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.

Core convictions for engaged pacifism

(1) Love of neighbor is the heart of being human. At its very core, pacifism follows from the conviction that as human beings our central call is to love our neighbors. The Bible emphasizes this call in numerous places in both Testaments. Jesus stated it most directly when he said that the key to eternal life is to love God and neighbor, a directive that he says summarizes the law and prophets (Matt 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus told his famous parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question of “who is my neighbor?” He makes a provocative point as he tells a story that defines love of neighbor—caring for others in need, in this case a traveler who has been mugged. As the traveler lies there bleeding, a couple of people pass by and notice the victim. Rather than help, they sidle to the far side of the road and continue on. These are not just random passers-by; they are the very people a Jew would consider “neighbors”: a priest and a Levite, leaders in the faith community. Finally, someone comes by who is willing to help, extravagantly as it turns out. This helper was a Samaritan. Shocking, because the Samaritans were the last people the teacher of the law would ever imagine being “neighbors.” They were enemies, members of a rival clan.

Jesus’ story defines “neighbor” as one who cares for others in need, including “enemies.” To fulfill our highest calling we must practice this kind of neighbor love, the only way we embody our claim to love God. To be fully human means to see that each human being is linked with each other human being. Pacifism, thus, has to do with loving each particular person—certainly the extreme cases such as the Samaritan loving his Jewish enemy, but everything less extreme as well. Jesus gives us our marching orders for every relationship, every aspect of life.

(2) No value or cause takes precedence over love of neighbor. If we understand love of neighbor to extend to each person, without exception, including even enemies, we recognize such a call to love as our “ultimate principle.” To understand love of neighbor as the core of human morality will lead one to recognize that no other value or conviction or principle can take precedence over this love—certainly none that would lead to violence.

As a consequence, any calculation of moral responsibility must take this commitment to love as central. Love of neighbor stands as the conviction that may never be compromised in relation to other convictions. When other important values come into play (such as defense against aggression, the need to hold wrong-doers accountable for their actions, one’s duties as a citizen of a particular nation-state, efforts to free people from oppression and injustice, and many others), these must all be acted on in ways that do not violate the call to love each neighbor.

Such an understanding of the love command calls us to action, not passivity. In Jesus’ ministry, he faced one central temptation: to use violence in order to uphold the core concerns of his faith. Jesus did not take seriously the temptation to withdraw in order to “love” the world through avoiding impurity. But the option to bring God’s rule into being by force was a strong temptation. Jesus understood the call to love the neighbor as a call actively to resist the injustices of the day and to seek to empower those oppressed by them. He accepted the call to oppose evil.

The call to love the neighbor does not draw lines between the “neighbor” and enemies not considered neighbors. Jesus makes it clear that his active love refuses to draw such lines. The kind of transformation Jesus embodied meant that injustice would be resisted in ways that did not visit suffering upon the enemy but instead accepted self-suffering as the cost of genuine love.

So, we seek to hold two truths together: (1) Love of neighbor leads to resistance and transformation work. (2) Love of neighbor requires a refusal to exclude anyone from that love. Hence, the need for creativity. How do we involve ourselves in ways that show love toward everyone? How do we resist evil in ways that are consistent with love for each neighbor?

(3) Pacifism has to do with life in every aspect of our lives. Since pacifism stands at the center of our understanding of human morality, we believe it informs all areas of life. For example, we reject any kind of personal/social separation, as if Jesus love-centered ethic is normative for his followers’ personal lives in families, neighborhoods, and faith-communities, but another ethic of “responsibility” governs one’s actions as a citizen. This “responsibility” ethic has traditionally been understood indeed to call for violence on occasion, where the enemies of one’s nation-state become non-neighbors.

Jesus did speak directly to political relationships. His most alluring temptation was how to shape his political practices, not whether to be political or not. The love command calls the pacifist to seek wholeness in all areas of life, but always to do so in ways that are consistent with love. This calls us both to see all areas of life as places where we should participate and all areas of life as lending themselves to being shaped by the call to love.

