Why Pacifists Can Oppose Even This War
David R. Weiss — October 15, 2001
This essay, written just 5 weeks after 9/11, responds to an op-ed by Scott Simon in which he suggests that in the age of terrorism pacifism is rendered impotent. Published in the Des Moines Register, the Wisconsin State Journal, the (Rochester, Minnesota) Post-Bulletin, and eventually translated into German by a German pacifist website, this essay also sparked a couple of the ugliest pieces of hate mail I’ve ever received.
Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and a self-identified Quaker and pacifist, recently wrote an op-ed column appearing in the Wall Street Journal (10/11/01) under the headline “even pacifists must support this war.” In it he identifies “the fatal flaw of nonviolent resistance: All the best people could be killed by all the worst ones.” He decides that the present crisis requires an American military response because “peaceful solutions are not apparent.”
There is, of course, genuine diversity within the pacifist perspective. But Simon has not represented well some of the fundamental tenets of Quakerism and pacifism. Quakers practice radical egalitarianism in their worship and organization for the same reason they are principled pacifists—because they affirm that “there is that of God in each of us.” Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed, declaring that because every human being bears the image of God we ought not use violence against any human being.
Quakers, King, proponents of Gandhian nonviolence, and pacifists of many other stripes also affirm that pacifism is a strategically wise choice because it fits with “the grain of the universe.” Although it may seldom “work” on a timetable convenient to us—the Montgomery bus boycott was successful after blacks walked the streets of Montgomery for 381 days—it will eventually work because no less than an atomic reaction it is grounded in the fabric of the universe.
Pacifism will eventually work because no less than an atomic reaction it is grounded in the fabric of the universe.
Nonviolence does not presume that peaceful solutions will always be “apparent”; it does suggest such solutions will be more easily imagined if we do not begin with the presumption that violence is an acceptable option. It does not promise that no life will be lost on the way to peace or justice; it does claim an infinitely better chance that any loss of life during a nonviolent course of action will somehow serve to limit the overall violence rather than escalate it. Nonviolence does not claim to be safe; it claims to be truthful about the character of existence—that suffering accepted in the pursuit of a just peace is always potentially redemptive, while suffering visited upon others never is.
Simon’s concern that “All the best people could be killed by all the worst ones” rests on a description of human beings that pacifists do not accept. We say instead that “best” and “worst” are not adjectives properly used for whole people (or worse, for whole categories of people). They are boundaries in each one of us. And a principled commitment to nonviolence has the capacity to extend the best and limit the worst in each of us. It does not seek to defeat the worst persons; it seeks to transform them—and, failing that, to transform their followers, into persons more open to the best than the worst within themselves. And while we do not seek it out, nonviolent resisters are willing to absorb a significant amount of suffering to effect that transformation. We find in nonviolence a profound truth about the humility with which we ought to regard ourselves and the hope with which we ought to regard others.
A principled commitment to nonviolence has the capacity to extend the best and limit the worst in each of us. It does not seek to defeat the worst persons; it seeks to transform them—and, failing that, to transform their followers, into persons more open to the best than the worst within themselves.
Simon asks, “Do pacifists really want to live in the kind of world that the terrorists who hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon would create?” Of course not. But neither do we want to live in the kind of world that our ongoing embargo of Iraq or our present bombing of Afghanistan is creating. And we categorically reject that these are the only two worlds available to us.
Simon concludes that finally pacifists “must admit that it has been our blessing to live in a nation in which other citizens have been willing to risk their lives to defend our dissent.” No. Scott Simon may choose to compromise his pacifism in the present moment, but he does not speak for all pacifists. Before this is all over, either the whole world will find itself blind (exacting, as Gandhi lamented, an unending cycle of eye-for-eye vengeance), or it will find that it must admit to the blessing of those dissenting voices willing to risk reputation—and life—to oppose the madness of this violent cycle. Pacifists do not claim some secret knowledge; we are quite willing to say it out loud. Violence begets violence. Period. Nonviolence, practiced well, with discipline and humility, with perseverance, creativity, and hope has the capacity to promise life. This war does not.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (Langdon Street Press, 2008, http://www.davidrweiss.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. You can reach him at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.