Tag Archives: Matthew 5

Pacifism and C.S. Lewis: Oh, and what I think too.


It is the purpose of this post to explore critically two arguments Lewis uses to conclude in his essay “Why I’m Not A Pacifist” that pacifism ultimately fails. This essay was originally presented to a group of pacifists in 1940, addressing the specific issue of whether it is moral to serve in wars under the command of a civil society.[1] Lewis presented four main arguments to support his conclusion that it is in fact morally just to participate in war. Of these four we will explore the two which are most contentious. The first we will title “Personal” or “Basic Intuition” and the second “Authority” which is further split into two subcategories, “Human Authority” and “Divine Authority.” Once discussed it’s my belief that we will have no other option but to side with Lewis. However, this is not to say that everything Lewis holds is agreeable. Along the way we will be interacting with some ideas that are disagreeable, when they arise it will be noted. We would also be remiss if you did not start by mentioning something Lewis writes very early on, war is always a very unpleasant thing. “First as to the facts. The main relevant fact admitted by all parties is that war is very disagreeable.” I also feel that it should be plainly stated that no joy is found in war, to this I believe Lewis would agree. With that now, let us explore the arguments brought by Lewis in Why I’m Not a Pacifist.

Arguing from Basic Intuition

In this argument Lewis points to the basic intuition that love is good and hatred bad; that helping is good and harming is bad. He explains that this intuition leads the pacifist to believe that by doing good we can or must help all. For example, it is not enough to help one homeless person, for if you help one you must help all that you see. He then goes on to refute the pacifist claim by pointing out that by doing good, we choose to whom the good is being done while also to whom the good is not being done. Implicit in the argument is what Lewis describes as the law of beneficence which “involves not doing some good to some men at some time.”[2] This then turns into a slippery slope where helping one while not another slowly turns into helping one while having to ignore the plight of another and then to helping one at the expense of another, the final slip in the slope is helping one while causing harm to another.[3]

Shifting the focus from the individual to society as a whole, Lewis addresses the pacifist underlying assertion that war is always the greatest evil. He goes on to say that the absorption of one society by another and the oppression of religion is in fact worse than the war to prevent it.[4] However it’s here that Lewis makes an assertion which I disagree with wholly. Trying to justify the loss of life during war, Lewis contends that one can be comforted to know that the dead gave their lives while fighting for what according to them was the right or just side. I don’t find this comforting or even true; especially in a world where people are coerced to fight by threats of torture or death and children are kidnapped and forced to fight after being pumped full of drugs and beaten. I would like to ask Lewis if he truly believed all of Hitler’s SS men wanted to be there. Here, while it doesn’t alter the arguments conclusion, I think Lewis falters. In fact I would say that forcing someone to fight is actually a greater evil than war or oppression.

Lewis addresses an attempt by the pacifist to prove their position once they are forced to give some ground; this time through the use of a more political and calculating mode of intuition. When forced to acknowledge that war may not be the worst evil they may rebut, “But every war leads to another war.”[5] And with this the pacifist implies an infinite regress of wars, leading to the conclusion that we must focus our attempts to do away with war. To accomplish this they might suggest that society should propagate the pacifist philosophy far and wide; eventually permeating all societies and cultures globally. To this Lewis responds,

This seems to me wild work. 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 neighbour who does not.[6]

I find this argument basic, correct, and convincing. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely with the statement, “Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be now Pacifists.”[7] It’s important to understand that while we are not able to eliminate suffering and war, it does not follow that we should ignore the plight of those affected by these things or cease working to a better end. As an alternative to the pacifist position it might be more effective to focus efforts instead of on large, incurable tasks like eradicating suffering, to objectives that are limited. Lewis lists abolition of slavery, prison reform or curing a disease as good examples.

