A child of an Evangelical Friends Sunday school, at an early age I was both born again and schooled in pacifism. While I don’t rightly know how it all fit together theologically, I know that the World War II veterans and their wives grieved what they understood as their necessary service as they loved us into loving Jesus.
As I was coming of age and studying theology, I found myself seeing the ways that war (even “just war”) becomes necessary when we neglect the things that make for peace. I was stunned to learn about the voyage of the MS St. Louis, a ship filled with Jewish Germans seeking asylum in the United States; it was turned away, leaving its refugees to return to Europe and Nazis’ terror (ultimately several European countries received the passengers that we denied). There were things we coulda-woulda-shoulda done that would have prevented the Holocaust, things that would have prevented the need for what I’d been taught was a necessary war. Pacifism, I learned, must be proactive and intensely active.
In more recent years I’ve spent many nights praying with my feet in Ferguson, Mo., and beyond. I’ve seen the police state wage war on the people; tasted tear gas; heard the beat of the batons; watched the entrenched, systemic racism up close and personal. As we call for nonviolent resistance, we too often fail to recognize that violence is already present.
In this light, platitudes for peacemaking sound more like acquiescence with evil and have no rightful place. Pacifism, it seems, is a position of privilege more so than justice. And yet as we watch the rise of the alt-right (essentially Nazi 2.0), I’m finding myself rethinking it all yet again.
Back in the “righteous war” of the European theatre, we defeated one man and his regime with the best of American war-making tools (or so the story is told). Success was declared, and decades of relative prosperity awaited those heralded as victors. Because our victory was militaristic and focused on one man’s empire, we never addressed what propelled the mass of people to support the madness. Make no mistake, most German folk went along (“it’s a job,” “it’s the law,” “I have to feed my family”), and many actually supported the regime. We never addressed the white supremacist ideology that undergirded the Nazi agenda, the same ideology upon which our nation was founded.
Likely we didn’t address it because it was too close to our own. In the midst of our warring, Jim Crow was having a field day back here at home. After the war, in the era of relative prosperity, the question was raised as to whether the prosperity belonged to everyone or just white folk. Slowly (with hugh sacrifice by Black leaders) some doors opened. But even then white folk never really talked about race and ethnicity. We shared metaphors that allowed us to pretend that everyone is white (melting pot, salad bowl, color-blind) while maintaining a system of goods and services that were never shared.
Refusing to address the underlying values of the Third Reich (white capitalist patriarchy), we have been destined to relive them. We have a president who recently called a Black woman (his former aide) a “dog,” welcomed the white nationalist folk to the White House Lawn, and continued refusal to return hundreds of Brown-skinned children to their parents. All the while his base cheers widely and his party stands behind him. In vivid and horrifying detail we are seeing the fruit of the poisonous taproot that we failed to address when we laid the blame for the Holocaust at the feet of a single contorted human. The blame then, and now, belongs with an underlying value system that elevates and dehumanizes in binary categories.
Pacifism is not passive: it is that active work of looking at the deepest causes of violence. Pacifism is a call to address violently oppressive power structures, not a judgment of the response by the oppressed. Pacifism is proactive and militant and actively disrupting.
Had we (white folk) embraced pacifism, we might have engaged the work necessary to identify and unlearn the racism that is suffocating us all. We might have found the courage to atone for our nation’s most original sins.
Instead we are reviving them.