Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

Ted Grimsrud—October 29, 2017

Is pacifism a viable social philosophy? I believe that it is, though I also recognize that arguments in favor of the possibility that at times violence might be appropriate can seem pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, as I will outline later in this post, I think the moral and practical problems with violence are ultimately insurmountable.

The impact of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth-century put principled nonviolence on the table as a possible option for those who desire social transformation. As well, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) have sought in recent generations to apply their long tradition of Christian pacifism to social issues. But many have questioned whether pacifism is an adequate approach in the real world—whether it might even be unhelpful to the quest to overthrow injustice.

Principled pacifism may be defined as the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to use lethal violence against other people. This conviction has never been widely held, even though in the United States it has been present in a fairly prominent way dating back to the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony in the 1680s. The main impact of pacifist convictions in the US until the 20th century was the refusal of pacifists to join the military and fight in wars. The possibility of self-consciously nonviolent direct action did not gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

Changing notions of peacemaking

I write as a Mennonite Christian pacifist, though I believe that pacifism is a valid commitment for anyone. Several 20th century factors combined to transform the understandings and practices of principled pacifism among “peace church” Christians. World War I showed just how widespread and utterly destructive modern war could be (though much worse was soon to come), so a pragmatic case for rejection of war became more widespread. The philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action as a means to bring about social change gained currency especially through the work of Gandhi in South Africa at the turn of the century and a couple of decades later in India. And peace church people became more acculturated and more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for having an impact in the wider world.

The experience of World War II intensified these factors. The war itself, culminating in the use of nuclear weapons, left an unprecedented level of destruction and created a strong sense that such a widespread disaster must never happen again. Gandhi’s efforts to free India from British colonial control brought his philosophy of nonviolence to a massive audience and gained him widespread respect, even if the actual establishment of an independent India—accompanied by a civil war that resulted in a separate Pakistani nation—scarcely followed Gandhi’s intentions. Gandhi’s influence was felt in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his advocacy for Gandhian-like nonviolent action.

The peace churches sought—and with mixed results—to gain favorable conscientious objector provisions in face of the American war effort. As it turned out, though, the number of their members who chose the CO option was disappointingly small, ranging from about 10% of Quakers and Brethren who were drafted to about 50% of the Mennonites. For those Mennonite draftees who chose alternative service, and the churches that supported them, the war experience accelerated the acculturation process (of course, that 50% entered the military reflects that process as well). After World War II, American Mennonites became much more active in taking their peace convictions beyond their isolated communities. Mennonite Central Committee greatly expanded its international work of relief and development. Mennonite Disaster Service emerged as a major effort of helping in face of natural disasters. And other service efforts also gained in prominence.

And, for the first time, an appreciable number of American Mennonites began to imagine getting politically active. As it turns out, most Mennonites who chose to vote became consistent Republican voters. However, a smaller but significant number began to participate in more adversarial and radical social action. By the time of the Vietnam War, numerous Mennonites opted out of legally recognized alternative service options and resisted being drafted altogether—dozens were imprisoned as draft resisters and others moved to Canada to avoid being drafted.

Evolving terminology

One way to track the evolution of the Mennonite peace position is simply to note the language they have tended to use. Up through World War II, most American Mennonites would talk of “nonresistance,” a stance that focused mainly on saying no to participation in war and yes to service work, while mostly avoiding challenging the actions of states. As well, those few Mennonites who might have spoken of Gandhi’s nonviolent activist approach would have been pretty negative, seeing those efforts as veering dangerously close to coercion and even violence.

For maybe a generation after World War II, many Mennonites came to use the term “pacifism.” Prior to the war, this word had been associated especially with North American and British Protestant opponents to war whose views had been shaped by a negative response to the Great War (World War I). This was anti-war sentiment combined with a hopeful sense that the problem of war could be overcome. These tended to be political and theological progressives who were looked upon negatively by many Mennonites both for being too engaged in the questionable turf of secular politics and for being too liberal in their theology.

However, after World War II, many Mennonites who were shaped by their experiences in Civilian Public Service played an influential role in pushing Mennonites to become more engaged in activism and in imagining a world that in the present would be less dominated by warfare. With this movement came a sense of the inadequacy of the term “nonresistance” as being too “sectarian.” “Pacifism” came to signify a commitment to taking the peace witness beyond Mennonite communities.

In time, though, the term “pacifism” came to be seen as too passive. It has been succeeded, among some Mennonites, by two different terms that point in somewhat different directions—neither of which necessarily has the connotation of a rejection of participation in war. The first term, “nonviolence,” has been preferred by those who advocate direct action to bring social change. This term would often be associated with Gandhi and King and their transformative and strategically sophisticated engagement on a large scale. A second term is “peacebuilding.” This word is associated with a variety of practices that emerged beginning late in the 20th century such as conflict mediation, restorative justice, and trauma healing. Peacebuilding provides a constructive path for the expression of peace convictions that offers creative and sophisticated skills for finding alternatives to spirals of violence and conflict.

