Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2020

Since we are in the midst of the turmoil, we don’t yet fully understand just how earthshaking this first half of 2020 will turn out to be. Right now, though, it feels as if we are in the midst of rapid and dramatic events that will change the world as we know it. It’s exciting but also unnerving. I wonder what thoughts those with pacifist convictions might have to offer.

What do I mean by “pacifist convictions”? I think of pacifism as an aspiration to live and think as if nothing matters as much as love. This leads on the one hand, to a commitment to resist domination and injustice, and on the other hand, to a commitment to avoid violence. I don’t think of pacifism as a quest for purity and total consistency so much as holding ahead of us the goals of healing, of justice, of compassion and recognizing, with Gandhi (perhaps our most important theorist of pacifism), that the means of achieving those goals must be consistent with the goals themselves.

This blog post will be the first of many as I try to return to more regular blog activity during our time of upheaval. I am being challenged to revisit my core convictions and try to imagine their relevance to the world I am observing. It’s a good time to try to think one’s thoughts through. Let me reflect on three pacifism-inspired questions: (1) What about the impact of property destruction during the current demonstrations? (2) Is it possible for people seeking change to resist the polarization that seems so pervasive in American society right now? (3) Is it important to raise issues related to our nation’s warism even as we deal with more immediate crises?

Property destruction

(1) What about the impact of property destruction during the current demonstrations? Pacifism that takes a Gandhian approach would see such property destruction as problematic. The point is not so much the intrinsic value of property. Certainly, inflicting harm on big box chain stores or police vehicles is not on the same moral level as doing violence against human beings. However, for a Gandhian such actions are not very effective.

Visible acts of property destruction seem to make it easier for defenders of the status quo to fan the fears of those in the general population whose interests may actually lie on the side of the demonstrators. Given the evidence from past uprisings, it seems likely that at least some of the damage has actually come due to agent provocateurs acting on behalf of the state. There are reasons why such actors are set loose. The people in power know that the general public tends to be pretty negative toward property destruction. This is why those trying to benefit politically by speaking against the demonstrations tend to exaggerate the destruction and use language of “rioting” and “out of control violence.” Is the reality that property destruction may be useful for the people in power an important reason to try to avoid it?

Certainly, the emotions of those who stand up in opposition to police violence, racism, and other injustices need to be respected. Their courage and commitment, their willingness to risk their own lives, and the insights of their critiques are to be celebrated. We don’t need sanctimonious moralizing by safe and comfortable people. Yet, we do need clear-eyed analyses of the dynamics of social change advocacy. Though we are in the midst of debates about how nonviolent the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s truly was, I still agree with those who point to the televised images of young people and other peaceful protesters remaining resolute in face of massive state violence in the South as being powerfully influential. And it does seem that over time the current protests have shown themselves to be more and more to be thoroughly nonviolent—and have been more and more influential.

I imagine that all people of good will in our society agree in at least a general way about how the realities of systemic racism and its horrendous impact in our country are being surfaced by COVID-19. This impact is exacerbated by police violence disproportionately aimed at people of color. The current demonstrations seem most likely to have a positive impact when they allow the truths of the current situation to be absorbed. It’s not like there needs to be a transformation in what people know so much as they simply would be shown the realities as clearly as possible. As that showing happens, the peaceful nature of the protests will make it more evident than ever that the vast majority of the violence comes from the state—and that that violence is what needs to be opposed.

Resisting polarization

(2) Is it possible for people seeking change to resist the polarization that seems so pervasive in American society right now? To me, at the heart of pacifism is the desire to seek to overcome evil without adding to the evil. This means discerning and naming evil for what it is. Such discernment involves a clear sense of core convictions—especially, I’d say, convictions about the preciousness of life and the wrongness of attitudes and social structures that diminish and hurt people, especially people without much power or social status.

However, I believe that pacifism also involves resisting evil in a way that does not involve labeling and hurting perceived evildoers as themselves purely evil, as less than fully human, and as deserving of violence. The ability to name and resist the wrongness while not dehumanizing those responsible for the wrongness is difficult.

My sense is that we struggle with a tendency to operate within what I call a “moralistic” framework that responds to wrongness mainly with a focus on assessing blame and administering punishment. The dynamics of blame and punish tend to enhance the alienation and spiral of polarization, even violence.

We should hope for a balance that moves past the polarization while not acquiescing with the wrongness. This balance will retain a sense of the humanity of the people on the other side while still disagreeing and seeking to end the oppression. Such a balance would seem to require nonviolent tactics in order to combine respect with resistance.

Questioning warism

(3) Is it important to raise issues related to our nation’s warism even as we deal with more immediate crises? I believe that it will be impossible to move forward very far on the climate crisis, on the reshaping of our economy in face of the devastation being caused by the pandemic, or on the transformation of police violence without somehow loosening the hold of America’s military-industrial complex on virtually every aspect of our society.

It seems that practically, our society will be unable to devote the resources to find solutions to the problems of the climate crisis and the pandemic as long as we spend so much on preparing for wars, fighting wars, projecting our military power around the world with our uncounted bases, building and updating nuclear weapons, and all the other ways warism dominates public spending.

It also seems that the dynamics of warism have pervaded our police departments—weaponry, training, and simply the militaristic mentality. While I don’t necessarily want to claim that warism is inherently linked with white supremacy in the United States, it is profoundly striking to realize that since the end of World War II virtually all the wars of America have been (and still are) visited on people of color and that the extraordinary growth of mass incarceration has disproportionately had an impact on people of color.

Right now, it still seems like US warism mostly gets a free pass, and social justice energy gets focused on other issues. We should be aware that, so far, Joe Biden’s campaign for President positions itself to the right of Donald Trump on many foreign policy issues. It does not even seem to be on the table these days that we need drastically to cut military spending, drastically to reduce our nuclear arsenal, and drastically to change our philosophy of responding to various conflicts around the world from military-centered to diplomacy-centered.


I actually believe that none of these three questions are pacifist-only questions. They should be questions for all people of good will. However, those with pacifist convictions might see them more clearly than most other people in a time of upheaval and uncertainty.

[The Pacifism/Peace Theology page]

3 thoughts on “Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]

  1. Thank you for the post. Especially for younger folk like myself, I know a who have really struggled with the idea of nonviolence and current events. I’m glad to hear you’ll be (trying) to write more regularly. I think a lot of people need it right now.

  2. Seeing the Way of this God damned world, can we honestly lay claim to any serious efforts to escape the reoccur-ant proliferation of violence among organisms, individuals, communities and nations? First things first… see it for what it is.

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