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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why We Should Choose Pacifism Instead Of Violence

The PoliticalJesus blog is having an internet pacifism synchroblog, a pot-luck supper of blog posts, and the following is my attempt to bring a dish to the party.

We should note that we have to make a few distinctions first. Pacifism is not passivism. Pacifism is the commitment to handle and solve conflicts without violence. Passivism is responding to a problem or conflict by singing "Que Sera, Sera." While pacifism attempts to resolve a problem, the passivism anticipates that the problem is more preferable than the costs of solving the problem. So while the former works for justice, the latter prefers to maintain the status quo in order to avoid becoming a target.

One of the most renowned activists, Mahatma Gandhi, was a pacifist who strongly objected to passivism. He chose nonviolent methods to provoke unjust responses by those who dominated and oppressed others in order to help them to see the error of their ways. In contrast to Gandhi, a passivist prefers to let sleeping dogs lie. A pacifist, such as Gandhi, dares to both take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of justice. A passivist endures all kinds of injustice done to either oneself or others for the sake of one's own comfort.

That being said, I count 3 principles that should govern one's approach to using peaceful means to resolve conflicts. The first principle is that pacifism cannot always be used to resolve conflicts. Some conflicts have gone too far and some opponents are too unreachable to respond to peaceful tactics. But those conflicts with antagonists should be very few and far between. In other words, one can still be a pacifist even though there are times where one resorts to violence if the use of violence in a conflict is necessary and a very rare exception.  

There are two reasons why pacifism should not be considered to be an absolute principle . The first reason is Biblical. If we declare that pacifism is an absolute principle, then the Bible is no longer our canon, our final measure, for what is right. Rather, our human conception of what pacifism becomes the measure by which the Bible must measure up to. Our human concept of pacifism then becomes our canon and the Bible is relegated to being either a human product or a waxed nose that is shaped by one's absolute notion of pacifism. 

The second reason has to do with the credibility of the pacifist way to solving problems. As was written before, many famous pacifists from the past and present were not absolutists about pacifism. Martin Luther King, for example, believed it was justified to use violence to protect one's family from those who would break into one's home. Chomsky believed that we had to fight WW II even though he also believed that we had not done enough to prevent the war. The point here is that most people understand that violence is sometimes required to either establish or restore justice. Thus, when we present the pacifist solution as the only solution, we lose the chance to even partially win people over to a pacifist position because what we present is not realistic.

The second principle on which pacifism should be based is our treatment of others partially reveals how we are treating God. We know this because each person is made in the image of God. This includes every adversary and competitor, each person whom we count as being invisible, each one of our friends, and each person in our family. And though we are sorely tempted to measure our love for God solely by how we treat those whom we love or belong to, our regard for non loved ones is a very accurate barometer of our love for God. We know this from Jesus's parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). We know this from John's epistle when he says that you can't love God and hate your brother (I John 4:20). And though one could rightly complain that those passages refer to fellow believers, the Good Samaritan parable blows up the exclusion of nonbelievers in using how we treat others as a measure for how we love God (Luke 10: 25-37).


When we see what God demands of us in terms of how we regard and treat those we come in contact with, how can we not see violence as being our very last choice? But note that how God demands that we treat each other should move us to treat conflicts by preemptively eliminating stumbling blocks and working for each other's welfare than waiting for conflicts and opponents to emerge.

This loving others should not be confused with avoiding confrontations, however. This is why we must distinguish between pacifism and passivism. There are times to confront. And sometimes that confrontation can appear to be harsh. But God knows our hearts and knows when we confront out of love and when we confront sinful reasons. John the Baptist confronted Herod about his sin (Luke 3:19). Paul confronts Peter about living a double standard (Galations 2:11-13). And Paul instructs the church at Corinth on how to discipline a man caught in sexual sin (I Cor 5). But this last example shows the intent of the confrontation. The reason for Paul telling the Corinthians to discipline this man is so that he could repent. And once he repents, Paul tells the Corinthians to embrace him as a brother.

Most of our personal confrontations will be verbal. And here, we could extend to our words what Martin Luther King Jr extended to violence. That is just because the violence was not external doesn't mean that there was no violence. King was adamant that those working for justice were to avoid internal violence as well as external violence. Here, King states that pacifism isn't just practiced by refraining from using violent actions, but it is practiced by refraining from using hurtful words from our mouths and holding on to spiteful attitudes in our spirits. So refraining from physical violence does not make one a pacifist if one exercises verbal violence or harbors hatred. Jesus tells us this in Matthew 5:22.

However, what does Biblical pacifism between nations look like? It isn't just the absence of war and violence, it includes preventing or eliminating conflicts by addressing the legitimate concerns of each country or group within a country. It is eliminating the need for conflict as well as the extreme reluctance to use violence once a dispute arises.

Of course, much, if not all, that we say in favor of pacifism receives a hearty but conditional "AMEN" from most people. It is hearty because people respect the intent of those who are pacifists. They admire our idealism.  It is conditional, however, because they think of pacifism as being too idealistic for the real world. 

How practical and realistic is pacifism? That depends on one's goals and aspirations. If a nation's goal is to establish an empire, control other countries, or accumulate as much wealth as possible regardless of the price which others pay, then pacifism is not practical. So it isn't realistic to expect those nations or groups that lust for wealth and power to rely on pacifism. But what about the other nations? Will pacifism provide an adequate defense against aggressor nations or groups?

To answer this question, let's consider the use of violence to defend oneself in today's world. First, we should note that once violence is used, stopping the cycle of violence comes only after one or both sides pay a very high price. In today's modern warfare, that price is mostly paid by civilians. That is because the weapons of the powerful will be so destructive that civilian deaths are inevitable while the weapons of the weak will be aimed at civilian because it is suicide to aim them at a powerful military. Just as non-pacifists want to insist that pacifism is not a realistic option, once armed conflict breaks out, inhumane suffering by many civilians becomes inevitable. This is shown by the most recent conflicts including the ones we have been engaged in despite the precision of our weapons. 

But even more real than that is the fact that in this age of an ever advancing and adulterous technology, the proliferation of WMDs is inevitable. As this proliferation proceeds, the continued use of violence to obtain a goal increases the probability that retaliation will include the use of WMDs. Even if it is a single WMD is used, the response will not only include WMDs, a precedent for using WMDs will have been established. 

For slightly different reasons, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto declares that we have a clear and "inescapable" choice to either abolish war or to embrace extinction. Here, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein were only considering the chances of surviving war when only the USSR and the US had WMDs.  How much more is it true for tomorrow, if not for today, once proliferation is complete? Here, we should note that we need not be the target of someone's WMDS, such as nuclear weapons, for all of us to suffer greatly or be killed. That is because the after effects of using enough nuclear weapons could cause the extinction of people. We should add that Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein were not the only ones to have reached the conclusion that we must choose between war and survival, Martin Luther King and JFK also believed this to be true.

All of this says that pacifism provides a more realistic chance at surviving the future than a continual reliance on war. That is because in the age of proliferation, it is extremely idealistic to think we can continue to survive while resolving conflicts the "good old fashioned" way. 

Pacifism can work on the international scene if both all countries, including the most powerful ones, submit to international courts with the same rule of law and people unite across borders to hold their own governments accountable for their foreign policies. In other words, we must change from relying on nationalism to relying on law and internationalism for security. To refuse to change is to deny the new ball game that WMDs have introduced. And perhaps part of the denial is due to refusing to relinquish the privileges that living in a nation with a powerful military provides. 

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