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Pacifism as Privilege

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The growth of peace studies and peace-seeking ecumenical organizations bode well for better relations between religion and outsiders and amongst religious traditions. When I came to Fuller Seminary, I feared that I might have found a cadre of bible-thumping, just war theorists, who subscribed to an ethic of justified violence. I feared that I might find myself defending the ethics of Gandhi and St. Francis, only to be dismissed by these moderately conservative Christians as a hippy or a liberal. To my surprise however, the trend at my seminary is moving in the opposite direction. With the presence of peace-loving Mennonites and a student organizations like the Peace and Justice Advocates, the campus is exposed to and increasingly subscribing to various degrees of pacifism. While this peace-friendly environment is good for future ministers and leaders of the church, I worry that pacifism can be just as paternalistic position as violence is destructive.

Being a pacifist and an American is virtually impossible. Typically, the peace and justice community focus on violence issues, human trafficking, and other visible forms of oppression. They come out against war and unsanctioned military engagement (which is basically the status quo in the global capitalist empire: instead of war, we have police action). All of these things are unjust and need to be opposed, but ultimately they are the blood dripping from wound that we keep wiping up without recognizing their source: global capitalism. The wars that are opposed and the crimes committed in Africa that are so easy to bemoan are a direct result of our patterns of consumption that fuel global capitalism. Military force is used to prop up the system when certain sectors of the empire don’t play by the rules of property and capital. In other words, the violence out there is perpetuated by our violent daily lives. This point has been reiterated countless times by Slavoj Zizek and others, about turning the gaze away from the spectacle of capitalism back on ourselves, its diligent disciples. Pacifists need to recognize that as long as they continue to remain cogs in the capitalist system, they are not pacifists.

Pacifism, in the way it is done at Fuller and other places, is also a class program, a posture made possible by privilege.  I have written previously about Foodies and how the food culture breeds class division because  foods labeled as ethical (organic, local) are the foods that the poor cannot afford, making food ethics tantamount to the way of the wealthy. The freedom to not have to join a gang in order to survive is an assumption for most us from the suburbs. The fact that we can choose whether or not we join the military is privilege we don’t think about, not so in places like Singapore and Israel. Most of us have never encountered the threat of losing our land to a multinational corporation or aggressive Israeli settlers. Our choice for peace is on the back of violence and in the absence of direct violence to us. And this absence of violence is directly related to living in what is the equivalent to the Roman Empire. The theology of nonviolence, despite its unreality in most of our lives, can be a good thing, if it is directed at our participation in global capitalism by deconstructing our daily participation in its pernicious practices, but not if used to pat ourselves on the back about purchasing ethical commodities or choosing to live “peacefully”.

The part that worries me the most is that by attributing an ethic of nonviolence to Jesus, we are further subjugating the poor. There is a problem when a western, mostly white seminary, makes a blanket statement like “Jesus was a pacifist,” not only in its misuse of terminology, but also in what such theological statement means for the outer parts of the global capitalist empire. We cannot theologize pacifism because it takes away one of the tools of the poor to resist capitalism. Paulo Friere wrote in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that the poor are the ones best equipped to know how to liberate themselves. Good-hearted western teachers try to rescue the poor, channeling some paternalistic version of the white man’s burden, and help the poor understand that non-violent action, like Gandhi and MLK, is the best approach for their liberation. Nonviolence, however, doesn’t always work, particularly in Latin America where many priests were forced to take up arms in resistance cells. Other times it has worked, in the case of Gandhi. The point is, however, that that the strategic choice of violence vs. nonviolence is not for the western oppressor–us–to decide: the poor ultimately are the best theologians for their own liberation. We need to be careful that our advocacy of nonviolent resistance not become a tool of global capitalism to cripple resistance movements that seek to end systems of violence that kill droves of people.  As much as we’d like to metaphorically follow Jesus’ path with the poor and marginalized, we cannot because we are not living in Israel with Jesus-type people, the poor and marginalized; rather, we live in Rome, with all the wealth and splendor.

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(16) Comments

  1. “The part that worries me the most is that by attributing an ethic of nonviolence to Jesus, we are further subjugating the poor.”

    Nicely done.

  2. As you noted, there are many oppressed people who have long traditions of non-violent resistance. I think that’s an important point to keep in tension with your argument. But I agree with your point that the white privileged are not the best to give the non-white oppressed a theological program to abide by. If anything I think the white privileged should do what Stokely Carmichael suggested, “They admonish blacks to be nonviolent; let them preach nonviolence in the white community. They come to teach me Negro history; let them go to the suburbs and open up freedom schools for whites. Let them work to stop America’s racist foreign policy; let them pressure this government to cease supporting the economy of South Africa.”

  3. I’m on board with almost all your cautions here, especially re: global capitalism, but I did grind a bit on your statement that “Being a pacifist and an American is virtually impossible.”

