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When Pacifism Doesn’t Work

Guest Column by Bill Ellis

There can be no doubt that the cycle of violence is real. Those who are victims of violence will, if they feel strong enough, take revenge, and more than revenge. This in turn triggers a second round of violence from the first perpetrators–and on it goes indefinitely. We see this at every level of human interaction, from babies stealing each others’ toys to great nations at war.  Pacifism seeks to break the cycle of violence by non-resistance to violence, believing that if enough people refuse to become violent in response to violence the world will become peaceful.

Pacifism is to me a very attractive possibility, one that I believe could be remarkably successful in most cases. But not all. For there exist in this world people whose sense of virtue is distorted enough that they truly believe any crime, any horror, any amount of violence is not merely justified, but is right and proper and holy in the pursuit of their aims. We have seen such people in this world several times in the past 100 years. These people will either cow their own citizens into silent acquiescence or enlist them in their cause.

Pacifism doesn’t work when faced with that sort of evil, for the totalitarians and the terrorists inevitably are convinced that pacifism itself is among the viewpoints that must be destroyed in order to establish their own vision of a perfect world. It is a noble thought to imagine that if we just did it right, pacifism would triumph over terrorism and totalitarianism, but human nature is such that there is no way to “just do it right.”  The criminality of these systems originates in an appeal to high ideals; they truly believe that the cause is holy, just, good, and that it is therefore holy, just and good to rid the world of those who disagree, or those who are not the proper sort of people.

There will always be people who can be convinced of the virtue of the most horrific ideologies, and who therefore can be recruited to participate in genocidal campaigns. Pacifism cannot overcome that, because pacifism cannot overcome human nature itself, and the need humans have to want what their leaders want, to believe what their leaders believe, and therefore to do what their leaders tell them to do. I really want to be a pacifist, but there are moments in history when, in my view, pacifism represents the abnegation of responsibility to defeat the kind of evil that uses the loftiest moral language to justify the worst sort of criminality.

War is never truly necessary, never, but sometimes it is rendered inevitable by the greed, blunders and hubris of humanity. So when we go to war, when we are forced to fight violence with violence, we must realize that we are not ending violence itself, we are perpetuating it. We must realize as well that meeting violence with violence does not represent the triumph of righteousness, but the failure of humanity to be righteous. When we go to war, therefore, we must do it with deepest sort of humility, and refuse to dehumanize those whose ideology requires them to dehumanize us.

For then it becomes possible, once the fighting is done, to seek genuine reconciliation, rather than revenge, and thus to lessen the damage the cycle of violence imposes on the human spirit.

About Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

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  1. Thanks Bill, for what I think is a very well-stated version of what many find difficult about the idea of pacifism. However, I think that the perception that the practice of nonviolence is for the purpose of purity or moral high ground is not necessarily reflective of the best intent of nonviolence. Gandhi, after all, called nonviolence “experiments with the truth”. Contingency and creativity are at the heart of nonviolent practice for many. Nonviolence includes an admission of our own continued complicity in the cycle of violence but also with our capacity to do otherwise, even if in only small ways. I can’t imagine that there is one right way to do nonviolence, since there is never one right way to have a relationship with another person.

    Just as like we don’t give up on medicine as a project just because it can’t cure every disease we encounter, I think we can heartily embrace the practice of nonviolence even when there are situations we can’t imagine how it would work. So what? Let’s begin in places where we can see it working already.

    Lastly, those individual bad actors that you describe as completely resistant to the “methods” of nonviolence… I wonder what you would think of a model that is more like policing and the criminal justice system instead of war. War seems ill-designed to take out individual bad actors with power. They often seem to benefit more than be harmed by war. And yet many suffer in war, which feeds that cycle of violence that you described. Policing and the court system focus on the individual and their specific actions and removes individuals from a community (even, in some cases, with death), rather than killing or harming many in order to “get at” the source of the problem. Do you think that such a model could help us think about how to respond to the sorts of people that you are describing as unresistant to the methods of nonviolence?

    I certainly agree with your call to be persons of humility and to refuse to dehumanize those around us. That is, for me, the heart of nonviolence practice.

  2. Bill, Beloved of God: Contrary to Jake, I don’t think your version is very well stated. To be blunt, I think it is very dangerous, and ultimately contrary to Jesus. You set up a common mis-definition of pacifism, a straw dog, which is easy to shoot down. Pacifism is not merely a non-resistance to violence, but a much more active and energetic non-violent resistance to violence. To be a pacifist one must try to overcome, transcend one’s own and other’s violence, and that is not passive non-resistance but a very active stance, one which risks everything from one’s social and economic standing to one’s life, as Jesus so well demonstrated.

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