(4) We are destined for wholeness; the key issue is how we reach that destination. We may think of human destiny in two mutually reinforcing senses: destiny has to do (1) with our nature and purpose and (2) with our final outcome. A pacifist anthropology understands human beings to be capable of living in harmony with one another and with the rest of creation, with hope that such harmony is the direction toward which we all are moving.

The Book of Revelation teaches that human history culminates in a healed community populated by reconciled enemies (Rev 21–22; note especially the presence of “the kings of the earth” [21:24] and the healing of “nations” [22:2]—these are both specified earlier in the book [and throughout the Bible] as enemies of God and God’s people). The focus of this message, however, was not on a pre-determined happy outcome of human history regardless of humanity’s actions but on the means to achieve the hopeful outcome.

Revelation summarizes Jesus’ path to peace in 1:5-6: “the faithful witness” who lived according to the love command and suffered martyrdom as a consequence, “the first born of the dead” whose witness God vindicated through resurrection, the “ruler of the kings of the earth” who reveals the true nature of the grain of the universe, and the one who makes of his followers “a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”

We may be certain about the only means for achieving New Jerusalem. It is home for those who embody Jesus’ way of love even in the face of overwhelming violence and domination. And Revelation promises that in following this path, Jesus and his followers may hope to transform the very nations who have persecuted them through the ages.

(5) We understand our social ethics in relation to the Powers—and the hope that they might be transformed. A Powers analysis, such as articulated by Walter Wink, suggests that violence has mostly to do with “fallen” social structures that shape our environment in ways that move us toward violence. The Powers are simultaneously created good, fallen, and redeemable. We live our lives amidst these social dynamics that reach into every area of existence.

The “goodness” of the Powers means that they are necessary for the functioning of human life. The Powers enable human society to organize on behalf of accomplishing needed tasks to sustain life. The “fallenness” of the Powers means that these structures often tend to seek our loyalties in ways that foster alienation and conflict. For example, we require organization for economic activity yet some organizations become hungry for more and more profit at the expense of social health. The “redeemability” of the Powers means that the structures do not have to be destructive to human wellbeing. We do not, for example, have to have a criminal justice system that focuses more on punishment and privatized profit than the healing of victims and offenders.

Wink argues that violence in our society stems from religious-like beliefs in the redemptive nature of violence. Hence, the Powers of militarism benefit from this myth of redemptive violence. Our nation goes to war because of the momentum created by those Powers who shape our country’s values and practices, not because of careful moral discernment.

Pacifists argue that self-awareness about our core values (human community, suspicion of the story told by our government and popular culture about the necessity of militarism, careful assessment of the true consequences of preparing for and making war) can free us from our world’s spiral of violence. Such a freeing requires awareness of the ways the Powers shape our consciousness toward self-destructive and irrational policies and practices.

(6) The enemy is evil-doing itself, not any particular nation or group of human beings. In our moral discernment, we should focus on stable understandings of the values that we see as central—not on more fluid uses of values language that serve particular interests (fallen Powers). Only with stable understandings that are applied evenly may we hope actually to discern and respond in ways that address the true problems of violence and injustice.

Let’s consider, for example, the issue of “terrorism.” We can agree that terrorism is a bad thing and should be opposed. People of good will should also agree, then, that terrorism should be opposed and overcome regardless of who is its source. We start, then, with a reasonably stable definition of terrorism so we know what we are opposing. A definition from the US Army: “The calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” The key moral issue would be to seek a consistent and objective application of this definition. If terrorism itself is our problem and our responsibility is to resist terrorism, we would oppose any and all incidents of “the calculated use of violence” to attain “political, religious, or ideological” goals.

When we follow a stable definition of terrorism and apply it consistently, we will see terrorism itself as our key problem—not any particular group of alleged terrorists. That is, if we truly oppose terrorism, we will not allow the rubric of terrorism to lead us to label only certain people as “terrorists” in a way that serves political agendas and underwrites many acts that themselves are terrorism.

