October 11, 2020

When Pacifism Is (I Think) Wrong

I read Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives,1 a decidedly pacifist work. The questions raised, the answers given, the angles expressed, though impressive (if not, at least for me, ultimately convincing), did force me to rethink a topic that I hadn’t given much thought to—a reality made apparent years earlier when, in a discussion about Adventists in the military, I had said, “Well, if I was called by my country to the military and had to kill, I would—I just wouldn’t want to do it on Sabbath.” Realizing how dumb my words were, I immediately followed them with, “Wow, I probably ought to think this through a bit more.” No wonder I found Adventists and Military Service enlightening.

I hadn’t thought much about that volume until the past few weeks, when I spent more than 31 hours listening to an audio book by Munich-born historian Nikolaus Waschmann called KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Having lost family members on both sides (the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., had a room dedicated to Kovno, where my mother’s family came from, and which the Germans had made Judenrein), I had been raised on Holocaust stories and consumed them until about 20 years ago, when I just stopped. (How much does one take of this stuff?) Yet for whatever reason I got this title, which for three painful weeks wreaked havoc on me, from my ears on down.

If pacifism is what God demands, did the Christians in the Allied armies who died fighting die lost as well?

“Why are you putting yourself through this?” my wife, a Gentile, had asked because, having given birth to two Mischlinge, she long ago realized the big stake that she had in this as well, and had read probably more on the Holocaust than I had until she, too, couldn’t take it any longer.

In his gargantuan work, Waschmann traced the origins of the KL, from the earliest days of the Third Reich, when the camps were used for political prisoners, i. e., communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and other enemies of the state, until, after the war began, when they morphed into a major component of Nazi racial policy, which was centered on the murder of Europe’s Jews. As disturbing as the book was, when it got to the mass exterminations beginning in 1942-1943, my anger and sadness reminded me of why I had taken my long hiatus from this stuff to begin with.

However, another feeling arose: contempt, outraged contempt, for the pacifism in Adventists and Military Service. What were Christians supposed to do? Nothing but pray, fast, and espouse lofty principles of nonviolence, of loving your enemies, and of reflecting the lovely character of Jesus while men, women, children, and babies were starved, beaten, gassed, burned alive, and shot? However much one could laud Desmond Doss, if all the Allies, especially in the European war, took his stance, you’d be reading this auf Deutscheand I . . . well, we know what would have happened to me. If pacifism is what God demands, did the Christians in the Allied armies who died fighting die lost as well?

But what about the imperative to emulate the character of Christ? OK. First, as Jesus Himself said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)2; or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); and as Paul said, Jesus was the “exact representation of his [the Father’s] being” (Heb. 1:3). You mean the same Father who said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them” (Gen. 6:7)? Whatever the antediluvians had done, could it have been as bad as what the SS did in the KLs?

And no matter how nasty the Amalekites, whom Saul had been ordered by the Lord of hosts to “totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants” (1 Sam. 15:3)—were they worse than the criminals who ran the camps?

Understanding the pacifist position, I can see problems with rejecting it too. Suppose, for instance, instead of millions, the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands, or just thousands, or hundreds, or just one? At what point does the evil become bad enough that violence is, as we have seen with God Himself, justified?

But I’m not talking hypotheticals. I’m talking the Holocaust. And though armchair theologians can sit in the warm safety of home and argue that it would be wrong to use violence to have stopped the carnage—I argue that it would have been wrong not to. And I challenge anyone—but only after they have read KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps—to argue differently.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book is Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.

1Frank M. Hasel et. al., Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives (Madrid, Spain: Safeliz, 2019).

2Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.