Living into human peace

In a recent application, I was asked to reflect on my thoughts about nonviolence and whether I consider myself a pacifist.  This turned out to be a much more difficult question than you might assume, as I needed to wrangle my Christian faith, my experience with Hindu and Islamic ideas of peace and nonviolence, and the ties still strung between my heart and many others around the world.  My response was as follows:

My position on nonviolence as a way of life is that it is an admirable one, rooted in respect for other humans and an awareness of the interconnected nature of our life on earth, with our every action or inaction affecting people far beyond what we can know.  This can be comforting, because my one act of affirmation and respect will continue on, and also sobering, because it reminds me that whenever I slip and do not act out of respect and love, that also continues on into the world.  It means recognizing my own involvement in structural violence and not letting myself off the hook for not having engaged in direct violence.  Nonviolence as an intended way of life, then, is one I practice, from my everyday interactions to the foods I choose to buy and the charities I choose to support.  Sometimes, I fail to separate the person from the problem, the injustice from the perpetrator, and I do not act in love.  But afterward, I pick myself back up and try again.

Nonviolence as a way of social change is likewise the best policy, as it substitutes telos-centric thought with remembering that the means are just as important as the end, if not more so.  It is very difficult to create a state of sustainable peace and justice if the path to that state strayed into violence and injustice.  In the long haul, nonviolence for social change also sustains the element of moral high ground, making appeals to outside parties more effective.  The question of moral means to a moral end is even more important in times of war; nonviolence is not only morally preferable in order to preserve the emotional and spiritual well-being of the entire society, but it is also the best way to prepare peace and justice for future generations, that they will not grow up in a fractured society, gun in hand since childhood.

But I cannot embrace nonviolence as a platform from which to condemn other people’s use of violence in terrible situations, much as I have wrestled with this issue over the years.  When the United States threatened to carry out a military strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons, I immediately rejected the notion as the imposition of violence on a nation already reeling from its wounds, an imposition that was moreover highly unlikely to succeed in any meaningful way.  This was a sentiment I heard from many other people as well; but I also heard support from many Syrians in and out of their homeland for such a strike.  As I tried to gather my thoughts to stand decisively against the possibility of a strike, I found that I could not categorically dismiss the desires and opinions of the people who were daily facing the bombardment of their own government.  Having lived in and left Syria shortly before the outbreak of the current conflict, this struggle was especially difficult for me.

The use of violent means is always a terrible choice which carries dreadful consequences for the actor, but sometimes terrible situations may force that choice.  I thank God that I have never yet been in such a situation, and while I fervently hope that I would react with the long term, love, and human dignity in my mind, I can also understand those who do not when their lives and loved ones are at stake.  Nearly all of my kind, loving, peaceful friends from Syria are now in such situations, and nearly all have chosen violence or supporting violence as a response.  If I were to swear that never under any circumstances would I commit an act of direct violence, I would feel like I was setting myself above their all-too-human response.

I have been inspired by many people devoted to nonviolence: my mentor, Prof. Abdul Aziz Said, a leading figure in Islamic peace; a Christian seminarian friend who worked with Sabeel, a Palestinian nonviolence organization for years; Jawdat Said, the Syrian voice of Islamic nonviolent resistance; and the historical voices of Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin.  If pacifism is to be defined solely by standards which glorify redemptive suffering and condemn the use of violence in any eventuality, then I suppose I cannot consider myself a pacifist, much as such an admission pains me.  However, I do consider myself a pacifist by this standard: I struggle continuously to live mindfully, making every interaction one which spreads wholeness, peace, and justice far beyond my reach.  I am committed to acting out of respect for others, even those who are hostile or oppressive—and even those who are violent.

Image courtesy of the author.

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6 thoughts on “Living into human peace

  1. Elise, I want to thank you. You have articulated the conflict that I struggle with when I claim to pacifist. I do claim to be pacifist, but oh too often I am confronted with a situation, real or hypothetical, that rocks my conviction. Luckily, like you, I have not yet been forced to decide personally. For me the hypothetical situation that plagues me the most is whether I would be willing to allow myself to be killed or gravely injured rather than fight back. I can’t say that I have that kind of courage. Even more so if the person in danger is a loved one. I can only hope my courage is not tested.

  2. Thank you, Wendy! Writing all this out was a bit of a scary experience for me, so it’s nice to hear that I’m not alone in it.

  3. My daughter, Nora, shared this with me and I am so glad she did. I appreciate fully the difficulty of taking a pacifist position. My own thinking on the subject has been informed by the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, who articulated his nonpacifist position within the context of the struggle first against Hitler and later against the Soviet Union. Key for Niebuhr is the question of how we promote justice if we forgo the possibility of using force. His “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” I found quiet persuasive. Niebuhr was an influence on Martin Luther King even though King was more optimistic about the effectiveness of nonviolence. King’s great accomplishment was to wed means and ends in the struggle for justice (a suggestion Niebuhr made in Moral Man and Immoral Society, but had been made by others including Howard Thurman). International relations since it resembles a state of nature more than domestic controversies is less likely to lend itself to effective nonviolent means.

  4. Elise, I want to second Wendy’s gratitude for articulating so well the tensions that surround claiming a pacifistic identity in a world that does not make that identity simple or clean-cut. Striving to live in a peaceful way, out of concern and compassion for others, is not always as easy as saying “never violence, ever at all”, and I think this is something many of us feel when posed questions about our pacifism – the standard you have laid out is one that I can claim, too. Thank you!

  5. Elise, thank you for your thoughtfulness on how you understand pacifism. I come from a church with a heritage of a peace witness, but it has meant different things over the years: defenseless ness, non-retaliation, nonresistance, nonviolence, etc. In recent years I have been working to understand what identity and understand I claim to have as a pacifist, and your article is helpful as I continue to work this out for myself. Thanks!

  6. Elise, thank you for another powerful sharing. You are a peaceful warrior who stands on the ground and hears the cries of the people, and it is important that voices like yours are heard too. We are all human beings and our instinctive reaction, most of the time, is to protect at any cost, perhaps as a tigress or a mother bear would protect her little cubs from any danger… Yet we are also beings endowed with consciousness and history that over and over shows that violence begets only violence… I agree there is no perfect solution or formula for each situation, and facing the enemy who is killing our families is almost impossible with love. That’s why I also think that no suffering should ever be either glorified or trivialized. In the Universal Gateway chapter of the Lotus Sutra it says: “Even if someone with harmful intent should push you into a fiery pit, by mindfully invoking Compassion’s power the pit of fire will turn into a pool.” While we may not be Jesus, Buddha or The Most Merciful and Compassionate One of Islam, the great aspiration of compassion which is deeply rooted in the principle of Ahimsa (non harming) should still guide us on our path. As Martin Luther Kin Jr. said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Perhaps we should think more of how to join and strengthen international nonviolent forces that can march to the borders to help, and on how we, as societies and governments, spend more on peace and humanitarian actions and less on military trade and support … on truly beating swords to ploughshares?

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