New Forest East



By Leonard Cheshire

​Lecture at St Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall – delivered 10 January 1979

Rev’d Basil Watson (ed.): Peace and the Bomb: St Lawrence Jewry Talks (Coalition for Peace Through Security, London, 1983) pp. 25–33. ISBN 0950826715

I would like to start by thanking my old friend Basil Watson very much for the privilege he has given me, though I cannot help wishing he had not chosen quite such a difficult and sensitive subject for me. Then I would like to suggest that, each in our own way, we start with a short prayer asking God’s Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and stir our hearts, for in so complex an issue as our duty towards peace and defence in the nuclear age we will never arrive at the truth without His help.

The first prerequisite of this debate is to acknowledge and respect the sincerity of the other man’s view, for the great majority of pacifists are convinced of the rightness of their point of view and regard it as resting upon high moral principles. If in a particular instance we have grounds for believing that the other person is acting out of an ulterior motive, we should say so and invite him to declare his real intentions, but this will not normally by the case. More than once I have seen the military man discussing the subject with a pacifist and, in the eyes of the third party listening in, losing the debate solely because he has failed to make it clear from the start that he himself is a man of peace who wants a peaceful solution if humanly possible and sees the use of force as the final, but at times regrettably the only morally correct, course of action.

As a result, the debate has rapidly polarized, one man appearing to favour a solution by war irrespective of the circumstances, and the other peace, while all the time the central issue –

“Do we have the right of armed defence against an unlawful aggressor?”

– is pushed into the background and so obscured. The fact is that, except for a few extremists both to the left and the right, all parties to the debate have the same objective in view: it is about the means of achieving it that they differ.

The Christian pacifist makes appeal to Scripture in support of his belief that killing is never morally justified, but such an interpretation is not justified. The Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” cannot have been meant in an absolute sense, only as applying to what we today term murder; otherwise how explain the military campaigns which God enjoined so specifically upon the Israelites and which served as compelling proofs of His love for His chosen people? The instruction to Peter to lay down his sword falls into the same category: Peter was acting in a private capacity against the authorized police of the State. The New Testament text that bears most directly upon the right of the State to be armed is where the soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do and he answers:

“no intimidation, no extortion, be content with your pay”.

By clear implication, the fact of their being soldiers is not contrary to the will of God: it is not credible that, in a matter of such moment and on so solemn an occasion, the Precursor should have failed to say so if it were. In any case, one cannot appeal to a particular text if that text is contrary to the meaning of scripture as a whole, and since the Church is the authorized guardian of Scripture, it is to the Church that we must look for what is really meant.

There are some who argue that until the time of Constantine the early Church was pacifist, and that only with the corrupting effect of participation in the affairs of state did it lose its pristine purity of outlook. But this involves reading more into the history of the first three centuries than the facts justify. The early Christians were a small, persecuted community who, in the early stages at least, looked upon the end of the world as imminent. That a prohibition was placed upon becoming a Roman soldier is undoubtedly true, though to what extent is not quite certain. Rome was the Church’s principal enemy and service with the Roman army involved certain obligations which were incompatible with Christianity, as for instance Emperor worship.

What is beyond doubt is that from Constantine’s conversion the prohibition was entirely lifted and, ever since, the Church has consistently upheld the basic right of self-defence. The whole subject is hotly debated but, even if one could somehow show that the primitive Church was pacifist on the basis of fundamental principle, this would still not prove the Church to have been wrong for the past 17 centuries. For one thing, the corroborating authority is lacking; for another, the early Church was not always right in its vision of temporal duties, as for instance slaver. The condemnation and abolition of this great evil was left to later generations.

Pacifism is a term that has many connotations and is used in many different senses. In its loosest sense it may be taken as indicating a lover of peace who works to the utmost of his ability to achieve a peaceful solution, and according to this interpretation the great majority of men can be called pacifists. In its proper sense it denotes a rejection of war as a means of settling disputes between nations, but in practice there are varying views as to how this fundamental tenet of faith should be interpreted.

