Pacifism As I Understand It

I would like to respond to Randolph Nichols’ comment:

Since I’ve met so few genuine pacifists, I’m wondering if you could spell out more specifically your thinking on the subject.

I used to think about it a lot more in the past than I do today. From the 80’s, however, I came to realize that peace begins at home, with the self, and with one’s attitudes and behavior with others. So I’ve focused on that.

In one sense being a perfect pacifist is as possible as being without sin. When one uses harsh, insulting words one violates a sense of peaceableness. My own experience with another pacifist was at a small group discussion to which a mutual friend invited me. Inadvertently, I said something that annoyed the speaker, and the reaction from this “pacifist” was a verbal jump down my throat. I saw in my friend’s shocked expression she was thinking the same “hmmm” I was thinking.  I don’t need to be like that, I thought. I went elsewhere to find role models.

So when I see commentary that pacifism is immoral, un-Catholic, non-Christian, etc., I have to laugh at the ignorance of the statements. Peace begins with one’s own self and one’s attitudes. Making peace is much more of an inherently Christian practice than attack. It’s also much more demanding and difficult. It presumes one is willing to submit to a certain moral discipline. One cannot be a pacifist and routinely yell at one’s children, curse other drivers, harbor ill feelings toward others and have those passions explode. One must also, I think, resist the exposure to violence and cultivate an inner sense of peace.

The internet is obviously my stumbling block. My hesitation in saying I’m a pacifist was much weaker before I began commenting and blogging. I’m sure a true pacifist could do a Google search and find any number of times when I’ve transgressed and made the blogosphere a more contentious place. That said, I also have to acknowledge that most blog denizens make their own choices when it comes to personal anger and outrage. Gandhi and MLK among others, have elicited fury from their opponents. That’s not a sign of a false pacifist. Confrontation isn’t off the pacifist page, if it’s truly accompanied by love, respect, and non-violence. I get angry with you–that’s my problem. You get angry with me? It’s all yours.

I’ve read books on pacifism. I’ve also been exposed to biographical material of Gandhi, MLK, and especially the Scandinavian resistance (Denmark, Norway) to Nazi Germany. What these people teach me is that like the practice of Christianity, pacifism involves sacrifice–collective and personal.

People wonder about the pacifist response to genocide. The Danish king and many of his people achieved it. When Hitler demanded Jews wear the yellow star, the king said he and his family also would proudly wear the star. And when the demand came to segregate Jews into ghettoes, he said he would leave his palace to live in the ghetto there. And when he told the Germans he would send a soldier to remove a Nazi flag, and when the reply came that the soldier would be shot, he replied he himself would be the soldier. Imagine a whole nation wearing the yellow star or the pink triangle. But of course, such a witness means every citizen bears the burden of sacrifice. Instead of soliders and their families only.

A pacifist leader can accomplish many things. But people can offer the witness of peace by declining to participate in gross injustice, and being blatantly uncooperative about it.

One person stated on one of the contrary sites that there were no true pacifists. He could walk up to such an alleged person, punch him in the face, and the person would fight back in defense of himself. I think this shows an innocent and naive view of pacifism. I would not hit a person back. But I would press legal charges. And the offender would go to jail–practical consequences for an immoral act.

It’s relatively easy for me, when asked how I would respond to 9/11, that I don’t think pacifists would be a target of terrorism. It simply wouldn’t work. Muslim anger toward the US has deep roots in recent history. That said, I cannot foresee that pacifists would cooperate in any way by buying Saudi oil, were they in a position to respond once a rather violent and immoral foreign policy has already set us up for retribution. Nonviolent non-cooperation extends to the allies of the unjust. My wife is probably happy I’m a lot less radical in cooperating with certain violent elements within my own country. I suppose if I stopped to think about things at any length, I would find there’s a lot more I could do to protest militarism.

I can’t tell you much more than this. Richard B. Gregg’s book The Power of Nonviolence is where I started. I’ve had other teachers, some who have been active protesters in the peace movement. There’s quite a bit more to pacifism than rolling over and letting harm come to others or to oneself. But as I understand it, a practitioner of nonviolence would have no problem being on the front lines of any struggle. Some have lost their lives in the cause–no less a sacrifice than any soldier.

