Pacifism as a way of knowing

[This is the fourth in a series of four posts on Christian pacifism. The previous one, posted on November 7, was “The Politics of Engaged Pacifism.”]

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2017

I believe that pacifism is unequivocally true. But what does this statement mean? How does “truth” work? How do we best argue for a hierarchy of values? How do we avoid a coercive rationalism where, in the joking words of one philosopher, one seeks to construct arguments so powerful that one’s opponents must either give in or have their brains explode? Or, on the other hand, how do we avoid the paralysis of many contemporaries who cannot find a way to condemn evil and do not have the clarity of conviction that would empower them to suffer, even to die, for the cause of peace?

I will address three questions in this post: (1) How is pacifism (or nonviolence; I will use these two terms interchangeably here) a “way of knowing”? (2) What is the “truth” of which a pacifist epistemology speaks? (3) What is involved in letting truth speak for itself?

To state my central argument in a nutshell: We may imagine a pacifist way of knowing as an alternative to the Western epistemological tradition. The way we approach knowing as Christian pacifists qualitatively differs from the approach to knowing that has over the centuries relied in one way or another on coercive power—either literally as in the use of the sword against “heretics” or intellectually as in the use of logical arguments that everyone who plays by the epistemological rules must assent to.

How is pacifism a “way of knowing”?

Let’s define epistemology as “that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its possibility, scope, and general basis.” In line with this understanding, we may say that to speak of pacifism as an epistemology is to say that a pacifist commitment shapes how a person knows. A pacifist sees ands understands the world in a certain way. The commitment to nonviolence is a conviction that shapes all other convictions.

Gandhi and King help us see that pacifism is more than a tactic. Pacifism is a way of knowing that has at its center the decisive commitment to, we could say, offer good news for the other. Gandhi and King both shaped their pragmatic strategies in line with their underlying core commitment to nonviolence. They practiced a process of knowing that is unwilling to rely on coercive power over others. This is a major move away from western philosophy’s coerciveness where one “knows” on the basis of logically compelling justifications irresistibly following from certain absolutes or foundations. One has no “choice;” one must assent to such knowledge.

So, epistemological pacifists reject seeking truth linked with a sense of possession. Instead of seeking a kind of truth that requires defending one’s ownership of it, pacifists take an approach that accepts relative powerlessness. Christian pacifists take our cues from Jesus, especially Jesus’ vulnerability where he modeled a willingness to respect others’ freedom either to accept or reject his message. Continue reading “Pacifism as a way of knowing”


The Politics of Engaged Pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2017

[This is the third in a series of four posts on Christian pacifism. The previous one, posted on November 4, was “Some biblical bases for pacifism.”]

“One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, ‘How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?’” (Walter Wink). This question points in two directions at once.

On the one hand, human beings of good will assume that we have a deep responsibility to resist evil in our world, to seek peace, to be agents of healing—that is, to enter into the brokenness of our present situation and be a force for transformation. Yet, on the other hand, we recognize that all too often efforts to overcome evil end up exacerbating the brokenness. We recognize that resisting evil all too often leads to the use of tactics that end up adding to the evil—and transform the actors more than the evil situation. So, how might we act responsibly while also remaining not only true to our core convictions that lead us to seek peace but also serving as agents of actual healing instead of well-meaning contributors to added brokenness?

One way of setting up this tension that seems inherent for peacemakers is that we incline in one of two very different directions. The first is that we may move towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers. Or, on the other hand, we may move towards “faithfulness” in ways that do not truly contribute to resisting wrongdoing and bringing about needed changes.

We face a basic choice. Will we understand this tension as signaling a need to choose one side of the tension over the other—either retreating into our ecclesial cocoon and accepting our “irresponsibility” or embracing the call to enter the messy world in creative ways that almost certainly will mean leaving our commitment to nonviolence behind? Or will we understand this tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways actually to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility? I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension as opportunity for creative engagement” path. Let me suggest the term “engaged pacifism” to describe this commitment to peace that sees at its heart seeking to be agents of healing in the entire creation. Continue reading “The Politics of Engaged Pacifism”

Some biblical bases for pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2017

This post follows-up my October 30 post, “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression.” In that post I critiqued the openness to the use of violence on the part of many who seek social justice. At the end of the post I wrote that I would continue with several posts that develop a positive argument in favor of pacifism, beyond simply a critique of violence.

With the term “pacifism,” I have two convictions in mind. The “negative” conviction is that a pacifist is a person who would never participate in or approve of the use of lethal violence, most obviously warfare. The “positive” conviction is that a pacifist believes that our most important commitment is the commitment to love each person, friend and enemy and everyone in between. What I don’t have in mind is pacifism as a purity project or a boundary marker that separates people between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous.” I think of pacifism as an aspiration and as a way of seeing. I will elaborate on these points in the posts to come.

In this post, I will focus on the Bible. There are many entry points into a pacifist commitment. For me, the key entry point has been the Bible. However, I recognize that the vast majority of Christians, including most of those with the strongest views of biblical authority, are not pacifists. So I offer this reading of the Bible simply as one possible way of reading the Bible.

I will mention four basic biblical themes that find clarity in Jesus, but emerge throughout the biblical story. These provide my foundational rationale for Christian pacifism. They include first and most basic, the love command that Jesus gave as a summary of the biblical message. The second theme is Jesus’ vision for love-oriented politics in contrast to the tyranny of the world’s empires. The third theme is Jesus’ optimism about the human potential for living in love. And the fourth theme is the model of Jesus’ cross that embodies self-suffering love and exposes the nature of the structures of human culture as God’s rivals for the trust of human beings. Continue reading “Some biblical bases for pacifism”