Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pacifism & Pragmatism

If ... big word in a small package. If a frog had wings, as we said back home, it wouldn't bump its ass every time it hopped.

Here goes. If there hadn't been a Soviet Union, the pacifism of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been met with exterminating force -- not just as it was against each of them individually, but against their movements.

It's a silly speculation, in a way, because the Cold War was integral to the history that happened, and it couldn't have happened as it did in any other way. I believe in complexity theory.  My point is, pacifism didn't work for them because pacifism works. It worked because of the confluence of circumstances. But if ...

Some people say that these two proved that pacifism -- as a strategy -- can be effective. Pacifism can be pragmatic.

What if it's not? Does that mean Christian pacifism is misguided?

I'm reminded of another, seemingly unrelated, argument about pacifism: that pacifism is only for the privileged. But the assumption is the same, that pacifism has to be effective to be valid; and this claim assumes another element: that pacifism is a deontological ethic. It assumes that I, as a Christian pacifist, am somehow demanding that everyone else also be a pacifist.

Speaking for myself, and those Christian pacifists who convinced me, I will answer three questions at once. (1) Pacifism -- that is, the refusal to take violent action against other human beings -- does not mean for me, as a Christian, that nonviolence has to make things better. It is not a strategy. (2) Pacifism of that kind is not available only to those with privilege (a slippery kind of criterion at any rate), and (3) it is not theoretically imposed on "those with less privilege" (by whatever criteria) as a universal or universalizable ethical stance.

I am a pacifist because I am a Christian; and if I weren't a Christian, I can't think of a single reason to embrace nonviolence in a demonstrably unjust and violent world.

This stuff about pragmatic pacifism, and "privileged" pacifism, and ethical pacifism -- if I were to deploy it as a Christian -- would be my own attempt to make my Christianity less strange than it is to the rest of the modern world.  But as a long-time veteran of that world, as a long-time citizen of that world, I have to remind myself and others that being Christian, as I understand this thing called the way of the cross, discipleship... is a very strange thing indeed.

It means obedience even into failure. It means a radical kind of trust in a God so strange and wild and incomprehensible that this God had to crash through infinity and become flesh for people like me to have a glimmer of understanding.

This strange, wild, incomprehensibly loving God, in the flesh, turned pragmatism on its head.

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power..."


  1. "I am a pacifist because I am a Christian; and if I weren't a Christian, I can't think of a single reason to embrace nonviolence in a demonstrably unjust and violent world."

    I'm not buying that, Stan. I was a pacifist on Dec. 1st, 1969. I still am, even though I do not profess Christian faith. I LIKE peace....

  2. So, I have long been confused and frustrated by the unnecessary bifurcation of faithfulness and strategery (as ol W would say). Cannot one be a pacifist because one is a follower of Jesus while still employing that pacifism in a strategic way? I think of course of Jesus' words to be gentle as a dove and shrewd as a serpent. I am also reminded of the faithfully strategic nonviolence (and nonlying!) of the people of Le Chambon as they resisted the Nazis and rescued Jews, and the witness of Bayard Rustin, the architect of the civil rights movement, who was a pacifist because of his faith, but also terribly pragmatic.