Privilege in Christian Pacifism: My Life is Not Your Thought Exercise

Privilege in Christian Pacifism: My Life is Not Your Thought Exercise October 23, 2013

I wrote this post a few days ago and had it scheduled for today, but since h00die_R is hosting a synchroblog at Political Jesus on the topic of pacifism, I thought I’d link up! Check it out and see if you’d be interested in participating. 

I’ve been thinking about pacifism lately. It’s come up in my church, in Twitter discussions, and in blog posts. This is not a response specifically to any recent discussions of pacifism, but since it keeps coming up I do want to let out some of the thoughts on the topic that have been bouncing around in my head for months now. This may take more than one blog post, because I have a LOT of thoughts on this topic.

I want to start out by saying that these thoughts apply to me as well. I’m not sure if I’d apply the label “pacifist” to myself anymore (though I still hope for and try to work for a world free from violence), but I used to, and I’ve used that label to be an ass–to be judgmental and dismissive of other peoples’ experiences and emotions. I definitely don’t think everyone who takes on that label does this, but I’ve done it and I continue to see it all the time.

So, speaking to myself and to privileged Christian pacifists…

We need to rethink some things. 

I’m going to start with the thing that’s been bothering me the most lately, which is the privileged Christian pacifist tendency to treat the real lives of survivors of violence as hypothetical thought exercises. 

No, not THAT “What Would You Do?”

I get tired of seeing privileged Christian pacifists try to play this What Would You Do? game where they say things like, “I’ve been sheltered from violence my whole life, but if someone tried to rape me I would . . .” Or “Thankfully I’ve never experienced abuse, but if I were in an abusive relationship I would . . .”

I’ve heard other pacifists dismiss this game, saying we shouldn’t focus on unlikely, extreme scenarios like this because they’re just a distraction.

But my life as a survivor of rape and abuse is NOT a game, and it is NOT unlikely or extreme. 

These people who admit to never having experienced this type of violence or abuse talk over those of us who have experienced it. Sometimes I wonder if they even believe we exist. 

When I’ve tried to jump into these conversations with my own story (I was in an abusive relationship. Escaping my abuser involved hitting him in self-defense), I’ve been quickly dismissed with out-of-context Martin Luther King Jr. quotes (and, as much as I have been hurt by this, I’ve probably done this to others as well in the past–again, speaking to myself here as well).

They condescendingly remind me that two wrongs don’t make a right! That violence only leads to more violence and can never ultimately end all abuse.

They tell me about [this oppressed group/person over here] who overcame their situation without using violence. I’m told that I could have been more like [that oppressed group/person]. Not only is my life treated as a game, but the lives of people who were in situations that allowed them to act non-violently become nothing but pawns for winning abstract arguments about what might be or what could have been.

These people who weren’t there for the months and months where I tried to reason with my abuser, tried to calm him with kind words and loving behavior, tried to set boundaries and assert my humanity only to succeed in making him angrier and trickier.

These people who cannot feel the physical pain I was in. Who don’t understand that someone was hurting me so badly that I felt like I was going to be ripped in half, and setting the world right and ultimately ending all abuse were the furthest things from my mind.

These people who have no idea assume that my situation and the situation of some other person in some other setting at some other point in time can be solved by the exact same measures.

I’m not anti-pacifism.

But I am done spending nights lying awake wondering how I could have responded in a more “Christ-like” matter, in order to please privileged pacifists who want to treat my life and the lives of other survivors as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. 

Many privileged pacifists need to stop using these stories to pit survivors against one another. They need to understand that no matter how many times they ask themselves “What would I do?” they will never be fully prepared to respond to violence if/when it happens to them. Privileged pacifists need to stop pontificating about issues that they have no experience with and learn to LISTEN to survivors of violence and to members of marginalized that face systematic violence. 

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  • h00die_R

    “I’ve heard other pacifists dismiss this game, saying we shouldn’t focus
    on unlikely, extreme scenarios like this because they’re just a

    Yes! Pacifism in Contemporary Christianity exists in the abstract. It’s time to address concrete, everyday forms of violence.

    • RelapsedCatholic

      Including the banal and ubiquitus violence of generational poverty and economic disassociation.

  • KathleenKern

    Hi Sarah,Speaking as a pacifist, who works with Christian Peacemaker Teams ( I want to apologize for the jerks among us who did that to you. I also think that
    one thing that hypothetical arguments get muddied up is the vast
    difference between what one chooses to do when faced with a moment of
    personal violence and the systemic violence that is cooked up by the
    military industrial complex. My training has helped me intervene
    nonviolently in smallscale violent situations. I hope it would also kick in if someone I loved were
    threatened. But you know what? If I resorted to violence to save
    him/her, I’d probably be okay with it and I’d still consider myself a
    pacifist, because it’s really nothing, NOTHING like a bunch of men in an
    office somewhere deciding to bomb a bunch of people somewhere else or
    sending a bunch of soldiers to kill a bunch of people they don’t know.

