Why C.S. Lewis Was Not a Pacifist
“The question is whether to serve in the wars at the command of the civil society to which we belong is a wicket action, or an action morally indifferent, or an action morally obligatory. In asking how to decide this question, we are raising a much more general question: how we decide what is good or evil?” From “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” an address given by C.S. Lewis to the Oxford Pacifist Club in 1940
C.S. Lewis was personally acquainted with the horrors of war. At age 18 he went to officer’s training school and served in France during World War I in which he was wounded, suffered a bout of depression, and lost several colleagues including a close friend. During the Second World War he sheltered child refugees from London in his home.
CSL begins the address with a discussion about conscience, the faculty, he says, that we use to discern good from evil. Conscience can be understood in two ways: “It can mean (a) the pressure a man feels upon his will be do what he thinks is right; and (b) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are.” He then goes on to say that no one can be argued out of their conscience in the sense of (a). In the sense of (a) you must follow your conscience no matter what.
However, in the sense of (b), our judgment of what is right and what is wrong, we can be and often are mistaken. To determine right from wrong we must apply our reason to three elements: facts, intuition of self-evident truth, and argument: our arrangement of the evidence to determine our belief or proposition. There is also a fourth element: authority; but this is usually grouped with the facts, because we obtain our facts either by personal experience or by trusting an authority to provide them. The authority factor is especially relevant when it comes to deciding whether you will obey the civil authorities and participate in doing violence to another group of people.
C.S.L. carefully lays the foundations for his argument on these building block. Then, in the most civil and polite way, he disputes some pacifist assumptions such as “War never results in good” and “It is always wrong to kill.” I cannot explain his reasoning more clearly than he does, so if you are interested, I recommend that when you have a few minutes you read “Why I am Not a Pacifist.” It’s not a long piece. I will just say a few things here. First, it is a fairly convincing argument. However you could also make a vigorous argument against it by questioning some of his premises, such as, for example, the way he defines conscience.
There is also his implications concerning our inherent debt to the state – the idea that if you are given life, education, and liberty by the civil society you live in, in his case England, you sort of owe it to your society to defend it against outside threats. Lots of people would be happy to debate that, but his point is that if you don’t defend a free society, you could lose the ability to debate at all:
“Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not.”
To me, this is a pretty strong argument. We live in a world in which the possibility is real that evil can swallow up good and that whole societies can be obliterated or enslaved. To practice pacifism in all situations could very well be to accept your own annihilation. Except that, if you are a Christian, you do not believe in your own annihilation: our core belief is that Christ has eliminated that possibility for all believers by facing death and defeating it. According to the tenets of Christianity this world is not only evil but is in the process of passing away. Jesus came to lay the foundations for a new kind of world with new rules. The thing is though, most of us have not quite made that transition. We still love our lives, our stuff, and our freedom, and unless we have already reached the enlightened state of a saint, we have to work with the minds, the environment, and limited options we have.
CSL points out that Jesus praised a Roman centurion and also told the soldiers to accept their pay, so He seemed to assume that the transition to a new world with new rules a gradual thing. Obviously, from where I sit 20 centuries later, change to a better world has proved very gradual indeed. The world today hardly seems any less violent that in was during the Roman Empire and recently we are seeing scenes of deliberate brutality like nothing the modern world has experienced before. But despite appearances there have been some changes for the better. For example, in ancient times there was no such notion as human rights, no one even questioned the institution of slavery, and the poor often had no recourse except to beg or die.
Whether we decide that pacifism is always best or not even possible, Lent is the time we remember how Jesus responded to state-sponsored violence. I would not deny that laying down your life for the lives of other people is the highest and most moral way to respond to violence. But this is not always an option. What about when it is not just about you and the enemy? In war it often happen that by killing some people you save others.
Before I end today’s post, I want to look at CSL’s interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” stories in the Gospels, such as Luke 6:29: “And unto him that smites you on the one cheek offer also the other; and he that takes away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also.” In this part of the discussion CSL says:
“I think the text means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told…..That is, insofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice with us which says, ‘He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.’ But the moment you introduce other factors, of course, the problem is altered. Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that is a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim? I at any rate think it impossible they could have so understood Him.”
So far I agree with this. I would like to think that my nonviolent tendencies do not have to extend to stepping aside for homicidal maniacs.
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- — “Why I am Not a Pacifist” is one of nine addresses included in a collection called The Weight of Glory. The book is inexpensive on Amazon and only $2.49 if you get it for Kindle.
– Tonight I will begin working my way through Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” to explore further the subject on nonviolence from a Christian perspective. I’m not sure how far I will get but my idea it just to read and write something here each day during Lent, no matter how far I have progressed or not progressed. My ideas on pacifism are still very plastic. I am not trying to convince anyone of anything at this point – only to explore the ideas, contemplate on them with focused attention, and respond to what makes sense to me and what doesn’t. Bear with me and please feel free to comment. I think this one area where there is lots of room for good people to honestly disagree.