I appreciate the challenges offered to pacifism in my post from last week. Larry, in particular, offers some good food for thought. I would think that most all Christians approach difficult interactions with others from the stance of peace. Or at least not beating the living tar out of them–physically or argumentatively.
That said, there are dangers, and everyone would be wise to prepare for encounters that potentially seduce one away from one’s values, comfort zones, or core philosophy of life.
I think pacifism is more than an ideal. And I think there is often more than one way out when a person is backed into a corner. Larry offers a thought experiment:
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.
Just because a person is a pacifist doesn’t mean he or she would passively accept a kidnapping as an experience of fate. As a pacifist, I have no compulsion about pursuing a kidnapper. I commit no violence by giving chase. Those who argue a pacifist might not give chase are not fully informed about what pacifism is and is not. Indeed, since I have no training in the martial arts and self-defense, my action of giving chase might be more brave than the person Larry describes.
A victim occasionally has ability or knowledge that would render equal or greater harm to an assailant. That can present a moral problem. This contrived thought experiment is easier for me because I have no ability for or knowledge of breaking bones or physically disabling the attacker. Like most any parent, I would lay down my life if I could arrange to get my daughter to safety. So if I could catch the assailant, remove my daughter from his grasp, and delay his pursuit of her, then the mission would be accomplished. Few enough crime victims are experts in the martial arts, so I’d think the likely result from this scenario isn’t much different for a pacifist from those who would be inclined (but unable) to punish the aggressor.
The situation is more difficult if a pacifist has physical training and is able to disarm and disable the attacker. A pacifist understands that acts of violence, even justified, exact a price upon a person. One excellent illustration from the world of cinema is this bully getting his comeuppance. The anger in the face of injustice is righteous, certainly. Ralphie, in pummeling his opponent, illustrates the danger inherent in indulging violence: a loss of control. My own childhood experience of getting in a fight with a bully is nearly exact in congruence to this film clip. In fiction, we can root for the underdog, the oppressed. Larry continues:
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.
Larry is wrong about pacifism. There is far more danger in being seduced and drawn into violence. Troops for hire (aka Blackwater) have brought shame on themselves and the US by enacting vengeance in Iraq. FDR and Churchill also for agreeing to indiscriminate bombing of civilians in WWII. In all of those cases, leaders in the West were confronted with what they thought was a just cause against an aggressive enemy. But in too many cases, American presidents have been responsible for the same grave immorality they sought to subdue: Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and both Bushes. Once the spirit of violence is let out of the bottle, it would seem that leaders are singularly incapable of restraint.
I’ve mentioned before that many of my relatives have served in the military. My father and his two brothers served in WWII, one overseas and two stateside. A boyhood next-door neighbor served in Korea. A strange thing about asking these men about what they did during the war: none of them had stories from the front. None of them. My father once grunted something about “war is hell” and the subject was changed. Our neighbor once showed me his medals from his time in the service, but he couldn’t stop crying when I asked him what they were for. I never got an answer. I knew a Vietnam vet, a boyfriend of a woman who was in my prayer group. He went to see one of the Vietnam movies that came out in the 80’s. It was a disturbing experience for him. His assessment of the portrayal: “It was that bad and worse.”
Christians who were engaged in war in patristic times returned home to do penance. Some Catholic sensibilities are shocked by this, but mine isn’t. The early Christians recognized the moral harm done to those exposed to violence and forced to engage in it. And even today, we have an armed police force and a military that has higher rates of divorce and physical abuse than the civilian population. I’m not satisfied that those who serve to protect me and other citizens are asked or expected to sacrifice in this way. And don’t even get me started on the medical and psychological mistreatment of soldiers in our society. In this regard, the stain on American leaders is dark and deep. And that avoidance in caring for the needs of those who serve and sacrifice is moral evidence, in my view, of the moral avoidance that takes place not only in this country, but in others.
I can open up the hood of the family car, and beyond checking the oil or changing the washer fliud, I’m ignorant of the workings of the vehicle. I’m also ignorant of engineering, bookkeeping and accounting methods, quantum mechanics, ballroom dancing, and any number of other subjects. It is not my intention to insult anyone when I state from what I read in a person’s writings that they appear ignorant of authentic pacifism. Pacifism is not part of the usual education of children or adults. Pacifism is deeply misunderstood. And certain military and corporate interests see pacifism as a threat to the status quo. So many people are kept misinformed.
I would caution my readers not to accept my blog posts as a manual for pacifism. But I know enough to suggest that if you’re looking for authentic information on the subject–go to a pacifist. Asking a person opposed to pacifism for information would be like asking a Yankee fan to school you on the Red Sox, or the SSPX to instruct you on Vatican II. Sure, you’re going get a very opinionated and passionate lecture. But ask yourself: will it help you?
The what-ifs of contrived fiction are of less interest to me than living pacifism in a flawed world as a flawed human being. It’s enough for me to be at peace in day-to-day life, much less in a crisis event. But if I were called upon to live my Christian faith in a crisis, I would have no less an expectation of behaving like a saint, a martyr if necessary. I wouldn’t be looking for a loophole.