Pacifism: Its Moral Value and Insufficiency
As an action aimed at social betterment, pacifism–the refusal to return violence with violence–almost always fails miserably. In his essay “Non-violent Man and History,” philosopher Paul Ricoeur, himself a pacifist, shined a light on why this is so:
“Failing to consider the broadest dimensions of violence, pacifism thinks itself humane and benign. It believes it is already in the world, that it has come from the world, the result of the natural goodness of man which is simply masked or hindered by some few evildoers. It is not aware that it is actually very complicated, that it has history against it, that it can only come from elsewhere, that it summons history to something other than what is naturally intended by history.
Pacifism is not, as they say, natural: human beings have a proclivity toward violence. We glorify it, mythologize it, or at the very least legitimize it through concepts such as “just war” and institutions such as democratic government. More importantly, pacifism perpetuates the history of violence by refusing to stop the violence of another. To be sure, the response to violence with violence also furthers this history. Both the choices to use violence and to refuse violence result in bloodshed. Neither of these is a bloodless choice. Ricoeur continues:
It seems to me that non-violence can be a valid attitude only if one can expect from it some influence–perhaps quite concealed–upon the course of history. What advantage is there for a man to refuse to kill and accept death in order not to soil his hands? For what does his purity matter? Is he pure if all others are unclean? And doesn’t his act fall back into history with the deadly effects which he did not intend but which nevertheless fulfill the meaning of his act? Thus the violence which one refuses to embrace turns to the profit of another violence which the former did not prevent or perhaps even encouraged. Hence if non-violence is to have meaning, it must fulfill it within the history which it at first transcends. It must have a secondary efficacity which enters into account with the efficacity of the violence in the world, an efficacity which alters human relationships.
To be valid, pacifism has to mean more than the refusal to return violence with violence. It must have an efficacy upon history other than the perpetuation of violence. This efficacy, said Ricoeur, must alter human relationships for the better. Pacifism, I submit, is completed by love–by the willful and passionate striving for the good of others, even and especially one’s enemies.
What does it mean to love one’s enemies? Max Scheler was correct in observing that the precept of loving one’s enemies presupposes the existence of hostility, but I don’t feel he went far enough by speaking of the precept as an absence of hatred in the midst of the struggle. The absence of hatred in favor of a recognition that one’s enemy should be one’s brother or sister does not, on its own, bear the fruits of love. Love is aimed at transformation, not merely the transformation of the individual, but a communal transformation, a conversion of the self and the other together as one. In a word, peace.
The history of violence can be broken only from outside that history–outside of human history. What is outside of human history? The world’s faiths and religions each suggest an answer. The Franciscan sister Ilia Delio, for example, speaks of the call for Christians to “christify” the universe by their actions of love, by which she means their participation in the progression of the universe towards its completion in Christ. Other religions, of course, have their own way of expressing humanity’s participation in what they call the love of God.
As I am a Christian, I pray you will forgive me for quoting the words of another of my confession, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.” It is these energies of love that come to us from elsewhere, from beyond the “normal” course of human history. It is in harnessing these energies that human relationships, historically marked by strife, may be transformed into communities of peace.