How Pacifism Works

Peace activists hold up blue ribbons and a sculpture of a peace dove during an interfaith commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in front of the Brandenburg Gate on Sept. 11, 2011, in Berlin. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you're a fan of classic 1960s music, you probably know Edwin Starr's 1970 hit "War," with its memorable refrain, "What is it good for? Absolutely nothing."

That's an idea that resonates with people who embrace the philosophy of pacifism — in a general sense, the opposition to violence and war as a means of settling disputes.


Throughout history, those with pacifist beliefs have rejected the use of force, and advocated other ways to resolve differences. The term comes from the Latin word pacificus, which means "peace-making" [source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy].

For some pacifists, that means refusing to take up arms in the military, even at the risk of being punished for it. In Israel, for example, a young man named Nathan Blanc made headlines in 2013 for repeatedly refusing to serve during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, even though it meant spending more than 100 days in military prison.

Blanc told the Guardian, a British newspaper, that he felt both sides were in the wrong, and more killing would only deepen the fight. "We, as citizens and human beings, have a moral duty to refuse to participate in this cynical game," he said in the article [source: Sherwood].

Blanc joined a pacifist tradition that dates back to ancient times, and in the modern era includes activists who've used nonviolent methods — such as sit-ins, boycotts and protest marches — to challenge what they think is wrong.

To some, pacifism might seem dreamily impractical and dangerous, not to mention possibly unpatriotic. But proponents argue that pacifism —particularly in its more moderate, flexible variations — actually is a useful way of dealing with conflict, and one that's a better fit with basic human nature.

Duane L. Cady, a former philosophy professor at Hamline College in Minnesota and author of the book "Warism to Pacifism: A Moral Continuum," has written that once a person refuses to take for granted that force is the most effective solution, pacifism is not naïve and unrealistic at all. In fact, all of us are pacifists to some degree, since all of us oppose violence as a means of interaction in many aspects of our lives."

In this article, we'll look at the different types of pacifism, the history of pacifist beliefs and how pacifism has evolved in the age of terrorism.


What Exactly Is Pacifism, Anyway?

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most famous pacifists, was not always against violence. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Opposition to violence and war isn't a religion or a political party. It's an idea, and it's one that people have interpreted and tried to practice in a broad range of ways.

The strongest, purest form is absolute pacifism, in which a person believes that it's always wrong to use violence against other human beings, even in self-defense or defense of another person. It's a difficult course to follow and relatively few throughout history have been willing to embrace it.


Even one of the famous pacifist leaders of all time, Mahatma Gandhi, acknowledged that while he saw nonviolence as "infinitely superior" to violence, he wasn't against India waging war in self-defense. "I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden," Gandhi said.

But there are plenty of other forms of pacifism that take more nuanced views than absolutism. In pragmatic or conditional pacifism, someone is opposed to using violence or waging war in a particular situation — for example, the conflict in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s — because he or she believes it's the wrong solution for that particular conflict [source: Cady, BBC]. But that person might think it's OK to use violence in some other context, such as defeating Hitler and the Nazis in World War II.

Another moderate form of pacifism is selective pacifism, in which a person opposes certain types of violence — such as wars using nuclear bombs or other weapons of mass destruction because they are so devastating [source: BBC].

You can also look at pacifism in terms of how pacifists actually carry out their beliefs. Some pacifists have such an aversion to war that they'll refuse to participate in any way, and will endure going to prison or worse rather than serve in the military.

Other pacifists take a less rigid position. They won't pick up a gun, but they'll be willing to serve in some non-violent capacity, such as driving an ambulance or working in a hospital. This position is called active pacifism [source: BBC].


The History of Pacifism

Quakers read out a list of names of those who have already died in Vietnam as a protest against America's involvement in the war, in New York City in 1970. Quakers have historically been pacifists. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Pacifism isn't quite as old as war, but its roots go back to ancient times. Perhaps the first major pacifist figure was Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, who broke with the tradition of his warrior caste in India sometime between 400 and 600 B.C.E. and taught his followers that it was wrong to inflict suffering on any living thing [source: Walters and Jarrell]. One of the first great Buddhist Indian kings, Ashoka, renounced wars of conquest because of his beliefs [source: Britannica].

Followers of the Greek philosophy of Stoicism believed that individuals should resolve conflicts peacefully if not groups [source: Britannica]. In the first century C.E., Jesus preached the virtue of not resisting evil with violence, instead instructing his followers, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well" (Matthew 5:39). In 296, one of his followers — a Roman named Maximilian — took that message to heart, and refused to serve in the Empire's legions, which led to his execution [source: Williams].


But pacifist ideas began to flower in earnest in late Renaissance Europe. In the early 1500s, the Dutch writer Erasmus argued that Christianity and war were irreconcilable, and "building a city is much better than destroying one" [].

Pacifist religious denominations such as the Quakers and Mennonites looked for safe havens in colonial America, where some of them declined to participate in the Revolutionary War because of their beliefs [source: Yoder].

In the 1800s, the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars helped stimulate the rise of pacifist groups such as the London Peace Society, which promoted the idea that arguments between nations should be resolved without resorting to violence [source: Brown].

