Understanding Pacifism: Reconciling Religion with Philosophy

I have been brought up a Quaker, and pacifism is the harmony to which the melody of my meager 20 years has been sung. It has always been there: a humming backdrop to the life I lead, a value held by my parents. Once I may have asked of my older brother, "Why must we pretend these guns we have made from card and tape are drills, and the game is builders not warriors?" "Because we don’t want to upset Dad, we don’t want his disapproving look," he replies. Only now as I own my faith and claim that I am a Quaker—as the views of my parents are turned to be my own—must I confront this testimony, to root out the innate value, to question my conditioning. This became a necessary action as a series of purely philosophical discussions on practical ethics made me realize that I was ignorant as to its working definition. Pacifism was a view to which I could not speak at that time. Thus I turned to the philosophy that brought this crisis of belief and hoped that it could restore my values—and that I might find a bridge to reconcile the two outlooks, the pure philosopher with the Quaker. In some way, I had to drift from the Peace Testimony in an effort to see it from afar and to truly appreciate its meaning, and its impact upon the way I live. This distance was achieved in the writing of a philosophical assignment; the difficulty I had with this was that it required me to put my faith to one side and question whether I could in fact trust my sense of the concept.

So what did I discover? What reasoning brought new life to my belief? Mainly that the definition is glimpsed in conduct but elusive and difficult to pin down in language. I discovered that in general use there is equivocation between pacifism meaning singularly anti-warism and pacifism meaning rejection of both killing and of violence. I learned that it is important not to allow the majority use of a word to cloud our understanding of the deeper definition purely because people do not always act with moral integrity, and their personal convictions may not be moral truths. The more general objections to war were presented to me thus: war is something that causes damage to the Earth and its ecosystems; this is particularly relevant in modern warfare as the weapons being developed are ever more destructive.

Society is dependent upon the environment (without the Earth humanity is nothing), and depending upon something for our existence is a logical reason for wanting to conserve it and all it has to offer. In addition to this, it is clear that wars use up disproportionate amounts of resources to what they actually achieve. They waste life unnecessarily and disfigure relationships as the individual’s autonomy is removed. An army’s sole purpose is to be as efficient in killing as a machine, and to follow orders precisely to achieve that. Soldiers no longer think for themselves in all respects, thus actions become reflexes and not subjects of moral reflection, as they should be.

These general consequences of war represent one motivation for pacifism. As convincing as this seems, it is scrutinized by the sharp-eyed pacifist who finds certain weakness in the practitioner who comes to this conclusion only in times of war. This critic’s main argument is that this kind of limited understanding is a form of passivism rather than pacifism. The critic will claim that it is necessary for the motivation to be more substantial than just a two-dimensional opposition otherwise it could well be classed as immoral. Pacifists who do not live by their conviction—those who fail to strive for justice and work for peace within the world—may be accused of neglecting the weak and needy, who make moral demands on us through their vulnerability and powerlessness. If we do not struggle to ally with them when they need it most, are not our moral commitments brought into question? Pacifism, therefore, must be a lifestyle choice that is ongoing rather than a simple rejection of one situation or a particular governmental decision.

Thus I find my link; I see that what is required of the philosophically sound pacifist is also required of the Quaker wishing to uphold the Peace Testimony. In effect, the testimony encompasses all the ethical values that make pacifism a valid standpoint. We must try to integrate all these values into our lives, evident throughout the times when our countries are at peace. We must be pacifists all the time and not only when confronted directly with war. Furthermore, our duties to the environment, to our fellow human beings, to equality, and to integrity are all challenged by any manifestation of violence.

And I can suddenly see what it means to be a pacifist, what it truly means to uphold a testimony, because I see that I do not. Without the explicit awareness, the questioning forced upon me by study, I would remain complacent in my belief, inactive and inattentive. I realize that we must ask the question of our testimonies, "What does this mean to me?" and in the answer seek a deeper understanding of the concept, find the true meaning, and gain the awareness that banishes complacency. We should allow God to lead us to that clarity, to fully comprehend our beliefs, and to be open to their truth. In failing to be mindful, we risk a subconscious breakdown of faith, a neglect of understanding that could result in an inability to be open with ourselves and our children about our belief.

Thus I shall look into my life, look into the clear pool, and dredge the depths to see how I might change it, to strive for justice within the world by exercising a nonviolent attitude. I shall attempt a modification that will class me as an absolute pacifist, and thus I shall uphold my testimony and acknowledge the restoration of value and of clarity. Through this process I hope to understand and be able to speak to the pacifist stand, to claim that I hold these views for two reasons, my faith and my morality—that war is grossly unethical, and it is through the medium of our religion that we may seek to communicate this to those who may never have thought about it. Let our attitude to nonviolence be a tool to promote peace and understanding in all nations and societies. In the words of George Fox (in Epistle 200), "Let your lives preach, let your light shine that your works may be seen."

Harriett Hart

Harriet Hart is a member of Settle Local Meeting in Craven and Keighley Area Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting. A student of English and Philosophy at University of East Anglia, she is serving on the editorial board for the Quaker Youth Book Project of Quakers Uniting in Publications (QUIP).