Doubts about in-principle avoidance of violence

At least for some Mennonites and fellow-travelers, the evolution of the peace witness into a more socially engaged, ecumenical, and “responsible” approach has brought with it doubts about the traditional sense of complete, in-principle avoidance of violence.

For some, this might lead to more acceptance of the possibilities of state violence being used in ways that provide the best hope for successfully resisting deeply unjust and destructive actions around the world—recent examples would be the intervention in the Balkans in face of the chaos following the end of the Tito regime and the break up of the former Yugoslavia, or in Afghanistan after 9/11. In a world of widespread terrorism, it is suggested, military responses may be the best option (this is the thinking that leads to support of an approach such as what is called the “Responsibility to Protect”).

For others, the appeal is more to violent resistance to state and corporate violence or to violent self-defense in on-the-ground conflicts with forces of oppression such as white supremacists. The in-principled opposition to violence is questioned because it seems to limit the options available for resistance work. In doing so, pacifsm may inadvertently become a tool of the status quo. Too often, it is suggested, active resistance to oppressive structures is self-limited by people’s unwillingness to resist by “all means necessary.”

These tendencies to be open, at least in theory, to support of the use of violence are understandable given the movement away from traditional two-kingdom theology. Once Mennonites become acculturated enough to accept a sense of responsibility for contributing to social justice and to resisting what they believe is evil in the world, it seems inevitable that the possibilities of affirming violence would become much greater. After all, while in World War II, 50% of the Mennonites who were drafted joined the military, more than 90% of the more acculturated Quakers and Brethren did—and over 99.9% of other American Christians did. It seems inevitable that as Mennonites become more at home in their culture they would become more doubtful about the in-principle refusal to support the use of violence.

On not adding to the evil

Nonetheless, one of the most fundamental questions for people of faith remains on the table. Let us grant that it is appropriate for people of good will to feel a sense of responsibility for resisting evil and for working for social wholeness. To the extent that Mennonite acculturation leads this kind of sense of responsibility, it seems like a good thing and an appropriate expression of faith. But we still have this question: “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 3).

I believe that the challenges to the traditional Mennonite peace position that I have mentioned here need to be taken seriously. I don’t think that traditional position is adequate for the world we live in. I agree with those who believe that we must devote ourselves to opposing evil (that is, opposing racism, sexism, heterosexism, injustice, oppression, inequality, the devastation of nature, and other ways that human beings, other living creatures, and the rest of creation are exploited, diminished, and destroyed). That should be our starting point.

However, I am not convinced that openness to the use of violence is a way to avoid the problems that Wink’s question points to—where our opposition to evil actually only deepens the cycle of violence and brokenness, adding to the evil that we are opposing. I wrote a book (The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II) arguing that even this great moment of resisting evil, the war against the Nazis and imperial Japanese, actually in the long run only added to the evil. I tend to think this always happens when violence is resorted to.

A critique of violence

In what follows I will sketch a critique of violence. As one of the very few communities that has over the generations recognized that violence is never morally appropriate, the Mennonite tradition has an important role to play in resisting the movement essentially to eradicate pacifism in the name of resisting evil.

(1) Even if there might be times when violence “works” (a debatable assertion, but one I’ll grant in order to make this point), the vast majority of time it does not—according to any standard. In the classic just war theory, one of the requirements for a war to be “just” is that there is a very high likelihood of winning. That is, for this perspective, it is not morally valid to go to war if you are not confident of victory. The reason for this seems obvious (and has been validated on the many occasions where nations have gone to war even when they had little chance of success)—if you go to war for the sake of justice and lose you make things worse. The causes of injustice are victorious and likely more powerful than before. And you will have paid the costs of warfare in human life and material resources for nothing.

And even if your side should be victorious, by using lethal violence you have not likely solved the problem that led to the conflict. Your enemy likely will seek for ways to retaliate and thus continue the spiral of violence. And the terrible and destructive costs of preparing for and executing violent conflict will continually need to be borne. The odds of success are even less when you are involved in resisting state power. Thus, the likelihood of making things worse by fighting and losing are even greater. To hold violence up as an answer to evil is to provide false hope. The large majority of the time, even if you are convinced the violence is justifiable, it will fail to provide for justice and likely make the situation worse.

(2) Violent forms of resistance to oppression tend actually to increase violence. Over and over again in times of resistance to oppressive power, resisters have acted violently and in so doing provided a justification for a state crackdown. And by ceding the moral high ground, activists lose access to one of the most powerful weapons that opponents to oppression have, the support of the larger population whose consent to the rule of the oppressor must be withdrawn in order for genuine change to happen. It is also the case with the use of violence by a supposedly just and democratic state to put down “terrorists” and “revolutionaries”—and also to deal with “criminals”—that such violence tends to lead only to efforts to increase the firepower of these “deviants” as well as to further alienate the larger population.

