For some reason, this post was much harder to write—and far longer!—than I ever expected it to be. So I apologize, especially for the length. I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I could comfortably chew, or expect readers to chew. In it, I’ve tried to summarize the belief system of pacifists as a whole, and then to describe the varied Quaker responses to 9/11 in terms of that belief system.
Pacifism sometimes seems illogical and naive to those who don’t espouse it. But the key to the logic of pacifism—and it definitely has its own logic—is that it is a belief system. As such, it’s based on certain premises which are accepted as articles of faith and that, to pacifists, can stand outside the realm of proof.
Certain broad Quaker pacifist beliefs underlie their responses to 9/11. These beliefs are by no means limited to Quakers, so this essay should be relevant to the reactions of many other types of pacifists as well.
There are two main strains of modern-day Quaker belief about how pacifism would actually work in practice. The first approach (which I’ll call the “love” approach) is both individual and transcendent: the pacifist refuses to fight, but understands that others will. The pacifist sees him/herself as serving as an example of another way of being in the world, an alternative and spiritual way. This is the sort of pacifist who might refuse to bear arms but would volunteer to serve as an ambulance driver in the theater of war. This first strain of pacifism also contains the hope that, by meeting hatred with love, and also acting as an example, the pacifist will effect a spiritual and emotional change in the hard heart of the violent person, a turning towards peace (this is also the Gandhian view). Often, as with Gandhi, this pacifist approach assumes that if a large group of individuals could make the decision to meet hatred with love in this manner, the whole enterprise would take on a different aspect and effect a very real change in the conduct of a war, including the possibility of ending that war.
Pacifists of this first variety fervently hope (and believe) that meeting violence with love will cause the tyrannical to have a change of heart. But what if it’s tried, and the approach fails to work as planned? Then those who are nonviolent could easily end up being slaughtered by the violent. Most pacifists don’t look on that prospect with anything like Gandhi’s chilling equanimity.
So, if fighting in a war isn’t allowed, what’s to prevent a slaughter of the innocents? How can the problem of defending against tyranny be solved? What does the pacifist propose as a replacement for a muscular and violent defense to prevent this slaughter from happening?
As we found in Part IIA, many Quakers would answer that at that point, in a clearly defensive situation, it may be time to fight, even for Quakers. They would say that each person needs to make an individual decision about this after some intensive soul-searching.
But many pacifists have trouble with that approach. Absolute pacifists would say instead, as we saw with Gandhi in Part I, that it would be better to allow oneself to be slaughtered and meet death with exemplary courage than to fight and live another day.
Both alternatives can be problematic for pacifists, of course: the choice is between a bang or a whimper. So there is a second pacifist approach (which I’ll call the “law” approach), one that emphasizes prevention and/or alternative resolution of conflict, and can either exist independently of the first approach or complement it. This second approach is both institutional and legalistic: the belief in the structures and rules of international law as the alternative to war. It constitutes a sort of safety net for pacifists: if it works, the pacifist doesn’t need to make the hard decisions to either fight or be slaughtered, because the situation for that choice won’t arise.
If you’ve read my history of Quaker pacifism in Part IIA, you may recall that the first approach has its roots in the views of Fox and Penington, the second in those of William Penn.
Here’s an excellent and representative example of the Quaker “love” approach, a document entitled “Speak Truth to Power,” published by the American Friends Service Committee in 1955. It fully captures the flavor of this approach—individual, idealistic, faith-based:
Our truth is an ancient one; that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history.
As “a belief that stands outside of history,” the faith that love conquers all cannot be challenged or disproven by facts. That’s what makes it a religious—or quasi-religious—belief rather than a proven approach, although I don’t think pacifists would be adverse to proof if it were offered. But such proof is not required.
Here is more in the same vein, in which “reason” is explicitly rejected:
If ever truth reaches power, if ever it speaks to the individual citizen, it will not be the argument that convinces. Rather it will be his own inner sense of integrity that impels him to say, “Here I stand. Regardless of relevance or consequence, I can do no other.” This is not “reasonable”: the politics of eternity is not ruled by reason alone, but by reason ennobled by right…
The early Friends realized only too clearly that the Kingdom of God had not come, but they had an inward sense that it would never come until somebody believed in its principles enough to try them in actual operation. They resolved to go forward then, and make the experimental trial, and take the consequences. So we believe and so we advise.
