Can Pacifists Defend Themselves?

Can Pacifists Defend Themselves? August 23, 2016

Whenever I talk or write about nonviolence, the number one question I’m always asked is, “But what if someone wants to hurt you?”

It’s an honest question. No one wants to simply lie down and let themselves be maimed or killed in the face of danger — I know I certainly don’t. So how should someone practicing nonviolence respond to the threat of physical harm?

To get the answer, we have to first make the distinction between legitimate defense and the proclivity towards violence. When I write about being “radically pro-life” my criticisms are focused on the latter. Our country has a nasty tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. We glorify violence — equating it with greatness, courage, and heroism. We prefer military action and “pre-emptive strikes” over diplomacy. More often that not, those that defend the 2nd amendment with rigid fundamentalism always seem to do so with the anticipation of *getting* to use their firearm, not with the reluctance of potentially *having* to.

And therein lies the difference. The nonviolent person sees war, killing, or the use of force as things that *must* be avoided to the fullest extent possible. In any situation, if there is the slightest recourse for nonviolence, then one should choose it.

But what about situations where you find yourself facing a direct, immediate threat to your life? While they may be rare, they certainly happen. And in those situations, it can be permissible — and in some cases obligatory — to resort to legitimate defense, so long as there are no other alternatives.

And by legitimate defense, I mean the use of reasonable and defensive action to protect your own life or the lives of others. This means the use of force is permissible if absolutely necessary.

However, we need to pay close attention to the words reasonable and defensive. It should surprise no one that, being Catholic, my views on nonviolence and self defense have been completely form by Church teaching. And so to that, the Church has this to say:


 “If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church

Simply put, a person should use as much force as needed to repel or stop the aggressor, and not an iota more. Legitimate defense is not a license to kill. Violence and killing are things that can never be seen as intrinsically good — even in situations where they can be justified. We would do well to remember that.

“Conflicts, wars, violence and injustices open deep wounds in humanity that call on us to strengthen or commitment to peace and justice.” — Pope Francis

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