Pacifism II – Call and Response

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.

Yup.

My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

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