At one end of the spectrum stand the absolute pacifists, who hold that there are no circumstances under which it is morally permissible to take another person’s life. Amongst these there are some who seek to propose an alternative form of defence against an armed invader, and others who offer no alternative but merely say it is better to be overwhelmed than to resist. At the other end of the spectrum is the conditional pacifist who grants sovereign states the right of armed defence, but only under certain limited circumstances and with the use of ‘battlefield weapons’ only. Between these two extremes there is a range of differing viewpoints as to when and to what degree physical force may be used by the State, either against an armed aggressor or for internal security.

There are also, of course, those who embrace pacifism merely because they do not want to find themselves in the firing line, just as there are others who, while refusing to fight out of deep personal conviction, willingly place themselves in the thick of the fighting, for instance as medical orderlies. Of these differing forms of pacifism, my concern today is with the absolute form – that is to say, with the view that the State may never use armed force, no matter what the circumstances or even the consequences.

There is no denying that this point of view, radical and extreme though it undoubtedly is, holds a strong attraction for many people, particularly amongst the young. Most of us feel an instinctive horror at the thought of having to kill a fellow human being, and we know that to lead our lives in the way we should means loving our neighbour. Pacifism directs its appeal to the law of love implanted in every human heart. It claims that we have a duty to work for the good of our enemies, however brutal or evil they may be, and that we may never kill them. The Christian pacifist will point to the example of Christ who offered his life as a sacrifice for mankind, thereby fulfilling to the bitter end the law of love he had consistently preached: he will argue that evil is not overcome by physical force but rather by sacrifice and love. He will also say that the policy of armed defence has not succeeded in preventing war: on the contrary wars are, if anything, becoming more frequent, therefore it is high time that a different response was tried. By these and other similar arguments he is able to mount what to many will appear a convincing case based on a lofty and spiritual ideal. However, it is one thing to formulate an ideal in the abstract, another to give it relevance to our duties as members of the human family.

In order to clarify the basic issues involved, I find that it helps to invoke the domestic analogy and begin with a simple act of terrorism, such as happens from time to time. Having come to a conclusion as to how the law of love is fulfilled at this level, one can then proceed to the more complex problem of war between nations.

Let us suppose that two of the 300 passengers in the customs hall of an airport have taken a sub-machinegun out of their luggage and are opening fire on the other passengers, as happened some years ago at Tel-Aviv Airport. There is an armed policeman on duty who has not yet been noticed and is in a position to shoot the gunmen. How does he properly fulfil his duty to love his fellow men? To be consistent, the absolute pacifist has to answer that the policeman may not shoot at the gunmen. In practice, however, I find that this is one question that the pacifist is very loath to answer.

If he says that the morally correct course of action is to shoot, he has abandoned his position as an absolute pacifist to become a conditional pacifist and now agrees that, under certain circumstances at least, the right of armed defence does exist. These circumstances may in his view be extremely limited, but at least he concedes that they can exist – and, if they do exist on the domestic scene, it is difficult to argue that they do not also exist on the international scene. If, on the other hand, he says that the policeman may not shoot, he is almost certain to lose credibility with those listening to the discussion. In my own experience, I do not remember an absolute pacifist ever giving a categoric yes or no in reply to this question. Occasionally someone will say that he has wrestled with this very problem and simply does not know what the solution is. Usually the answer has been along the lines:

“Perhaps they could be talked out of it”; “Perhaps I would charge at them”.

Or, more plausibly:

“This has nothing to do with war”.

In my own view, it has everything to do with war, for it contains in simplified form all the moral elements applicable to war itself. At all events, if we cannot arrive at an unequivocal and competent judgement on the moral duty of the policeman in the airport customs hall, we can hardly hope to speak with authority on the complex and difficult issue of all-out war between nations.

The Christian pacifist maintains that taking another person’s life is irreconcilable with Christ’s commandment to love our neighbour. The question is, how does this precept apply in the situation we are postulating? The policeman, whose legal and moral duty is to maintain law and order, has only two options: he can either shoot and so halt the massacre, or he can refrain form shooting and allow the massacre to continue. Either way, there will be blood on his hands – innocent blood in large quantities, if he fails to stop the killing, guilty blood in much smaller quantity if he does stop it. He cannot opt out on the pleas that the crisis is not of his making, for he is an integral part of what is happening by virtue of the fact that he has power to stop it, and so long as he fails to exercise that power he makes himself to some degree a party to the crime being perpetrated, albeit an extremely unwilling one.

