Privilege in Christian Pacifism: What Counts as Violence?

Privilege in Christian Pacifism: What Counts as Violence? November 1, 2013

This is my third piece in a series about the problems that privilege brings to Christian pacifist movements. I’m linking this series up to h00die_R’s synchroblog on the topic–The New Pacifism. Be sure to check out the other posts in my series here, and here

I’ve already talked about privileged pacifism’s tendency to take scenarios where violence might occur and treat them as thought exercises where they can fantasize about how they’d respond to that violence. I mentioned in this post that one person’s thought exercise is another’s everyday lived experience. People of color, LGBTQ people, women in abusive relationships, and others–some people don’t have to make a hypothetical game about how they’d respond to violence because this is their life.

It’s easy to talk about pacifism as a response to violence that you aren’t likely to be involved in. 

I think this is why many (definitely not all, but many) privileged pacifists limit the definition of violence, or at least ignore certain types of violence.

Violence is war. Violence is being randomly mugged on the street. Violence is someone breaking into your house and threatening your family.

These are types of violence that privileged pacifists–living in the suburbs, working at a decent job that they got with the college degree that their parents helped them pay for–can easily avoid in most cases. These are types of violence that privileged pacifists are rarely tempted to commit and they are types of violence that privileged pacifists rarely need to respond to.

It’s easy and it’s safe for privileged pacifists to talk about these kinds of violence because talking about these kinds of violence doesn’t involve much actual change for them. I can sit on my couch right now and say, “I am anti-war!” and nothing in my life changes. I may piss off some of my conservative relatives, but really? I can live with that. It’s easy. 

But violence doesn’t always look like a gun in someone’s face or a drone strike. 

Sometimes I’ll be talking about the violence I face as a woman in a patriarchal society and the changes our society needs to make in that area. Sometimes I’ll see friends who are people of color talking about the violence of racism, or friends who are LGBTQ talking about the violence that they face.

And then THAT pacifist comes along. You probably know the one . . .

“Why are we talking about THIS when we should be talking about DRONES?”  

Or . . .

“We should stop complaining. We have it so good here, whereas people in the Middle East . . .”

Or . . .

“RON PAUL 2016!”

Except for his war against reproductive rights and poor people, you know…

Why are so many privileged pacifists quick to derail accounts of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia? Why do so many go to any length to avoid talking about these issues? And WHY THE HELL do so many privileged pacifists think voting for Ron Paul is a position of non-violence?

It’s because there isn’t enough intersectionality in many pacifist circles. Many pacifists don’t see racism as violence or sexism as violence. They’re afraid to think of it in that way.

You can put a “Ron Paul rEVOLution” bumper sticker on your car and think, “Okay, now I’m anti-war!” But if you start to see racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and poverty as violence, you’ve got to put in a little more effort than that.

When you start to see dehumanization and oppression and poverty as violence, you have to admit that no matter how anti-violence you are, you may be participating in perpetuating it.

You can fantasize about how you would dodge the draft, but if you’re restricting access to education and livable wages, you’re pushing people into the military. If you’re promoting benevolent sexist and white savior stereotypes, you’re helping politicians convince the general public that our wars are just.

You are NOT being non-violent.

You can say that you’d never hold a gun in your life, but if you’re perpetuating racial stereotypes that paint people of color as dangerous (and many of these hypothetical, “What Would You Do in This Scenario?” games do perpetuate these racial stereotypes), then you are contributing to the thinking that convinces privileged white people that they need to “defend themselves.”

You are NOT being non-violent.

You might never lay a finger on a woman, but if you blame victims, perpetuate rape myths, or try to restrict what women can do with their lives to help them “avoid rape,” then you are enabling rapists and helping them get away with what they do.

You are NOT being non-violent.

Outright violent acts do not usually occur in a vacuum. They are the end result of a culture filled with violent thinking and violent stereotypes and violent systems. 

Privileged pacifists are often (again, not always–I know many privileged pacifists who are intentional about intersectionality) hesitant to talk about violence in this way because it challenges the very systems that give them their privilege.


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  • Christine

    I find it interesting (and sad) that this needs to be said. I complained a lot to my husband when my PACS course opened with a week of defining what violence is. I still don’t get how people can use such a narrow definition (or, at the least, that if they define violence that narrowly, that they can define “peace” as “lack of violence”. )

    Maybe coming from a church that was traditionally not a peace church actually gave me an advantage, because this sort of thing has to be more explicitly stated.

  • Ron Paul is totes anti-violence, as long as we restrict “violence” to mean “wars and war actions committed by the states.” Not, say, anything else. Like, say, slavery or severely restricting reproductive health. Or restricting health options to the wealthy. That kind of stuff. Outside of that, and only within the very narrowly defined premises, TOTALLY non-violent.


  • melaniespringermock

    I appreciate the perspective you offer here, and in your other post, but I’ve been scratching my head about the ideas you’ve been talking about, and am wondering whether I’m connected with an entirely different set of pacifists than you are. The pacifists I know are not just anti-war, but also at dismantling systems of oppression that perpetuate all kinds of violence. And honestly, I’ve never, ever heard a pacifist suggest that Ron Paul would be a good candidate for president. Maybe I’m living in rarified Pacific Northwest air.

    Also, I’d love to hear a clearer definition of what pacifism as a privileged position really means. In most evangelical communities of which I’m a part (and I’m part of many, as a professor at an evangelical Friends school), I am a minority as a pacifist–even among most students and colleagues at my historical peace church institution. Most Christians I meet do not see pacifism as a tenable answer to anything. What does it look like to be a privileged pacifist?

    I’m asking as someone who has never encountered this idea, and who feels like nonresistance will always, always be a marginalized position in a country where civic religion, guns, and systems of oppression like racism and sexism still reign.

    • I don’t think that Sarah means that being a pacifist makes one privileged, but that many pacifists live in a state of (relative) privilege that makes it easy to be a pacifist and even overlook the violence that is an inescapable lived reality of others.

      • sarahoverthemoon

        Right, I’m not speaking about all pacifists nor can I point to a specific group of pacifists and say “this is the group I am talking about.” I’m just discussing some issues (all of which I have had experience with) that privilege may cause in pacifist movements and reminding pacifists of the importance of intersectionality.