Friday, January 20, 2012

I Used To Be a Pacifist

I used to be a pacifist. It was one of my most important identity markers for a long while, right beneath my Christianity. I arrived at pacifism through my Christianity, actually. I wasn’t a social justice Christian exactly, although I did think that Kurt Vonnegut got closer to the true spirit of Christ in his writings than did any Christian apologist. My Christ was a turn the other cheek Christ. Mine was the Christ that told me I was to pick up my cross in this world and follow him. ‘We are just passers-through here’, said my Jesus. ‘Don’t get too comfortable’. So even though I realized how unrealistic my refusal to endorse any kind of violence—even in self-defense—I still embraced it. It was a key principle. It allowed me to suffer as Christ did, and to stand firmly on the truth as I saw it. Maybe C.S. Lewis was right, and pacifism could only lead to a world without pacifists. That was fine. I was willing to suffer for my faith and—I suppose—willing to allow others to suffer for my faith as well. 

I abandoned pacifism before I abandoned Christ, though. My friends and family would argue with me about the untenable nature of my stance. They would argue that in a world where there are people who want to hurt you, it’s okay to hurt them back, or pre-emptively. In a world where big prays on small, it’s okay to stand up for small.  

It wasn’t any of their arguments that won me to the situational endorsement of violence. It was the realization (in a moment where I saw the life of my family put in peril by the vengeful act of a stupid, bitter person) that I was capable of violence. Great violence. At the moment that this incident occurred, I realized that I could kill someone. Not only that I could kill someone, but in this person’s case, I would gleefully kill someone.

The world is a violent place, and we are a violent race. For years I had pretended I didn’t have any elements of this violence in my person. Like in William Bly’s essential essay, I stuffed my violence into a bag until it revolted. When it got out, it was an ugly and misshapen thing. I didn’t know what to do with it at first. Eventually I came to understand it as much as those kinds of things can be understood, and now I accept it as part of my person.

These days I support the death penalty; partially out of bloodlust, but mostly out of pragmatism. I do enjoy the thought of putting down a child murderer or rapist or even a drunk driver guilty of manslaughter. The main reason I support the death penalty is that I think it just makes good sense to send defective parts back to the factory. ‘You are unable to engage in society without causing harm to others. There’s no place on this earth for you’, we say to the murderer and the rapist.

I also support the idea of just wars now. Iraq was not a just war. Neither was Afghanistan, really. Definitely not the way they were executed. They were sloppy, ill-considered vulgarities that were bad for everyone involved. I do believe there’s a role for military action in the world though. I approved of our recent intervention in Libya, both in style and in substance. World War II had to be fought. So did the Civil War. The War of 1812 was necessary too, and so was our demonstration of strength against the Barbary pirates under Thomas Jefferson & James Madison. We are a warlike people, so most of our wars have been bad wars. When the drumbeat starts, Americans find it hard not to dance. We have wreaked havoc on this globe with our wars, and we need people less easily seduced by the rhythm of violence at the helm of our great military industrial complex. 

But there have been good wars, and there will be good wars. There will be good acts of violence at a smaller scale, too:  ‘Wherever you see a cop beating a guy, I’ll be there’.  As our species evolves, we seem to lose our taste for violence. This is good. But we can never forget where we came from, and never forget that violence will always be a tool in our toolbox. 

It occurs to me as I wrap this piece up that I would be disturbed to hear any of my children utter some of the sentiments I have expressed above. The way I phrased my support for the death penalty, coming out of their mouths, would be chilling. Right now my 10 year old son thinks war is always bad, and thinks the death penalty is never okay. I’m proud of him for these stances. He is one of the most humane people I know.  I’m pretty sure he’s comfortable with the idea of self-defense though, and I am glad for that.

Usually, it makes a parent feel good to hear their children echo their own beliefs. Maybe there is some cognitive dissonance from my own days as a passionate pacifist. Maybe I hope that he’s right, and one day there will be more people like him.

Unfortunately, until the day when there are more people like him, there will have to be some people like me.


Lodo Grdzak said...

Well Spence I disagree w/ a lot of what you've said here; though certainly not enough to mount an offensive. That said, I'm reminded of an old, old movie the name of which I can't remember. It was a war movie and may not have been American--possibly Australian (I saw it a long time ago); but it ended with the sergeant or General of the Army or whoever he was telling his assistant.

"You know why men fight wars? Because we like it."

So far in our development, I'd say that's still true.

Spencer Troxell said...

I think the movie quote you cited captures an important element of violence. I hope I conveyed that I recognize that trait in myself in this piece.

the elegant ape said...

the death penalty as well as the idea of war functions best as a abstract...wwII was a good war, except for the twenty million who did not survive the united states there has never been a person executed who was worth over 100,000 dollars liquid.. John wayne gacy came closest at 87000. So putting aside low paid overworked attorneys and a legal system rigged against you the death penalty works famously...if your poor....

Willie Y said...

In the words of Edwin Starr.
War,what is it good for
Absolutely nothing.

DNA evidence has allowed the exoneration and release of more than 15 death row inmates since 1992 in the United States.

castors said...

I disagree with your perception about violence. I believe that in every problem, there is a solution, and violence is not the right thing to do. But I like reading your perception about pacifism.