Monday, August 6, 2012

Nonviolence and Pacifism

Nonviolence and pacifism are often pitted against one another, even though pacifism was once considered the activist term to distinguish it from nonresistance. Now, pacifism is thrown under the bus, even by vigorous advocates of nonviolence. For instance, Gene Sharp clarifies that nonviolent action is action that is nonviolent, as opposed to pacifism (Sharp, 2005, p. 41), some of whose proponents might see nonviolent action as much too coercive (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). In many definitions, pacifism is almost pejoratively defined as rejecting violence on moral grounds without a concern for sociopolitical conditions 1, while nonviolence focuses on political change without violence. Although, one might be nonviolent in one situation but not in another. Arab arguments for nonviolence have strongly differentiated it from pacifism, which is associated with abandoning “a concern with redressing social grievances, and a commitment to changing unjust social structures” (Crow & Grant, 2009, pp. 34-35).
Still others go further, equating pacifism and nonviolence but arguing that they are ineffective and impose patriarchal morals on the poor. Nonviolent advocates and pacifists, these critics say, ignore the vital role of violent militants in supposedly nonviolent movements, probably because nonviolence is usually proposed by privileged white people who expect poor people of color to suffer through injustice while waiting for the fabled critical mass (Gelderloos, 2007, p. 23).

Criticisms of nonviolence and pacifism are extremely important, and do indeed exist, especially of domesticated liberal nonviolence. In some ways American nonviolence hasn’t really evolved since the 1960s and remains predominantly symbolic: bumper-sticker signs, marching, and petitioning the powers for permits to petition the powers, etc. Symbolic acts are necessary, but they could simultaneously function as rituals and as subversive disruptions, such as when the Plowshares Movement burned draft cards with homemade napalm and hammered millions of dollars of damage into, and poured blood over, nuclear warheads while quoting biblical prophets.
Even so, taking some of the above criticisms seriously is a bit difficult 2. Nonviolence does sometimes support the state, but violence doesn’t fare any better. And, ironically, arguing that nonviolence is racist actually sounds a little racist. These arguments assume that Indian independence and American civil rights mainly worked because they faced Christian nations with moral consciences (Apsey, 1990, p. 27); they wouldn’t have succeeded if they opposed repressive dictators, presumably black or brown dictators. Setting aside ignorance about British massacres and American segregation, I wonder how critics explain the nonviolent ousting of Pinochet in Chile, cultural resistance against the Roman empire (ibid, p. 27), nonviolence among the revenge-oriented Pashtuns (Flinders, 1990, p. 190), and resistance to the Nazis in Norway, Holland (Schwarcz, 1990), Denmark, and the Rosenstraße protests in Berlin (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 20), just to name a very few. Not to mention that nonviolent campaigns are twice as successful as violent ones (ibid, p. 7) partly because they do motivate diverse mass participation (ibid, pp. 30, 39, 192). Maybe critical mass isn’t so fabled after all.

Furthermore, violent wings of nonviolent movements may actually prohibit success, with 50% leading to civil war within ten years, compared to 27% of movements that didn’t have armed campaigns (ibid, p. 218). Radical responses do sometimes coexist, and sometimes make easy distinction difficult (ibid, p. 12) such as in People Power in the Philippines, but it was only after the nonviolent mass movement emerged that major change occurred in overthrowing the U.S.-backed dictator (ibid, p. 169). Additionally, while the first Palestinian intifada didn’t end the Israeli occupation or halt settlement construction, the uprising “achieved more than had decades of armed attacks” (King, 2009, p. 146). Supposedly, extremist coalitions make modern oppositionists appear more attractive, but the opposite is historically more likely: armed groups cause regimes to violently unify against the threat without distinguishing between nonviolent and violent campaigns (ibid, p. 43). Dividing the regime’s support base contributes to success, and nonviolence has the strategic advantage, contra the belief that it’s tactically inferior. Violent campaigns are physically prohibitive and have a harder time recruiting women and the elderly (ibid, p. 35), making it inherently hierarchical. Nonviolent action has less physical, informational, and moral barriers (ibid, p. 34).

