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”