Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Kind of Commitment Does It Take To Be a Pacifist?

This question was forwarded to QIC from the American Friends Service Committee. The original letter is lost, but the gist of it was:
I am drawn to be a pacifist, but when I imagine someone threatening my life or the life of someone I love, and if I could protect them with violence, I believe I would do that. How do Friends manage to be pacifists? Do you have stories about pacifists in such situations?

Dear [Friend],

The American Friends Service Committee has forwarded your question to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. I believe they hoped I might have a pamphlet perfectly suited to your questions that I could pop into an envelope and send you. But the question you ask is one of the hardest ones that any pacifist has to wrestle with. And the truth is, unless we get tested by the kind of situation you describe, none of us knows for sure what we will really do.

Many Friends and other pacifists know that the ideal we profess is one we may or may not be able to live up to in an extreme situation, and we can only do our best in the situations that life presents, taking them one at a time.

Many Quakers would also say that they can only achieve their pacifist principles with some kind of Divine assistance. George Fox (a founding Friend) wrote that when he was offered early prison release if he would accept a military commission, he “told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars. . . .” We interpret that to mean that through his deep and receptive relationship with God, he had been transformed into a peaceful person – a state he might not have been able to achieve through his own mind and will.

Many committed pacifists feel that it is a distraction to get into discussions about extreme hypothetical possibilities, such as “what would you do if a Nazi were about to roll a tank over your grandmother.” Life presents us with plenty of day-to-day challenges to deal with, and perhaps by learning to respond well to the mundane ones, we will make ourselves ready for the really hard ones, should they come to pass.

However, now that I have tried to respond philosophically, I will say a few practical things. We are most likely to respond violently in a situation when two conditions exist: (a) we feel threatened – a danger makes us afraid for ourselves or someone else; and (b) we don’t have any other ideas for an effective response to the situation. Our culture does not do much to help us learn effective nonviolent responses to a threat, or even to put such thoughts into our imaginations. But through practice and through nonviolent-response training that different peace organizations sometimes offer, we can expand our options and also our confidence. And being confident helps reduce the feeling of being threatened.

One of the areas where the rubber meets the road is in street safety. I have read some material, much of it written for women, helping a person think about what she might do if attacked. Different individuals have different “standards” of pacifism: some may say that if they were in real danger, they might hurt their attacker, but not kill; some may decide that if killing were the only way to survive, it would be their last resort, but they would do it; some may decide it is OK to carry and use Mace, since it wears off; others may be unwilling even to cause physical pain or to forcefully overpower another at any level. We cannot really know in advance what we may do, but it makes a real difference to have given it enough thought to have an intention. In addition to violent response, there are techniques of communication, of distraction, of escape, and if you have thought about and practiced these methods, you will be less likely to feel that violence is your only option.

Back in the 1970s, some New York Quakers started a program called the Alternatives to Violence project for teaching nonviolence skills to prisoners in institutions. AVP is now an independent program with no official Quaker ties (although many Friends are involved), and it is used worldwide in prisons, in schools, and in communities. AVP’s language for nonviolence is “transforming power.” I am enclosing a page from their website that gives an idea of what they help people practice.

You asked for stories, and I went to our library to select some from books about nonviolent responses to oppression or danger – some written for children some for adults. A couple classic stories that you may have heard before are the Pearl Buck (true) account of the missionary’s wife in China whose home was sieged by raiders who were killing the foreigners. She met them at the door, invited them in for tea, and treated them as honored guests. They played with her children and left. Another classic has to do with Quaker settlers in the colonial frontier in the period leading up to the French and Indian wars. Unlike the other settlers, the Quakers left their latchstrings out and their muskets propped outside their houses. Indian raiders sometimes came into their homes and ate their food, but the Quakers were not harmed, unlike the other settlers who barricaded and defended themselves.

However, I am reluctant to offer up such stories as a defense of pacifism. They are wonderful for stimulating the imagination and suggesting a new way to think about certain situations. But there is something triumphant about them – the story survives because the pacifist response magically “works.” And while we would of course always hope for an outcome in which no one is harmed, pacifism is not magic. When a positive outcome happens, it “works” partly because the pacifists have made up their minds that they are prepared for it not to work, and they are taking the risk of being vulnerable to others and to engage with those others as fellow human beings – something it is very difficult to do with a weapon in your hand (or so I imagine).

I hope this response is helpful to you.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery


  1. Thank you!! for this thoughtful yet lively and human response to what is often a "gotcha" question. Please keep the qqqqanda's coming. We need them:
    q's and non-q's alike. Nicole

  2. T. Canby Jones (retired prof at Wilmington College in Ohio) once said that Christian pacifists need to be ready to confront their own mortality. (I don't think that goes for Christian pacifists alone, of course.) If my concept of Christian discipleship includes nonviolence, which I believe Scripture says it must, then my own earthly survival can no longer be my highest priority. I admit I had to go through a lot of searching before I was ready to take this step.

  3. I've read that people are "hard-wired" for either a flight or fight response in conditions of danger, perceived or real. I'm wondering how practicing non-violent responses can halt these automatic responses and give us a chance to choose an alternative response. I had a situation where a soldier pointed a machine gun at my husband's stomach and clicked off the safety. It was in a time and place where many incidents of murder had occurred by soldiers. I'd had a neighbor murdered recently, killed by someone she knew with a machete. (This was in Venezuela in a squatters settlement in 1964.) I was horrified at the violence. I regarded myself as a pacifist, and certainly any other response from me was both unexpected and unacceptable. To my horror, I reacted immediately in the "attack" mode. I shouted at the young soldier to "drop his gun or I'd kill him with my bare hands!" This was in Spanish -- I'd not even known I knew such Spanish! I felt the feelings that I believed a person capable of committing murder might feel. It totally undermined my sense of myself, for a long time. Now I see that there are situations when we react spontaneously from deep animal instincts -- as do others. It has given me a great deal of compassion for all those caught in our many wars. Alicia Adams (Friend)

  4. Alicia, I had a similar (less dramatic) experience. Someone waved a knife in my face during an argument. I never thought it was meant any way but playfully, but instantly I found that I had grabbed the person's wrist and was overpowering her in the blink of an eye -- and not in a playful way. I have heard that those "hard wired" responses last for 90 seconds and then the cortex clicks in and we can make rational choices -- I don't know if that is true or not. I do think we are more likely to use "alternative" responses if we have actually practiced them, not just thought about them. But I also agree that people caught in wars need our compassion most of all. -Chel

  5. Thanks for sharing, Chel. As I reflected more on this and talked about it with Dan, we both recalled incidents where we met situations potentially very dangerous while we were intentionally connected with the Light. Dan's was confronting a man with a gun who was holding his wife and children hostage. Mine was similar except the man had a knife. In both cases, because we knew in advance what we'd be facing, we had time to prepare. We centered and asked for assistance -- and received it. In both cases we were able to convince the one with the weapon to put it aside so that we could talk and work out a solution together. Also, both of us had someone else who was aware of what we were entering and was focused on sending us spiritual support. It was powerful for all concerned. Alicia

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