Images of war’s destruction and suffering continue to haunt me this evening. I hold the tension between my personal commitment to nonviolence and the sobering realities of actual war in Ukraine. While I agree that nonviolence, diplomacy and negotiation must be pursued, there are moments when my values are tested in the heat of war, and this is one such moment. So I ask what does it mean to be a pacifist as a means of resisting war? I am not questioning anyone’s level of commitment to pacifism and nonviolence, only my own. May my reflections offer you some guidance if you choose to share my questions and my efforts of response.
The immediate ethical question for my pacifism is when do we have the right to protect ourselves from imminent threat and endangerment? I cannot judge whether it is OK for a Ukrainian or anyone to use lethal force themselves, or to allow someone else to do so in our stead, when they or their loved ones are lethally threatened. It is a decision I hope never to have to make for myself. It is such a terrible, regrettable, and ultimately tragic position to be in. So I must stay neutral in making that judgement for others, and ultimately for myself, until I would be forced to decide on the moment. Decisions about one’s pacifism and nonviolence are individual decisions.
So I find myself then shifting over to try to understand both how to prevent deadly conflict in the first place. And the related question we are asking in terms of the Ukraine: How is it possible to reduce or stop warring conflict once it is initiated?
On a personal level, I am trying to address these questions within my preferred frame of direct nonviolent action, also referred to as civil resistance. The basic question, then, has to do with a willingness to engage in risky acts of courageously, sacrificially confronting injustice. The heart of direct nonviolence resistance begins with intentional preparation for the ability to accept the possibility of counter harm to oneself. The disciplined practice of this tactic was at the heart of Gandhi’s nonviolence resistance, the U.S.civil rights movement, and we now know thousands of such successful movements over the centuries and into the present. Nonviolence as a tactic, then, is not passive. It is an active effort to engage violence without being violent. Pacifism is NOT passive, and I regret that is is an all too easy association between the two words.
But how might organized nonviolence practice be helpfully effective once major war is launched, and that is the dilemma we have now in Ukraine. Putin is apparently unwilling to negotiate and is headlong into a horrific campaign of destructiveness without consideration of the suffering and the humanitarian and civic chaos it creates. And it is heart-wrenching to watch videos and interviews with people directly engaged while feeling the world is so insufficiently able to make the war stop. And this brings us to the further dilemma of whether to counter violence with more violence - in this case how much military aid should we provide and at what risk for escalating the violence, especially under the shadow of nuclear war?
Although we have only limited access to reports of active nonviolent resistance to the war in Russia, we have had access to seeing thousands of people risking physical harm and imprisonment to oppose the war. We may never know how effective their resistance will be, but I find myself deeply moved and inspired by their courage. And there may be resistance and non-cooperation within the Russian military itself as there was by the U.S. military during the Viet Nam war. And like many of you, I have participated in similar risk-taking in demonstrations against our U.S. wars. For the time being we can be grateful that, with the apparent support of the American people, the Biden administration seems restrained in escalation of U.S. involvement in Ukraine although we know we are providing various levels of military support. And there is mounting pressure within Congress to become more actively involved. At such time as the U.S. becomes more involved some actions of resistance may be organized here as well.
So during this time we have the opportunity to both take in the horrors of war and make a more steadfast commitment to studying how to prevent war in the first place and resist it when it begins. I am encouraged about emerging information from our Quaker peace lobby in DC about alternatives to deadly conflict as noted in the footnote. These efforts, too, are expressions of nonviolent direct action.
In closing I acknowledge that my thoughts continue to be inadequate to the enormous questions of how to control and ultimately to abolish war. I believe nonviolence to be a “force more powerful” but we still have only truly begun to explore how effective and powerful it can be while also acknowledging its inadequacies. Especially in the face of nuclear war, we have no choice but to pursue ways to strengthen our commitment to abolishing war. And that is my personal commitment.
*Although our country continues to lavishly support the Pentagon as was apparent in the latest military budget, there is also increasing recognition of the importance of peace building programs. In the recently passed omnibus spending bill thirteen peace building accounts in the federal budget were funded at or above last year’s levels, resulting in a nearly $350 million total increase. In addition Congress agreed to double appropriations for the Complex Crises Fund (CCF), enabling USAID to address emerging conflicts before a crisis develops, and raised the allocation from $30 million to $60 million. (As cited by the Friends Committee on National Legislation fcnl.org.)