C. S. Lewis on Conscience, Reason, and Pacifism

In the midst of the chaos that has erupted in many cities across the U.S., in the midst of the burning of homes, and destruction of businesses, and ruination of lives, and needless violence, many of us are asking, “What do we do now?” Do we pursue the famed Benedict Option and retreat from society, hoping to keep the secular world from imposing itself on our neatly Catholic one? Do we step aside as rioters destroy our life’s work in minutes, and remind ourselves that from suffering can grow holiness?

To each their own according to their conscience, and to each according to their station and pre-existing commitments in life, but Pacifism is not for me. I was happy to find an essay by C. S. Lewis, a man I do not always agree with but still greatly respect as both an intellectual and Christian, explaining far more eloquently than I ever could why Pacifism is not always required by Christianity, and why, depending on circumstances, it may not even be permissible.

The first half of the essay is a preparation for the second half. He defines conscience, reason, their parts, and their roles. He defines facts and intuition and acknowledges human authority and divine authority. In the second half of the essay, after defining his terms, he asks the catalyzing question, “Is it immoral to obey when the civil society of which I’m a member commands me to serve in the wars?”

This begged the question, what does it mean to “turn the other cheek?” Lewis posited that there are three ways to interpret the commandment. Firstly, that it “imposes a duty of non resistance on all men in all circumstances.” Secondly, that it does not mean what it says, that it is but a “hyperbolic way of saying that you should put up with a lot and be placable.” And thirdly, that “it means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favor of the obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would assume to be exceptions without being told.”

Lewis provides an articulate exposition on why he cannot support the first two views, then comments on the third that Jesus’ original audience probably did not have war on their minds. Far more likely, they were thinking about the everyday frictions of life. While most of the Bible may be interpreted in a multitude of ways as long as the interpretation follows the law of charity, it is prudent and necessary to consider the sense in which the original audience would have taken the command to “turn the other cheek.” Lewis believes that insofar as there is a case of injury between a man and his neighbor, the man is obligated to completely mortify his desire for retaliation. But when there are other factors at hand, factors beside you, your neighbor, and an egoistic desire for retaliation, retaliation may be permissible and even necessary.

As examples, he offers – if a homicidal maniac is about to run you over while he’s chasing his victim, are you obligated to stand aside? If a child hits his parent whenever he’s upset, is the parent required to permit this behavior? What about the teacher struck by a scholar, a sane man by a lunatic, a soldier by a public enemy? In these and other cases, there are many motivations beside ego for retaliation, and many of these motivations are conceivably duties. He holds that to interpret the command any other than the third way forces one to “conclude that Christ’s true meaning, concealed from those who lived in the same time and spoke the same language and whom He Himself chose to be his messengers to the world, has at last been discovered in our own time.” It is to believe that “the whole world was wrong until the day before yesterday, when we have become suddenly right.”

He points out other logical flaws. 

If this command is to be taken without qualification, then others must be as well. In that case, you must get up and give away all your possessions immediately!

If any desires are likely to pervert our judgement they are the desires for pacifism, not against it. For example, our judgement is more likely to be swayed by the desire for comfort and minimal effort instead of the pain, suffering, grief, loss, and trauma of being a soldier at war. 

If we interpret the command to turn the other cheek as without exception, it renders the command inconsistent with the New Testament and the beliefs of many saints. Interpreted this way, we have to believe that St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and the Lord Himself are wrong.

“This then is why I am not a pacifist. If I tried to become one, I should find a very doubtful factual basis, an obscure train of reasoning, a weight of authority both human and divine against me, and strong grounds for suspecting that my wishes had directed my decision. As I have said, moral decisions do not admit of mathematical certainty. It may be after all that pacifism is right, but it seems to me very long odds. Longer odds than I would care to take with the voice of almost all humanity against me.”

C. S. Lewis, Why I Am Not A Pacifist

I highly recommend listening to the forty minute recording of “Why I Am Not A Pacifist” available on YouTube, and taking it into consideration in the days ahead. As Edmund Burke cautioned, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Image from https://winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour-extras/his-usual-good-sense-c-s-lewis-on-winston-churchill/

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