Pacifism: Opposing Viewpoints

Is pacifism (a) totally unrealistic, (b) a personal ethic only and no way to run a country, (c) an ethic for all of life including the relationship between nations, or (d) something else?

Pacifism edited by Noah Berlatsky (Greenhaven Press, 2010) is an excellent volume that explores this issue with enough breadth to inform and engage those who haven’t yet made up their minds and with enough depth to challenge those who may already be committed one way or another.

The book contains 23 short articles that feature opposing viewpoints and the evidence/reasons for each:

  • The first section of the book on Christianity and pacifism includes both an article that argues “Christian Pacifism is Unrealistic and Immoral,” and an article with the opposite view, “Christian Pacifism Confronts Hard Moral and Practical Questions.”
  • The second section of the book on pacifism and other religions includes both “Islam Has a Tradition of Peace” and “Islam Embraces Violence.”
  • The third section on “secular” approaches to pacifism includes “Feminism and Pacifism Are Linked” alongside”Women Are Not More Likely to Be Pacifist than Men.”
  • The final section on pacifism and political and social issues includes “Nonviolence is a Force for Social Change” and “Nonviolence Is Ineffective at Bringing About Social Change.”

I appreciate the diversity of these and other articles, both “religious” and “secular,” including two Canadians that I recognized immediately: Barbara Yaffe, a journalist for the Vancouver Sun, and my own church denomination which is Mennonite Church Canada. But I also found the collection of articles confusing at first—the “as you read, consider the following questions” section which I thought was part of the first article turned out to be a recurring intro for every article. Some readers might find the questions an aid to reading, but they made the book feel too much like a college textbook for my taste, so I ended up skipping most of those in favour of simply reading the articles on their own.

I was most impressed by the piece written by Paul Rasor, although I am not part of his Unitarian Universalist church tradition. In “Churches Should Move Beyond the Pacifism/Just War Argument,” he advocates “prophetic nonviolence”—“prophetic” in the sense of being engaged in the world and addressing “the social conditions that generate injustice and violence” (49). I agree with him a la Walter Wink that “pacifism” sounds too much like “passivity” (49-50), but unlike him I also find the language of “nonviolence” problematic as I try to think about how I might go about being non-something. Just as Rasor says “a critique of war is incomplete if it stops with denunciation” (50), so the biblical vision of peace is incomplete if it stops with nonviolence. There is a positive aspect to biblical peace that includes “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8), so in my own mind I extend his language and think of pacifism as “prophetic nonviolence and peacemaking.”

On the one side, arguments throughout the book in favour of pacifism include:

  • religious beliefs in the value of human life, and the humility of knowing that we are not God,
  • the example and teaching of Jesus,
  • the evidence from history that violence begets violence,
  • the argument that the human cost of war is greater than any potential gains,
  • the impact of nonviolence to break the cycle of violence and bring about change.

On the other side, arguments against pacifism include:

  • its idealism that is unrealistic given the fallen nature of the world where people cheat, lie, and violate diplomatic agreements;
  • pacifism is a form of “moral decadence” (115) that sees no difference between Hitler and his victims;
  • it is “fear masquerading as compassion” (118);
  • its simplistic view fails to distinguish between different kinds of violence (205);
  • the argument that apart from very limited situations, pacifism is not effective to end conflict and bring justice.

So does pacifism “work”? Is it Christian? Is it moral? The book doesn’t give the “right” answer to these and other questions, but leaves it to readers to weigh and reflect on the evidence and come to their own conclusions. This is in keeping with the intent of the Opposing Viewpoints Series to “give readers a deeper understanding of the issues debated and an appreciation of the complexity of even seemingly simple issues when good and honest people disagree.” (13)

Two specific ideas that challenge me from this reading that I want to continue thinking about:

In his article, Paul Rasor cites philosopher and theologian James Childress who has written: “Just war theorists need pacifists to remind them of their common starting point: the moral presumption against force and war. And pacifists need just war theorists to provide a public framework for debates about particular wars and for the restraint of the practice of war.” (48)  Certainly there is a place for just war theorists and pacifists to work together in projects of Just Peacemaking, but in what sense do we need one another? And more broadly when it comes to other issues, do we also need opposing viewpoints?

“Peter Gelderloos is a radical community organizer from Virginia. . . . He says that pacifists are able to renounce violence because they are privileged and do not have a real experience of oppression.”  (198). He concludes his article this way:

In the end, nonviolence has all the intellectual depth of a media sound bite. Pacifism requires a very vague, broad, loaded, and non-analytical term—violence—to take on a scientific precision. . . . Pretending that all violence is the same is very convenient for supposedly antiviolence privileged people who benefit from the violence of the state and have much to lose from the violence of revolution. (205)

As I read this article, I immediately thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi who both renounced violence in the face of oppression, and are but two examples to counter what Gelderloos says here. Yet does his critique also hold some truth? Is pacifism born of privilege for some and to some extent? How can we explore and explain the path of nonviolence with depth and rigor?

Writing/Reflection Prompt: So how do you think about all of this? Is pacifism (a) totally unrealistic, (b) a personal ethic only and no way to run a country, (c) an ethic for all of life including the relationship between nations, or (d) something else?


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2 thoughts on “Pacifism: Opposing Viewpoints

  1. I like the thoughtfulness of this approach, and it’s respect for many different opinions that, when listened to respectfully, can lead us forward in ways that hopefully model and make for peace in our time. As I reconsider how our immigration and resettlement has been at the expense of more nomadic people losing their land and/or livelihood, I recognize aspects of complicity with violence that we need to repent of.

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