Applied Pacifism

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.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to Applied Pacifism

  1. Larry says:

    Hi Todd,

    Thank you for your response to my query. My grandfather served in WWII in Africa and Italy, and he spoke very little about it, other than to tell me that the war ruined his life – he did not elaborate.

    The scenario I posed was meant to illustrate where, to me, violence is not only completely justified, but almost assuredly necessary. Justified, in this sense, has nothing to do with judgement or comeuppance, but rather saving the life of an innocent child.

    I only ask for your opinion because, as you said, I do not understand it. We live in a dangerous world where stories such as this occur every single day. As reasonable people, I’d like to believe that most of us take precautions to avoid such scenarios. We avoid the dark alley shortcut, we park in the well-lit area of the parking lot, we teach our kids not to approach strangers. As much as we go out of our way to avoid dangerous situations, though, danger is never 100% unavoidable.

    In the case of the martially trained man, he will in most cases be far less likely to lose control of himself in a confrontation. His use of violence is in defense of his daughter, and not meant to inflict harm unnecessarily, but rather to prevent harm to his family. Regardless of martial ability, it seems that the moral imperative is to act, and the only action available in this scenario is almost certainly going to end in violence. Pleading or reasoning would be ineffectual in persuading the man intent on inflicting harm to the child – if he is to be stopped, it must be by force. Without the use of force, the aggressor will simply take the little girl and drive away.

    The disconnect, for me, is where the use of force, or violence, is completely removed as an option when the only other option is to acquiesce. That is where, it seems to me, strict pacifism unravels. On a national or international scale, more options may be available. On a personal level, such as in this scenario, things become much more simple. Perhaps I do not understand your reasoning, or perhaps I simply disagree. Falling on one’s sword in this case just doesn’t strike me as the morally correct choice.

    Once again, thank you for your response, Todd.

    Best wishes,

  2. Harry says:

    Dear Larry,

    First of all, your understanding of pacifism is not quite complete. Under the scenario you drew, there is nothing about being pacifist that would prevent one from defending the life of a daughter.

    Secondly, you can conjure up an equally silly scenario for abandoning any principle you hold dear.

    For instance, would you steal to feed your starving family? Suppose your wife and child were drowning and you could save only one of them? Suppose two children were drowning and one of them had Down syndrome? Suppose there were a ticking time bomb somewhere, would you torture to get the information?

    You name me a principle that you hold dear, and I will conjure up the scenario in which you are forced to abandon it.

    The fact is, that such scenarios do not invalidate the principle. It is still wrong to kill, wrong to steal, wrong to torture, wrong to value some lives over others.

    And yes, the world is a dangerous place. Perhaps it would be less dangerous if some people spent the time and effort practicing “Blessed are the peacemakers” rather than rationalizing their way out of it.

  3. David D. says:

    Unfortunately, Larry’s hypothetical involving the threat of imminent violence against a defenseless family member is hardly some contrived “silly scenario” as a quick glance at this morning’s local daily sadly confirmed.

    “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.”

    You should probably ask both parties plus a disinterested third party.

  4. Larry says:

    Thank you for your comments, Harry. As I mentioned, my understanding of pacifism is not quite complete, hence my questions. I still am not clear on what a strict pacifist would do in the silly situation I described. My original question has not been answered.

    Of course, you are correct, there are any number of situations where ones principles would be left behind. I disagree with you, however – such scenarios do, in fact, invalidate the principle. If one were to tell me that there is no situation in which violence is appropriate, and I can so easily conjure up a situation where violence is quite obviously appropriate, then the principle has been invalidated. So instead of telling me that my questions are silly and why don’t I simply praise that which I do not understand, how about offering some actual commentary that mayb enlighten me?

  5. Todd says:

    I think we can crank this discussion back to non-insulting levels. Let’s keep in mind that when ideas and questions are criticized for being silly or whatever, the commentary isn’t critical of the person him or herself, just the idea expressed. Let’s give people who don’t know the benefit of the doubt about it.

