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.