(3) Often, non-pacifists will argue that violence should be used only reluctantly, only when absolutely necessary, only as a last resort. However, if the violence is to be something other than a failed attempt to defeat the wrongdoer that only enhances the power of the oppressor, then it must be prepared for. Resources and training must be devoted to make the possible violent actions likely to be effective. Besides that these efforts will be costly and divert resources and time from peacemaking work, it also seems generally to be the case that the very efforts of preparing for violence are transformative, making people more likely to be more violent and to be quicker to respond to conflict in violent ways. Those who intend to resort to violence only as a last resort, but who prepare to use violence so they can be effective enough to justify the preparation, rarely if ever wait until the “last resort” or exhaust all the nonviolent possibilities of resolving the conflicts or addressing the injustices.

(4) Human life is not easily compartmentalized. Hence, allowing for and preparing for violence in one area of life often leads to an acceptance of the use of violence in other areas of life. This is actually a dynamic that is often, perhaps inadvertently, implied in arguments against pacifism that use personal self-defense as the rationale for accepting the necessity of violence and then switch to accepting the necessity of war. It is not a logical necessity that one who would allow for the use of violence for personal self-defense would then have to accept the moral validity of warfare. However, it does seem to be the case in practice that for many people, those two arenas of violence are linked.

So, the commonsense argument in favor of accepting the moral validity of violence in self-defense tends inexorably to lead to accepting the moral validity of warfare, regardless of how different the actual dynamics might be in these types of scenarios. It is also the case that “self-defense” often simply opens the door to violence that goes way beyond what is necessary simply for self-defense. We can see a form of this expansion of the actual uses of violence in how the United States calls the federal agency that oversees its military operations the “Defense Department” even though the vast majority of the resources and practices in the military are for aggressive and imperial purposes that have little or nothing to do with actual national defense.

(5) The final theme I will touch on as to why violence should be rejected in principle is an aspirational one. It is simply to ask the question: What kind of people do we aspire to be? All of the world’s great religious traditions as well as most expressions of humanism agree in holding out the ideals of kindness, compassion, generosity, willingness to forgive, and the ability to constructively resolve conflicts as our highest ideals. All of these ideals are compromised by the use of violence against other human beings. If we aspire to be peaceable people, we best accept the need to practice being peaceable, as thoroughly and consistently as we can.

The case for pacifism

These are all reasons to reject the use of violence. In order to make a more constructive case for pacifism, I will share three more posts that describe the positive meaning of Christian pacifism.


6 thoughts on “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

  1. Pacifism and nonviolence is such an important topic, Ted. I fear that many of our youth are not aware of the issue at all, at least in terms of opposition to nationalistic wars, in part because the decision regarding conscientious objection went away with the end of the draft. The result is volunteer armed forces, heightened homage to military service, the further rise of the military industrial complex, endless wars, and the normalization of war and violence.

    I sense you are focusing on the narrower issue of pacifism and nonviolence in response to social issues. I believe that the use of violence in such instances, e.g., the antifa groups at various protest actions, is not the response that Jesus instructs we must take, regardless of how much the use of violence can be rationalized.

    I look forward to your upcoming posts, Ted. Thanks for writing on this topic.


    1. Thanks, Kurt. Interesting thought about the draft. I think you may be right that the end of the draft made it easier for Mennos to marginalize issues of war and violence. But I strongly oppose the notion of conscription. So it’s kind of a dilemma.

      Regardless, the biggest problem that I see in Menno circles is theological. We are not cultivating a wide-ranging peace theology.

  2. Agree that the biggest problem in Menno circles is theological, Ted. We DO need to more strongly cultivate a wide-ranging peace theology. And I feel our pastors are not preaching on the topic frequently enough or strongly enough. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, sermons about empire and war as evil were not universally well-received, so the focus has been on other theological areas. The issue of violence in response to social evils is new enough that I think many pastors are still sorting through the appropriate response. And I have read that, e.g., the presence of potentially violent antifa folks at the Charlottesville protest prevented violence against the counterprotesters there, including some Menno pastors.

    I also strongly oppose the notion of conscription, and certainly did (and was more vocal about it) when I was draft age and considered it a good thing when the draft was ended in 1972. But the elimination of the draft has made it easier for all of us, not just Mennos, to marginalize issues of war and violence. The fact that everyone was susceptible to being drafted resulted in more pushback about the rush to war. I have long thought that a year or two of “national service” for all 18 year olds, which could be served in the military or in some alternative service, would be a good thing. Hope I don’t sound like too much of an old foagy!

    Anyway, sorry to keep going off on tangents, Ted. Please keep up your good work, and I will leave you alone at least until your next post.


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