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.


  1. One of the things about pacifism that probably has led to passivism is that it's a perspective rooted in a kind of despair about the historical trajectory of the world. It's quite possible that the pacifism of Jesus and the early church was closely linked to apocalyptic hopes, a perspective that contained a vision that damned things the way they were and anticipated a miraculous displacement. I'm aware that there were perhaps more violent apocalypticists than non-violent. The point is that pacifism in Christianity has been closely linked to the idea that Christ's kingdom is not of this world. The practice of the left-wing parts of the Protestant Reformation withdrawing entirely into their own communities is also a manifestation of that perspective. It's been a long time since I've read the Schleitheim Confession, but I recall it being very clear in its damnation of the ways of the world and its call for separation. So I think it's particularly difficult to make a case for a politically engaged pacifism. It's not impossible, of course. It's been practiced, as you observe, since the mid-20th century, and Gish, Wallis, and their ilk are important voices. However, you are asking people who have despaired of the ways of the world to be also actively engaged in transforming that world.

    1. Anton, I was with you up to your last sentence. I don't think the main challenge for politically engaged pacifists is to rouse up their passive comrades. I think it is to engage the hot heads, the war mongers, and the fascists in our communities and present alternative, non-violent solutions to current problems.

      One concrete, small-scale example is yesterday's murders at the Rosedale Ridge apartments, just north of Rainbow Mennonite Church. For several years, Rainbow volunteers have joined with the Nazarenes in a small-scale social service agency there. Obviously, those efforts have not been enough to make this subsidized housing complex violence-free.

      Is the the major challenge finding enough "passivists" to expand services to this area? Or is it to fend off backlash from the surrounding neighborhood to close this housing complex down and demolish the buildings and plant a community garden?

      Well, maybe you are right. Activating the passive ones among us may be more the problem in this case.

      But, I still say, the pro-social (vs. pro-individual) culture of any given congregation may be the deciding factor, not its theology. Urban congregations like Rainbow with members commuting from suburbs have a unique opportunity to participate in solving endemic urban problems as "concerned neighbors." It may be more of a stretch for suburban congregations, having withdrawn, along with their members, into their own (safe) communities, like the left-wing Anabaptists of old, to get motivated and find ways to wage peace.

  2. Phil: I've heard you (and maybe Leroy, too) use that phrase, "to wage peace." I like it a lot. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I would think it might be possible to hang a social movement on it.

    I'd like to expand this conversation at some point to talk about macro-solutions vs. micro-solutions because your examples bring it to mind. (This is now off the topic of pacifism.) In college, for a while, I was very much involved in working, even living briefly, in some slums in St. Louis. However, as I experienced the problems more and studied the issues more, I realized that that kind of work, while noble, honest, caring, Christian, is nevertheless like trying to cure cancer with band-aids. The problems are deeply systemic and far worse than they need to be if we had the political will in this country to create systems that don't keep spewing people out into lives of misery. In other words, what I'm saying is that we have a political and economic system that breeds the kinds of social problems so many of us have tried to work with on an everyday level. I fear that what we're really doing in the big picture is, at best, preventing a failed state from fully collapsing. But we should not believe that our social-work type activities are going to make much difference.

    Sorry, Leroy, to get off point here. :-)

    1. Anton, this big picture stuff (macro, systemic, etc.) is what makes most of us passive, when we could chip around the edges if we were inspired.

      I guess I am so preoccupied with evolutionary theory and inspired by "The Neighborhood Project" by David Sloan Wilson, that I think it really gets at the macro, on a step-by-step basis. Some of us humans are stuck on the Ayn Rand theory that altruism and pro-social behavior punishes the successful and rewards the failures. Others believe we are all in this together and we all survive or go extinct en masse.

      If we take the threat of nuclear war as an example, some build fallout shelters, some lobby for nuclear disarmament, some say we need to win the arms race (and bomb Iran), some build organizations like People-to-People, etc. The Mennonite Central Committee and American Friends Service Committee sent delegations to meet with Abedinejad in 2007(?).

      Which approach is best? I think the context matters, and if getting burned out with one approach, try another, I say. Just because the new nuclear weapons plant was approved and is under construction in KC, and the various civil disobedience actions and petitions haven't been successful, other approaches may bear fruit. But becoming passive is a big temptation.

      In the meantime, assuming the world doesn't come to an end, and we find ourselves in a city with a certain system of safety nets and social services, and there are still incidents of anti-social behavior we deplore, be creative, I say, and find ourselves a niche where we can do some good.

      Darwin's finches in the Galapagos Islands evolved, initially we think, by some random adaptation, by an individual finch. So, let's adapt, randomly if necessary, on purpose if possible.

    2. Anton, no apology needed (for getting off the point). Waging peace, as I understand it, means working on deep systemic issues. The most important time to work for peace is before wars begin.

      And while in the big picture helping people in the microcosm may well be similar to "trying to cure cancer with band-aids," those "social-work type of activities" do give some relief to suffering people, so that does make an important difference to them.