    In some sense, I think being a pacifist in any context is “impossible” in any fully realized sense. I think of John Howard Yoder’s early paper, “Peace Without Eschatology?,” and if you kind of turn that phrase a little bit, the statement “No (Christian) pacifism without eschatology” would be my rebuttal to your statement.

    In the “already but not yet” sense of the peaceable kingdom of God, in this present fallen age, Christian pacifism must never fall into the traps you rightly point out. A privileged pacifism is not something I’m interested in, for all the good reasons you point out.

    Thanks for a provocative post, Jordan!

    • Eschatology is an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered. I do think a prerequisite for choosing peace is the threat of violence, but overall I agree.

  4. I have a concern that I’m having trouble articulating. So I’ll just toss out the jumbled words and hopefully it’ll make semi-sense.

    I gather there is an underlying assumption that I don’t agree with. The post separates the poor out as one group, marginalized and distinct from other groups, particularly those in power.

    But, any body of Christians embracing pacifism (pacifism coming from pacifere, found in the Vulgate translation of the Beatitudes where Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers”) will necessarily practice within the context of an alternative reality, or alternative community. In that alternative community, the classes are gone. The separation does not exist. And I’m not being pie in the sky; there are plenty of communities doing this now. Within that context, there are scholars and even folks with money who are living out community with those who are poor and outcast, but they don’t operate with those categories. They are disciples of Jesus, and together they share all things including knowledge.

    When you say, “[T]he strategic choice of violence vs. nonviolence is not for the western oppressor–us–to decide: the poor ultimately are the best theologians for their own liberation,” I totally agree. But that does not mean the poor will be right.

    Here’s some strong words from Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise: “They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me / If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me / I guess they can’t, I guess they won’t / I guess they front, that’s why I know my life is out of luck, fool.”

    Yes, many Christian pacifists screw this up. If they think pacifism has only to do with whether or not we pick up a gun and shoot somebody, they’re wrong. Yes, global capitalism is evil and we are hypocrites if we continue to operate in that context. But that doesn’t mean we must leave this specific, separate group, “the poor,” to decide for themselves how to act and react. I can’t talk about what “the poor” will do because I am “the poor.” It’s not “them,” but “us.” And my input on how to act and react is just as valid as any other’s.

    Pacifism based on the example of Jesus and the embrace of discipleship by Jesus’s disciples will always work.

    Dang. That’s convoluted. When I can get some more clarity in my words, I’ll clarify.

    • @martyrologist:disqus – Good words. I think the helpful thing you’ve done here is muddy the problematic us/them poor/not-poor binaries. That was part of what was also nagging at me a bit as I read this, so I’m happy you articulated it (referencing Coolio, no less!).

      We need each other, too – so I think it’s good to make explicit the possibility that “the poor” may not always have the resources (bad word choice; dang capitalism!) to improve their situation, and that interdependence is key (while still being way, way wary of paternalism that Jordan named).

      I think of my wife whose work is with mental health in our poor rural community. There are generational patterns of dysfunction and poor health (physically, mentally, etc.) that – holy cow – expecting some of these folks to be able to come out of these patterns of dysfunction and trauma is a long, loooong stretch. They need help. – And sometimes privileged white folks like me and my wife just may be able to help…

      (I realize this went way outside the traditional box of “pacifist concerns,” (e.g. mental health?) – but really…I think it all hangs together.)

      • Your wife’s doing some important and difficult work. And I wouldn’t distant it from “pacifist concerns.” I think doing so is in some way informs the reasons behind Jordan’s original post. It was a very good post.

    • I realize that my separation of the poor is problematic, but I think it is the best way to describe the have-nots. But focusing on the terms as a problem misses the point. The point is that wealthy westerners should not decide the best path of development, liberation or whatever.

      Unfortunately I wish it was a simple us and pretend that class, ethnicity, and culture disappear at the Eucharist table, but they don’t. I am sorry but the oppressor class’s opinion on the liberation of the poor is not as valid as the poor’s.

  5. ERIN DUFAULT-HUNTER - Reply

    Jordan,

    As usual, nice stuff here. Your instinct to problematize pacifism is good. Here is a quick reflection:

    Jesus spoke “Blessed are the peacemakers” to a bunch of folks who were mostly
    peasants; the “turn the other cheek”/”go two miles” are also to those
    oppressed by Rome (this is what makes the second even a meaningful
    idiom). Rather “unpolitic” of him, subjecting the poor in this way? Or
    is he about something else, something that perhaps we pacifists have
    forgotten about why pacifism, what is pacifism? He starts the Sermon
    assuming resistance to the Reign of God. Thus so-called pacifists are
    not merely about “violence” as usually assumed; after all, most of these
    folks were not taking up arms against Rome.