    It is true that popular culture presents us with fictional scenarios in which people are confronted with situations that stress or break their moral fiber. It’s the nature of drama, and television drama in particular. But let’s not be deceived that ordinary human living doesn’t present challenges to our faith and morals. By focusing on Jack Bauer adventures, we lose sight of the harm done by raising our voice in anger, posting a comment not well thought out, ignoring someone who needs us.

    For me pacifism is enough of a struggle to live day to day. Not only is there the awareness of harm rendered or to be avoided, but also adopting a hermeneutic of addition, of making the world a slightly better place by a positive example of peace and nonviolence.

    Speaking generally, I believe violence is always inappropriate. The personal cost in living out that position may be quite high. I’d like to think I’d be willing to lay down my life for the sake of the Gospel. But just because I wouldn’t, or don’t do it in the future does not invalidate the principle.

    If nothing else, having pacifists in our midst will be a moderating force, and a guard against vengeance, and the other extremes of violence.

    I continue to welcome Larry’s questions. But let’s be aware that blanket statements like “pacifism is dangerous” is as potentially insulting as “your scenario is silly.” Let’s keep to the topic, and be brave enough to ask for clarification when we need it, and tenacious enough to state our philosophy and defend it logically.

  6. Larry says:

    Thank you, Todd – my intent is not to raise ire, or to argue or insult, but only to gain an understanding of pacifism as more than just a philosophy but as a practice and a way of life. I sincerely regret if I’ve insulted anyone – this was not my intention.

    Avoiding violence and dangerous situations is a common thread among most people – I think that most of us would agree this is the preferred way to live our lives. It is at those times where this violence is unavoidable, say when there is imminent harm occurring or about to occur to oneself or a loved one, where the decision must be made whether or not to to commit an act of violence to stop it.

    As a pacifist, you may have struggled with the yourself, even if only as a philosophical dilemma and not a real-life emergency. Is there a point where violence is appropriate? You have answered by stating that your belief is that violence is always inappropriate, and I understand that you mean what you say. However, while I respect that belief, I guess I don’t fully understand how that can be applied in every circumstance. We live in a world where sometimes our only choices are two evils, and we are forced by circumstance to determine which is the lesser of the two. In the example of the child victim, our choice may come down to countering violence with violence, or countering violence with passive resistance and hoping for the best. Common sense, to me, suggests that passive resistance in this case would be insufficient to safeguard our loved one, and that, to me, would be the greater good. It seems that I would have time to come to terms with the momentary departure from my preferred way of life if this greater good were served, whereas the regret I may feel for refusing to act against my principles may haunt me for the rest of my life. While I understand that this particular set of circumstances is highly unlikely, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility, and seems like a question one must answer for oneself if they are to embrace pacifism as more than a habit, but as a way of life.

  7. Todd says:

    The closest thing to a real-life emergency was when I physically intervened when a man was threatening his live-in girlfriend. He was prepared to hit her, but not, fortunately, me. I think he was embarrassed by his tiff becoming public, and he threatened me as the woman backed off from us. I don’t know that it was a smart thing to do, but I did it and nobody got hurt–at least then.

    I was mugged once by a group of older kids when I was a young teen. I talked them out of injuring me, but that was a no-brainer, so to speak. I wasn’t going to successfully fight off six older and bigger guys, so I used something in which I did have an advantage: my wits.

    I don’t see passive resistance as the best strategy. I would prefer non-violent non-cooperation. If this were forty years ago, and I were thirty years younger, I would be obliged to present myself to the draft board and say I was willing to support the material needs of US soldiers, but I would not fight. I simply would not cooperate with military training if I were drafted and unable to be recognized as a conscientious objector.

    As a pacifist, I have no problem forcing an aggressor to make a very difficult choice: beating up two people instead of one, going to jail for assault to think about violence there, and even, perhaps, allowing someone to get into an uncomfortable or nasty situation because of their own bad judgment. I’m not going to hit someone back, but I’m sure not going to make life easy for an offender.

  8. Harry says:

    Larry, your scenario no more invalidates the fifth commandment any more than stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family invalidates the seventh.

    The world did not become a dangerous place because of people who reject violence as a solution to all sorts of problems we can dream up.

    I submit that the world is a dangerous place because humans keep dreaming up more and more scenarios in which the principles by which we are commanded to live by our creator/savior can be thrown out the window.