So the “love” approach is a leap of faith into the unknown, an experiment based on a belief system. This message is considered to be a timeless one. Although the document was written in 1955 and intended in the fight against Communism, the website on which it appears specifically recommends it as still being relevant and timely in the post-9/11 fight against terrorism.
As for the “law” approach, here’s a good post-9/11 example. It was issued by several Quaker groups around the time of the invasion of Afghanistan:
We regret the decision by our nation’s leaders to launch military strikes against Afghanistan, and we call upon them to halt the bombing and other military attacks.
We recognize the responsibility of the international community to apprehend and try, under international law, those responsible for the recent terrorist attacks… History teaches us that violence leads to more violence. We expect that these massive military strikes by missiles and bombers against this already devastated, starving country will almost certainly make it easier for the leaders of this terrorist struggle to recruit more people to their cause. We must break the cycle of escalating violence.
The struggle against terrorism will indeed be long. To succeed, it will have to undermine the ability of those who would use terrorism to recruit new people to carry out such attacks. This requires ending, or greatly diminishing, the tremendous anger and hatred toward the United States and its allies felt, in particular, by many in the Muslim and Arab world. This can only be done with prolonged, nonviolent efforts for reconciliation, justice, and long-term economic development. It cannot be done through massive bombing and military attacks.
Here’s another Quaker post-9/11 “law” response; this one quite divorced from reality, I’m afraid, since it calls for the UN to settle things in Iraq:
…the troop presence in Iraq has lost the support of the Iraqi people and, by most accounts, the U.S. public. All of these events confirm our long-held belief that violence can only beget further violence. The U.S. must give way, so that the UN and other agencies, working with the Iraqi interim government, can bring peace and stability. The AFSC believes that the United States has lost the moral standing to achieve the necessary healing, but remains responsible to support financially those institutions and agencies which can do so.
Here we have another example of the legalistic point of view, written by a Quaker named Mary Lord after 9/11. It calls for international tribunals, special courts, weapons trade limitations, stopping the financing of terrorists, and a host of other peaceful international cooperative approaches (curiously, Ms. Lord maintains that most of these things have not been done, although in fact many have been performed in tandem with the military approaches).
Here is Ms. Lord explaining the pacifist belief system:
Pacifism has been called naïve and unpatriotic. But I ask you, which is the greater naiveté—to believe that the frustrating but productive path of using and strengthening international law is the path of safety, or to believe that a never-ending worldwide war against loosely defined terrorism fought with weapons of mass destruction will make us safe and secure in our gated communities?
The path of war is always, as history proves, the more naïve. War almost never works. Even when it seems to, for a short time, or after a long struggle, it is with a horrific cost of life, and property, and treasure, and the fouling of the earth, and the killing if its creatures. Almost always, similar ends could have been achieved through negotiation or international law and peacekeeping, with far less cost.
This last sentence, which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting in bold, I find extraordinary in its assertion of facts without any even an attempt to marshall evidence. But, as with the “love” approach, facts are not the issue here; belief is, including the oft-stated belief that war “doesn’t work.”
What is meant by this statement that war doesn’t work—or, as sometimes put, that it never solves anything? On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that what is really meant is that war doesn’t solve everything. In other words, no war eliminates all problems, or even eliminates every aspect of a single problem. For example, the Civil War eliminated slavery, but was followed by the anguish of Reconstruction and inequality. But the fact that a war hasn’t solved all problems, or hasn’t even solved a single problem (discrimination against blacks, for example) in its entirety, does not mean that the war didn’t solve some problems, at least partially or in whole. Slavery is no longer with us. The concentration camps are gone. The pacifist belief that war doesn’t solve things not only ignores evidence that it sometimes does (at least partially), but it also fails to take into account how much worse things might be if appeasement had been the order of the day.
As I’ve said, though, pacifism is a belief system, not requiring proof in the eyes of its adherents. But not all Quakers are uninterested in facts or proof. Some pursue them, no matter how upsetting the results. For example, Swarthmore Quaker historian J. William Frost undertook a lengthy study a few years ago:
aimed at finding an answer to the question, “has religion ever prevented or stopped a war?” Or as he put it more pointedly, “is there historical evidence that religious leaders have stopped wars from beginning or shortened their duration?” His sobering answer, in sum, is: No. There is very little such evidence.
The record of western history, as Frost reviewed it, shows that a church “cannot prevent war, because it has neither theology, mission, nor the leverage in society to do so.” Even the largest, most “established” denominations have lacked real leverage, he found….
