The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2020

At this stage in my life, especially during our new era of social distancing, I am more an observer than active participant in American politics. Even from a bit of a remove, though, I have experienced this year, 2020, as an emotional roller coaster. It has made me think of the old ABC Sports show, “Wide World of Sports,” and its iconic opening with brief glimpses of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The ups and the downs

I was thrilled when Bernie Sanders won the Nevada primary, looked to be the leader in the race for the Democratic nomination, and appeared to be showing that a candidate advocating for policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal actually could realistically hope to be elected to the presidency. Then, all too quickly, came the triple whammy of Joe Biden snatching victory from the jaws of defeat versus Sanders, the emergence and shocking spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Donald Trump continuing his descent into unfathomable presidential malfeasance and incompetence. Trump’s failures were made all the more devastating in face of our need for a constructive governmental response to the pandemic.

More recently, though, I have again been thrilled with the emergence of what seems like one of the most radical popular uprising in our nation’s history—a direct challenge to the ever-strengthening hold of militarized policing and an empowering of the victims of our nation’s centuries-old plague of white supremacy.

So, it has been and continues to be an emotional yo-yo. It’s quite a time for political junkies—and for everyone else who is interested in what is going to become of our society. In all this, there is always a tension for me, what I will call a “pacifist ache.” I felt even in the height of my hopefulness about Bernie’s chances, and I feel it even when I am most hopeful about our current uprising. It has to do with lack of interest in pacifism (by which I mean the conviction that all of life is precious which leads to a rejection of war and other forms of lethal violence). Of course, this is not surprising. Pacifism has almost always been ignored or dismissed in American politics. Still, it’s too bad. I have spent a lot of time over the past 45 years imagining how a pacifist sensibility could help things out a lot in our society.

What might pacifists have to offer?

This moment in our history cries out for a contribution for those with a pacifist sensibility. Obviously, pacifists cannot hope to have a massive impact in our current politics, we’re way too few. Still, I believe the ideas, the traditions, the strategies, and the dreams of pacifists have a lot to offer. But even as we approach a desperate level of crises, we see little interest in pacifism as a source of new ideas, at least, if not as an operative vision for the society as a whole. Think about the following issues. These are a few ideas how pacifists might make distinctive contributions:

  1. The challenge of police militarization and brutality. Pacifists certainly are not alone in condemning the violence of our police system. However, we may have done more thinking than most others in imagining a society without police violence. A pacifist view of policing involves reimagining alternative strategies to deal with the typical social problems that attract police intervention. It also involves a broader philosophy of strengthening communities in ways that would be more likely to reduce the need for intervention (e.g., redistribution of wealth, better educational opportunities, and an economy that serves the wellbeing of all rather than mainly a powerful elite).
  2. The challenge of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Likewise, pacifists are more likely than others to have a long-term sense of the problems of our current reliance on imprisonment as a form of social control. Pacifists understand imprisonment as a form of violence that should be avoided as much as possible (hence, the development of restorative justice approaches, a movement that started among pacifists). And an approach to separating people from society who are profoundly dangerous would nonetheless focus on rehabilitation and humane restraint. It would be unthinkable for pacifists to support something like our current system that provides massive profits and other economic incentives for growing prison populations. Instead, those who work with prisoners would be skilled in the arts of healing and education. Pacifists also have the possibility to offer a philosophical rationale for the movement to abolish prisons—or at least to create a public safety system that would be completely different from our current bloated, retributive system of mass incarceration. One of the key issues in the discussion of abolition is what to do with actual offenders, people who are violent, anti-social, and remain dangerous to others. How do we think of such offenders? Pacifists see even offenders as precious and hope for their healing (which does involve holding them accountable for their actions).
  3. The challenge of the climate crisis. My pacifism gives me a basis for rejecting the violence of how Western cultures have abused nature in the name of “growth,” “profit,” “civilization,” and “human centeredness” (here’s my essay on this theme, “A Pacifist Critique of the Western Worldview”). Pacifism also helps sharpen my critique of the role that war and preparation for war play in destroying the environment and exacerbating climate change. It certainly can’t be limited to pacifists to push for sharp cutbacks on military spending, but perhaps we have a special responsibility to insist on anti-militarism in a political environment where even “liberals” don’t make much of the connection between war and the climate crisis.
  4. The challenge of heightening U.S./Russia tensions. One of the main strategies of the corporate Democrats to weaken Trump’s standing has been trying to stir up U.S. hostility toward Russia—and paint Trump as too easy on the Russians. Without in any way wanting to minimize the problems with Putin’s authoritarian reign in Russia, I think a pacifist sensibility leads to dismay at this cynical attempt to exploit the residue of Cold War fears to serve the political agenda of the corporate Democrats and their intelligence community allies. It’s not only disingenuous to portray Russia as a threat along the lines of the old Soviet Union when the current nation is at most a shadow of the former Communist regime’s dangerousness. It’s also highly irresponsible to advocate responses that heighten the still profoundly devastating risks of nuclear war or other conflicts between these two nations.
  5. The challenge of white supremacy. A pacifist perspective on the living legacy of the role of white supremacy in the United States recognizes without qualification the evils of that legacy. The American project was founded on: (1) the vicious enslavement of millions of black people who were forcibly wrenched from their African homes and their descendants and (2) the vicious displacement of indigenous North Americans that left millions dead and most of the rest banished to poverty-stricken remote reservations. Most of the overt wars of America and covert acts of overthrow and subversion of self-determination around the world have been visited on non-white people. As has been said, “violence is as American as cherry pie”—especially violence aimed at people of color. It could be said that the violence of white supremacy is the fundamental fruit of the European takeover of the area now known as the United States of America. So, in my mind, pacifist convictions include at their center convictions about rejecting that living legacy and seeking to overcome its effects. At the same time, pacifism affirms that while the systemic and foundational racism of the United States needs to be thoroughly resisted, it also includes the conviction that the means to resist must remain consistent with pacifist affirmations of the preciousness of all human life. And the hostility toward white supremacy includes an awareness that what is needed is the healing of white supremacists, not their punishment and even destruction. Gandhi and King, our two great 20th century pacifist practitioners both insisted that the ultimate solution to the problem of white supremacy involves the transformation of white supremacists.
  6. The general sense of polarization. Right now, US society is in the midst of an era of polarization perhaps unmatched, at least in public dynamics, since the years before the Civil War. I don’t accept the lazy characterization of these dynamics as being a problem of extremists on both sides with the implication that the answer is more centrism. The “centrism” of corporate democrats, moderation that has masked acquiescence to the corporate agenda and the severe decay of the wellbeing of working people, is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And yet, the polarization is clearly unsustainable. One aspect of our problem, a pacifist might say, has been an inability to put into practice a politics of love—that is, a politics that truly values and offers care and support for our society’s most vulnerable people. Our problem is an inability to disagree in love, an inability to figure out how to oppose people without demonizing them. Pacifism should include a clear-eyed critique of the dynamics of economic stratification, white supremacy, and reliance on the tools and mentalities of war. Yet it should also recognize the urgency of finding ways to oppose that lead to healing and not further polarization.