    The real question is how do we order our lives? By those principles, or by fear from the latest crime we’ve read about in the newspaper or saw on TV?

  9. Larry says:

    Hi Harry,

    I believe there is a world of difference between fear and preparedness. You don’t keep a spare tire in your trunk because you ‘fear’ having a blowout on the interstate – it’s just common sense.

    I never advocated for killing anyone in this discussion, even in self defense. What I am trying to get a better understanding of is the tenets of strict pacifism, that committing an act of violence is always unacceptable in every instance, regardless of the outcome, and no matter what is at stake. I wasn’t actually equating the philosophy of pacifism with any particular religious belief. It is the idea I was hoping to discuss, and not it’s relation to Christian values, principles, or commandments.

    I can’t tell you why the world is a dangerous place any more than you can explain it to me. People will always have disagreements, and not everyone is prepared to deal with those situations in a peaceful way. In the face of that, for me, the question is not ‘why is the world dangerous’ but ‘what can I do to make the world as safe a place as possible for myself and my loved ones.’

    The idea that I would never, ever defend myself against violence by countering with violence simply does not make logical sense to me. If I am mugged, certainly giving up the $10 in my wallet and going through the 20 minute hassle of cancelling my credit cards is a much better outcome than engaging in a violent struggle in which I or someone else could be injured or worse. But in the face of real danger, where the safety of myself or a loved one is at real, imminent risk, I would defend them with violence if that’s what it came down to. Being prepared, physically and perhaps more important mentally, to defend myself if need be makes as much sense to me as making sure there is a spare in the trunk. It is not fear, Harry, but preparedness.

    As I mentioned, avoiding the places and scenarios that pose those kinds of risk is the most effective way for me to live my life. There is no amount of avoidance, however, that can shield us completely from the dangers of the world. What I was after, then, was simply a greater understanding on why a pacifist feels differently than I do. I believe that it is an admirable quality in a person to love and promote peace and peaceful solutions wherever that is possible. I simply don’t believe that that is always possible, and my personal feeling is that preparedness for that eventuality is not only acceptable but prudent.

    The Ten Commandments is not a topic I was hoping to discuss, but I can see that arguments of invalidating an absolute commandment is one that is important. My original query had nothing to do with the parallels of Catholicism and Pacifism, and more to do with the basic tenets of Pacifism itself as a philosophy and a way of life. I can see that in this case, however, the two are intimately linked. This is where a discussion of moral and ethical ideas segues into very strong, very personal, heartfelt beliefs, and I understand that. I’m not sure I’d like to tread there.

    Once again, I did not enter into this to insult anyone’s beliefs. I suppose sometimes agreeing that we disagree on an idea may be as fruitful an outcome to a discussion as we are likely to arrive at.

    Thanks again Harry, and thank you Todd,

  10. Larry says:

    And also, Todd, good on you for defending that woman. Bravery lies in accepting the risks to do what you know is the right thing. What you did to intervene was very brave indeed. Thank you.

  11. Harry says:

    “But in the face of real danger, where the safety of myself or a loved one is at real, imminent risk, I would defend them with violence if that’s what it came down to.”

    And there is nothing about pacifism that would prevent you from doing so.

  12. Tony says:

    But in the face of real danger, where the safety of myself or a loved one is at real, imminent risk, I would defend them with violence if that’s what it came down to.

    And there is nothing about pacifism that would prevent you from doing so.

    Then I guess I have not understood pacifism. I am prepared and trained do do violence in the protection of myself and my family. I pray that I will never need to use that training. When I use that violence I plan to use the minimum required to insure the safety of myself and those with me. If this requires running away from danger, that is what I will do first.

    If cornered, and I feel my life is in danger, I will attempt to stop the attacker up to and including killing him if necessary and I will call an ambulance for him, a priest for last rites and I will personally pray for the repose of his soul, should he die.

    Am I a pacifist? If not, why not?

  13. Todd says:

    “Am I a pacifist? If not, why not?”

    Do you live the philosophy in life, not just in the Jack Bauer scenarios? If you tell me you are, I have no reason to doubt it. Nor would I have any reason–let alone inclination–to check up on you.

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