  • Jeremy Shane Alder

    Thank you for this. I’m praying to become a better listener.

  • Korrine Britton

    I think there is (or should be) a huge chasm of difference between pacifism and being completely without boundaries.

    Apparently, a lot of privileged self-proclaimed pacifists are unaware of the difference.

  • As someone who probably fits the label “privileged Christian pacifist,” I think this is a hugely important post. You’re right…it’s way too easy for those of us who’ve never been on the receiving end of violence to dwell in the realm of the hypothetical. I also agree with Kathleen’s comment that we often fail to make a distinction between institutional violence and individual violence. (I personally believe Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount was addressing the former, not so much the latter.) And I think we need to acknowledge that when an act of violence is being perpetrated, force may be necessary to stop or prevent it. I’m not sure such force deserves to be called “violence,” since its aim is the protection of life rather than its destruction. But regardless, victims who defended themselves against their attackers should not be shamed for doing so.

    Thank for you this post. I’m hoping it will help me and other privileged pacifists listen better.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Like I said, the post was for myself to. We all need to practice listening better! Thanks for your thoughts on institutional vs. individual violence and self-defense.

  • Alice

    I think it is hard or impossible to make a solid Biblical argument that retaliation is okay, but in all honesty, I don’t care because putting an ideal before the safety of vulnerable people and myself seems very wrong. I don’t think retaliation should be taken lightly, but there are situations where it is necessary.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      “…in all honesty, I don’t care because putting an ideal before the safety of vulnerable people and myself seems very wrong”


    • Elisabeth Grunert

      This is a good observation. I think if you find yourself in a conflict with your ideology on one side and your conscience on the other, you have a problem. And it may be time to re-think that ideology.

  • Bethany Henderson

    Completely agree! I think the Christian pacifist who deals in the abstract tends to ignore the body’s biological responses to danger and abuse- aka the fight, flight or freeze response and the impact of PTSD and trauma response. We can’t actually know how we’re going to respond until we are in the situation. In my opinion, self-defense and survival is the ultimate goal, regardless of what I have to do or not do to survive. I would never question how a survivor responded during situations of abuse.

    I also think the Christian pacifist who deals in the abstract tends to use their reasoning to reassure themselves that, “If I know how I’m going to respond, then I can ensure I’m never abused or hurt.” The problem is that’s unrealistic, completely untrue and it turns into, “The abused person could’ve done something different; they’re to blame.”

    In general, I’m a big planner for almost everything in my life. Is there a way to identify plans of what I could do in very possible, specific situations without falling into the Christian pacifist/abstract/game trap?

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Your point about biological responses to danger is a good and important one!

      I think planning for ourselves what we might do in a situation (recognizing that it might not even be possible to go through with that plan when the time comes) is fine. The problem comes when we use those plans to imply or flat-out say that those who don’t react to dangerous situations according to plan are somehow “sinning.”

      • Bethany Henderson

        Completely agree!

  • RelapsedCatholic

    I see an interesting parallel concerning liberation theology and the reaction of the Vatican in the 70’s and 80’s. You had a whole generation of priests that were among the people being beaten and disappeared during the economic upheavals of South and Central America. Instead of listening to their voices as the priests and minsters of these people it was condemned as purely political of Marxist in nature.

    Fast forward 30 years the first Pope that lived through the era gives it full voice and full acceptance. Much more good could have been done if people were willing to listen.

    • KathleenKern

      Another thought I had after I went to bed last night is that I tell new female Christian Peacemaker Team members serving on assignments where they face sexual harassment that I consider slapping someone’s hand who is touching them inappropriately and yelling at him nonviolent direct action. They are not trying to cause their attacker permanent bodily injury. They are confronting someone who is doing an injustice and making him accountable to his community.

      Part of that advice is inspired by some pacifist Mayan Christians we accompanied in Chiapas who called themselves Las Abejas (The Bees). 45 of them were massacred in 1997 by paramilitaries with the collusion of Mexican state authorities. But they chose to continue a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the state militarization and systematic racism oppressing the indigenous communities of Chiapas They chose the name because they worked together to produce something sweet and could “sting” without causing permanent harm.

  • SorchaRei

    What you are describing is a form of emotional violence, I think. When the hypothetical is used to drown out the lived experiences of people who have actually found themselves in a violent/abusive situation, it is a way of saying that actual human beings don’t matter as much as intellectual games. It’s a way of forcibly denying someone the agency to understand and interpret her own life’s events. And that is violent. Worse, it’s violence against people who are already survivors of violence, and it’s often performed by people who, as you say, are privileged enough not to have experienced violence in their own lives.