His duty to love his fellow man has to take into account both groups of people in the customs hall, not just the gunmen in isolation, and this means that he has to decide which group’s life he is to preserve, the innocent victims’ or the criminal aggressors’; he cannot preserve both. In such a situation, where there is no third way out and no time to bargain, the policeman’s duty is governed by the fact that one group is innocent and therefore has the right to protection, while the other, being in the act of indiscriminate killing, has forfeited that right. He has no alternative but to halt the massacre. To claim that he better fulfils the precept to love his neighbour, and becomes more perfectly a man of peace, by preserving the lives of the gunmen at the expense of everybody else is to make a mockery of that sacred term ‘peace’.

One may, of course, reply that terrorism on the domestic scene cannot be equated with war between nations, and that a different set of principles applies to each. Clearly there is a great difference in the scale of destruction, and no war will ever be as clear-cut with regard to culpability and innocence as in the airport incident. Nevertheless, the two are similar in nature: in both one group is using armed force unlawfully to overpower the other. The pacifist replies that the morally correct response to military invasion is to accept defeat. In this way, there will be little, if any, loss of life, the aggressor will ultimately be won over by the good example his victim has set, and even if this should not be so the Christian should be ready to accept whatever suffering life has to offer. This was how Christ overcame his enemies, and it is to this that his followers are called.

For a man to renounce his fundamental right of self-defence when attacked, and to lay down his life rather than harm his attacker, is indeed an act of profound spiritual significance. But it needs no pointing out that to offer my own life when it is I alone who am being attacked, and to offer another person’s life without at least his implicit consent, are totally different propositions. My own life is mine to give – provided I have taken the interests of my dependants into account; the life of another is not. Rather, if the other should be under threat and I am in a position to intervene, he has a right to expect my help.

Pacifism is asking more than just renunciation of the right of armed self-defence; it requires that the nation dismantles its defence forces completely. This is the equivalent of denying the police the use of any form of firearms under any conceivable circumstances, and thus leaving such arms in the sole possession of the criminal element of society. Except in its more extreme forms, pacifism does not suggest that the final result of such a step would be to win over the criminal by force of good example. What real grounds, then, are there for believing that disarmament would win over the military aggressors on the international scene?

Apart from classical antiquity, pacifism of some degree has existed throughout history, but it has always been a minority view, the possession of a small but dedicated group, and has never been tested, let alone adopted as national policy. Some will see in this a sign that nations are lacking in judgement, others that the pacifist proposition lacks a realistic base. The history of mankind is as much the history of war as it is of peace. There is nothing in recent times to suggest that war, or the threat of it, will not continue to be used to great effect against nations that are militarily inferior. Armed force is one of the ways in which man seeks to further his perceived interests, either as victim or aggressor, at all levels of human society. It originates in the inner, spiritual conflict between good and evil, the consequence of the Fall, and man cannot hope to be free from its threat until that fundamental conflict is finally resolved.

Someone has said that if only there were more and better Christians war would cease; but is this true? It seems rather that of its very nature evil feels compelled to attack everything that is holy and good, that proportionately as good predominates, evil resorts to more extreme measures, something after the manner of a cornered animal. How else explain the relentless fury and the scale of the attack mounted against Jesus by those who felt their authority and position threatened? This is not to make a political judgement on individual nations, only to point to the desperate struggle in which man is engaged, individually and collectively, the good trying to gain mastery over evil.

Pacifism is quite correct in saying that evil is not overcome by physical force, but it is mistaken in denying force any role at all. Force belongs to the material order and is therefore powerless to destroy evil in its essence, but evil operates through the actions of men, and it is at this level that force is able to have a restraining effect by limiting the opportunities evil has for intimidating and harming the innocent. No-one, for instance, would suggest that prisons and policemen are a means of converting the lawbreaker, let alone the hardened criminal, but this is not put forward as a reason for dispensing with their services.