Many of the 19th century's most prominent intellectuals espoused pacifist beliefs, including Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose Christian beliefs led him to reject the use of force by society to maintain order, and French economist Frédéric Passy, who organized an international peace conference in Paris in 1878 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his peace activism [sources: McKeogh,].


When Pacifists Become War Resisters

Vietnam veterans (including one in a wheelchair) take part in an anti-Vietnam war march in San Francisco in 1970. Harold Adler/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

If you're a fan of the TV series "Downton Abbey," you know how horrible of a slaughter World War I was. It was so bad, in fact, that after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, about 21,000 young men sought legal exemption from the military draft as conscientious objectors (COs).

They were compelled to go through boot camp anyway, but in the end, about 4,000 of them did not have to serve in combat. Some of the reluctant soldiers were allowed to serve in different ways, while others were granted deferments to go back and work on farms [source: Patterson].


Other men simply went to prison. When a conscientious objector named Evan Thomas refused an order to eat during a hunger strike, for example, a military prosecutor sought to have him executed, arguing that failure to punish such cowards would threaten the U.S. government's survival. Instead, Thomas was sentenced to 25 years — though eventually, he was released early thanks to a legal technicality [source: Thomas].

During World War II, even more Americans — more than 72,000 — sought CO status, and another 6,000 were jailed for refusing to cooperate with draft boards at all.

But the U.S. government didn't treat resisters as harshly as it had in the previous conflict. Many were allowed to serve in the Civilian Public Service, where they could work on conservation projects or as firefighters. Some even showed their bravery by serving as guinea pigs in medical experiments

Similarly, during the Korean War in the 1950s, conscientious objectors were allowed to do construction and farm work instead of taking up arms [source: Yoder].

During the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and early 1970s, it became more difficult to seek CO status, because of changes in the law that excluded anybody who didn't object to all wars for religious reasons. As a result, while 170,000 young men were granted CO status, tens of thousands chose either to go into hiding or flee to other countries [source: Yoder].

Even after the U.S. stopped military conscription in 1973 and switched to an all-volunteer military, some members of the service occasionally refused to participate in wars. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2004, for example, 110 soldiers filed paperwork to become COs. Half had their requests granted. Some of those rejected went into hiding, while others were court-martialed and served jail time [source: Associated Press].


Pacifism and Nonviolence

One of the most important figures of the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful movement to free India from British rule and gain independence in 1947. But unlike revolutions in other countries, the massive rebellion wasn't a violent one. Instead, Gandhi's followers staged sit-ins and other protests, and willingly allowed themselves to be arrested by colonial authorities.

Gandhi took religious principles common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, another Indian religion, and turned them into a non-violent strategy for overcoming an adversary. He called it satyagraha, which means "truth force." His brainstorm was that nonviolence eventually would wear down an opponent and convert him to the right point of view.


But Gandhi's nonviolence wasn't exactly the same as pacifism. (Indeed, as we mentioned previously, Gandhi wasn't against the idea of India using force to protect its interests once it gained independence.) Instead, nonviolence was what Gandhi saw as weapon that could equalize a struggle against an oppressor, and which could be used by all — children, women and people of all ages.

That said, Gandhi's "weaponization" of pacifism did include a reverence for life and a respect and empathy for others that fits with pacifist beliefs. He admonished his followers never to insult their opponents, or the British flag, even though to Indians it represented oppression. And if a British official was assaulted, Gandhi told his followers that they should protect him from assault, even at the risk of losing their own lives [source: BBC].


Can Pacifism Work in the Age of Terrorists?

Syrian kids and activists plant olive trees to show their wishes for peace on the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war in Damascus, Syria, in 2016. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Pacifism and nonviolence have always come with risks. The most obvious example is American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who initially kept guns in his Montgomery, Alabama, home to protect himself against violent whites, even as he led a boycott against the city's segregated bus system that was based upon passive resistance.

But after visiting India in 1959 to study Gandhi's philosophy, he committed himself to nonviolence, and gave up his guns. He once even tried to reason with an American Nazi Party member who jumped on stage to assault him [source: Engler and Engler].


King, of course, eventually paid with his life for his nonviolent activism — though his movement, in the end, succeeded in breaking down many of the barriers to African-Americans.

But does nonviolence usually "work" as far as achieving the goals of a movement? Pacifism and nonviolence have a decent track record for defeating oppressive regimes, or at least getting them to make concessions and allow more freedom.

In a study published in the journal International Security in 2008, scholars Erica Chenoweth of Wesleyan University and Maria J. Stephan of American University looked at hundreds of rebellions against governments between 1900 and 2006, in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Burma. They found that in 53 percent of the conflicts, nonviolent activism was successful, while only 26 percent of violent rebellions succeeded.

But it's difficult to see how pacifism would be effective against the 21st century scourge of violent terrorist groups, who have no qualms about exterminating their adversaries.

"It's not very likely, at least at this point, that ISIS will respond to a nonviolent peacemaking team, or even to substantial numbers of nonviolent people taking action," Christian pacifist Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, noted in a recent interview. But while modern pacifists such as Sider concede that war may be the only answer against some extreme threats, they still see it as a last resort, and believe that most conflicts can be resolved peacefully.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Pacifism Works

This assignment was interesting to me, in that I didn't know a lot about pacifism when I started. But I've trained in a martial art for years, and I know enough about violence to embrace the idea that most problems can be resolved without it.

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