Are Pacifists Cowards? Does Nonviolence Mean No One Gets Hurt?

Are Pacifists Cowards? Does Nonviolence Mean No One Gets Hurt? August 29, 2017

WPA-march-thru-Arl-cem006“The real heroes are the people putting their lives on the line, ready to fight back!”  At a recent gathering of activists, one of the central people putting together marches and demonstrations held forth. He meant fight back, as in hit people.  And we were in a Quaker meetinghouse.

At the time, I heard the comment as a pacifist.

For me fight back means organize, speak truth to power, stand next to the oppressed, write blogs, talk with strangers, and do everything possible to de-escalate violence. A Friend pointed out to me later that I heard the comment from my perspective, not the speaker’s.  My bad.

I did hear the antifa and anarchists when they were ready to punch back (not metaphorically). The youthful and righteous anger they expressed brought forth memories fresh as today’s peaches. I never wanted to hit anyone, but I was that angry, frustrated and astonished at the depth and breadth of our society’s dysfunction. I heard them loud and clear.

But the main organizer’s claim I didn’t hear.  I didn’t want to hear that the person who has a lot of sway thinks pacifism is useless and cowardly.

Meeting violence as a pacifist

When we talked about how we will respond when the alt right shows up, I suggested creative approaches.  I shared about the German town that has turned a regular neo-Nazi march in their town into a fund raiser to help people get out of neo-Nazi groups. They wear costumes and “sponsor” marchers as one might sponsor a participant in a fun run to raise money for breast cancer research. They raised $12,000!

Of the thirty or so people in the room, two or three people nodded their heads at the idea of creative responses to hate, but most rolled their eyes or just looked at their feet. I got that “just humor the old lady” feeling. I ended with saying that yelling at each other gets us nowhere good, so let’s find another way. A few more people nodded.

I come from a kinder, gentler day of protests.  For example as part of the Women’s Pentagon Action for a few years in the early 1980s, I never feared for my life. As we marched toward the Pentagon, the only weapon soldiers were wielding were cameras.  A little something for a file somewhere. And when thousands of women wove together the yarn and ribbons they had brought and encircled the whole building holding hands, not a shot was fired or threatened.

There were acts of civil disobedience which were planned, and there were arrests of those who threw blood on the building. But there were also 10-foot puppets from Bread and Puppet theater leading marchers, a temporary cemetery in memory of those killed by toxic waste and covert wars, there were songs, speeches, and a sign in one of the windows that read, “Hi Mom!”

We wanted the generals to know that we were still watching. Their non-wars were killing people, and their reinstatement of military draft registration as a prerequisite for higher education financial aid abridged moral and religious beliefs. In the name of greed and growth, we were poisoning our own. We also wanted to know that we were part of something bigger than ourselves. That we weren’t owls in the wilderness. We were pacifists and we accomplished our goals.

Today is different.

At least in Colorado, people carry weapons – concealed and not so concealed – in public. The “free speech” marchers in Charlottesville were genuinely armed. This attenuates the tension. And we are outraged. We hear truly racist, anti-Semitic, anti LBGTQ+, misogynist crap being screamed and we react. The overwhelming urge to shut them up, make them stop, squash their movement pulses through us.

I get it. But I am not going to hurt anyone because of it. Although simply embracing that of God in the opposing side seems not enough, it is my discipline, my faith. Although these times are different, my faith remains the same. I will march, I will protest, engage in conversation, write, sing, laugh and cry, but I won’t belittle, shame, yell at, or attack. Not even the people on my “same side” who advocate violence. I haven’t been on the front lines for a while, but I might be again, if that is my calling. Sure hope I don’t get shot or mowed down by a car; I love this life.

I suspect I’ll work with a few others in the room that night who are artists, crafters and pacifists. (BTW, I was knitting through the whole meeting. Helps me keep my temper.) We’ll create a campaign especially suited to our violent city with its divisions, factions, and witlessness.  I have been thinking about great big puppet arms embracing. Puppets that we could change their appearances to suit the occasion.  Black and white, gay and straight, Jew and Muslim, Christian and Muslim – you get the idea. The puppets will be targets, but I am willing to stand with them.

photo: copyright Ellen Shub, with permission, Women’s Pentagon Action March through Arlington Cemetery. www.ellenshub.photoshelter.com.
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