The Violence of Dogmatic Pacifism

“Violence means working for 40 years, getting miserable wages and wondering if you ever get to retire…
Violence means state bonds, robbed pension funds and the stock market fraud…
Violence means unemployment, temporary employment….
Violence means work “accidents”…
Violence means being driven sick because of hard work…
Violence means consuming psych-drugs and vitamin s in order to cope with exhausting working hours…
Violence means working for money to buy medicines in order to fix your labor power commodity…
Violence means dying on ready-made beds in horrible hospitals, when you can’t afford bribing.”

– Proletarians from occupied headquarters of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), Athens, December 2008

I was once a hardcore Christian pacifist who would justify non-violence in the face of rape, robbery, military occupation, police violence, or systemic racist violence. I have read much of the literature, attended and taught pacifist trainings/conferences/events, and have previously been one to publicly shame more militant tactics. As my political work has transitioned from liberal policy activism to revolutionary organizing (lead by and for the oppressed, working toward collective liberation) I have learned more historically-nuanced notions of violence, non-violence, and self-defense. I have come to think dogmatic Christian pacifism can be extremely dangerous and violent to oppressed human and non-human peoples.

One of the first things done in religious debates about pacifism is proof-texting verses from the Bible, picking verses (usually out of context) to prove one/your vision over the other. If we hold a more complex and nuanced version of our faith stories we recognize the goodness and the vast diversity, often contradictory, in biblical narratives and Church traditions. Much like the diversity of gospel accounts shows us the diversity of the early Church, the diversity of revolutionary tactics within our biblical stories and faithful traditions can help us shape our contemporary movements through a diversity of tactics. Rather than assume one way of thinking is right for all times and all places, no matter the context or people involved, we are better off using a diversity of tactics in our goal of our collective salvation from sin (aka our collective liberation from oppression). We need every tool in the box, we need all sorts of tactics available, and we need a great multiplicity of strategies if we want to win in taking down the capitalist, imperialist, hetero-patriarchal system destroying planetary life.

I do not think the world will ever be, or has ever been, a world without violence. Violence is a broad word with many different meanings. I am using the term violence in a very general sense when I suggest that the world will never be a place without some forms of violence. An indigenous Elder of mine teaches this in relation to rain: just the right amount of rain creates new and thriving life, too much rain and life is violently swept away. When the hungry tiger pounces on an antelope, digging their sharp teeth into the flesh to kill for nourishment, violence erupts for life to maintain living. When a glacier cracks and crumbles down into the fishing villages of the far northern regions, entire communities can be lost to the tidal waves and impact of the moving mountains of ice. When a fire takes over a forest, burning down trees and decaying plant matter to ashes, nutrients flood the soil and stronger rays of sun can then reach the forest floor providing more ingredients for new life to flourish.

Mother Earth is not a dogmatic pacifist, she uses violence to transform the world. It’s not always Her favorite tool, but it sometimes is; it doesn’t seem to be Her ultimate philosophy but a tactic within Her larger strategy for survival.

To claim a completely pure dogmatic pacifism goes against the patterns we see in the world around us. Pacifism becomes a fundamentalist religion or ideology rather than one of many tools within our revolutionary strategies. It is important that we begin to see non-violence or non-resistance as a tactic within a diversity of strategies; it is not the only answer but one very useful answer to very specific historical moments. Non-violence is not dogmatic pacifism, non-violence does not need to be universalized as an ideology for all times, places, and circumstances as in pacifism. The militant non-violent tactics used by some of the civil rights movement (boycotts and sit-ins) have shown that some non-violent tactics can be successful. The militant self-defense tactics used by others within the larger liberation movements (Black Panthers, Young Lords, UHURU etc.) were also proven successful. Neither would have been as successful without the other.

Capitalist Violence

To claim some sort of purist pacifism as the only way forward is also illogical for those who live, move, and have their being within the capitalist world economy. Central to Marx’s critique of the capitalist system was the inherent violence of private property, centralization of wealth, worker alienation, and vast hierarchies of domination. Through the ownership of other humans, water, air, and land; the pillaging of global lands for resource extraction; the centralization of property ownership within the hands of the few; and the endless pursuit of ‘infinite growth’ on a finite planet, life itself is being violently destroyed. With billionaires and millionaires centralizing their wealth and power, strengthening and broadening the gap between the rich and the poor, extreme acts of violence run amuck in society: rampant impoverishment, and no or terrible access to healthcare, food, education, shelter etc. While capitalist pacifists sit rich and pretty, a majority of the world suffers immeasurably.

The capitalist system thrives on the racialization of peoples and their subjugation to colonial power through extreme violence. The capitalist economy thrives on war for oil, land, monopoly-imperialist power, and for the many markets opened up through the production and sales of millions of high-tech weapons. To claim a pacifist existence of non-violence is to assume your life is not actively executing violence on the world through the very social systems those who claim such lofty ideals benefit from.

It is white middle-class pacifists who do not experience capitalist violence in the disproportionate way black, brown, differently able, queer, trans, mothering/care-giving, migrant, female, and religiously diverse people experience daily. It is these same middle-class pacifists who greatly benefit from the violence enacted by the state and corporate business forces on Earth and peoples around the world. They experience health, wealth, and property; they experience the abundance of food, shelter, and access to the excesses of capitalism but they do so on the backs of the global south and the middle east. It is these white middle-class dogmatic “peace police” who scream and yell at people defending themselves from state violence, telling them they are immoral and violent. In this way, they stand directly in the way of someone seeking their own liberation.

Writing in his personal journal about the rise of fascism in Germany, George Orwell mused, “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one.… others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.… Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force” (emphasis added).

