On Being a Pacifist in a Time of Constant War

One cries out: Lord, how long? And then, too, what creeps into my mind is the little fear or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful? I want to stay on now. I believe now that this is right…Here I am starting from scratch but it must be his plan and He is teaching me and there is real peace in spite of many frustrations and terror around us…God is very present in his seeming absence.”

– Maura Clarke, martyred in El Salvador along with three other US missionaries in El Salvador on this day in 1980

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I made my way through the museum at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national historic site in Atlanta two weekends ago, my gaze became fixed on this quotation written on a wall. Alongside several students, teachers and activists, I was on my way home from a pilgrimage. I had just spent three days meeting old and new friends, attending workshops on the current political realities in Mexico and El Salvador, serving as an interpreter for a Guatemalan man whose wife had been kidnapped and killed during the genocide of the 1980’s, acting as a Eucharistic minister in an ecumenical liturgy, and, as always, marching in a solemn vigil outside the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia, joining with a thousand concerned citizens to raise white crosses in a litany for the dead.

Every November since 1990, people from around North America and beyond have gathered outside the gates of Fort Benning to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). Founded after the assassination of six American Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador in 1989 at the hands of SOA graduates, the movement to shut down this military institution is the largest and longest ongoing antiwar protest in the US. While closing the SOA-WHINSEC – whose graduates are responsible for the death of Oscar Romero in 1980, the 2009 coup in Honduras which ousted a democratically elected government, and countless ongoing acts of violence throughout the Americas – is still of paramount importance, the School of the Americas Watch movement has broadened its focus in recent years.

Seeking to “connect the dots” between our government’s policies and their consequences, we have turned our attention to the treatment of migrants in the US, many of whom are driven to flee their countries as a result of SOA-WHINSEC-fuelled violence. For the past two years SOAW activists have participated in an annual march to the gates of the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison where people are held indefinitely without due process, forced to work for $$1-4 per hour, and subjected to sub-par living conditions (there are reports of maggots in the food) all for the egregious crime of living in the US without the proper papers. This year, eleven people crossed into Stewart in an act of civil disobedience. One of them, longtime SOAW activist Mary Anne Perrone, said her motives for doing so were simple: “I wanted to stand up to those who make their profit from human misery.”

Next year, the SOAW movement will move its vigil to the US-Mexico border – some of whose guards are SOA-WHINSEC trained. Most members of the movement see this as the next logical step, and also as a way of building bridges with other activist groups. But as someone involved with SOAW for the past three years, I find this move bittersweet. For 25 years activists have been trying to close this school, and at times we have made real progress. But unfortunately, the school remains intact, and some of the countries that had withdrawn their troops from its program have resumed sending them. But as I signed the many petitions that were circulated during the weekend and listened to a discussion of the latest legislative strategies to close the school, it became clear that the movement is not about to give up its original mission. A small group of SOAW activists will continue to gather at Ft. Benning each year. Nevertheless, focusing our attention on one single military institution is not enough.

We need to connect the dots – to look at the relationship between militarism and migration, between capitalism and neo-colonialism, between violence in Chicago and violence in El Salvador. In the words of longtime SOAW activist Silvia Brandon Pérez, “We see the explosion of mass incarceration, particularly in communities of color, as a global business opportunity with no downside, and we observe that Ferguson and Palestine and Central America are occupied territories of a global empire of oil, greed and blood, whose present capital city is the United States.”

Looking at the world events – in particular the recent wave of Islamic State attacks – I realize why I sometimes meet with scepticism when discussing my involvement in the peace movement. Is the pacifism of a great leader such as Gandhi a viable option in today’s world? Sam Harris’s polemical 2005 essay “In Defense of Torture” argues that it is not:

While pacifism […] can constitute a direct confrontation with injustice (and requires considerable bravery), it is only applicable to a limited range of human conflicts. Where it is not applicable, it seems flagrantly immoral. We could do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this ‘would have roused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown ‘aroused’ – commit suicide as well? There seems no question that if all the good people in the world adopted Gandhi’s ethics, the thugs would inherit the earth.

The case of World War II is the most commonly cited one against pacifism. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has gone down in history as a weakling and a fool for appeasing Hitler, though in his time he honestly believed that through his actions he could avoid a war. As for Islamic State, it is clear that if left unchecked, they will simply seek to expand their power, gain control over more territory, kill and torture more people, and destroy whatever non-Islamic cultural artifacts they can. Yes, there are times when war is necessary. However, such necessity does not make it just.

Some would argue that warfare is an inevitable component of human nature; since the dawn of humanity war has always raged in one corner of the planet or another. However, in recent times we have heard dissenting voices. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that humans have actually become less violent over time. The vast technological advances in our methods of warfare, the overall rise in human population, and the instant coverage of world events by the global news media make it seem like we have become worse; however, the amount of violent deaths per capita has actually declined throughout history.

