Or at least we're supposed to.
Yeah, I know. Hey, I know. I get it. Pacifists are a real annoyance. Always reminding everyone of who they should kill (no one), and when they should kill them (never).
Modern societies have had a beastly time trying to figure out what to do with their pacifists. Leo Tolstoy made himself a spoke in the wheels for generations of ruling authorities in Russia when he wrote The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which had the audacity to suggest that getting exiled to Siberia with one's moral dignity in tact was preferable to dumbly pointing a gun at whoever the Tsar tells one to point it at.
What’s worse, like some sort of contagion, pacifism has a tendency to hop the borders and boundaries that tend to cut off more modest national goals and ideals. Somehow, the ideas of that Russian nobleman managed to hop across two generations and several countries, becoming a thorn in the side of the overseers of good order in India, when a young law student by the name of Mohandas Ghandi picked up Tolstoy’s book and was reminded of the words of a still earlier thinker by the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the WWI and WWII era, just as the Tolstoy infected Russia was figuring what to do with its Methodists, the United States was trying to decide what to do with its Mennonites. A generation after that, a charismatic young Baptist clergyman named Rev. Martin found himself wondering, what if the ideas of Jesus, Tolstoy, and Ghandi, were not only applied to war but became a comprehensive way of living for justice and peace all of the time?
And so a bunch more rulers lost a bunch more sleep all because a second tier Jewish Rabbi, a Russian aristocrat, a well-to-do Hindu merchant’s son, a black man in America, and a handful of others have had the audacity to suggest that any human life should be cherished and preserved without qualification, regardless of what side of which border they stand.
Such a universal problem has pacifism become for the modern nation state that it’s tempting to believe that this has always been the case. Not so.
Prior to Christ, we know of a small handful of tribes around the world, like the Moriori of the Chatham Islands (east of New Zealand), who have some virtue of nonviolence built into their origin myths, and who knows really how many have been exterminated (something fairly easy to do with a pacifistic tribe). In China, some Taoist writings hint around at a future time of great peace, but these reflections sort of just suggest that there will be a time where militarism ceases for some reason, they aren’t bold enough to suggest a means of getting to that point.
In the western world, we know of some Greek philosophers who talk about non-violence being the most productive way to solve a dispute between two individuals. But this maxim didn’t exist at the broad societal level where the biggest moral questions regarding the warring of city states was when to do it and how to win.
There is one gigantic and surprisingly often overlooked exception.
If you think, as I do, that ideas are something we can borrow, adapt, and modify, but they’re very rarely, if ever, invented whole cloth, then the eight century prophet Isaiah’s words on peace and and the cessation of warfare are almost inexplicable.
It’s often assumed that all of the moral ideas of the Bible originated there ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) like nobody had ever had that thought before and then God just zapped it into the pen of a biblical author one day. This is far from the case. Go to the Louvre in Paris and see that “The Ten Commandments” are not some miraculous novum of Mt. Sinai but look almost exactly like excerpts from the Code of Hammurabi from centuries earlier. Even “love your neighbor” or something like it showed up in many different moral systems around the world which almost definitely had no awareness of each other.
But, basically, before any debates about posting the “Ten Commandments” in public schools, they were more or less borrowed from there in the first place. Yes, I’m being a bit anachronistic. That is to say, they were more or less drafted off the best public, secular thought of the time.
(On a side note, if it bothers your faith to know that the Bible got good ideas from secular culture, perhaps ask yourself why that's the case? It would be a pretty self-defeating god whose hands are tied and who can't work through the rest of history outside of a very narrow religion?)
But the non-violence of Isaiah is different. All ancient civilizations assumed that reality was violent and warlike. Most of them even built some sort of “sacred violence” into their origin myths (E.g. your gods killed our gods and the offspring of our gods retaliated by killing the offspring of your gods and so on) to explain why this seemed to be a permanent state of affairs.
This was nowhere more the case than in the ancient near east. Between the Eqyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Seleucids, and all the little kingdoms in between, war and brutality was a constant and unquestioned way of life.
And here, in little Judah, you have an advisor to the king whispering things into his ear like “You know one day YHWH is going to have us all beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.” “You know one day the boots of tramping warriors and every garment rolled in blood will be kindling for the fire to keep us all warm.” “You know one day wolves are going to chill with lambs and leopards will nap with goats.” “You know one day cobras will make good pets for toddlers.” (Is. 2:4; 9:4-5; 11:6-8)
If you want to talk about something that seems to have miraculously airdropped into our Bible out of nowhere, this is it. How in this world, where the biggest question about killing an enemy is when should we do it next, did Isaiah get an idea like swords beaten into plowshares?
If you really want to talk about divine inspiration, get off the whole six day creation thing, lets instead talk about Isaiah: How do you explain the nonviolence?
A few generations later, when Jesus (who quoted from Isaiah more than any other book in the Hebrew Testament) talked about loving your neighbor, this wasn’t an original idea (he was quoting Leviticus) and this “golden rule” can be found in lots of other teachings around the world. What was innovative was how he defined who counted as a neighbor.
Jesus' Way was out of this world not because he said, "Love people," but because he said, “Love your enemy.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan is revolutionary not because it teaches that we should treat other people well but because it teaches, “…And yeah...them too.”
At last, we’ve stumbled on a genuine miracle that has appeared among us as if out of nowhere, something that can’t be explained by anything that came before: An end to all the death and a way of genuine peacemaking.
Cheers and Peace,