07 February 2011 Ideas

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

I’m pretty extreme in my views on pacifism. I believe that violence is unacceptable in any situation, no exceptions. I’ve had conversations with people over the years about this, but I feel like I should write down my thoughts in a somewhat coherent blog post. Most people don’t like violence. It’s obviously not the best way to go about settling disputes or expressing your opinion. When I ask people what their views on violence are, typical responses range from “It depends on the context” to “It’s a necessary evil that needs to be used sometimes as a last resort”. As a pacifist, I am categorically, unconditionally opposed to the use of violence for any purpose whatsoever. Non-violence as taught by Jesus Religion has been a huge motivator for war over the centuries, and it pains me to see systematic, strategic violence carried out in the name of God. A central theme in the New Testament is humility, which I think is a cornerstone of Christian faith (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12, Luke 18:14). As a Christian, I am called to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29). I am called not to exact revenge on wrongdoers, but to love them unconditionally (Luke 6:32, Matthew 5:46). When Judas brought “a crowd armed with swords and clubs” (Mark 14:43) to sieze and arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword and attacked the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. John writes that this gang of thugs was carrying “torches, lanterns, and weapons”. They were on a witch hunt, and they wanted blood. But Jesus admonished Peter for using violence, even in self-defence: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Jesus commands his followers to deny themselves, and to take up their cross daily. I really like the way that The Message translation interprets it: “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:25) This theme of self-sacrifice, of submission, is a defining characteristic of the early Church. When the apostles were beaten by the Jewish leaders for teaching the Gospel (Acts 5), they were “full of joy because they were given the honour of suffering disgrace for Jesus.” No, God didn’t protect them from suffering. Good things happen to bad people. And we’re called to submit joyfully. (For a more eloquent article about Christian nonviolence, check out Jesus: The Prince of Peace by Keith Giles.) So you just lie down and take it? When I tell people I have a zero tolerance policy for violence, one of the arguments I often hear is something along the lines of: “Yeah, but what if some thug was beating up your best friend? What if someone had a knife to your throat? Are you just going to stand and do nothing?” I must say, I’ve never found myself in such a situation so I can’t guarantee I’d stick to my convictions. But I’d like to think that I would. Let me first explain what violence is, and what it isn’t, according to the Sam Nabi Dictionary of Subjective Meaning. Violence, for the purposes of this blog post, is a physical action with intent to harm. Self-defence (or defending a friend) does not excuse the intent to harm another human being. But pacifism is not just standing by while injustice happens before my eyes. While I wouldn’t hit an aggressor over the head with a frying pan, I would try to dissuade and restrain him. If simple reason and level-headed discussion doesn’t stop someone from committing a violent act, my last resort would be a defensive physical act. I’m talking a bear-hug, full-nelson, or other technique that can be used to immobilize the aggressor without causing pain (I wasn’t on my high school wrestling team for nothing!). Without causing pain is the key factor here. My goal is not to punish the person or exact revenge, but simply to prevent him from hurting someone else. From this position, I can cool the situation down, let everyone take a deep breath, and possibly make the target more receptive to a conversation. But the moment I take advantage of the situation to “get even” by putting a little too much pressure on a headlock, I’ve failed at pacifism. Obviously, there’s a microscopically thin line between what I call a defensive action and an intent to harm. But the difference is there, and intent makes all the difference. Stopping someone from using violence doesn’t mean I have to use it myself. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as a wise man once said. What about the death penalty? I firmly believe that nobody is irreversibly evil. Everyone can change. And someone who has committed terrible acts of violence should not be defined by those acts. Someone who has taken another’s life is not just a murderer. She is also a daughter, a mother perhaps, a friend, a music enthusiast, a citizen, a child of God. The word “murderer” makes it seem like their entire being is defined by a single act of murder. We need to look at people as individuals. Individuals with hopes, dreams, regrets, and a complex history that makes them who they are. No criminal is beyond rehabilitation. For this reason I oppose the death penalty. Capital punishment is just the institutionalisation of our primal, sinful gut-reaction to violence - an eye for an eye. It is reactionary, encourages hysteria, and degrades human beings by treating them like killing machines. Yeah, but pacifism doesn’t actually work. Violence is a logical, instinctive reaction when confronted with an aggressor. It’s fight or flight, and there doesn’t appear to be a third way. But there is. By responding to violence with violence, what’s to say I won’t make the situation worse, provoking further retaliation? Even if I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, resorting to violence is such an unpredictable path to go down. Maybe I’ll succeed in knocking the aggressor unconscious. But maybe I’ll further endanger the lives of those around me. The pacifist approach has its uncertainties too - who’s to say an aggressor is going to engage in rational dialogue? But the odds of success are probably about the same. In the same way that violence could work for stopping the aggressor, so too could non-violent conflict resolution. What about oppressive regimes? One last thought on war and violent conflicts: many a revolution has overturned the powers that be through the use of violence. These revolutions can be swift, decisive, and end up with a lot of martyrs. The problem with this is that the healing process takes a very long time. Gradual, peaceful social change takes longer to achieve the end result (if there even is a such thing as an end result), but I’m willing to wait if it means preventing the bloodshed of my brothers and sisters. Alright. That’s enough ranting. I wasn’t as coherent as I had planned, but hopefully you got something out of it. Did I stir the pot enough? Leave a comment and let me know what you think! (Edit: looks like comments aren’t working at the moment. I’m on it.) Sam Nabi


AdamS 20 February 2011, 17:34

These are some interesting ideas Sam. I can tell you put a lot of thought into this. This is the kind of stuff I was saying I admire about you but I don’t know that I can be like this, at least not unless I practice every day. I’m always too quick to want to throw down! Better start practicing…

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