Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I Am a Pacifist: Introduction (1 of 7)

For most people, pacifism is such an unrealistic position that they only talk about it in order to mock it. One particular joke comes to mind: “How do you win an argument with a pacifist? When he tells you that it’s wrong to use violence, punch him. After he gets up, see if he still maintains that violence is always wrong. If so, punch him again. Repeat as necessary until he fights back or concedes your point.” [E1] The reason that some find this funny is because it supposedly exposes the ridiculousness of the pacifist position. Pacifism may sound nice in theory, but it doesn’t work in the real world. Once you start hitting the pacifist, it demonstrates that all of his ideals are powerless to stop the blow of your fist, right? [E2] He will have no choice but to admit that you are right or to fight back. Clearly, there are no other options available to him, such as blocking your punches, getting away from the situation, or silently taking the beating until it becomes clear that you can’t change his mind with blows…

I would like to suggest that the reason most people think that pacifism is ridiculous is because they have never actually taken the time to evaluate it. Have you ever genuinely considered the arguments for pacifism? Well, here’s your chance. In the next seven posts, I am going to make a case for a position that I too thought was ridiculous, but which I have since found to be profoundly insightful, ethical, and powerful. So go ahead and “hit me” with your best questions and criticisms as we go. [E3]

But first, I need to say a word to my friends in the military. The main concern that has prevented me from promoting this view until now has been my fear of shaming those who have served, are serving, or who have loved ones who serve in the military by highlighting the sinfulness of violence. Now, I cannot deny that I am unequivocally opposed to war and therefore would discourage most people from participating in the military. [E4] However, this does not mean that I look down on those who decide to join against my advice. On the contrary, I recognize that people often join the military for noble reasons, and I admire the discipline, courage, and sacrifice that it cultivates in them. Moreover, I respect anyone who is willing to risk their life for what they believe, regardless of whether or not I agree with them. [E5] So I can honestly say that even though I am opposed to the military profession, I still have a great deal of respect for many soldiers. [E6] In fact, I have often discovered that soldiers make the best allies for peace, because they have a more accurate understanding of the cost of war than any civilian can and therefore are more inclined to oppose it. [E7]

Finally, before I make any actually arguments, I need to start with a few clarifications:

– There are many, many versions of pacifism. In one of his books, John Howard Yoder identifies 25 different types of pacifism and indicates that there are several more that he couldn’t cover. [E8] Consequently, you can’t assume that what I write in these blog posts represents all pacifists.

– The type of pacifism that I subscribe to is Christocentric, by which I mean that I am a pacifist because I believe that nonviolence is a part of the gospel revealed by Jesus Christ. I have learned a lot from non-Christian pacifists, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Gene Sharp, but my reasoning is ultimately different from theirs.

– The type of pacifism that I subscribe to is also not passive. It calls people to "fight" for what is right, which you can do without using violence. Being a pacifist doesn’t mean cowering in the face of threats, getting nauseated whenever you see violence, or letting people walk all over you. On the contrary, I believe that it is often essential to stand up for justice, to express anger, to devise strategies about protecting people, to look evil in the face, and to risk one’s life for the greater good.

– I personally still have a long way to go in becoming nonviolent in my own life. As Stanley Hauerwas has famously said, the reason that he believes that nonviolence is God’s way is preciously because he’s “such a violent son of a b****.” I can certainly say that’s true for me. When I hear about innocent people getting attacked or abused, my initial reaction is to want to hurt the perpetrators. I still get in arguments that escalate into yelling, and if you hit me, my instinct would be to hit you back. Pacifism is not just an abstract belief, it’s a way of life – a way of thinking and talking and acting – which requires many years of discipline and which I have yet to achieve. But I have come to see the truth in it, and I aspire toward it, trusting that the One who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion.

So, here’s how the series will work:
(1) Introduction (This Post)
(2) The Biblical Argument
(3) The Greatest Force in the Universe
(4) It's More Practical Than Violence
(5) An Honest Look at History
(6) What I Would Do If a Violent Person Threatened my Loved Ones
(7) The Shocking Image of a Pacifist God

I hope that you will join me in this series, and I pray that the comments that follow will foster civil dialogue, lead to truth, and aim for reconciliation.


[E1] For a full version of the joke, click here.