The moral barrier implies that hard and fast lines between nonviolence and pacifism might be fuzzier. One of the best parts of criticisms of pacifism and nonviolence (aside from surfacing latent discriminatory and ineffective tendencies within some modes) is showing that the two are not worlds apart. To be sure, pacifists can be haughty moralists who wouldn’t flick a fly, or blow up Danish railways to resist the Nazis, but nonviolent activists can also sound like world-weary martyrs who smugly lament their pragmatism, but such is life. The difference between the two is often implicitly framed around morality and empiricism: pacifism supposedly responds solely out of religious dogma while nonviolence pays attention to context. However, strategy can’t escape ethical judgments: arguing for nonviolent tactics puts a value-claim on effectiveness first, or on the possibility of violence at some point. Exclusively privileging faithfulness or effectiveness is a dangerous game, because one can result in pious inaction while the other can result in justifying the same tactics employed by the regime. Perhaps some pacifists are simply remaining faithful to effectiveness. After all, religion and morality are evolved parts of the human condition, with roots in ritual and empathy 3.

I’m not able to dispel all the divisions that exist between pacifism and nonviolence. I’m not really even interested in doing so. Both words have been used to refer to a moral ethos and to strategic resistance.
During the Nuremberg trials, Herman Göring explained that outlawing pacifism helped capture power for the Nazis, because if you denounce pacifists as unpatriotic and therefore a threat to security, more people flock to the leaders. I call myself a pacifist partly because I like the word better. Etymologically, pacifism is one who makes peace. At a certain time, I preferred nonviolence over pacifism, probably because of the overused complaint that it sounds like passivism. But now I resonate more with the word pacifism because it has a deeper cadence and rhythm, almost a complicated narrative flavor, and it speaks to what it is rather than what it is not. Still, I like the linguistic via negativa of the word nonviolence. Whichever word is used, I will reject both unless they are an embodied praxis engaging economic, social, and political life. Unless they refer to “an all-out war against poverty,” against the “spiritual and physical homicide” of racism, and a “true revolution of values” against “the spiritual death” of war. On this point, I am in solidarity with the critics.

At the very least we can say that both nonviolence and pacifism should attempt to understand and redirect violence. Maybe we should shelf the tired terms for a spell and speak of life-giving or death-dealing acts, which could hopefully reframe exhausting debates about property destruction. Purist definitions ignore the fact that it’s not possible to act and remain perfectly pure (Deming, 1990, p. 95). Pacifism is not at odds with physical force, with the force of physicality such as sit-ins, strikes, human chains, and roadblocks. Pacifism, or nonviolence, is the art of presence, which is collective action and organized movements that evade restrictive control by exploring potentiality and new open spaces (Bayat, 2009, pp. 48-49). We strategically place our political bodies in the body politic. “But what would you do if someone’s raping your sister or mother or girlfriend?” Apparently, one can insert any female at this point, pun intended. “Well, what would you do?” You pull the offender off her! Nonviolence is not a legalistic course of action implemented in moments of tension; it is a way of engaging with people and the world. Nonviolence, or pacifism, is relationship, and you can’t have a relationship with someone while they’re raping your best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt.

If we shelf these cumbersome concepts, we could also talk about satyagraha and the commensurability of ends and mean. Satyagraha, or grappling with the force of truth, means that aggression and energy aren’t repressed but are instead converted and transfigured. Because we must come to grips with the anger and rage within ourselves. In this case, nonviolence is violence transformed; it is “transviolence, where the power of passions like anger, hatred, and fear is reshaped into a potent fighting force” (Flinders, 1990, p. 189). After all, violence is a form of communication; it intends to say something. However, violence may be the only communicative act that has predictable effects on the other party without any need to understand them (Graeber, 2011, p. 48). Anarchist David Graeber thinks this is violence’s most characteristic trait: “its capacity to impose very simple social relations that involve little or no imaginative identification” (ibid, p. 49). He suggests that violence is “the trump card of the stupid, since it is that form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response” (Graeber, 2011, p. 49).

