Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holier Than Your Violent Ass

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.


Adel Thalos said...

OOOPS! Sorry I put this in the wrong entry. I'll try again:
I for one respect different forms of committed non-violent Christian positions. I used to hold to a nonviolent position myself at one point.

What I could not reconcile is the place of police within such a position.

How do you deal with that issue? What is the place of police and how would police function in a violent fallen world?

Aric Clark said...


I agree that police are harder than say, extra-legal violence, the military, assassination etc...

It isn't something that I can just toss an answer out in a comment thread, but here are where my thoughts begin on that subject.

Pacifism is a practical stance. Therefore it is utterly fair to start where you can and move from there. I do not feel obliged to create a vast system in which all people and events fit.

So I would start with questions like - how can we make "violence" in the job of a police officer less and less of an object. Reducing crime by reducing poverty, a fair and transparent legal system (especially a large civil court system) for resolving disputes and preventing violent crime is a start. A populace with less recourse to violence - less weapons, is also a good step. The police in Britain do not carry guns. There are, therefore, FAR fewer police shootings than in other countries etc... I know these are far short of actually solving the problem, but they are a start.

All of those things I would advocate as a practical matter.

Then, from a theological standpoint I would ask about the compatibility of christian discipleship with service to the state. In the early church it wasn't an option. Service to the state meant swearing an oath to the emperor - something no Christian would do. Somehow that basic conflict has been glossed over by centuries of christendom. We easily swear our fealty to caesar now, with no sense that it could be in conflict with our confession that Christ is Lord.

Of course, we have many Christian police officers and soldiers at this very moment. It does no good to question their faith, or simply excise them from the body. As a pastor, I tend to approach each situation individually - always assuming that Christ is calling that person to nonviolence, but not certain what the path to get there will be for that person. I also assume that I am at least as prone to violence as they are, and am struggling with that in my own way.

Adel Thalos said...

Do you believe that concerted Christian pacificism will eventually lead to a non-violent peace-loving world? If not, then you must believe that there will always be a place for police?

Are you also saying that you would tell a young (or maybe not so young) believer who is considering a career in law enforcement that it is an immoral career and to not pursue it?

Here is one of those hypotheticals that you don't seem to would you have counseled leaders of Britain, Russia, the U.S. to respond to Nazi Germany/Italy/Japan aggression in a pacifist way?

Aric Clark said...


I believe that concerted Christian pacifism + the grace of God in Jesus Christ will eventually lead to a non-violent peace-loving world. The lion will lie down with the lamb and all that. I do not believe that we can with pure effort make violence disappear tomorrow. But I bet I can make the world less violent than it currently is.

To a believer considering a career in law enforcement I would (and have) invite them to some long difficult conversations about violence and peace and the meaning of the cross. If pressed I would advise against it, but I can imagine ways to work within law enforcement toward something approaching nonviolence.

As for your hypothetical about WWII - pacifism will always be at a disadvantage if it starts after the fact. The answer is to go back to the Treaty of Paris and convince the allies not to wreak economic havoc on Germany. Or further back and convince Western Europe to eschew imperialism. But we don't get that advantage, we have to jump in midstream.

Given a situation where Germany has already invaded Poland I would be working to set up the kind of nonviolent secretive networks that actually did save many from the Holocaust. I would be setting up resistance governments in conquered territories, and advocating widespread non-cooperation. Doubtless thousands upon thousands would die, but in a war where millions and millions died it would be hard to imagine any nonviolent recourse that could be worse.

This advice would be ignored, because ultimately the politicians have to consider national interests first. This is why it is a basic conflict with Christianity. Christ is not their Lord. The Nationstate is their Lord. If it comes to a conflict between the purposes of Christ and the advantage of the Nation - the nation wins. Thus I doubt if any government could EVER be faithfully Christian.

Doug Hagler said...

As a side comment, I think Aric is doing a great job here, and I agree with pretty much everything he has said. The classic WWII question is profoundly a non-issue because it is asking nonviolence to solve a problem that hyper-violence and the worship of retribution created. It is akin to asking "I have beaten this person half to death. How would you use nonviolence to prevent them from being injured?" The damage is done already. The seeds of future violence are always sown in violence of the past.

The seeds of peace are never sown in violence. We've had how many tens of millions of experiments with violence ending violence, and every single one has failed, and will continue to fail forever, no matter how much faith we put in this war as being the one that will end violence, or this violent act being the one that will make us safe and holy. Every war leads to the next war, back throughout time to whatever beginning you might choose. Nothing has failed so utterly and completely as violence to achieve anything but suffering and death. The very best violence can possibly offer is to visit suffering and death on the 'bad' people - but as Christians we must understand how meaningless and futile that promise is.

