This column is dedicated to my dad, Michael Moreland, who introduced me to the writing of Wendell Berry and who gave me the essay that inspired this piece. This essay also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum
Until very recently, if you had asked me to describe my spiritual and intellectual leanings on the matter of warfare, I would not have described myself as a pacifist. In fact, I have distanced myself from pacifism in conversations with various friends and intellectual sparing partners, choosing instead to be counted among the students of the Christian just-war tradition; to my mind this provided a tidy loophole that allowed me to be in favor of violence that prevents greater violence, establishes justice, or wins a greater, longer-lasting peace.
I’ve changed my mind. Now I am a pacifist.
I made the decision to call myself a pacifist at about nine o’clock in the evening on February 9, 2009. I was reading an essay by Wendell Berry and came across these words:
The great moral issue of our time, too much ignored by both sides of our political division, is violence. From the colonialism that began with long-distance navigation to the present stage of industrialism, we of the so-called West have lived and gathered wealth increasingly by violence. This has been increasingly an age of fire. We now travel and transport our goods by means of controlled explosions in the engines of our vehicles. We run our factories, businesses and households by means of fires or controlled explosions. We fight our wars by controlled, and sometimes uncontrolled, explosions. Violence, in short, is the norm of our economic life and our national security. The line that connects the bombing of a civilian population to the mountain “removed” by strip mining to the gullied and poisoned field to the clear-cut watershed to the tortured prisoner seems to run pretty straight. (From “Letter to Daniel Kemmis” in The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006)
That paragraph sealed the deal for me, but my change of heart would have happened sooner or later. After so many years of watching my country fight intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing how those conflicts have changed the soul of America I’m tired of war.
I’m tired of the horror of knowing that one of my country’s staunchest allies, Israel, supported by American lawmakers and the loudest of American media voices, continues to strangle the life out of the Palestinian people.
I’m exhausted by the search for quality public education in the inner city where I live, knowing, as I do, that the budget for the entire California state public school system represents but a fraction of a percent of the nation’s military budget.
I no longer can abide the knowledge that the good folks elected to set and implement our national budget seem unable to fund healthcare for American children but have no apparent difficulty coming up with the money necessary to drop bombs on children in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“But wait!” cries out the inevitable voice of rational dissent. “What about war that is necessary to prevent greater evil? What about the need to stop Hitler sixty years ago, and wasn’t it good for NATO to intervene to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at the hands of Christian Serbia? Shouldn’t someone have sent troops to stand between the Hutus and the Tutsis and between innocent Sudanese civilians and the Janjaweed?”
It is a good and reasonable question, and my embrace of pacifism is not naive. Sometimes war seems unavoidable. I know this, but it doesn’t mean I have to like the violence of war or to proclaim allegiance to a system of thought that is anything but profoundly opposed to war. Historically, it seems that starvation is just as inevitable as warfare. That doesn’t mean I should be “pro-famine” or try to work out a theologically-and philosophically-sound “just-hunger” theory.
When human disagreements deteriorate into bloodshed, it is a failure of human imagination to find peaceable solutions to conflict. It is a demonstration of our inability, as a species, to set aside greed and prejudice, anger and bloodlust. I want no part of that inability. I think we can do better. As a Christian I believe we are created in the image of a God who at times is known as the Prince of Peace, a God who had called us blessed who work for peace. The time has come for me to serve that God as a pacifist.
P.S. Here’s a video of a speech given by Wendell Berry in which he addresses the issue of violence in much the same way he did in the essay that inspired me to become a Pacifist. The video is in two parts, and the best part is at the beginning of the second video.