. What matters is not that we have failed, but what we have learned from our failure.

I am not a pacifist because I realise that there is a dark force in my heart and in my world, and that dark force needs to be fought. This does not mean I am a gung-ho warmonger. I tremble in the face of battle like anyone else. I shirk from my call to fight the good fight. I wish the battle were not necessary. I wish the evil would just go away. I wish the world were perfect. I wish my own life were perfect. I hope one day it will be. But until that time it is up to each one of us to strap on our armour and enter the fray. The good person fights with reluctance. But at the back of his mind is the echoing thought that, 'all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.'


Rev. Dwight Longenecker. "Why I Am Not a Pacifist." The Universe (April 6, 2003).

Founded in 1860, The Universe is the most popular Catholic newspaper in the UK and Ireland.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author.


Rev. Dwight Longenecker (dwightlongenecker.com) studied for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and served for ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson. In 1995 he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of eight books on apologetics, conversion stories and Benedictine spirituality including: Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers, More Christianity, Challenging Catholics: A Catholic Evangelical Dialogue, St. Benedict and St. Therese: The Little Rule & the Little Way, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, and The Path to Rome. Dwight Longenecker writes for The London Times, The Catholic Herald and The Universe in England and Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register in the USA. In 2006 Dwight and his family moved back to his native USA. He lives with his wife Alison and four children in Greenville, South Carolina where he has recently been ordained to serve as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School.

Copyright © 2003 Dwight Longenecker

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