    By speaking as if pacifism is about “just war vs pacifism,” you risk
    adopting a truncated vision of what justice, righteousness subsists per
    the biblical story. Jesus builds us into an alternative community, one
    that amidst a world that sustained by violence in every cranny, every
    system — family, business, education, criminal justice, economic,
    political, etc — seeks to make true shalom for all, esp those most
    vulnerable to it. Faithful Israel attends to each aspect, systems
    personal and political, as the prophets knew well (and as feminists
    remind us at their best).

    The reality is we are ALL violent persons; we all need God’s grace and diligent practices to re-make us into who we might yet become as those who delight in, witness to Christ’s Way. The line between good and evil, between violent and
    nonviolent, runs down the center of each of our hearts. Too often we
    “pacifists” claim a moral high-horse because are not in the military,
    but in reality we continue to display in our friendships, communities,
    sexual life, discussion with enemies, and economic life the coercive,
    competitive character of Rome.

    Thus it is even more compelling that the likes of Peter or other disciples eventually do
    offer their lives in loving, truthful, cruciform witness to Rome as
    well to Israel. That I — of the wealthy, white, academic set —
    struggle to do so in quite ordinary ways in virtually every sphere of my
    life underscores that I depend upon the Good News that God chooses
    mercy over judgment. Even (or esp) for “professional Xn pacifists” like me.

  6. Melissa Florer-Bixler - Reply

    I’m sensing a misunderstanding about pacifism, at least pacifism from a Mennonite perspective. There are quite a few statements in this post that depend on a particular understanding of pacifism, a definition that is unclear.

    I don’t mean to obfuscate a concept like “pacifism” into something we can’t even talk about, but to say that there is an epistemological strategy being employed within the Mennonite tradition. Intrinsic to pacifism is the loosing of control over identity. It is saying that identification with pacifism is always slippery, it always gets past us. In this post you talk about peace like it’s a possession we work towards achieving, rather than a contingent gift that we receive. There are no guarantees, there is no stability. We are always defined against it; always in relation to peace getting past us, confronting us, calling us to repentance. That doesn’t mean pacifists don’t exist; that’s what means to be one.

    What I also hear is the desire to carve out a stable identity within the peace tradition. I wonder if you sense this is as a particular struggle at Fuller, where I am guessing that most Mennonites are (like me) not ethnically Mennonite.

    I also don’t want to dismiss the importance of your challenge. But what I think would be more helpful is to ask “what do the new challenges mean for those of us who are willing to bind the ambiguities and failures of pacifism into our identity?” I recommend Chris Huebner’s chapter on Mennonite identity to further your struggle with this question (it is his thoughts I’ve written, not my own).

    • Thanks for your thoughts Melissa.

      I do not think you are obfuscating, but I think the Mennonite perspective is limited and not necessarily one that I am critiquing here (but could certainly be implicated as it exists today).

      Nonetheless it is interesting you bring Mennonites because I am pretty the ethic of non-violence as a response to social violence against them because of their beliefs about believer baptism. In other words, pacifism was a result of the threat of violence.

      I like your thoughts about peace as a gift, but it sounds a little bit like theoretical posturing. Could you tell me in a little less abstract way what you mean? I do think peace is something to work toward, just like justice or equality. Don’t you?

      • Melissa Florer-Bixler - Reply

        Thanks for continuing the conversation, Jordan. I’ve thought about this a little more and where I am landing (right now) is on the question of whether pacifism even makes sense outside a particular people, tradition, memory, experience, etc? When we start to talk about “pacifism” in a vacuum that seems to be problematic. What does that mean outside specific experiences of living that out, asking “who are we?”, finding out how those expressions have failed or are challenged with new questions in each generation?

        So, no, I don’t think I can talk about pacifism outside the Mennonite church. And then I can speak very concretely. One instance, that Chris mentions, is the tension of identity within our church planting and social justice organizations. Another example is the moratorium placed on Convention decisions regarding issues related to gays and lesbians in the church, providing, instead, spaces for conversation and story. Some have labeled this quietism, granted, but I’ve also seem this as a sign of the churches commitment to non-violence in the way we do our polity. That is the gift of living in patience, uncertainty, refusing to exercise control over identity.

        And I don’t know if there’s enough foothold within an idea of pacifism outside these types of actions, without enacting pacifism, experiencing its failure, watching it get passed us, in these other places, as well. I’m not sure I’d even know what it meant, particularly as we do the work of asking this question re:geo-politics. I’m certainly open to a correction on this, but that’s where I’m at.

        • Thanks for your thoughts. Of course pacifism makes sense only within a traditioned context. We are speaking about different manifestations of supposed pacifism. This makes it difficult to have conversation because we are examining two different specimens with some similarities but lots of differences.

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