How Pacifism Works

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.

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