Meanwhile, a closer look at history reveals that war often stems from a complex series of causes and effects. Hitler most likely never would have come to power in Germany were it not for the vengeful Treaty of Versailles after World War I – a senseless conflict caused by blind nationalism and a ridiculously messy system of alliances. Would Islamic State have come to power without the 2003 war in Iraq? Some argue that it was necessary and beneficial to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but how did he come to power in the first place? CIA involvement in Iraq, which deposed the previous leader, was definitely part of the equation.

What is clear is that in the fourteen years since those planes hit the World Trade Center on that bright September Day, we have been engaged in a constant war that has failed to make the world safer or more secure. While I am not in the position to propose concrete policy alternatives, I do think that we need to look at the roots of conflict, such as economic disparity and other imbalances of power. Recognizing that war is sometimes necessary, we do not have to acknowledge it as just. Instead, as Pope Paul VI told us, in striving for justice we work to prevent war and sow the seeds of peace.

"HMMM. The most prominent person on the list of signatories is the schismatic Bishop Bernard ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"Of course he isn't a heretic. Pope Francis is acknowledging the pastoral realities surrounding divorce ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"I can't claim to have much knowledge about the theological specifics of divorce and remarriage, ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"Here we run into the tensions of trying to square evolution with the Genesis accounts ..."

Dominion, Stewardship and Smallpox

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Aufidius Jarndyce

    The image I like to use is that of joining a conversation late.

    My conviction is that those clamoring for intervention, in Syria for example, have arrived at the conversation just a little too late. The conversation at which such persons have arrived is one in which rather significant portions have been missed.

    – A part of that missed conversation might recall how the government of one country led the charge to remove a man from his seat of power in another country. A result of the United States leading the intervention to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq has been the creation of a chaos and out of that chaos ISIL has emerged as a dominant player.

    – A part of that missed conversation might recall how the government of the same country leading the charge to depose Hussein once assisted him. Hussein was once the beneficiary of the aid and training and intelligence and weaponry of the United States because, at one point in the conversation, Hussein was seen as importantly counterbalancing the worrisome influence of a man in a country neighboring his own.

    – A part of that missed conversation might recall how this man in a neighboring country – this Ayatollah of Iran – gained the warm reception of the populace upon stepping into the place of the fleeing Shah and this portion of the missed conversation might recall how the repressive Shah was perceived by that populace to be a pawn of an American government whose intelligence agency had worked to overthrow the prime minister of Iran and thus halt the development of Iran as a liberal democracy.

    I feel that what parts of this missed conversation reveal is a pattern and it is a pattern in which intervention occurs and, rather than building the peace that is desired, new enemies are introduced to the scene.

    By joining late to a conversation it is those clamoring for intervention, in Syria for example, who appear rather oblivious to the new enemies their desired intervention will introduce to the region.

    Does that make me a pacifist? I don’t know. What I do know is that the longer I am a part of this conversation the more reinforced my sense is that intervention will not render justice.

    [This comment was inadvertently routed to our spam filter. I neglected to rescue it until today. My apologies to the author. — DCU]

  • Chris Sullivan

    I believe that war is always unjust but I do not believe that it is ever necessary.

    To say that doing what is unjust may be necessary is to abandon the gospel to imperialism.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church states at least 3 times that it is never right to do evil that good might result.

    We have to find non-violent alternatives to violence and war. They do exist.

    God Bless

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Chris, I agree with what you’re saying. It should not be necessary to do what is unjust. I hope you are right that war is never necessary. When I look back on the history of the world, it is clear that almost every war could have been avoided. I think the difficulty arises from the human lust for power – all the Hitlers and Stalins and Saddam Husseins of history who have revelled in seizing power just for the sake of it. I cannot understand what it is that leads humans to this mentality, and I wonder what we can do to control this tyrannical impulses.

      • Ronald King

        I believe the answer is in the cross and not suicide although it may seem like suicide.

        • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

          Ronald, can you explain what you mean?

          • Ronald King

            Jeannine, I am interested in what someone else might think about this. A starting point would be an equal and opposite reaction of love to the action of violence.

  • Julia Smucker

    Like Chris perhaps, I was wondering about the distinction you make between justness and necessity, and whether it can indeed be necessary to do what is unjust. How do you reconcile those ideas morally?

    • Mark VA

      Ditto, Your Majesty ; )

      And if I may add, how are these ideas reconciled logically – break a commandment to keep a commandment?

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      I’m fortunate to be surrounded by logicians. Looking at the Gospel message, I think we also run up against contradictions – See Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers), Matthew 10:34: (“I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”) and Matthew 26:52 (“Live by the sword, die by the sword.”) I’d be grateful to hear people’s thoughts on these apparent inconsistencies.

      It is hard for me to ever see war as being just. The World War II example is a challenging historical example suggesting that war might sometimes be as necessary – what would have happened to the world if no one had fought Hitler? Could he have been defeated by nonviolent means?…However, when I look at the past 200 years, I do not see any other comparable examples.

