“This violence is for a world that has lost its imagination.” — Doctor in Iraq during the shock and awe bombing
Pacifism. The pastime of the lazy. A refusal to fight for beliefs. Passivism. Apart from world heroes such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., those who choose the path of non-violence are rarely respected as viable tools for instigating change. Unfortunately these misconceptions stem from a long history of human lust for violence and tendency to glorify the physically strong. When found in frustrating situations, I have often caught myself saying “I can understand why violent revolutions are so attractive!” or something to that effect. There is something so biologically satisfying about breaking things that emits the illusory hormones of accomplishment, not to mention the quick results violence produces compared to non-violence. At least that is what I have always believed, yet is violence truly the best way to force positive change?
In the Christian faith, pacifism has often been grounded in the command from Jesus in the New Testament “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” At first reading, this sounds like “If someone hits you once, don’t hit them back, but let them hit you twice”, a kind of non-reactionary response to violence and wrong doing. But if we look at the anthropological context, is that really what Jesus is saying? I would argue no, and so would many others, including author Walter Wink of The Powers Trilogy.
In his book The Powers that Be Wink spends much time arguing for an active Christian faith through pacifism in how it was meant to be. Whether or not you believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, his life and teachings are the ultimate example of true pacifism, an active faith. All of Israel thought that He had come to overthrow the Roman empire and free them all from Caesar’s oppression, but instead he made friends with those below the poverty line and shattered the order of the synagogue. When He saw the deception occurring by the merchants in the temple, he overthrew the tables and set the animals free. Jesus taught how to revolt against the Romans by giving instructions like “turn the other cheek” and “walk with him two miles”. To be struck on the left cheek (the ‘other’ cheek) was to be treated as an equal and refuse the back handed blow that was used for those in lower standing (the right cheek). Roman soldiers were allowed to force anyone into labour and march up to one mile carrying packs and supplies, but there were severe consequences for any soldier who forced a person to labour more. Jesus was not instructing his followers to be willing lapdogs to the Roman Empire, but rather empowering them to think of how to use the oppressive laws of Caesar against him.
Ultimately, pacifism is not a refusal to enlist violent methods to solve conflicts, but rather means making conscious daily decisions to force a permanent change into the world. The thing about violence is that it doesn’t change the rules of a society, just the rulers. So lets be the leaders and change the rules.
Don’t just vent, implement! “But Shevaun, these examples aren’t much help to me, so how can I practically use these tactics of social change?”
I’m so glad you asked! The difficult thing with being an activist is that after a very short study, it is easy to be overwhelmed with all that is wrong with the world. The best you can do is pick something of personal importance that you think should change. Does the factory food system make you ashamed to be a member of the human race? Try only buying from local butchers or choosing a vegetarian diet. Are you struck by the plight of the homeless? Maybe thrift some clothes or winter gear and listen to their stories. We live in a country and time of excess, take some time evaluating the things in your life you could really live without. The important thing is to stick with it. We vote with our dollars and time, so put these things to use in a way that brings about a change.
Some sources: Wink, Walter. “Practical Nonviolence.” In The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.