But yes. If the Allies had committed themselves, somehow, to nonviolent resistance to Fascism, they would eventually have succeeded, and at the cost of less human life. Even in small situations where tiny groups, without support or equipment, had the courage and wisdom to try nonviolent resistance, there were successes. That in the midst of a world war no less.

Imagine how powerful Christ's way of peace might prove in other situations.

Jodie said...

Oddly enough, "pacifism" only makes sense within the context of a violent world.

I regard Christian pacifism as a position of radical discipleship. Any disciple of Jesus who is "all in" will automatically become one.

It can lead to a violent death. Our teacher and role model died a violent death. He had the resources to oppose it, by force even, and chose not to. Then asked us to follow His example.

It is supposed to be followed by resurrection.

I understand the request. I even believe in some form of resurrection. (or do I? I am not so sure that I do).

Perhaps because I am not so sure, I am also not so willing to surrender my life just because my teacher and role model asked me to. Perhaps it is a crisis of faith.

If a certain line is crossed, I will respond with violence. I don't justify it. It's just a simple fact.

Adel Thalos said...

Thank you for your thoughts. They are helpful.

Jodie said...


Non violent resistance to Fascism is what got 6 million Jews killed, I think.

Only about half a million Americans were killed.

The data says violent resistance is a better bet...

But I agree that if we move back in history and take some blame for the rise of militarism and martial Fascism and Nationalism, and the humiliation of the Germans survivors of WWI, maybe things would have been different. I don't know as much about what led to the rise of the Japanese Empire. Both were warrior cultures, as was ours, and the Soviets.

Doug Hagler said...

Jodie: I have to think you are being ironic, because what you just wrote was lunacy, but I want to respond as if you are serious just in case.

First of all, nonviolent resistance is not what killed 6 million Jews. NAZIS TRYING TO EXTERMINATE THEM is what killed 6 million Jews - and America did not join WWII to defend the Jews, but to avenge an attack on U.S. soil. It is unbelievable to lay the HOLOCAUST at the feet of nonviolence.

Second, talking about a half million Americans dying only makes sense if you only believe Americans are people. If we count the *people* who died in WWII (as I am wont to do, believing that people are of equal value despite nationality), the number is quite a bit bigger, and violence killed almost every single one of them.

I honestly have no idea what you mean by "data", but again, I think you were being ironic or something...I hope.

Jodie said...

Yeah, mostly.

But I've always wondered how 12 million people let themselves be hauled off to concentration camps and killed by a much smaller, way smaller, number of murderers. Why didn't they react like the passengers on the last hijacked plane on 9/11? Go down fighting for crying out loud. It IS the lesson Israel took from the Holocaust. No more would Jews allow themselves to be lambs for the slaughter.

My memory is bad, on the numbers, but I think the body count of WWII is about 60 to 80 Million, 2 civilians for every military.

The notable exception being the US. We inflicted over a million civilian casualties (twice our total military losses) but took almost none.

There is a lesson in the numbers, but I'm not sure what it is. It is not pacifism.

I think it has something to do with admitting that violence begets violence, but peace does not beget peace. Typically the only peace humanity has known is the peace it gets when you vanquish your enemies. The peace of Christ, if we are to have any, has to be created from scratch in every generation.

Nick.Larson said...

Jodie: I'm confused. I've read this last comment of yours several times now and I'm lost. I get that you are talking about violence begets violence and it seems while you particuarly don't like it, it's the best of the worst (or something along that line).

But then you make a statement like "the only peace humanity has known is the peace it gets when you vanquish your enemies." Wow. I certainly don't agree with that statement. The peace I experience in my own life does not come from vanquishing my enemies. Peace for me comes when I reconcile with my enemies. Conflict causes pain and grief, difference causes uncomfortablity and uncertainty, and peace comes when I'm reconciled with that person. I certainly don't feel at peace when I win an arguement or a fight. In fact when I "win" I often feel like I lose because I just inflicted some sort of pain/shame/embaracement on the other person. I certainly don't undestand peace as something that pits one against or over another.

I would agree that peace OFTEN does not beget peace, but I know violence almost certainly leads to more violence.

