Monday, October 13, 2014

Being a Pacifist in the Middle of a Blood Bath

Even fellow CPTers (Christian Peacemaker Teams) are writing about how hard it is to reconcile their pacifist ideology with what to do to provide real help to real people in real danger from real violence in light of recent events in Syria and Iraq.

I think the word ‘ideology’ is actually the problem.  And I speak only for myself, which is, I think, at the heart of the issue.

I do not proselytize pacifism.  It is simply who I am.  My views and, I hope, my actions, are shaped by this.  But what you do with that is up to you.

It goes something like this in my head: I am not a Yazidi and I am not stuck on a mountaintop with people surrounding me who wish to kill me.  Thus it is not for me to say what they should do.

My pacifism leads me to live out the reality that for the dangerous places in which I find myself, for myself, violence is not, cannot be, the answer.

That does not mean that I do not have violence in my heart.  I do.  It is precisely because of the violence in my heart that I am a (work-in-progress) pacifist – because I know that my violence towards others has absolutely nothing to do with love, not even love of self, and everything to do with satisfying that peculiar hunger that lives within me.

My pacifist understanding leads me to take the route of non-violence, even in resistance to violence from others.  So my mountaintop dangerous experiences are just that – dangerous.  But my response to them is a response of non-violence, even should that mean my own death, for I am convinced that God values the one who would do me harm as much as God values me.  And knowing this with absolute certainty, I cannot be the instrumentality of their demise.  I simply cannot.

For me, this also means that I would never desire that any person act in any way to preserve my life at the expense of their own or someone else’s.  That is a burden I simply cannot carry.  And I know it asks much, perhaps too much, of others, who may well feel that they have become the instrument of my demise by not acting violently towards this proverbial other, should the situation ever come to pass.

But this is not hypothetical for me.  I mean it.  When I joined CPT, I did the work of counting the cost, including the cost of my own life.

In practical terms, what all this means for me is this:

1. Even if it’s a question of me or him, I choose him.

2. If you have to choose me or him, choose him.

3. That might not be your own choice and I will honor that as best I can in the circumstances – because this is not ideology – this is life and it is messy and my choices are not (necessarily) yours.  What does that mean?

a. it means that I still will not kill another person, even if to save you.  I would put myself between you, but I won’t take their life.  I am not who you want with you as a bodyguard or even as a fellow combatant if violent response is what you require as part of the deal.

b. if you’re asking for the help of someone else who will use violence to your aid, I won’t get in your way, for that is your choice rather than mine to make.

I admit to being surprised by fellow CPTers who are particularly troubled with their pacifism because of the recent actions of ISIS.  They are horrific.  But haven’t the behaviors of violent actors always been horrific?  Did it just get real for the first time for you?  Because it’s been real for me for a very long time.  That doesn’t make me smart or special.  But it does make me clear – if this thing we call pacifism is merely ideology, then it deserves to be thrown out with the trash.  The cost of such a way of life only gets paid when there is violence – unjust, horrible, life-threatening, life-taking, cruel, violence.  The question for me has always been – what is to be my response?  And the answer, at least for me, remains unchanged – I will help, but I will not kill.  Perhaps that makes me useless.  That is not my judgment to make.

But consider this about the recent events in Iraq:

1. These things did not happen in a vacuum.  They never do.  This crucible moment was preceded by countless crucible moments in Iraq before, moments which did not even call for violent solutions, during which we did nothing.  If PM Maliki be the problem, his position is one we established and thus do we reap the whirlwind we created.  I am left to wonder why it is so much harder for us to simply work towards an honest form of government interested in the welfare of its people and so much easier for us just to drop bombs.

2. ISIS has been coming for a long time.  Why the surprise?  Even in immediate terms, the world has known for months about their increasing incursions into Iraq.  And largely, we did nothing.  Where, one might ask, are the UN Peacekeepers?  Where the barriers?  Where the practical steps for evacuation from a coming war zone?  Where the stockpiling of supplies for humanitarian aid?  If this is a crisis, it is one we helped create by our large indifference.

3. Where the world’s outcry when PM Maliki and his folk engaged in similar behavior towards their opponents?  Iraq as a nation has not had one moment of rest since the 1990's and the sanctions imposed not on its leader but on its citizens.  How would one reasonably expect anything but chaos and its attendant horrors with a land that has resources others are rapaciously hungry for and the countries of the world aligned around it to use it as their own version of the O. K. Corral?

4. What have the countries around the world done to offer to take the refugees?  They’re on that mountaintop for a reason.  Fleeing a fearsome enemy, they had nowhere else to go.  And why not?  Why are they themselves not being airlifted out?  Because we, the world, won’t have them.

5. Our prejudices want to have it both ways: we want to condemn Muslims around the world, or certainly in the Middle East, as being barbaric monsters while our condemnation focuses on their victims, most of whom are other Muslims.  Which is it?  Are they barbarians?  Or victims?  Or is the truth much simpler – like all of the rest of us, they’re both?

6. Economic, social, and political upheaval create the perfect storm for the worst of humanity’s behaviors to have free reign.  Everything we have done in Iraq for decades has been towards the certain conclusion that we will and have created a failed state.  We cannot claim surprise at the result.  The cry now for the necessity of violent solutions overlooks each and every step down this path we have taken to its inevitable conclusion.  Perhaps weapons are now our only choice.  But that hasn’t always been true.  And weapons will be a poor solution for the long-term welfare of all Iraq’s peoples.  There is always a what next? phase.  Have we given that any thought?  It would seem not.  Which simply repeats the previous pattern and if we do nothing differently, the same results will certainly attain and only the acronyms will change.  We can do better than that.  The question remains whether we will.

I wrote this about 6 - 8 weeks ago and decided not to post it at the time.  Since then, the United States, along with some partners, has sent air attacks raining down on Syria and Iraq, too much for some, too little for others.  And hostage demands and executions have continued.  Today one family has publicly said, while asking that their son be spared, that the price demanded by those holding him is a price they cannot meet.  Actually, they have said it is a price they cannot ‘accommodate’, which is a different matter all together.  I understand what they mean.  At least I think I do.  Prayers continue that the killing madness come to an end.  And that includes bullets and armaments stamped ‘made in the USA’ fired from ISIS hands as well as our own.


  1. This is really profound and relevant!!

    1. Thank you, Len. On the other matter, I'm not ignoring you - I've been on the road and in pastor mode high test before that - give me to the end of the month? Hugs and blessings to you and Judy, Beth