I could find no similar studies of whether international law had ever stopped a war. Perhaps the answer would be too depressing for pacifists to even contemplate. The results of Frost’s study certainly must have been.
But pacifism has other benefits beyond the practical, at least to its believers. There is the wonderful feeling that comes from a sense of oneself as being spiritual, moral, kind, and loving; and of being part of a group of like-minded individuals engaged in working for a worthy and noble cause (see this previous post for a further explanation of this feeling of “circle dancing,” especially the Milan Kundera quote on the subject.)
Here’s a good example of this genre, in which the feelings of the pacifist about him/herself within the small group of loving Quakers, and the exaltation of the mission, give the author (who became a Quaker post-9/11) hope that such peacefulness is a possibility for all humankind:
I don’t know how it happened. It could have been the anthrax that closed the Princeton Post Office that fall that made each mail day seem like our last. Or maybe it was simply that I liked the architecture of the Meetinghouse. It could have been how Irene, the woman who led the Young Friends Meeting, spoke in a quiet voice and the children listened. Whatever it was, I took to this place. I liked meditating in the creaky-benched silence of the meetinghouse, and how the people I met seemed to have light in their faces, despite the building’s lack of wattage.
By spring, I felt that I’d found a spiritual home. I was so moved by a feeling of at-oneness, that on Easter Sunday, I peeled myself off my bench to stand up and thank everyone for being there…”Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” is a song I probably sang too much as a child. I feel it happening, though, as I participate in Meeting. This spring, as with the Gulf War, I am writing letters to the government and joining protests. But it’s different. This time around, it’s not just my voice and that of a few friends. It’s a whole community I’ve chosen to be part of. This time around, I actually feel the peace I want for the world, and because I feel it, I actually believe it can be possible for others.
Of course, the world is not composed of a circle of peaceful Quakers, a fact of which many Quakers are well aware. And of course, as we’ve learned, not even all Quakers are dancing in the same circle; Quaker belief and tradition allows for an individual response.
So I close with the words of another post-9/11 Quaker statement, this one by a Quaker who challenges pacifism and casts his lot on the other side of it for this conflict. NPR broadcaster Scott Simon says:
One of the unforeseen effects of being in journalism is that your first-hand exposure to the issues of the world sometimes has the consequence of shaking your deepest personal convictions. I happen to be a Quaker; this is known, I have written about this…I covered conflicts in Central America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa. None of them shook my belief that pacifism offers the world a way to foment change without the violence that has pained and poisoned our history…
And then, in the 1990′s, I covered the Balkans. And I had to confront, in flesh and blood, the real life flaw—I am inclined to say literally fatal flaw—of pacifism: all the best people could be killed by all the worst ones…
So I speak as a Quaker of not particularly good standing. I am still willing to give first consideration to peaceful alternatives. But I am not willing to lose lives for the sake of ideological consistency. As Mahatma Gandhi himself once said—and, like Lincoln, the Mahatma is wonderful for providing quotations that permit you to prove almost any point you choose—”I would rather be inconsistent than wrong.” It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has no sane alternative but to wage war; and wage it with unflinching resolution…
We are living in a time when we must remind ourselves of the imperfections of analogies. But let me press ahead with one that has recently been on my mind.
In 1933, the Oxford Student Union conducted a famous debate over whether it was moral for Britons to fight for king and country. The leading objective minds of that university reviewed the many ways in which British colonialism exploited and oppressed the world. They cited the ways in which vengeful demands made of Germany in the wake of the end of World War I had helped encourage the kind of nationalism that may have kindled the rise of fascism. They saw no moral difference between western colonialism and world fascism. The Oxford Union ended that debate with this famous proclamation: “Resolved, that we will in no circumstances fight for king and country.”
Von Ribbentrop sent back the good news to Germany’s new chancellor, Adolph Hitler: the West will not fight for its own survival. Its finest minds will justify a silent surrender.
The most intelligent young people of their time could not tell the difference between the deficiencies of their own nation, in which liberty and democracy occupied cornerstones, and dictatorship founded on racism, tyranny, and fear…
When George Orwell returned to England after fighting against Fascism in the Spanish civil war, he felt uneasy over finding his country so comfortable—so close to Fascism. His country, he said, with its fat Sunday newspapers and thick orange jam.
“…All sleeping the deep, deep sleep,” he wrote, “from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
“The deep, deep sleep.” Sometimes, in sleep, we dream beautiful dreams of peace. And then we wake.