      • Mark VA


        As you’ve noted, these are apparent contradictions – any reliable Bible commentary will put them in the proper perspective (i.e. the literal vs the figurative sword);

        I think you are on the right track by asking what would have happened to the world if no one had fought Hitler. I’m not sure of the significance of the “past 200 years”, though. Was it unjust, for example, to defend Vienna (twice) and Constantinople, all of which took place more than 200 years ago?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      In Catholic theology we have parsed this problem in terms of the double effect: we do something morally neutral to achieve a good end with the foreseeable but unintended consequence that an evil will also occur. I have discussed this in posts that generated extensive commentary with one repeated concern being that this argument is really a moral fig leaf to let us do evil in order that good may occur. This interpretation is hotly contested.

      However, in the course of those discussions, several people have pointed to the Orthodox example, which takes the argument in a different direction: that sometimes, in a fallen world, we have no choices that do not avoid evil, and so must sin in order to achieve some good. They do not justify the evil action—it is regarded as a sin to be confessed and absolved. I hesitate to say more because I probably do not fully understand this line of thinking, but I find it appealing.

  • Tausign

    Do you make a distinction between being a pacifist and being a peacemaker (instrument of peace)? How would the two approaches differ?

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      I’ll have to give that some thought. Looking at the connotations of the words, “pacifist” suggests an ideological stance, while “peacemaker” suggests an active way of life.

      I’ve just been shown this lecture by Erica Chenoweth. She seems like a true peacemaker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w

    • Tausign

      jmd said:I’ll have to give that some thought. Looking at the connotations of the words, “pacifist” suggests an ideological stance, while “peacemaker” suggests an active way of life.

      The ‘peacemakers’ referred to by Christ, (‘Blessed are the peacemakers’) have as their motivation a desire to live in harmony with God, oneself and neighbor, and with Creation. They also have the grace and knowledge to do so in a manner that embraces the gospel. Another way to put this is that the desired harmony (which is peace) reflects an integral relationship with God, neighbor and Creation. This last aspect (harmony with Creation) was brought out more forcefully in Laudato Si and used to reinforce the first two. My own belief is that violence is rarely brought about or conceived for its own sake; but rather emerges out of the disorder and disharmony of our relation to God, neighbor and Creation. Or to put it differently, violence is the result (and manifestation) of our disordered relations. The peacemaker seeks to restore right relations for their own sake and out of love; and in doing so overcomes violence and restores justice.

      It’s important to understand this in speaking of pacifism and nonviolence. They cannot truly exist (nor should they be promoted as ideologies) in any meaningful way independent of the understanding of these disordered relations mentioned above. The main reason is because when and where these disordered relations persist and intensify…the violence will follow…it’s axiomatic. The only way that anyone can resist or overcome violence in such circumstances is to exist in ‘true peace’ with God; which in turn will enable the victim to love the enemy with the help of grace. The alternatives are to be overwhelmed by violence or become complicit with it. In this understanding, violence is never conceived as a remedy to disordered relations. These are the peacemakers that Christ refers to…and they bear the fruit of peace.

      Finally, just as there are distinctions between being a peacemaker and a pacifist…there are also distinctions between being a ‘just defender’ and ‘a violent defender’. The peacemaker understands this…it is not only reasonable, but reason demands it. I think this is where pacifists stumble. This is difficult to see since the use of force seems to be universally accompanied by violence. But this is a sad conflation that needs to be looked at more closely.

      • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

        ” The peacemaker understands this…it is not only reasonable, but reason demands it. I think this is where pacifists stumble. This is difficult to see since the use of force seems to be universally accompanied by violence. But this is a sad conflation that needs to be looked at more closely.”

        Can you explain what you mean, Tausign?

      • Tausign

        Alas, you make me go on…

        I suppose the CST Compendium is a good place to sort things out. In #496 it condemns violence…Violence is never a proper response…Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings. AMEN. A few sections later is speaks of a) Legitimate defense, b)Defending peace, and c)The duty to protect the innocent.
        Again, AMEN.

        #504 states. The right to use force for purposes of legitimate defense is associated with the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression. In order for these sections to be a coherent topic there must be a way to provide for a legitimate defense and the opportunity to fulfill one’s duty to protect the innocent in a manner that doesn’t destroy what it claims to defend.

        The second half of #496 states: Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risk of recourse to violence with all it’s destruction and death.

        I don’t want to go any further with this because I’m not interested or inclined to defend the use of force, which as I’ve said above is almost always used unjustly and associated with violence (for the record, whatever Mr. Harris had to say about defense…there is no defense of torture). What I was referring to when I mentioned ‘the pacifist stumbling’ is that (IMO) an absolute position that precludes the use of force justlyeven by the victims or legitimate defenders, puts oneself at odds with CST which claims to be the application of the Gospel. The practical outcome of that is that we lose solidarity with less idealistic peacemakers in order to promote an unsustainable position that most often becomes a distraction.