Arguing from Authority – Human Authority

Lewis appeals to human authority by surveying history’s rulers, wars and their heroes. From this survey he concludes that “the world echoes with the praise of righteous wars.”[8] As proof of this names of world leaders who did not shy away from war are listed. He includes in that list his school, parents and even great literary works. He says that to be a pacifist, one must ignore and “part company with” all of this. In effect Lewis asks his hearers to either cast aside these select champions of time or their pacifism. His rationale, since we look at the rulers and men of war with honor and respect, it is therefore proper to also view the battles they waged as just and even  necessary. He also interprets this historical support of war as wars justification.

It is here where I part ways with C.S. Lewis most drastically. I think if we look between the lines of Lewis’ list we see a different picture. Where’s Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan or Napoleon in the list? What about some of Lewis’ contemporaries such as Hitler or Stalin? Why did they not make the cut? While I agree that battle can produce heroics, and with Lewis’ general beliefs regarding there being a just war, I think it fails just to look at the men who fought or waged the wars and say “here is your proof that battle is necessary and good.” And I think it fails as well according to Scripture. A pacifist friend in discussion of this very issue rightly points out that all men are under the effects of Satan.[9] And as such wars are waged both for good and evil. What’s more, Scripture tells us that not one of us is righteous so why would we conclude, as Lewis does, that our wars mostly would be? I don’t think we should or can. War is never to be praised and Lewis misses this. After all King David was refused permission to build the Temple of the Lord due to his many battles (1 Chronicles 22:7-9).

Arguing from Authority – Divine Authority

We now look to what Lewis has to say in regards to Divine Authority. Beginning his apologetic Lewis says that the Christian Scriptures are largely silent on this issue but that the pacifist basis their philosophy on a small selection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings. Most central is Matthew 5:39. He then bolsters his argument with the Thirty-Nine Articles, teachings of Aquinas, and the words of Augustine all showing their support of the Christian’s participation in war.

I was left under impressed with Lewis’ mentioning of  Augustine, Aquinas and the Thirty-Nine Articles for the same reason I cannot agree with Lewis’ argument from human authority. While I agree with his ultimate conclusion, and these things do support that conclusion, I can see why a Christian pacifist would not find these convincing enough to abandon their philosophy. I would rather have had Lewis spend more time discussing Scripture; after all this is where the debate should lie for us. Either the Scriptures justify the saints’ participation in battle, or they don’t. And this is where I find the most support for the view that Lewis and I share.

Matthew 5:39 is the biblical passage most often given in support of the pacifist ideology. C.S. Lewis deals with it well.[10] He says that the scripture should be applied in the context of individual relationships, not to the conduct of soldiers or governments engaged in war. Lewis says, “I think the text means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases.”[11] What Jesus was clearly saying here is that we are not to cause harm to others except in that instance where we are preventing the harm of ourselves, families or neighbors. Surely Jesus did not mean that we would not be justified to protect innocent life from violence with the use of force, even if that force is in the context of war. [12]


While not everything Lewis asserts regarding the issue of pacifism and military service is agreeable I think it is clear that as saints, we are justified to use violence in certain instances. In Learning in WarTime Lewis writes what I think serves as a wonderful conclusion to this discussion.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country, but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.[13]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses “Why I’m Not A Pacifist.” (New York: Harper Collins, 2009)  [Kindle Fire version] p. 64, Location 612

[2] Ibid

[3] By way of example: saving a drowning man while leaving another slipping to saving the life of a man while taking the life of another.

[4] Lewis, “Why I’m Not A Pacifist” p. 77, Location 734

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid p. 78, Location 734

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid p. 81, Location 772

[9] Moore, T.C. “Why C.S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacfism,” Academia.edu.  http://gcts.academia.edu/TCMoore/Papers/387653/Why_C._S._Lewis_Was_Wrong_About_Pacifism (accessed May 7, 2012) p. 10

[10] Resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

[11] Lewis, “Why I’m Not a Pacifist” p. 82, Location 784

[12] Ibid p. 85, Location 815

[13] Lewis, “Learning In War-Time.” p. 52: Location 1866


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