(7) In the name of “realism,” we should not trust our nation’s power elite. While operating with an essentially optimistic anthropology that denies that human beings are inherently violent by nature, pacifists also take seriously the human proclivity in the world we live in toward selfishness and seeking advantage over others. Pacifists draw from this awareness of human sinfulness the opposite of support for coercive discipline from the power elite to “keep sinful humanity in line.” Because of our realistic view of human morality, pacifists insist that people in power are the ones least likely to be capable of careful, morally constructive uses of “limited” violence.

If it is true that humanity is shaped powerfully by sin and selfishness and thus prone to misuse of power, the people most likely to be guilty of such misuses are the people with the most power. So, pacifists counter the stereotypes the realists use regarding pacifism as unsuited for the real world by saying that in fact those who believe people in power tend to act objectively and in service of genuine human security are the ones being the most naïve and romantic.

To the extent that human beings, especially in groups, are shaped and motivated by selfishness and hindered from acting on the basis of neighbor love, we should be especially wary of giving the power of death-dealing violence to people in leadership. Pacifists should especially be wary of the temptations to accept the “rules of the game” made by people corrupted by holding death-dealing power.

(8) We may believe that the system may always make decisions for less (or no) violence, but a pacifist commitment to peace over loyalty to the system also requires one to stand aside on occasion. Even though the nation-state’s systemic dynamics tend consistently to select for violence, pacifists understand that in each choice that policy-makers make, options for less rather than more violence exist. So, we do have justification for advocating alternatives to the most violent actions in the midst of conflicts. Even more so, we may advocate farsighted policies that diminish the likelihood of conflicts emerging.

Alternatives to violence do exist and have been followed. Yet, pacifists also recognize that their advocacy may be ignored, and nation-states may make irrevocable choices in favor of violence. In such cases, pacifists simply will not be able to play a public policy role while still adhering to their convictions concerning the centrality of love of neighbor.

This recognition of the need for pacifists to “stand aside” does not stem from a quest for purity. Rather, it stems from a sense that pacifists’ central calling is seeking actively to love neighbors, not to hold power or to further the interests of any particular nation state. Pacifists recognize that in the name of pursuing genuine peace they must at times seek other avenues of involvement than policy-making and state-centered activities. If the core criterion for appropriate action is seeking to love neighbors, pacifists will reject the claim that the only way to be “responsible” is to act within the paradigm of inevitable violence.

Engaged pacifism

These eight convictions concerning engaged pacifism may be summed up thus: We live most authentically as human beings when we love our neighbors. We best understand this call to love the neighbor as a call to see each person as our neighbor who deserves our love. We love even those considered to be enemies; we love even those who commit acts of evil.

To see the call to love neighbor as a commitment that cannot be superseded by any other cause leads us in two directions simultaneously: (1) that we do have a calling to engage, actively to resist evil and to help vulnerable people, a calling that applies to all areas of life and (2) that no matter how we do engage, we remain bound by the call to love wrong-doers and enemies. These two parts of our calling—actively to engage in resisting evil and while doing so to remain committed to loving our adversaries—may be a particular burden for engaged pacifism. However, they are also a call to creativity.

Since pacifism concludes that violence is never consistent with the fundamental call to love all neighbors—and that this conviction is true of all violence—pacifists will not be able to offer direct support for or participation in responses to evil-doing that do rely on violence.

The fruitful work of non-governmental organizations (e.g., the peace church service committees) in enhancing human wellbeing in conflict situations without violence provides clear alternatives. The choice for pacifists is not either support “necessary” violence at times in the name of responding to evil doing or else withdraw into irresponsible purity. Pacifists may actively participate in these alternative means to enhance wellbeing.

In the end, the discussion of responses to evil doing should challenge people of good will, especially pacifists, to cultivate a healthy skepticism towards nation-states and the proclivity the state has to enhance its own power via violence. The nation-state as we experience it today is a human construct that needs to be critiqued, not deferred to, when it comes to issues of responding to the human need for security. We may seek to make states less violent. However, for the pacifist, the core loyalty will be to the way of healing love not any particular nation-state.

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