Why I Am a Pacifist

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.

11 thoughts on “Why I Am a Pacifist

  1. Pingback: Topics about Christian life and Bible readings » Archive » Why I Am a Pacifist

  2. A good article and I agree with your rational and conclusion. The end never justifies the means. Don’t recall reading in any of the New Testament Books where the “just war” theory was supported.

  3. I weep with you. But as a Christ-bearer we recognize that half the world does not accept the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and are therefore at the mercy of our enemy, who will gladly help them justify the most unspeakable acts against other humans, to obtain the ends of their desire.

  4. Thanks HN!

    Christina, I hear you, but Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. Those are powerful words, and I have not allowed myself to be haunted by them as I know I should have.

    Ben

  5. My friend Fred is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness member. He says being a pacifist is a no-brainer. His father was thrown in jail during WWII for not fighting the horrible Huns.

  6. Jim,

    Thanks. I loved that post on the other side of the link you sent. I especially like this line, which is quoted from your friend’s book:

    “Pacifists certainly failed to solve the problem of ‘permanent war,’ but the uncomfortable truth is that everyone else failed, too…”

    Ronn,

    I’m needing to learn more about pacifism during WWII. My mother-in-law spent the war years of her childhood on a farm in Iowa because her family were Brethren in Christ, one of the Mennonite brands, and her father didn’t have to fight if he was working on a farm. The family doesn’t talk about it much. Maybe I’ll do some more asking.

    Ben

  7. Enjoyed this article Ben. I consider myself a pacifist for the same reasons you mention; the military industrial complex is taking over and it’s out of control!

    But I am not a strict pacifist because I don’t think I have the right to stand by when others are being brutalized. For instance, when police are called to a domestic violence problem, I want them to use whatever professional mediation techniques they can to keep people safe. However, if the life of the victim is at risk, I think that to take lethal force away as an option is not my right. If I’m the victim, then it would be within my purview to make that choice, but I cannot in good conscience do that as a fellow citizen.
    If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers series.
    Paz,
    Geoff

  8. Geoff,

    I hear you, and what you call not being a strict pacifist, may be what I call being a pacifist who is not naive. I understand that violence happens and that sometimes we must engage in violence when it is the lesser of two evils. I just want to reserve the right to say that the lesser of two evils is still evil.

    Ben

  9. Great blog and great post!

    Regarding the inevitability of war and the Christian Pacifist tradition, to take a pacifist stance in the face of war and violence is to take the question of martyrdom seriously. Standing in the way of violence means that your life may be taken to save the life of another. Turning to war to “solve” a problem or conflict assumes that all other options and powers have been exhausted and that violence is the only course left. But this train of thought places God’s response to prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our world, behind war. This is my problem with the Just War Theory, it says that it would be foolish to wait for God to intervene and sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands – as if we could usher peace of the Kingdom of God to earth by our own means.

    Anyways, it’s a great discussion to have and I’m glad that you’re a part of it now! Blessings!

  10. I am a pacifist by intellect and in looking at Christ, but I
    would probably sin to protect a direct physical attack on
    any I love. God forgive me.

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