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.

Contrast this vulnerability with the quest for invulnerability we see in foundationalist appeals to “truths” that must be accepted. Such appeals are a mental power play that seeks to avoid being dependent on the other’s choice about whether or not to assent. Foundationalists want to avoid being vulnerable to the other’s world. People in the West have approached knowledge based upon a desire to be “on top.” If we ourselves are not in power we still imagine being in power. How would I think if I were in charge? However, being in such a position, or wanting to be in such a position hinders our knowing accurately. We may see a connection between the openness of thinkers in the Western tradition to the use of violence and their difficulty accurately perceiving the nature of reality. To say that pacifism is an epistemology is to say that there are elements of a pacifist commitment that actually make better, more accurate knowing possible.

One way that pacifism can foster knowing is to avoid seeing truth as a zero-sum, scarcity-oriented, competitive process. Rather, our understanding of truth depends upon our listening to others, even our adversaries. Knowing requires nonviolent ways of relating to others. Pacifists should reject inter-human violence in part because our opponents are actually part of our process of discerning truth. We recognize to be nonviolent is both to be more likely to get a hearing from our adversaries and to allow us better to hear them.

Gandhi famously called his life “an experiment with truth.” As we seek truth, we start moving toward it—a process we never dare to cease. Because we are finite, we must always be learning from others, including our adversaries. Truth is too big, and we are too limited, to think we may fully know truth. The quest for truth excludes the use of violence. As we are not capable of knowing truth absolutely, we must be willing to learn from our adversaries, and we must never assume that we have the absolute certainty that killing others requires.

Pacifist epistemology renounces coercion and affirms the possibility—the requirement—that we learn from everyone, even our adversaries. We not only renounce coercion and affirm openness as we seek to know, we actually renounce all tools of privilege and power as means of accessing truth. Such an approach to knowing sees a kind of epistemological privilege among the vulnerable who can more easily see things from “below,” as God does. We may directly delink power, the capacity to coerce, to stand “at the top of the heap,” from an authentic knowledge of truth.

What is the “truth” of which pacifist epistemology speaks?

“Truth,” for Christian pacifists, has more to do with practical ethics than theories and abstract principles. Our “location” for theological reflection may best be seen as the community of those who seek to embody peace. Within such a community, a statement is “true” not as a factual statement so much as a statement that is compatible with the central practices and convictions of that community. What matters most, that is, are ways that truth-claims foster faithful living within the community and are coherent with past expressions of faithfulness.

Faithful living (“truthfulness”) is outward focused and leads to healing and restorative justice in a broken, alienated, and unjust world. Faithfulness witnesses to the “good news” of God’s right-making love. At the center of this kind of Christianity we find “news” not “foundationalist absolutes.” We may understand this “news” (gospel = “good news”) as being the message of God’s healing love embodied among actual human beings. As such, it is the “truth” to which we witness. But it is a different kind of “truth” than the Western epistemological tradition affirms. This “news” originates in a particular setting and is contingent, historical, non-esoteric, and translatable into any language.

The “truth” for Christian pacifists, then, is not absolute, timeless, authoritarian, under the control of people in power, or accessible only through some sort of universal language that is more real than particular languages. The “news” is accessible to everyone, though not as expressed in some kind of over-arching, transcendent language—but, rather, as translated in meaningful ways into each particular language. This apparent “weakness” of the “news” is actually responsible for its very power to bring life. Only this kind of “news” can actually foster wholeness—and it matters that the content of the “news” includes nonviolence. What makes this news “good” is how it creates wholeness—something incompatible with authoritarian coercion and violence.

The nature of truth is seen in God’s vulnerability. The “news” we affirm requires a relinquishment of dominance and control. In reporting this “news” we always allow others to challenge it, even reject it. Truth, in this sense, is not something we may possess—it is something that possesses us. And it cannot be commended to others in any way other than through an encounter with others that is truly vulnerable.

Following Jesus in this granting of respect toward others is a crucial way of ourselves being truthful. It is profound evidence of Jesus’s divine power that he does not force people to follow him. Jesus is the “truth” not in spite of respecting others’ freedom, but because of it. Truth is lived out on the ground. It is inextricably linked with non-coercive communication. The evidence that matters of truth’s existence is found not in logical proofs but in the people who embody Jesus’s way. The truth Christian pacifists see in Jesus is not totalitarian, exclusivist, nor separate from other expressions of truth. Rather, it serves more as an ordering principle for all knowing. Neither Jesus nor the Bible possesses all truth. Rather, what we would say is that Jesus’s truth matters the most and guides us as we apprehend other truths.

In linking truth so closely to Jesus, we mean the particular first-century human being who lived in a particular culture and spoke a particular language. We are not interested in the universalizing emphases of sophisticated philosophical method. In actual on-the-ground reality, truthful human beings always have drawn on eclectic sources in learning and living out truth.

Our quest for truth is anchored in the actual world in which we live and in communities that make various faith claims that people adhere to for various reasons. The point is not that there is some clear method that delivers perfect truth. To the contrary, the truth that matters is something that may be messy, complex, ambiguous, partial, imperfect—just like human beings and human communities. Amidst these complexities, truth may be discovered and lived.

Jesus lived the way he did because of how he understood the universe to be. He trusted in how things “really are”—he understood God as the One creator and sustainer of a universe in which love and nonviolence are at home. Suffering has always been linked with creating genuine peace. We learn that from giving birth to and nurturing children. We learn that from the fruitfulness of selfless care for others. Jesus embraced—and by doing so transformed—the role of being “king” (or “Messiah”). He recognized that his victory required him to live as the “suffering servant king.” His cross goes with the grain of the universe.