As far as I can tell, Graeber is mostly referring to the structural and repressive violence of state regimes than to the revolutionary violence of the poor, which often seems to be the main target of critique by liberal proponents of nonviolence (Myers, 1994, p. 243), who are actually few and far between. I empathize with some violent liberation movements, with Frantz Fanon’s anguished pleas to understand the “‘knowledge of the practice of action’” (Deming, 1990, p. 97). “First World” activists and peacebuilders run the risk of looking down our condescending noses at the violent actions of the oppressed without ever experiencing constant domination. However, militarized revolutions almost always reproduce the cycle which they sought to overthrow, because they are dependent on the same worldviewing and the same resources, like the international arms trade, in order to resist empire. The result is more deaths and another suppressive regime. As Audre Lorde said, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine transformation” (Lorde & Clarke, 2007, p. 112-3). For instance, the first Palestinian intifada was predominantly a concerted and mobilized nonviolent revolution, and it paved the way for the Oslo Peace Accords. However, in the aftermath of Oslo’s failure, the second violent intifada began, in which suicide bombings drastically increased. Ten years later, the situation on the ground is far worse with a massive concrete wall, intensified movement restrictions, and accelerated settlement construction. As Ched Myers reminds us: “The romantic myth of the guerilla fighter armed with only an AK-47 and a heart full of revolutionary love is just that—a romantic myth” (Myers, 1994, p. 243).

“First World” activists must tread carefully when suggesting strategic responses to oppression they do not suffer, especially if they can’t distinguish between Israeli soldiers with automatic guns and Palestinian kids with rocks. But polite silence is not solidarity (ibid, p. 239); imperialistic intervention and wholesale acquiescence are both dead-ends. However, once we know and have witnessed we are called by the event to respond, whether in action or feigned ignorance. In a way, we have a stake simply by now being present. Allies should offer insights, advice, and experience, which are all embedded in valuations of the world. But ultimately, we should balance voicing concerns and making suggestions with leaving the final decision to people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined with persecution, even if we disagree with the ultimate decision.

We also need to strike a life-saving balance between self-assertion and respect for others (Deming, 1990, p. 104). This evolved instinct bypasses the aforementioned domesticated nonviolence that mostly appeals to humanistic consciences, thus providing a lot of fodder for legitimate criticism. Radical action troubles conscience and resorts to power (ibid, p. 100). Nonviolence is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or maybe a chimera of the two. Apparently, the only animals capable of love are those who maintain this equilibrium (ibid, p. 104). Maybe Jesus of Nazareth was right when he said we love others as we love ourselves, or as we assert our own lives. Radical action might encompass the love of neighbors and love of enemies.

Las Abejas exemplifies this equilibrium and also helps reconcile nonviolence and pacifism. Las Abejas is a Christian pacifist civil society of indigenous Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, committed to nonviolent resistance against neoliberalism, imperialism, and militarism. Much of their advocacy centers on agricultural work, threatened by Mexican and international economic policies (Kovic, 2003, p. 67). The land is intimately related to their identity as indigenous people: it is “our life and our freedom” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 61). Las Abejas means “the bees” in Spanish, because “like the bees we want to build our houses together, to collectively work and enjoy the fruit of our work . . . We want to produce 'honey' but also to share with anyone who needs it” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 5). One member noted that bees are small insects that can disturb a sleeping cow with one sting (ibid, p. 5). The queen of this hive is the kingdom of God (Kovic, 2003, p. 70), or the queendom of God. Las Abejas represents the need for liberatory interepretations of religious traditions (Bayat, 2009, p. 50), because religions aren’t fixed (ibid, p. 44): they are like rivers, cascading in tributaries and undercurrents. After all, Jesus was an indigenous Galilean craftsman who instigated the prophetic renewal of Israelite tribal confederacy, challenging both domestic elites and foreign imperialism.
Las Abejas began in 1992 in response to a land dispute in which one man was killed and several others injured (Kovic, 2003, pp. 62-64). Five men were arrested without warrant and wrongly accused of the attack (ibid, p. 64). Las Abejas, who promoted nonviolent resolution to the dispute, organized 200 indigenous Tzotzil to march 41 kilometers and sit in front of San Cristobal’s cathedral to protest the unjust arrests; by the time they arrived, 5,000 people had joined (ibid, pp. 65-66). The five men were soon released (ibid, p. 66) 4. Five years later, a paramilitary group killed 45 members of Las Abejas who were praying in a chapel in Acteal, even as police officers stood 600 feet away and government authorities took five hours to respond. But Las Abejas, as they called for justice, also called for forgiveness and reconciliation. They believed that commitment to all three constituted their nonviolence.

