Pacifism, Violence and Force

One the main obstacles to people’s acceptance of a pacifist view towards human participation in violence is the lack of clarity in the pacifist approach. In directing energy towards decrying all forms of violent injustice, pacifists often fail to distinguish between a positive use of force and the negative use of violence. As a result, the pacifist=passive assumption is only exacerbated.

As a pacifist myself, I think we can do better.

I recently had my friend and Mennonite pastor/historian/theologian, Jonathan Janzen, discuss this issue in my Ethical Reasoning class. Too often, he suggests, folks like John Howard Yoder lack the nuance to provide a compelling vision and description of how active nonviolent peacemaking actually works. There is much rhetoric, but little reality. As a pacifist influenced by Yoder, and more directly Stanley Hauerwas, I take Janzen’s critique seriously. Working off suggestions from Duane K. Friesen, Janzen offers this critique:

Yoder [and other pacifists] tends to assume that force and violence are one and the same thing. They are not. Violence describes the violation or destruction of the dignity or integrity of a person. Violence can be physical or bodily harm. It can include an attack on a person’s emotional, spiritual or psychological well-being. It can also include the omission of acts necessary for life. For example, choosing not to feed your children will damage them.
       Furthermore, all violence is not “equally harmful.” One may heal from a broken arm, but one does not recover from death; one may recover from the financial losses suffered as a result of a boycott, but one may never recover confidence from the verbal abuse of one’s employer.
        The key question then, is not whether one uses power or force. We’re always using power or force. The real issue is what kind of force are we using and how are we using it. Do we strive to exercise power—to be persuasive, apply pressure, or compel certain behaviour—without necessarily inflicting injury or damage on others?*

Essentially, Janzen challenges for a more realistic and pragmatic pacifism. Not one that capitulates to the accepted use of violence in pursuit of justice, such as in a Just War perspective, but an exploration into the possibility of nonviolent force. As pacifists, we need to move beyond protest and rhetoric and actively live out the gospel of peace. As a result, to quote Janzen once more, “the force we use is that of forgiveness, love, generosity, and the story of Christ’s resurrection.”

*Unpublished lecture titled, “Why John Howard Yoder was Wrong and My Mom is Right.”


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