A pacifist understanding of truth, then, embraces a kind of paradox. We may confidently speak of truth—we may know that truth is real. However, truth is accessed only amidst the particularity and relativity of on-the-ground social life among actual human beings. And the entirety of reality witnesses to the ultimate truthfulness of suffering love.

What is involved in letting truth speak for itself?

The key here is that people of faith must be open to all the truth. We respect various points of view, even when they are contested. And we trust that the truth will be served by open encounter. We link together confidence in the power of truth with a conviction that truth is nonviolent. A third element of the mix is our human finitude. We cannot know all there is to know; we must keep learning. We trust that it is possible to keep learning and that it is sure that our questions, our doubts, even our distorted motivations, will not quench the truth. We do not need to use coercion of any sort to insure the survivability of truth—and, in fact, if we do use coercion we will invariably separate ourselves from the truth.

So we need not fear give and take and the lack of absolute certainty. We do not need to seek a way to stand impervious to the dynamics of relativity. Rather, we may feel secure in face of those dynamics insofar as when they challenge us we remain focused on the truth as we know it being stable enough. Truth speaks for itself, then, when on the one hand we open ourselves to hearing all relevant voices, recognizing that each has a contribution to make, while, on the other hand, we retain the conviction that we can know truth, that we can remain afloat, and that we are empowered to resist the “waves of relativity” as they seek to push us in the direction they want.

At the core of our capability of holding together openness and conviction lies nonviolence. The power of the truth of the gospel (“good news”) is to be found in how it renounces coercion. We are not forced to believe. We may resist foundationalism’s temptation to seek to coerce assent.

Since truth for the Christian pacifist may be understood in terms of the gospel, the “good news,” we should place special importance on the translatability of the truthful message of God’s suffering love. And the characteristics of this translating work themselves reflect the nature of the truth. We do not seek a “higher” or “absolute” language with the expectation that people encounter truth only as they leave their own particular languages (and cultures) behind. Rather, we accept as necessary the task of entering into a relationship with the other community that is substantial enough and vulnerable enough to allow us to present our message in their words.

This vulnerability finds expression in our need to validate our message by living it out. What we say is seen to be truthful, ultimately, not by our careful and irresistible logic, but by the coherence between what we do and what we say. The validation of the truth of which we speak is found in the social embodiment of its message in life—not in a method of reasoning that seeks to push down closer to absolute, unchanging bedrock.

Besides having our lives face scrutiny as part of the evaluation of the truthfulness of our words, vulnerability in letting “truth speak for itself” also means allowing others the freedom to disagree. In this way we are consistent with Jesus, who left it to his hearers to respond positively or negatively, and hence left the success of his witness at their mercy. That his message could be rejected was actually part of its truthfulness. One crucial way the community of faith witnesses by its common life to the truthfulness of its understanding of reality is how it communicates with those outside the community. Vulnerability, non-coerciveness, meeting the others on their turf and in their own language reflect deep-seated trust in the genuine power of God’s love as the core truth of the universe.

Another crucial way the community of faith witnesses is in how it processes its own internal conflicts. Having differences is simply part of being human. Our challenge is to be human in humane ways where, rather than increasing our coercive power in order to win, we seek to foster reconciling dialogue. The same vulnerability required of the followers of Jesus in their communicating with the wider world is also required in their internal community life. And for the same reasons—this is the only way to find truth and this is how the watching world will best perceive the nature of truth.

Because conflict follows simply from being human socially, the community of faith can never expect to be free from conflict—nor should it. Unity is indeed important, but the unity must be authentically human. What is most profound in a healthy community is not everyone agreeing with each other but that people are open about their differences and are committed to work together for reconciliation. Truth must be lived. It is best lived in the context of a faith community committed to learning and growing in understanding the good news of God’s healing love. As this “news” is understood, it must be shared with others; and as it is shared the words of those within the community must cohere with their walk.


To conclude, I will summarize the main elements of a pacifist view of truth. Truth indeed is real. All people in all times and places are subject to this truth. However, it is embodied by witness, vulnerability, and openness, not coercion and domination. The ultimate criterion to ascertain truthfulness is the fostering of peaceable living, more so than carefully constructed, logically impeccable belief systems. Truth is a way of life more than a collection of ideas.

No one perspective can be certain of possessing the entire truth on any issue. Consequently, we all need to listen to others and be ready to learn and adjust our understandings. Indeed, we especially need to listen to those with whom we differ, as they are often the ones who best may make us aware of limits in our perspective. The community must seek all points of view within the fellowship. Dissent from majority perspectives is to be welcomed, not stifled. People with differences of perspective must listen to one another in open, safe, respectful conversation or they will not move toward truth.

The viability of the truth pacifists witness to is to a very large degree dependent upon people in our communities living consistently with this truth. For example, if we preach nonviolence as a core part of our understanding of the “good news,” in order for this message to be credible, nonviolence must be a characteristic of the our community’s internal life.

A pacifist approach to knowing prefers to err on the side of listening too much rather than listening too little. All voices within the community must be treated with respect for the community genuinely to be healthy. As Gandhi insisted, as finite human beings our quest for the truth must place the highest priority on how we seek it. Our communities’ announcement of “good news” loses its credibility when our “walk” does not cohere with our “word.”

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