Pacifist capitalists are extremely violent and can even be regarded as home-grown terrorists, as they are committing senseless acts of violence by perpetuating a state of extreme inequality through violent relations of domination, hierarchy, alienation, and exploitation. They project this violent privilege onto the impoverished, the working class, and other radical organizers who seek to defend themselves from the extreme violence of a capitalist society. Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to this problem among political leaders, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.” ( “Nonviolence as Compliance” in the Atlantic )

A key to understanding this problem lies within the social location of many pacifists. The free-market, private ownership of property, elected governmental officials, and the legal system itself have all been managed by and for white people (often white Christian men). When all of these systems do not work in your favor and when they do not protect you but are in fact a great source of the violence you face, then your political actions focus on ending these systems of death, if not just defending yourself from their violence. This is exactly why disenfranchised people do not always choose “civility” as their response to liberal violence. The state defines “civility” and their “civilization” – they chose to define their civil state through genocide, colonization, imperialism, slavery, inequality, etc. Civility is the problem.

Revolutionary Resistance, Diversity of Tactics, and Liberation

People of color, trans people, and folx with differing abilities know this, and have been leading struggles with diverse tactics for a very long time. In an article posted on April 26, 2015 on the Radical Faggotblog , Benji Hart writes, “Calling them uncivilized and encouraging them to mind the Constitution is racist, [sexists, ableist] and as an argument fails to ground itself not only in the violent political reality in which black, [trans, and differently abled] people find themselves but also in our centuries-long tradition of resistance – one that has taught effective strategies for militancy and direct action to virtually every other current movement for justice.”

In reaping the benefits of violence and then subjecting oppressed peoples to violence so they cannot escape their oppression, you not only thrive off their perpetual suffering, but you take away the ability to claim dignity and self-determination. It is extremely violent to push pacifism on those who exist under the heaviest of boots of capitalist and colonial exploitation when you greatly benefit from the exploits of capitalist and colonial violence.

The colonizer tells the colonized not to defend themselves.

The rapist tells the raped not to defend themselves.

The attacker tells the attacked not to defend themselves.

The murderer tells the victim not to defend themselves.

The slave owner tells the slave not to defend themselves.

The civilized tells the savage not to defend themselves.

The pacifist tells the oppressed not to defend themselves.

The revolutionary joins the colonized, raped, attacked, victim, slave, savage, and oppressed in solidarity; together they seek collective liberation. It is “precisely marginalized groups utilizing these tactics – poor women of color defending their right to land and housing, trans* street workers and indigenous peoples fighting back against murder and violence; black and brown struggles against white supremacist violence – that have waged the most powerful and successful uprisings in US history.” (from an April 2012 pamphlet written for Occupy Oakland, Who is Oakland? ).

It is often argued that by offering your own life in martyrdom, the violence of the state will be exposed when the state or armed forces act in violence against you for all to see, and then put an end to once and for all. This is terrible logic, especially if applied to every context in all of history. We should not expect someone to die or not defend themselves in abusive and violent situations so that the violence of their actions can be exposed, somehow convincing others not to be violent in the same way.

Jesus was nailed to a cross and Caesar didn’t have a change of heart in the face of such oppressive brutality. He celebrated.

Black and Brown people were lynched, and white supremacists didn’t have a change of heart in the face of such oppressive brutality. The community celebrated.

Violence is exposed all the time, and nothing is done about it. How many videos of police murdering unarmed teenagers do state officials need (or do liberals need) to watch before they realize their violence and magically chose to stop it via a change of heart? How would that even make sense coming from an institution founded just after slavery to harass, watch, and catch non-white former slaves? The very same legal system that didn’t have a change of heart in the face of violent white supremacy but rather created an entire white supremacist billion-dollar business: the prison industrial complex.

White feminist theologians in the 1960’s critiqued the idea of “sacrificial living” as the mission of their faith-filled lives. It was being forced upon them by liberal theologians of the day: the highest calling is kenotic, sacrifice, emptying oneself for thy neighbor. The white cis male liberal theologians making these claims on the bodies of women did not consider the thousands of ways women are already subjected to capitalist hetero patriarchy, especially the unpaid reproductive labor it takes to produce such a society. This critique was later enhanced in the 1970s by revolutionary black feminists in the Combahee River Collective who first wrote about intersectionality: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”

This narrative of sacrificing one’s life to the powers and principalities also assumes that the upper class, the capitalist class, and the exploiting classes will suddenly choose to sacrifice their wealth, power, and privilege in order to liberate the masses who have (at their own expense and for their own survival) produced all of their wealth, power, and privilege. Not only does this idea take autonomy away from the oppressed, continuing the elitist narrative that the oppressed are uneducated filthy savages, but it also supports oppressive violence through demanding non-resistance in hopes of revealing the brutality of oppression to the oppressor.

Here’s another example: A man breaks into a woman’s house with a knife and has intention to rape, rob, and kill her. As a pacifist she chooses not to use a gun to defend herself. Rather, she creatively tells him that his ways are unjust, that there is another way of living, and that compassion is the way of truth; she hopes that her rape and murder will be a shining example of compassion and courage – she offers her own life as a sacrifice to show him that his ways are unjust, that he should change his ways, that he should rape, rob, and murder people no more. She hopes to convert his heart along the way, through her sacrifice she hopes he will repent.

It’s also absolutely absurd to think a woman who fights or kills a rapist, becomes like the rapist. Colonized Indigenous and African peoples forced into slavery did not become like their slave owning colonizers when they violently rebelled, resisted, revolted, and rioted. The Jewish people who killed or fought the Nazis trying to exterminate their people, did not become like the Nazis. Using violence against those who exploit, oppress, and abuse you does not make you like them. Reality is more complex than dogmatic pacifism allows.

Read the rest of the article over at the Hampton Institute. 

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