Is Pacifism Dead?

hqdefaultI must admit that I was dumbfounded when I heard about Political Jesus’s synchroblog about pacifism. Nowadays pacifism is like socialism; a flawed but noble ideal that few people take seriously and fewer still are willing to embrace completely. The only thing left to say about pacifism would be to write its obituary and mourn its loss.

But Sarah Moon’s recent posts on the subject had me thinking that there was a lot to be said about the topic. In her two-part series on pacifism, Sarah levies a number of grievances against modern pacifists:

1)  The arrogance of privileged pacifists weighing on matters they themselves never had to deal with (and likely never will).

2) The tendency to reduce painful experiences to hypotheticals to be utilized to promote the cause.

Point 1 is what led me to post on the topic. But before I get too deep into this, I should say that my intentions here are to use the issues she raises as jumping-off points. I was befuddled by her description of pacifists who hold Travon Martin accountable for his own death, but then again, I’ve spent a lot of time here describing eccentric Christians. She’s obviously dealt with these oddball pacifists.

My contention with Point 1 is that there are  just plain not many pacifists left, especially among privileged individuals. I suspect the philosophy was mortally wounded by 9/11, when suggestions of a pacifist response to terrorists offended peoples’ sense of justice and desire for retribution.  Twelve years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has numbed us to accept our state of perpetual war. Sure, even non-pacifists want all our troops home. But they’re not willing to dismiss the possibility of new battles.

To remain vital, pacifism needs direct, palpable threats to respond to. This is why pacifism was more conspicuous during the Cold War. Fear of nuclear annihilation compelled people to assess what they were willing to fight for and die for, because we were one button away from the end of humanity. A draftee who refused ti fight in Vietnam was making a major decision that required sacrifice and possibly loss of citizenship. Today’s all-volunteer military filters out conscientiously objectors; if you don’t want to fight, you simply choose not to enlist.

So for the West, the stakes seemed higher back then. Terrorism may carry the threat of dirty bombs, but it’s an abstract concern. No dirty bombs exist yet, while there are still thousands of nuclear warheads that we’ve somehow forgotten about. While some fret over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, their incompetence elicits more jokes than serious discussion. The most urgent nuclear threat lies on the Indo-Pakistani border, but only a handful of westerners give much thought to south Asian politics.

Defense spending used to be a regular point of contention for liberals. Liberals still argue for defense cuts, but since it’s viewed as a losing issue politically, no one frets much about it.  The fact that our current democratic president has presided over the killing if numerous Al Qeada leaders (especially Bin Laden) has become a point of boasting rather than consternation. It’s a talking point that flusters the Right, and pacifism takes a back seat to patriotic cheers and liberal schadenfreude.

If 9/11 provided the fatal blow to the pacifist movement in the West, the seeds of its destruction were planted during the first Gulf War. Pacifists were outraged when CNN showed satellite footage of aerial bombings. The anesthetic view spared the viewer the sight of carnage and destruction. With no humans visible in the target view, every bomb looked like a clean hit with no civilian casualties.

Bill Clinton did his own share of damage to the pacifist cause. When the Serbian genocide grabbed headlines, liberals were the ones arguing for aggressive military intervention. This was back in the days when Ron Paul-style laissez faire foreign policy was the norm for the Republican Party. To give you a sense of how drastic the roles had reversed, I remember a cartoon from that period depicting an angry donkey shouting for war next to a skeptical elephant in a tie-dye t shirt and hippie peace necklace.

And of course, George W Bush did the most damage to pacifism via 9/11 and an escalation of censored war reporting (which the mainstream press gleefully embraced). Neocon foreign policy was assumed to be the most rational response to the threat of terrorism, and anything less than a full-blown effort to kill all of the terrorists was seen as a sign of insensitivity or weakness.

So if pacifism is a dead philosophy in western society, where does that leave it on a global scale? I’ll explore that question in part 2.

Chaos Isn’t Always Bad


This is Part 2 of my response to Alastair Roberts’ post regarding the state of progressive evangelicalism. I’m going to focus on point 3. Roberts states:

“The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online.”

