Monday, March 5, 2012
Pacifism or Passivism?
One Thinking Friend responded my February 25 posting, which was partly about pacifism, with a comment about passivism. That was just a slip, for he knows well the difference between pacifism and passivism. But I have found that some of my students, and others, do not seem to know the difference, thinking that pacifism is passivism.
This matter is complicated by the fact that sometimes pacifists have been, and are, passive. Thus the charge of passivism has often been a major criticism of the pacifistic position.
It is true that through the centuries the Anabaptists, baptists with small b, have not been very active in trying to correct social evils. But there has usually been a good reason for their passivism: they were long a small, persecuted group—just like the early Christians. So they were unable to be directly involved in working for such worthy goals as social justice—again, just like the early Christians.
Arthur G. Gish, a baptist who is the author of the highly influential (for me, anyway) book The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970) and about whom I have previously posted (here), was a dedicated Anabaptist. But he admits that passivism (not his word, but what he is writing about) is “one aspect of Anabaptism of which we need to be critical” (p. 75).
In contrast to the passivity of many Anabaptists of the past, the last chapter of Gish’s small book is “A Theology for Revolution,” and in that important chapter are these significant words I have often quoted: “. . . violent revolution is occurring because nonviolent revolution is not occurring” (p. 139). Gish was a ardent pacifist, but he was anything but passive. (Unfortunately, he died last year in an accident on the farm where he lived and worked.)
Gish was one of the early leaders of what is sometimes called neo-Anabaptism, a helpful designation and a movement that I greatly favor.
James Davison Hunter is the author of a noteworthy book titled To Change the World (2010). In the chapter called “The Neo-Anabaptists,” Hunter says, “Perhaps no one has been more important in the development of the neo-Anabaptist vision and for making it intellectually respectable than the Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder” (p. 152). (Yesterday the Sunday School class I am a member of at Rainbow Mennonite Church started a three month study of Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.)
Neo-Anabaptists include such people as Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community and editor of the Sojourners magazine, and Shane Claiborne, co-founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and author of The Irresistible Revolution (2006) and other books.
Wallis began the Sojourners community (under a different name) forty years ago as a seminary student opposed to the Vietnam War. I don’t know whether he is an absolute pacifist, but he certainly has very much been a peace activist. His pacifism has definitely not meant passivism.
That is the kind of pacifism I am most interested in: not the type that just opposes war but the kind that actively wages peace.