[E2] Notice that the joke always assumes that the pacifist is a “he.” Somehow, it doesn’t work when you apply it to a female pacifist, because hitting women is not socially acceptable, whereas hitting men is. This is just a small sampling of a larger theme I’ve noticed about how arguments against pacifism are often inextricably bound with chauvinist assumptions. More on this later.

[E3] The only question I won’t answer in the comments is this one: “What would you do if a violent person threatened to harm one of your loved ones and you had to kill him to stop it from happening?” I’m not trying to avoid this question, but it is a very common and relatively complex one, so I am going to dedicate an entire blog post to addressing it.

[E4] I say “most people” because I am aware that the military has nonviolent functions and roles, and many of its members never see combat or fire a weapon. Consequently, I am open to the possibility that there may be ways to participate in military peacefully. However, this is more difficult than it sounds because the institution itself is intrinsically committed to violence, and even those who are not killing are generally endorsing or enabling the military to further its violent agenda.

[E5] Gandhi, one of the most influential advocates for nonviolence of all time, did not believe that the type of pacifism that he advocated was the opposite position of a soldier's. Instead, he believed the worst response to evil was inaction, the intermediate response was violent intervention, and the best response was nonviolent resistance, which he brilliantly renamed satyagraha. He went on to set up training camps that were similar to military training and made sure that his followers knew that they may have to die for the cause of peace. Now, I’m not sure if I agree that violent interventions are always better than inaction, but I certainly believe that soldiers who dedicate their lives to fighting for the good are just one step away from the kind of lifestyle that I would honor. 

[E6] Fortunately, the New Testament has provided a wonderful model of how one can oppose violence and yet honor soldiers. Although the New Testament’s opposition against violence is unequivocal (a point that I’ll argue upon in the next post), it nevertheless highlights several individual soldiers as godly people of great faith. For example, in Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus claims that a centurion he encounters has more faith than everyone in Israel, and in Acts 10, we read the story of the Holy Spirit coming to a centurion named Cornelius, who was honored as the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit.

However, we should also point out that these passages carry a strong degree of irony in them because everyone in Israel would have assumed that these soldiers were “bad people” by virtue of their occupation – they were soldiers of the enemy army. Thus, it was scandalous for Jesus to say that a Roman soldier had more faith than an Israelite or for God to select a Gentile soldier as a recipient of the Holy Spirit. The point these texts make is that these people were good despite their military profession, not because of it. A comparable example in the Older Testament is the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram (2 Kings 5). He too is scandalously healed by the God of Israel, but after this experience, he can’t just go back to business as usual. It changes his lifestyle and impacts his career (2 Kings 5:17-18).

[E7] One of the best institutions out there in this regard is Veterans for Peace, an organization made up of veterans who have come to oppose war. However, not everyone who opposes war is an out-and-out pacifist like me. If you have served or are currently serving in the military and are struggling ethically or psychologically with your experiences, let me offer you two resources. First, I would recommend that you contact Centurion’s Guild, an organization made up of veterans – not all of whom are pacifists – who are dedicated to helping you process your experiences based on your own values and make clear moral choices, whether that means affirming your past decisions or repenting of them, leaving the military or staying in it. Second, you can call the GI Hotline, at 1-877-447-4487, which is free and anonymous, and they can explain your rights and options if you are thinking about leaving or transferring to a different department or role.

[E8] Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism by John Howard Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971). In the third edition (1992), Yoder added three more, and these all fall within the scope of “religious” pacifism, most of which is Christian. 

1 comment:

Zack Crist said...

I'm looking forward to reading this. It's interesting, we often (not saying you do) take the word peace, from which the word pacifist stems) as if it were in a vacuum.

Pacifist literally means "one who does peace." So then, it would be necessary to ask: "what is peace?"

As far as i know the Semitic root is the same in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic: "s(h) - l - m;" rending itself to shalom in Hebrew, "shlom" in Aramaic, and "salâm" in Arabic; all of which are used in a similar greeting Shalom alaichum/ As-Salâmu alaikum (may peace be upon you). Regardless, this Semitic root also carries the meaning of "submission," meaning that the Biblical and Qur'anic understandings of pacifism are inherently tied with submission. Interestingly enough the word "islam" is from this root too, and can be equally understood as a position one finds himself as it can be as a label for a religion (notice my usage of a lower case i).

I'm aware that i haven't made a point here, per se; i'm only trying to create some sort of links for the word peace/pacifism so that we know what we're dealing with.