For me this issue comes into clarity with theologians like Miroslav Volf and his book Exclusion and Embrace. He goes into great detail and effort to show that unless we as people of difference embrace the enemy, atrocities will only get worse as man's capacity to harm others grows with each new weapon or sociological advancement.

I feel like the peace of Christ is best represented by one of the quotes that has always stuck out to me; "When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross."

Nick.Larson said...

oh and...I found this scanning through quotes about volf...

In early 1990s, during the war in Bosnia, Volf was lecturing on forgiveness when his mentor, J├╝rgen Moltmann asked him if he could even forgive and embrace a murderous group of Serbian fighters.

The question left Volf speechless. Writing about it later he said:

For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ.

Can I embrace a cetnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.”

Jodie said...


I guess I am not at my articulate best here.

I am talking about corporate peace. I think Jesus was too. Paul spoke of personal peace, the peace that passes all understanding, and I don't knock that. And as individuals we can experience reconciliation with former enemies without there being a "winner".

But I think humanity, the corporate humanity, does not experience corporate peace except in the sense Pax Romana.

I think Jesus offered precisely that kind of peace. He spoke in political terms of a Kingdom of God that could provide a Pax de Deux.

It was never clear what exactly that would be, and I think in time it became equal to the Second Coming.

I don't think a second coming was what Jesus had in mind, but that would imply the he was basically a colossal failure. Nothing he promised has come true except in a sublimated personal sense.

Whose fault is that? I really don't know. Seriously I don't. But I look at what is recorded of the teachings of Jesus, I look at what I have seen in prayer, and I look at the world around me, including the corporate church, and the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming.

Doug Hagler said...

The Pax Romana is an excellent example of how violence never brings peace, only the illusion. It was a time of rebellions being violently put down as well as wars of expansion, and is very much like what we call "peace" or "security" here in America - the condition where we are killing people, but they're far away and it seems easy for many to pretend they aren't people at all.

I think it is also a kind of "peace" that is as far from the peace that Jesus or Paul preached as possible (being the peace of desolation and the grave in a religion centered on an empty tomb and the love of enemies). It's an ironic (and sad) comparison given that a lot of what is in the New Testament is contrasting Rome to the Way of Christ and making clear distinctions between the two.

I'm sure it is very 'peaceful' in a firebombed town where all the people are smoldering corpses - but that isn't the peace that Christ, or for that matter nonviolence, are ever about.

Doug Hagler said...

Also, nothing Jesus said will come true until we decide to follow him - instead of, for example, worshiping redemptive violence.

Aric Clark said...

To be the positive guy for once - I believe there are good examples of Gospel nonviolence in history which demonstrated that peace does beget peace. Most Mennonites, the Amish, many early anabaptist groups like the Diggers. During the Spanish civil war there were pacifist communes that lasted as long as two decades before Franco wiped them out. For that matter, we have every reason to suspect that every Christian living for the first 3 centuries after Christ lived peaceful lives even in the face of persecution and martyrdom.

Even when peace movements have been short-lived they have often had dramatic impact on the culture around them - the Civil Rights movement for example.

Outside Christianity, the Satya Graha movement, Jainism, most Buddhists... all have been successful in forming nonviolent communities some of which have persisted for centuries.

The fact is that the vast majority of the world has never given nonviolence the slightest chance, choosing to believe ahead of time that it is a fantasy; that it "empirically" doesn't work. But pacifism has never killed anyone. Violence has wracked up quite a bodycount.

reborn1995 said...


i was just wondering if you could recommend some good reading on pacifism.


Doug Hagler said...

You just made Aric giddy :)

Aric Clark said...

*claps his hands in front of his face like a 13 year old girl*

There are a ton of fantastic works out there on this. I don't know what you've read and haven't so I will assume nothing and start from the beginning:

John Howard Yoder frames this issue so well. And he is provocative. Start with "The Politics of Jesus".

Jacques Ellul also makes me think. I don't know if there is a good single volume intro to his thought, but you can try "What I Believe".

I also highly commend to you the writings of both MLK Jr and Ghandi. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" is an absolute classic.

On the blogosphere you should follow Michael Westmoreland White who writes incredibly well on pacifism from an anabaptist background. Start here. In fact he has an awesome list of books on gospel nonviolence from many traditions here.

Lastly... you're probably rolling your eyes right now... I find much profit in the writings of the early church fathers. Athanasius, Athenagoras, Clement, Cyprian, Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, Justin Martyr, Lactantius, Marcellus, Origen, Tertullian... they all had ALOT to say about nonviolence.

Jodie said...

So you are classical and orthodox after all!