Unconditional belligerence is plainly immoral, among the most destructive forces at work in the world. The world has too much war. I can easily understand the desire for all war to cease. In a very understandable reaction against a too-belligerent world, a growing number of people hold the position that its opposite -- unconditional pacifism -- must therefore be the moral alternative. In fact, some of the New Pacifists would say that absolute pacifism is the only moral alternative.
My contention here is that absolute or unconditional pacifism is itself an immoral position. Is that overstated? I don't think so; consider what happens when anything -- pacifism included -- is elevated to an absolute, and claims the spot as the single highest moral good in existence, bar none. Make no mistake: whenever something becomes unconditional, that means it is claiming sole title to the highest possible spot. If it were not claiming the highest spot for itself, it would be conditional on whatever was more important, rather than unconditional. The fact that many New Pacifists brook no arguments and will not interact with other viewpoints (other than to display disdain) is evidence of unwillingness to consider the blind spots that come with such absolute allegiance to any position.
The most noticeable blind spot of pacifist absolutism is this: What is the morally right choice when two moral principles are in conflict? What happens when one good motive is in direct conflict with another? Jesus spoke of this kind of situation. He used an example common to his hearers, the custom of circumcising a child even on the Sabbath day. Two positive principles from that culture are in conflict: the Sabbath and the covenant of circumcision. The greater one wins, and a child is circumcised even on the Sabbath. Whoever breaks a lesser rule to keep a greater one is innocent of any wrongdoing and is considered without fault in breaking the lesser rule. In using this common example for his hearers, he established the general principle that the greater principle should be followed in the case of a conflict.
The ultimate test of absolutist pacifism occurs when there is a choice between defending the innocents who would be killed or offering no effective resistance. This situation arises time and again in human history: someone intent on attacking and killing will not be stopped by anything less than force. Here there is a direct conflict of life against life. Here unconditional pacifism ends up sacrificing the lives of the innocent in order to preserve their own personal theoretical innocence and the lives of the attackers. But such an innocence is a very tainted innocence. If the choice has come to the point where pacifism means deliberately consigning the innocent to death and refusing to act meaningfully in their defense, then at that point pacifism has become immoral. If the choice is between protecting the aggressor and protecting the victim, then protecting the aggressor is the lesser duty, but protecting the innocent is the greater duty. Make no mistake: as Christians we still see a duty to protect even the guilty. But the duty to protect the guilty does not trump the duty to protect the innocent.
Pacifism often makes the mistake of considering inaction to be morally neutral, or considering talk to be substantially different from inaction even when the other person is clearly not listening. It is not. Whoever sacrifices an unwilling innocent to save the guilty has blood on their hands, even if they never took up arms; doubly so if they did it for selfish reasons of maintaining their own personal purity and claim to personal innocence while turning their backs on those in life-threatening danger. Under those circumstances, it is the defenders of the innocent whose actions are pure even if they took human life, and the deserters of the innocent who have blood on their hands even if they assume their hands are clean -- a mistaken assumption under the circumstances.
To be sure, war and violence are often used wrongly. They are probably used wrongly more often than they are used justly. I would not want anyone to suppose that those speaking against any given war are immoral. The voice calling for peace is a valuable voice that speaks of what all innocent people wish could happen. Peace is always the goal and should be the first choice of method. There are even times when the person being attacked is willing to die; in this special case, pacifism may be morally permissible even to the point of the innocent's death. But when the innocent victim is unwilling to die, and when the aggressor will not stop until the victim is dead, then inaction is no longer ethical or acceptable, and indecisive action is no better than inaction. It is not always honest to tag any use of force with the pejorative labels "violence" or "belligerence".
In some ways, pacifism has become the new purity code: some New Pacifists have no trouble at all saying not only that they are right, but making clear that anyone who disagrees with them is, on their view, morally unclean. In this, I believe they are badly mistaken.
The hazards of writing about the dangers of pacifism are that the dangers of belligerence are, in the majority of cases, greater. Why would I speak out against pacifism? Because the New Pacifists are, often enough, absolutists. Because the time will come again when innocent lives are at stake, when the desire to protect the guilty conflicts with the desire to protect the innocent. I would not see the innocent sacrificed to someone's noble but misguided decision to prioritize the lives of the guilty over the innocent, or the misguided decision to live out the desire to keep ourselves from bloodshed in such a way that we are to blame for the bloodshed we refuse to stop.
This has been in the back of my mind for awhile, but actually putting my thoughts into a post was spurred by this post and its comments at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. The earnest pacifist in the comment thread there is not at all the direct cause or addressee of these comments, as they had been in my mind for some time. She simply reminded me that I was overdue to post my thoughts on the subject.