For the most part, I think he’s right about this. Last year I posted my own thoughts about how Liberal Christianity in general is dying off. While I still feel the same overall about Liberal Christianity in general, I am much more optimistic now than I was when I wrote that post.

The reason why is that the longterm trends on the evangelical Left have been towards increased order and consensus. I have been involved in sharing the Gospel for about twenty years. For most of those years, people who rejected the Gospel did so for personal reasons. Online I found a lot of the same theological reasons, but digging a little under the surface almost always personal issues: either they a bad experience with a church or parents, felt rejection based on sexual orientation, or they were content with their current belief system.

In 2005, I saw a dramatic shift. Political reasons for rejecting the Gospel took center stage. While the personal issues were still prominent, I saw more and more nonchristians who remained so explicitly because they equated Christianity with Republican politics. The catalyst was the re-election of George W. Bush and the evangelical church’s willingness to be identified with the administration’s politics.

All of the campus missionaries I know agree that they too saw a dramatic shift around 2005. Suddenly they found themselves trying to assure students that their ministry wasn’t a stealth attempt to make young people become Republicans. The personal issues were still prominent, but for an increasing number students the main issue was conservative politics. Since then, the number of people who identify Republican politics with Christianity has increased.

Around the same time my pastor and I devised a series of “man on the street” interviews, where I asked people three questions:

“What is your opinion about Jesus?”

“What is your your opinion about evangelicals?”

“Are you familiar with our church, and if so, what do you know about it?”

The results were fascinating. We expected pushback from nonchristians and friendly discussions with other Christians. Instead we found almost all of the nonchristians were happy to share their thoughts. They enjoyed having a  dialogue with us.

The Christians, on the other hand, were full of anger. The few evangelicals we met were glad to share their feelings, but since they recognized us as fellow believers, they didn’t feel the need to elaborate.  But the other Christians were accusatory:

“Why are you doing this?” (asked as if we were firing them from their jobs)

“You people are ruining this country.”

“You’re destroying Christianity for the sake of winning elections.”

“You people don’t even believe in Jesus.”

Only a handful of Christians were willing to have their answers recorded. Some not only insisted that we turn our camera off, they also insisted we empty our pockets to prove that we weren’t secretly recording them anyway. They really wanted to respond to our questions, but they suspected if we recorded them, we would edit it dishonestly. No nonchristians suspected we were up to no good.

From my perspective, what we’e seeing now from Millennials is a smooth continuation of that pushback against evangelicals. In the eight years that have passed, many Millennials have come of age or moved beyond their conservative roots. And what I see now is a more coherent list of tenets Liberal Christians are willing to define themselves by, and voices that, while not authoritative, have found themselves with an audience willing to rally around them. Given how young many of these people are, the movement is coalescing ahead of schedule.

Granted, the movement is still in a state of chaos and uncertainty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most successful movements start in a disorganized fashion and slowly move towards structure and institutionalization. The Tea Party began with an obscure CNBC pundit named Rick Santelli ranting about the mortgage bailout. The Arab Spring began with a Tunisian  fruit seller named  Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. The Civil Rights movement broke open nationwide when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Mundane beginnings can launch dramatic results.

It’s worth noting that none of these figures wound up becoming leaders in movements they sparked, and at first each of them defined themselves by what they were against (in the case of the Tea Party, they still define themselves that way.) I would argue that Liberal evangelicals treat conservatives as foils because they still wish to remain a part of the evangelical church. In order to change the church, liberals must engage it directly.

The reliance on online community may be temporary. For decades I used to point out that Atheism wouldn’t be able to compete with organized religion because religion offers community and fellowship. Lo and behold,  Atheist churches have begun to pop up, and people are going to them.

That said,  I do agree that the danger is that Liberal evangelicalism could disintegrate into a vague pantheistic spirituality. I’ve noticed a number of liberal evangelical bloggers have begun to shift in this direction. However, I don’t think this trend is irreversible. In spite of its reputation, evangelical Christianity as a whole is extremely flexible. It’s shocking to observe how susceptible it is to fads and charismatic figures, and many churches have reversed themselves on core doctrines in a very short amount of time. If the church can shift rightward in a short period of time, it is quite possible that it could shift leftward, especially if we reach a point where the number of Liberal evangelicals exceed the number of conservatives.