This is a delicate constitution. For a month or so, friends of mine and I slept a night or two a week in the home of a nonviolent protest leader outside of Bethlehem in case of military night raids. Soldiers were often in communication with this leader and obviously knew where he lived. They once suggested that they come to his house for tea and discuss alternatives to weekly protests against the wall. He replied that they were not welcome now, because they had the power to come whenever they wanted. When the conflict was over, he said, they were welcome for tea, ahlan wa sahlan, but until then he would see them at the demonstrations. I’ve been called an anti-Semite for work I’ve done in the occupied territories, and for even calling them “occupied territories.” At the same time, an activist friend severely questioned my concern for Palestinians because I worked for a reconciliation group. To her, all such groups are projects of normalization that care nothing for justice, for home demolitions or night raids or checkpoints or arrests or settlements. And yet she accused me as we drove to the home of the nonviolent protest leader.

Transformation may begin with covenanting ourselves to the wreckage and gift of the beautiful risk of life. The Realist, however, throws in the cards and says, “This world is what we have and we must accept it,” which isn’t really realism as much as it is elitism. To recognize the violence of the world, and to recognize that our current ways of living exacerbate this, and then to suggest that we must continue this currency, is the most unrealistic thing imaginable. Knowing something doesn’t work and yet continually expecting it to work borders not only on unrealism but on stupidity. I think Freud said this is the definition of insanity.

1: However, Jessie Wallace Hughan argues for the possibility of pacifist resistance to military invasion (Hughan, 1990, p. 169).
2: Especially with responses like George Lakey’s, who notes that a much higher proportion of people of color have engaged in nonviolent action than white people (see also Myers, 1994, p. 239).
3: Of course, ritual, and therefore religion, has roots in scapegoating violence and destructive mimesis. Compelling theological work has noted how the Christian narrative of crucifixion and resurrection exposes this violence through solidarity with the scapegoated victim. However, ritual also evolves from play, and beneficial mimesis also forms culture.
4: As far as I know, few white people were involved.


Apsey, L. S. (1990). How transforming power has been used in the past by early Christians. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 27-28). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Bayat, A. (2009). No silence, no violence: A post-Islamist trajectory. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 43-63). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Crow, R. E. & Grant, P. (2009). Questions and controversies about nonviolent political struggle in the Middle East. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 31-42). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deming, B. (1990). On revolution and equilibrium. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 94-104). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Flinders, T. (1990). The good fight—Badshah Khan, the frontier Gandhi. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 187-191). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gelderloos, P. (2007). How nonviolence supports the state. Boston: South End Press.

Graeber, D. (2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Hughan, J. W. (1990). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 168-177). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kovic, C. (2003). The struggle for liberation and reconciliation in Chiapas, Mexico: Las Abejas and the path of nonviolent resistance. Latin American Perspectives, 30, 58-79. Retrieved July 14th, 2012, from JSTOR.

Lorde, A. & Clarke, C (ed.). (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world
. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Schwarcz, E. (1990). Nonviolent resistance against the Nazis in Norway and Holland during World War II. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 184-187). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Sharp, G. (1990). Nonviolent action: An active technique of struggle. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 147-150). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

(2005) Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers.

Tavanti, M. (2003). Las Abejas: Pacifist resistance and syncretic identities in a globalizing Chiapas. New York: Routledge.


  1. Great thoughts, John. I agree that, with all its problems, "pacifism" is a better term than "nonviolence"—though I strongly believe that they should be seen as complementary. Walter Wink, of course, is another great nonviolence advocate who rejected the term "pacifism."

    I think the best response is to keep working at language that helps us to practice genuine peacemaking. I do think the language is important, even if it is difficult.

  2. Violence as the "tump card of the stupid." That's priceless!