Pacifists may readily recognize their essential powerlessness in this society to determine political outcomes. At the same time, we have the capability of having a voice, and in all the points I’ve just discussed we should have things to say that are not being said enough. One calling of pacifism is not to give up, not to accept any self-censorship, but to push ahead speaking out however possible (here’s an essay I wrote on this theme, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy”).

At the same time, an awareness of this essential powerlessness helps us recognize the utility of thinking on a small scale as well. Certainly, pacifists may speak out relentlessly on the big issues and in doing so especially seek to add a perspective that at times only pacifists can offer (or at least are likely to offer). Such advocacy goes beyond simply echoing conventional wisdom. But perhaps even more, pacifists may seek to do whatever can be done simply to create spaces to be human.

It might be too late to turn things around in our larger society. It is difficult to imagine that the American Empire is not on an irreversible trajectory toward self-immolation. Hopefully, something unexpectedly good might still happen to break the trajectory. In any case, a pacifist sensibility offers some hope in the intrinsic value of human fellowship, of connecting with nature, of—on a small scale—restoring wholeness in face of conflict and trauma. We can always seek opportunities to embrace the preciousness of life in all kinds of ways. That embrace has value. Only through such an embrace will larger-scale transformation happen, but even if it remains on a small scale the embrace is still worth it.

[More writings on pacifism/peace theology]

3 thoughts on “The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]

  1. Thanks, Ted, for this. We need a really different paradigm – pacifism – to address our ills. Thank you for outlining ways this could happen. With a professional background in audit, it was drilled into me that you must find the root cause in order to come up with good recommendations to address deficiencies. This is about that.

  2. Hundreds of millions of years of biological transformation shows clearly that pacifism is not systemically grounded in life on earth, in the heart of Man or in the “Heart of God”! You Ted, are a wonderful person and I thank You for that. You offer up a gift of your transcendental love and hope and tenacity. I hope it serves You well. And… thanks!

  3. It is an interesting frame but I’m not sure how ultimately useful it is. Two comments:

    1. In your mind, how would a Christian approach to each of these problems differ from a pacifist approach? Surely the two are not synonymous as Christian teachings contain far more than pacifism and pacifism is not necessarily even Christian. Many Buddhists are pacifists, for example. Would your answers be different if you asked “What is the Christian approach to the problem of white supremacy? If so, how so?

    2. I think you are slipping into the same trap as militarists as represented by the adage that when your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Take the discussion about climate change, for example. It is largely not military spending or war fighting that is leading to climate change. It is Americans who who have doubled down on SUVs and suburban McMansions in the past two decades since climate change became incontrovertible and publicly known with Al Gore and the Inconvenient Truth. And developing countries like China and India who have doubled down on coal powered electricity and gas automobiles. As well as global supply chains that have exponentially increased long distance shipping via trucks and container ships. Peacetime economies produce far more carbon than wartime economies. Carbon emissions in Syria, for example, have plummeted now that Damascus and Aleppo are not choked with traffic and industrial production as they were pre-war. Climate change may be the most existential crisis facing humanity, but tackling it with a pre-conceived framework like pacifism may miss the real problem which is peacetime global economic production and materialism. I’m not sure we have the luxury to tackle the problem through pre-conceived filters like pacifism if they take us in unproductive directions. When the real problem of climate change may not be something that falls on a militarist-pacifist spectrum.

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