Personally, I cannot agree with the way of the soldier, but as I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, many of my relatives have served in the military (both parents and my older brother). I have no problem honoring military personnel who act in accordance with their beliefs and do so with honor and courage. But I also think to serve the cause of peace is to serve in a higher, holier place. As for critics of pacifism and nonviolence, I can only suggest you educate yourselves. From what I read, your grasp of true pacifism is as weak as a drop of brandy in a swimming pool. There’s no particular problem per se with that level of ignorance, it’s just that usually people know more before they attempt published criticism.

Bring on the comments, I welcome them.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Pacifism As I Understand It

  1. Dustin says:

    Hi, Todd. Have you read Tolstoy’s <i.The Kingdom of God Is Within You?

  2. David D. says:

    While the Danes are to be greatly commended for successfully rescuing from deportation almost all of Denmark’s miniscule Jewish population, the tales surrounding Christian X and the yellow Star of David are apocryphal. Danish capitulation to the invading Germans might be justifiable on pragmatic grounds but it can hardly be deemed an example of principled pacifism.

  3. Larry says:

    I enjoyed your post, however I disagree withyour contention that anyone with a different opinion than yourself is uneducated, ignorant and somehow ‘less holy.’ While I understand that your criticism is directed at a specific individual, you seem to paint any critic of pacifism with very broad strokes. For myself, I believe that pacifism is a wonderful ideal – right up until you need to defend yourself or your loved ones from aggression. At that point, the ideal crosses the line from ‘well-intentioned’ to ‘stupid.’ I always, always prefer the peaceful solution to conflict – I am not a pacifist. As much as we may prefer the peaceful resolution to conflict, the peaceful solution is, as you know, not always possible. There is a world of difference between aggression and self defense; I respectfully submit that the world we live in is not as black and white as you suggest.

    I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand illustrations both for and against your belief. Please bear with me while I submit one more. In this example, a martially trained man and his young daughter are walking down the street at night. He has no cell phone, the shops are all closed, and there is no traffic on the street. Suddenly, the little girl is grabbed from the shadows – a disheveled man has grabbed her and runs with her down an alley. The man gives chase and catches the offender. Violence ensues and the disheveled man pulls out a knife. The martially trained man is cut but disarms the attacker, disabling him by breaking bones and joints, as he has been trained to do. The man retrieves his daughter while the offender makes a swift getaway by jumping into a nearby van driven by an accomplice.

    If you would, please describe briefly what the pacifist does in this situation, and why you believe that it is the morally correct thing to do. In this example, which is not at all far-fetched, it seems that the logical outcome is that the pacifist goes home without his daughter, perhaps in a body bag, while the pacifist’s little girl never comes home. If you would, please explain to me in logical terms why that is the preferred outcome.

    Please understand that my intent is not to insult your intelligence or your passion, but only to illustrate why it is my belief that strict pacifism is a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed, dangerous endeavor.

  4. Tony says:

    Larry, you’ve articulated my thoughts on this subject. Let me add that were I a “free agent” who was not responsible for anyone else, I could make an honorable and holy decision not to resist an attacker, get myself killed and go to heaven.

    But that is not the vocation to which my God has led me. I am responsible for my wife and my daughter living at home (my other daughter is the responsibility of her husband). This means that were they in danger, I would be required to stop the attacker, possibly causing his death in the process. I would try and use the mimimum of force required, starting by barricading myself and my family in a room, and allowing the criminal to take my stuff if need be.

    When he breaks into the room, all bets are off. I will be armed, and I will shoot him to stop him in the swiftest and most effective way possible.

  5. David Burress says:

    Mr. Nichols writes: “I would not hit a person back. But I would press legal charges. And the offender would go to jail–practical consequences for an immoral act.”

    In other words he will cooperate with the state violence known as the police and criminal justice system. (As I would also.) I’m not saying that is necessarily inconsistent, but I would like a clear explanation explaining when and why it is or is not ethically permissible to cooperate with violence.

    David Burress
    AD Astra Institute of Kansas

  6. David Burress says:

    Oops, that quote was not from Mr. Nichols but from the blogger.

  7. Todd says:

    Violence would be an individual choice of an officer of the law, not an inherent part of the system. I’m well aware that prisons are violent, and that violence is indeed cultivated as part of the system of punishment in many countries, including the US. I certainly would urge an assailant to forego violence for those reasons. I would also render assistance as I was able for a violent person who had reformed, repented, and sought reconciliation.

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