A Lifelong Pacifist Speaks on Pacifism

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

I’ve started this post at least twice before. One, I lost in some cyber netherworld. The other is still there, about half-done. I don’t really think either one was going to get finished. Not the way they were.

Thing is, in both of them I got bogged down. I was trying to establish my bona fides as a pacificist, before saying what it was I have really been given to say.

There is something to that. But I can do it with a few quick stories, rather than the lengthy biographical detour that they had both become.

I registered with the draft on my 18th birthday as a conscientious objector. There were a lot of important people in my life who did not understand or like it. My draft board was unlikely to grant the status, and so I knew I was faced with jail if I was actually called up. Due to the dwindling demand for US soldiers in Vietnam and the vagaries of the lottery system, I was never faced with a draft notice.

I’ve been arrested twice in protests against US militaristic ventures. Once was in 1982, at the Pentagon, as a witness against the obscene sums of money being spent on nuclear devices. That is where I met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister. Had things turned out a little differently, we could have become friends. Our paths diverged, however, and this didn’t come to be. They left an indelible imprint on me, entirely for the better.

The second arrest was at the CIA HQ in Langley, VA. This was in protest of the mining of the harbor of Managua. Say what you will about the Sandinistas, mining a civilian harbor, especially of a country against which we are not at war, is a violation of international law and the laws of humanity.

I have put my own body on the line to prevent domestic violence between neighbors more than once. This is a very dangerous — some would say stupid — thing to do. Didn’t matter.

Finally, I have spent my entire career as a social worker treating the victims of violence. My particular specialty for most of that time has been treating the survivors of sexual assault. I’ve seen more of what violence can do, both in the short and the long run, than most people.

There — that’s enough — and took far less than the several pages I had filled up before. I feel clear that I can continue with the real message now.

Another story, but this is not about bona fides. This is about how my views of pacifism, once pretty absolute, became more finely textured.

I was in a duplex apartment in Dayton, Ohio. The neighborhood, once genteel, was becoming seedier. The plague of crack had already arrived in Dayton, and we were sandwiched between two neighborhoods where it had taken over, and it was only a matter of time before our neighborhood was taken over by the plague as well.

In this building, there was one apartment downstairs, mine on the top two floors. There was one stairway to the bedroom on the top floor where I slept. No other way up or down. I found myself waking up scared in the night. I thought I was having nightmares because there was nothing to be afraid of. I couldn’t remember any nightmares, but what else could it be? I even talked to a psychiatrist with whom I’d worked to try to figure it out.

And then one night I woke up, afraid, and there were voices down in the alley. No one has any business in that alley at that time of night, which means that their business was criminal. I also realized that this was what had interrupted my sleep all the times before; I just hadn’t heard the voices. I also realized that the fear was the subconscious realization that, should someone decide to break in, I was a sitting duck. One way out, the way they would be coming up.

I made a decision that they could have all the TVs and VCRs and stereos and computers they wanted. These were all on the 2nd floor. There was nothing worth stealing on the third floor. Nothing at all except me. And I realized that, pacifist views to the contrary, I considered myself valuable enough to protect.

I bought a handgun, a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm that was made by the Canadians during World War II. A fine piece of manufacturing, sturdy, dependable, reliable, accurate. I learned how to shoot. I learned that, as hobbies go, I enjoyed it, and that while guns are weapons, target shooting can be an enjoyable past time in its own right.

And the waking up scared came to an end. I was no longer a sitting duck. My fate was not entirely in the hands of someone whose judgment had already been proven faulty — a burglar. I had, as they say, a fighting chance.

And my views of pacifism changed. They had to.

Pacifism, I have found, is a continuum. Absolute pacifism, in which one would not use violence for any reason, is only one part of the spectrum. It is on the extreme end at that, and has all the problems that extreme views always entail. No wonder my girl friend’s parents asked my “Wouldn’t you fight someone if they tried to rape L….?” At the time, I said No. I plead youth and inexperience. I didn’t know then that my own moral purity would not be worth the more drastic sacrifice of the harm that would come to a loved one if I did nothing.

There is a place for absolute pacifism, though. I can still respect it. I hope that those who hold this belief will never be challenged in such a direct and dramatic way.

If you accept that you  might use force in some conditions, then you have to find another place on the spectrum. I find that there is another end to the spectrum, and I think it goes like this: Pacifism might be the recognition that we should seek non-violent solutions to all conflicts, from the personal to the geopolitical, while acknowledging that in an imperfect world, we might end up making a choice for the use of force. I think that’s about as far as you can go and still call yourself a pacifist.If you see non-violent solutions as one choice among many, but not to be preferred until all else fails, then I don’t think you can call yourself a pacifist. Anything between those two extremes, the absolute pacifist and the violence-as-a-last-resort pacifist, qualifies.

I don’t think pacifism is a suitable foundation for foreign policy for any government. I think it is a personal, spiritual decision. I am not a pacifist because it is right; I am a pacifist because the Spirit that moves in my heart wants me to be one. It wants me to “try what Love can do”, and keep trying, and keep trying. Governments don’t love. People love. People can work with, or within, or against governments on the basis of this personal spiritual choice, trying to eliminate or at least decrease the use of violence.

To have become a healer has been an important expression of how that Spirit moves within me, but there is no reason a pacifist couldn’t be any other profession or occupation, including a member of the armed forces. Some of the people who want peace the most have been those who have seen war the closest.

On the flip side of that one, some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been pacifists who would not pick up a weapon.

As a Quaker, I’ve learned over time that Friends are pretty evenly spread out over the whole spectrum.This is as it should be. Pacifism does not lend itself well to dogma. Dogma insists. This is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism doesn’t insist, it loves, it encourages, it reflects. These are not passive qualities. The phonic similarity between pacifism and passive is not descriptive of what pacifism is like. Two of my heroes, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., were far from passive. They were dynamic, active men who threw themselves into life with passion. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart, for those with lily-white hands who would never soil them by being involved in the grit and the grind of conflict.

Speaking of not soiling one’s lily-white hands, all pacifists are not vegetarians. And if you are not a vegetarian, you are complicit in the death of animals. Me, I hunt. Since I’m not a vegetarian, I find it incumbent on me to soil my lily-white hands with the blood of the animals I eat, at least every so often. For me, to do less is hypocrisy. This may not be true for everyone. I don’t want to start any new dogmas. This is my witness, not yours. Unless it is yours. In that case, welcome. It’s all a matter of how the Spirit moves in your heart, and mine. If it moves me away from hunting, then I won’t hunt.

In Meeting for Worship, when I am moved to vocal ministry and come to the end of what I’ve been given, I just sit down. It’s not an oration, which needs to be properly wrapped up with closing remarks and flourishes. Since I can’t visibly just sit down, then I guess I stop writing, because that seems to be all I need to say.