    It is very important that such people recognize that to some degree, they are allies of people whose lives have included violence. And like all allies, their first responsibility is to sit down, shut up, and listen to the stories of people who do not share their privilege. It’s what I do with people of color, trans* people, immigrants, Muslims, and other members of groups to which I do not belong. And it is what I expect of men, heterosexuals, non-Jews, those without disabilities to do when I start talking about my lived experiences as a disabled Jewish lesbian. For what it’s worth, I try to shut up and listen to anyone describing their lived experience, and I specifically work hard against my tendency to intellectualize.

    People’s lives are not intellectual exercises, and listening to one another is the only way to develop enough empathy that we can always put our intellect in the service of our values, rather than letting our values be the excuse we use to intellectualize other people’s real lives away out of the conversation.

    • “What you are describing is a form of emotional violence, I think.”

      I agree, and now that I think about it, I wonder if some so-called “pacifists” are sublimating their violent tendencies into the emotional abuse of victims.

      • sarahoverthemoon

        I’m sure this happens all too often. I mean, it’s been all over the internet lately that one of the more influential pacifist theologians–John Howard Yoder–sexually assaulted several women. I’m sure he’s not alone, sadly. Progressive groups have their abusers too and those abusers will twist progressive rhetoric to their own advantage.

        • Interestingly, the story about Yoder is over twenty years old, but a lot of people have tap-danced around it, probably because of Yoder’s stature as a pacifist, Anabaptist theologian.

          There have also been other stories about rampant abuse in Anabaptist communities, both in the United States and overseas. Not unexpectedly, Anabaptist notions of pacifism, non-resistance and “taking care of their own” fueled these cases.

          Something is decidedly rotten and it needs to be identified and cleaned out. But we are going to find the rot in a lot of places.

  • Elisabeth M

    Rock it!

  • Caddy Compson

    What an important post. I refuse to listen to what anyone has to say about pacifism if that person hasn’t been in some sort of real situation where violence in self-defense or in defense of someone else seems like the only option. There are just too many people who have lived through those things and have various views on the right reactions to them for me to bother with the thoughts of people for whom it’s all hypothetical. If someone who has been abused or grew up with a parent who was abused or has lived in a more violent area of the world (or our country) wants to talk about pacifism, I will listen with eagerness.

  • Jinx

    Thank you for this! 14 years after telling my abuser that, no, I wasn’t coming back, a part of me still feels guilty. Not for leaving him, not for hitting him (I didn’t!). I felt guilty for being unkind: When he said he was going to kill himself I said “Too bad.” I have even felt additional anger at him for “forcing me to become a bitch.” I have realized by now that what he said was verbally violent, but until now I didn’t realize I wasn’t necessarily being verbally violent back, any more than blocking a blow is physically violent.

  • Kristin Rawls

    I want every Mennonite I know to read this.

  • BHG

    Well said. We do need to listen carefully to the stories of survivors. That said, there is, I think, a difference between choosing (in the real world under present circumstances, not theoretically, and not because of the inability to escape which is very, very different as you point out) to endure violence oneself and refusing to intervene for another who is threatened. There are saints who endured martyrdom for themselves rather than resist violence. There are others who did bodily harm to those threatening the weak and marginalized. We too often forget the latter.

  • I love this post. This is one of the main problems I have with most Christian pacifists. They believe that acting ‘Christ-like’ is more important than defending your body, your mind, your loved ones and your home from very real, very serious danger. I’ve also encountered violence in my past from many different sources, and the people who say that there is a ‘wrong’ way to save your life and the lives of others are more than condescending. Their philosophy is hypocritical, self-righteous, and flat out dangerous.

  • elizabeth mcmanus

    Sarah, THANK YOU for this post. I’m an avid reader of your blog and i think this is the post i’ve been needing for a long time. I’ve been conducting research the past two semesters on a feminist vision of nonviolence, and it at times is so frustrating and overwhelming i have to stop altogether. While there have been so many voices of men of color amplified in this discourse, womyn have been severely under-represented. And trying to resolve the tension i feel between a pull to nonviolence and a radical feminist/womanist stance is draining. So, thank you for affirming this tension. Keep being so bold and brave and fabulous!

  • Y. A. Warren

    Self defense is absolutely necessary in creating civilized societies. My belief is that homo sapiens are animals with the potential to become fully human through development of responsible compassion. When attacked by an animal, one is often frightened enough to vacate hard-won humanity and respond appropriately animal-to-animal.

    Non-violent resistance only changes societies when it reaches critical mass. It only works with individuals when there is a caring commitment to the relationship and to each other.

    Blessings to you for having the courage to write from your Sacred Spirit.