The horrific fact of seemingly endless and merciless aggression in the Ukraine has tested my commitment to pacifism. I have deferred commentary on my thoughts for months, but this evening I want to try to share what I can with integrity and humility. I want to begin by affirming my commitment to pacifism and my firm belief that the devastation of war is a violation, a sin, against the sacredness of all life. War is not inevitable. It can and will be eventually abolished, and it is the sacred role of pacifists and all of us to hold that vision and hope and to promote it as possible.
The classic definition of pacifism goes something like this: Pacifism is the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. And I believe this is true. The obvious weakness in declaring such a stalwart definition, however, is that it avoids the question of self defense. At what point in the face of mortal threat is it actually morally irresponsible to fail to protect our communities, loved ones and ourselves? And this is why it is difficult to hold to classic pacifism in light of the merciless aggression of Russia upon the people of the Ukraine.
I don’t have clarity about how to reconcile my commitment to pacifism while also respecting the right to protect. The only option with integrity is to acknowledge with deep regret that humanity has indeed proven capable of incredible brutality while engaged in war and other acts of savagery and genocide, and to accept that there are simply circumstances when it is morally acceptable to defend against them. But then we need to ask what it means to defend. What are the options?
The first option being played out now in the Ukraine is to counter the Russian aggression with more warfare and hope the situation will not escalate into an expanded declaration of regional war or, worse, the use of nuclear weapons. At present this may seem to many the only option available as we wait for diplomatic efforts to find a way to at least temporarily halt the hostility. And even if the conflict is stopped, I see no obvious way the ongoing conflict between Russia, the Ukraine, and its “satellite” neighbors - let alone the rest of Europe and the U.S. - can be fully resolved without some form of nonviolent truth and reconciliation efforts which are not readily apparent. War is not the answer as an ultimate resolution of deep, historical conflict that continues to broil in central Europe and other parts of the world. And it is likely to make things worse.
As a pacifist I don’t believe war can ever be adequately justified other than as a tragic failure of planetary governance. I am willing to concede that under circumstances of extreme duress and injustice such as the invasion of the Ukraine, people have the right, if not obligation, to resist the impact of war upon them, but I am most interested in discovering how war can be resisted and prevented in the first place, how communities and nations can protect themselves other than through a concomitant use of military force. I believe it is crucial that some part of humanity assertively condemn war and those who pursue and engage in it. Like the successful efforts to abolish slavery, it is possible to abolish war and criminalize it as a crime against humanity.
I am increasingly aware of examples of a long history of successful efforts of preventing or undermining war efforts. The Preamble to the United Nations,* for example, establishes the vision for creating a world that would avoid the scourge of war. The International Criminal Court in The Hague (the ICC) was established to prosecute those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression and war crimes as a safety valve to prevent acts of war, much like any court of law intends to prevent interpersonal conflict. If and when the ICC is unequivocally supported as an international arbiter of conflict through international law we would make a huge step toward the prevention of war. (The United States tragically refuses to join the ICC.) There is a growing body of documentation and research that records thousands of examples of successful prevention of deadly conflict.** And I am particularly aware that our national Quaker peace organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, has been supporting efforts to provide for more congressional resources to create stronger means of anticipating and preventing domestic and international deadly conflict. In short, we do not have to accept a gruesome assumption that war is inevitable. In fact, pacifists and others need to say clearly that war will someday be abolished, and we are going to keep that flame of hope alive even in times of war, even if it seems naive, even if we must sacrifice for the right to oppose war as has been the case for conscientious objectors to war and others in the past.
I want to close by bringing the concept of pacifism into our personal lives. Pacifism essentially encourages each of us to make a commitment to seek alternatives to violence. We need to learn and foster the ability to apply techniques like nonviolent communication that provide us with daily skills of violence prevention in our homes, communities and workplaces. Our commitment to pacifism does not mean we have no right to protect ourselves with counter violence; rather it means we as individuals and communities need to develop the skills to protect ourselves through nonviolent practices supported by a deep reverence and love for life and the sanctity and sacredness of our fellow human beings, even as difficult as that may be.
*Preamble of the United Nations
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
**Among a rapidly growing and convincing literature that provides alternatives to deadly conflict, see Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth