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.