Some Musings on Pacifism

The excellent contributions on the events of September 11 in the December Friends Journal prompt these musings on "pacifism," a word I seldom use because it is subject to so many misinterpretations and stereotypes.

Scott Simon, who describes his pacifism as "not absolute," records his full support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan. I first heard Scott Simon, a most articulate, dynamic and provocative commentator, speak in person at Friends Committee on National Legislation’s 1995 annual meeting. It was clear then and certainly now that he is not a "pacifist" as usually defined. He would fight in World War II, the Balkans, and now Afghanistan. But he opposed the war in Vietnam. (Ironically, the famous Oxford Student Union debate of 1933 which he cites to support U.S. military action in Afghanistan was used repeatedly by then Secretary of State Dean Rusk to support sending U.S. troops to Vietnam.) Scott Simon is inserting some fine antiwar messages in his current National Public Radio program when covering the war in Afghanistan. But his picking and choosing which war he supports places him in the "just war" not the "pacifist" camp. Instead of associating Quakers with "moral relativism" in dealing with "psychotics," willingness to "lose lives for the sake of ideological consistency," or surrendering Manhattan Island as the price of peace, he could have examined whether this war meets the demanding criteria of a just war, which include whether the violence is proportional to the provocation and whether all peaceful alternatives had been exhausted.

Despite the fact that the Religious Society of Friends is one of the three historic peace churches in the Protestant tradition, a number of individual Friends have taken the "just war" position in wars the United States has waged. In 1971 as a lobbyist for FCNL, I and many others, urged broadening the definition of conscientious objection in the draft law to include those who object to a particular war. Regrettably, that proposal for "selective conscientious objection" was defeated on the Senate floor. While the Cold War raged, many people described themselves as "nuclear pacifists" who were opposed to any use of nuclear weapons in war.

The traditional definition of pacifism is opposition to all war, the definition found in most dictionaries, the Selective Service law, and the proposed Peace Tax Fund legislation. Such pacifism can be expressed in a range of ways—from passivity, through nonresistance, to active nonviolent resistance. Individuals reach the pacifist position by many different paths. Some arrive at it on political grounds, some on humanitarian, some on economic grounds, some from family or peer pressure. But, in my view, only a deep spiritual or religious conviction, usually based on personal experience, provides a foundation firm enough to withstand the impulse to use violence when faced with terrible acts of people like Hitler, Milosevic, or Osama bin Laden. Such religious faith is often expressed by the conviction that love, compassion, and forgiveness are the quintessential attributes of God. The corollary is that every person, no matter how depraved, shares in this Spirit (that of God in every human being) and to kill that person only perpetuates the violence we oppose. One consequence, which must be faced by those taking this position, is that it may require personal sacrifice, perhaps as much as soldiers on the battlefield must face.

People who take the "absolute pacifist" position face many challenges: young men when they turn 18 and must decide whether to register for the draft; most of us when we are required to pay income taxes to support war; people who are victims of violent crimes; parents and children when confronted by bullies; politicians when they balance their personal conscience against their constituents’ views. Several of your December contributors (Carol Urner, John Paul Lederach, and others) have demonstrated how they translate faith into action through the lives they have led and the risks they have taken.

The events of September 11 have challenged us all. One response, which I believe is consistent with a pacifist position, sees law and order as the best nonviolent alternative to war we humans are yet capable of. Most Friends, like William Penn as governor, are not anarchists—even while they recognize there is a "more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31) and that the rule of law must be infused with compassion and forgiveness as an integral part of justice.

The near universal condemnation of the September 11 attack created the platform for a huge leap forward in international law and order. Many of us felt a surge of hope as several weeks passed after September 11 while the U.S. gathered a worldwide consensus against these criminal acts, and launched a full scale political, economic, and investigative effort to find, isolate, and bring to justice those who were behind them. It seemed conceivable that the U.S. would do the unexpected, not the expected, and deny Osama bin Laden the martyrdom he sought through war. But the drive for the traditional military response proved irresistible to U.S. policymakers.

We know that the decision to go to war will have consequences. History shows that violence breeds violence. This war is teaching young people who follow Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, as well as the youth of the U.S., that the way their leaders respond to violence is to use more violence. Moreover, the end of the global "war on terrorism" proclaimed by the president is nowhere in sight. Greatly expanded U.S. military action against Iraq is proposed. The war in Afghanistan may cause increased violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. More terrorist acts in the United States are expected, even as our traditional freedoms are seriously eroded.

We cannot know what lay down the road not taken. We have it on good authority (Rom. 12:21) that evil is not overcome by evil; evil is overcome by good. We have been deprived of the energy and creative new directions that could have flowed from a nonviolent response. Yet, even in this difficult situation, we must persevere in supporting those individuals, ideas, and proposals that are compassionate, constructive, life giving, and life supporting. With nonpacifist George Washington, we can say, "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God."

Edward F. Snyder

Edward F. Snyder is executive secretary emeritus of FCNL, and represented FCNL from 1955 to 1990. He is a member of Acadia (Maine) Friends Meeting.