Another fundamental error of pacifism is the way it presents the choice we have to make as being between all-out war or subjugation by a hostile power. “Better red than dead” is a skilfully-worded trap that has deceived many. The truth is that we are immeasurably better off being neither one nor the other. There is no evidence in history of nations launching a war of aggression against a victim whom they can clearly see is militarily strong enough to make the venture hopeless. War is the consequence of a reasoned decision made in the belief, however ill-founded, that it is the best available option under the circumstances. The State may be acting on faulty intelligence or may just be completely wrong in its judgement; it may also grossly miscalculate the repercussions of its action and set in motion a long train of events that it never foresaw. But it is hardly conceivable that it would commit an act of war which it knew would have catastrophic consequences to itself.

The trouble always comes when the victim either is not adequately defended or has failed to make his determination to fight back sufficiently clear. In the face of a proper military defence and a clear notification of intent by Britain, Argentina would almost certainly not have invaded the Falklands. A stronger and more determined Britain and France in the 1930s could in all probability have prevented World War II from ever breaking out at all. It follows that the less possibility there is of underestimation the other side’s capability of inflicting catastrophic damage if attacked, the greater is the constraint on an act of aggression against a powerfully armed adversary. In my own view, nuclear weapons, by virtue of their immense destructive power, make it impossible for one nuclear power to attack another, because it would be suicidal, and therefore offer the real threefold hope of no conventional war at any level between East and West, no nuclear war, and no subjugation to an alien power imposed by force.

Pacifism would have preferred that we had offered no armed resistance to Hitler and instead had countered his occupation of Europe with civil disobedience and peaceful refusal to co-operate. In this way, it is claimed, the occupied countries would gradually become ungovernable, the Nazis would begin to soften, and ultimately peace and freedom would be restored. This is to take an extraordinarily unrealistic view of totalitarian regimes such as that of Hitler. By the time he was finally halted, Hitler had liquidated 20 million innocent men, women and children in his concentration camps. These camps were not, as is sometimes suggested, the product of the war but an integral part of the Nazi system designed to deal with people who were regarded as dangerous or racially unacceptable. The first of them, Dachau, was built in 1933, the year Hitler came to power.

Those who claim that a policy of non-violent resistance can be a viable alternative to armed defence agree that for it to succeed a very high degree of training and preparation would be required, equivalent to the training given to the armed forces in peacetime. They also agree that the nation would have to be as united and co-ordinated in its response as in time of war, and with a similar sense of dedication and national resolve. The aggressor, however, would not hesitate to suppress any organized resistance with all means at his disposal. He would eliminate all leaders, put a prohibition on travel, make effective communication impossible, and declare refusal to work illegal. Some he would threaten with imprisonment and violence, whilst others he would entice by the offer of privilege and power, and there are always those willing to collaborate. If food or other essential supplies became short, the population, not the occupying forces and their collaborators, would suffer.

Modern technology has enabled the totalitarian state to exercise so great a power of surveillance and intelligence-gathering over its citizens that organized resistance becomes virtually impossible – as abundantly demonstrated in Poland, a nation where only 3% of the population are committed Communists and yet can hold the rest in check. The more integrated human society becomes, the stronger the grip that a malevolent regime is able to exercise on the nation it has overpowered, and the more important it becomes to block the road to aggression. Pacifism would leave that road unguarded and open for anyone who had his reason for walking it, whereas a policy of balanced deterrence, responsibly operated, would block it.

There remains, however, another face of pacifism, a positive and edifying one. Armed defence can help contain the forces of aggression and violence in the world, but it does not serve the cause of peace in any meaningful sense unless the nation that it seeks to protect is itself committed to peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war; neither can we say that a people living under a tyrannical and oppressive regime are living in peace, even if no fighting is taking place. peace is the consequence, the priceless fruit, of justice. Justice is the gateway that leads to peace, and injustice, itself the first violence, the dangerous slope that leads to war. If the cause of peace and freedom requires that we close our frontiers to the would-be aggressor, it equally requires that we open our hearts to the claims of the poor, the deprived and those oppressed by injustice wherever they may be.

Group Captain G L Cheshire VC OM is founder of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation.