One reaction that sometimes catches me off-guard when the subject of pacifism comes up is anger. Some people seem angry that I would dare to refuse to hurt them. Without sarcasm or exaggeration I'll do my best to explain where I think this is coming from.
The conversation usually goes like this: I say I am a pacifist. They respond with the usual hypothetical scenario about being a bystander to violence. I point out that there are a variety of nonviolent potential solutions to such a scenario. They push the hypothetical scenario to an extreme point where they allege the only options are violence or guilt by inaction. I say their scenario is contrived. They tell me I'm a horrible person for choosing personal holiness over the life of an innocent.
It's that last bit which is interesting. From their perspective the choice to commit to pacifism is ultimately about "personal holiness". They think, in other words, that a pacifist is a person who doesn't want to get their hands dirty; who would rather let other people suffer than risk their own purity. Pacifists are, in their minds, rather like the Levitical priest in the story of the Good Samaritan who passes the wounded man without helping to avoid coming into contact with something unclean. We are too holy for our own good.
It is a bizarre way of looking at an ethical commitment that is fundamentally about others. How is my determination not to harm other people construed as a self-centered choice of pride? Here is what strikes me as prideful - believing that you can ever see a situation so clearly that you are able to make a choice with the ultimate consequence for another human being, the loss of their life. How could you possibly have sufficient certainty in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by adrenaline, that your actions were justified? Isn't it better to do everything in your power to prevent the death of another, even if that person appears to you to be a monster? Dead people can't forgive or be forgiven.
Furthermore, pacifists don't make such a commitment because we believe we are superior to other human beings, but because we know the opposite. I am not a pacifist because I am innately less violent than anyone else, but because I know how violent I am capable of being. As Stanley Hauerwas famously says "I tell everyone I'm a pacifist so that other people will prevent me from killing some son-of-a-bitch one day." If anyone has a superiority complex, it is a person who believes they are justified in killing another human being.
So when someone accuses me of self-righteousness based on my pacifism I think it reveals more about them than it does about me. It says that their conscience is troubling them, but rather than probe what could be the issue, they concoct a narrative to alleviate the sting. In this narrative, it is the one who offers no violence who is arrogant and blasphemous and dangerous, who must be crucified. Whereas those who cling to violence are tragic heroes, relieved of their guilt by virtue of the belief that it was done to protect the innocent - a terrible, but unavoidable cost. The only problem is that in order to continue believing this narrative they have to look away from the cross, where the alternative is on blazing display. And looking away they leave a trail of crosses in their wake.