Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Moral Challenge of Pacifism

I'm bothered to see Christians who appear to take a "pacifism at all costs" approach to foreign affairs. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told us about a man who crossed boundaries of tribe and soil to help another man who had been abused. The purpose of the parable is to broaden our perspective and help us to realize that ALL people are our neighbors. Implicit in the story is a condemnation of those "righteous" ones who passed by the man in need for their own reasons.

Now a hypothetical: You hear screams from the sidewalk in front of your home. A woman is being assaulted. Do you intervene in some way? Is there a moral imperative to help?

I argue that there is a moral imperative to assist the woman. There may be other circumstances to consider, such as your ability to improve the outcome of her situation. If, for example, you believe that directly intervening would cause more harm than good (perhaps causing the woman to be killed) then you have another moral path open to you. You might also consider the possibility of harm coming to you or to your family as a result of your intervention. Some people fail to report crimes because they fear retaliation from gangs or organized crime.

Any of those things and many more are, in my view, appropriate variables in a calculation to intervene. The one argument that I find unconvincing in the light of the Parable previously cited would be an argument for pacifism. To argue, as some do, that war is always wrong strikes me as naive. Of course we should seek to settle our differences with other nations amicably. But when wicked men are unwilling to negotiate, violent conflict may be inevitable.

A purely pacifist stance, it seems, would argue that we must allow the woman on the sidewalk to be attacked without consideration of any other variables. A purely pacifist observer couldn't even call the police, because to do so would also be to risk inciting another violent confrontation in addition to the first one already in progress.

Is it really expected that we let the Lord fight all our battles? This is the only possible moral outlet I can see for the pacifist position. And frankly, I am not convinced this is a valid position.

This post is related to a comment I made over at Mormon Stories if you're interested.


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  • You have surely the best intentions in your writings. However, US foreign policy is not all about helping the distressed and downtrodden. We assist in oppression and other bad things where we perceive it to be in our interest and use human rights issues to our advantage if there is a leader in the world who doesn't bow down to US demands.

    Saddam is a great example. We created him. He was a CIA asset. He was a bad man, but he was our bad man and he served our purposes. Later, it served our purposes to get rid of him so now we go over there and create 5 million orphans and throw the country into such miserable circumstances that 4 million people have fled the country!

    US intentions are never about helping the little indefensable guy. Pacifism at all costs is not the answer. However, support of US domination of the world thru feigned efforts at helping human rights victims is definately not the answer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/13/2008 8:16 PM  

  • Thanks for your very courteous comment, RadicalMormon.

    I certainly didn't mean to imply that US foreign policy is driven solely by altruism, so you and I are in agreement that such is not the case.

    I think that it would be moral for us to intercede in a great many places around the globe. Darfur is an example that springs immediately to mind. However, our military might and resources are not unlimited. We have no option but to pick our battles. If we must pick, then it makes sense to join the moral causes that also benefit our nation in other ways, such as to protect our economic or security interests.

    You throw around numbers like "5 million orphans." This is an example of hindsight reasoning. We didn't have information about how the overthrow of Saddam would work out before we did it. There were certainly conflicting views. But there was no disagreement that he was a bad guy. It really doesn't matter who created him at this point. If we created him, that only increased our responsibility to depose him, no? We had to make the decision on war with limited information. I think it was the right choice. I regret how things have been handled in many cases, but I'm glad we are rid of Saddam and his sons. I hope that it turns to the greater good for the people of Iraq. I'm so sorry for the pain they are experiencing.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 1/13/2008 8:56 PM  

  • Bradley,

    Forgive me for being contrary, but in my humble opinion it was not for the Iraqi people we went to war in Iraq. The official reason given was WMDs. If we were concerned about Iraqi people we probably should have first and foremost withdrawn the murderous 90's sanctions regime which killed over 500,000 little kids according to UNICEF by 1996. We should also have empowered the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam himself. After the first gulf war the Shiites rose up in rebellion and we refused their requests for weapons captured during the war and they were brutally repressed by Saddam's army while we hovered overhead in helicopters watching on. Why did we not help them? Because we liked having someone over there who ruled with an iron fist so that we could keep control of the region thru him while suppressing the democratic will of the people. The US government actually has a long history of squashing democratic movements whereever it rears its head though we claim on the outside to be in love with democracy and freedom.

    Again, I know you are a good person because of the sorrow you express for the pain of the Iraqis. I think this pain is actually far worse because of the US actions over there. War is never a good thing unless it is commanded by the Lord in my humble opinion. Please check out my post on "War and the Gospel of Jesus Christ" here:


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/14/2008 9:34 AM  

  • Amen Bradley. Pacifism is so disconnected from reality and pragmatic considerations as to be laughable to me. It surprises me how many people fall for such an obviously untenable position. I guess people like to feel like they are taking the moral high road and the fact that pacifism will never be the majority opinion keeps them safe from what would be the actual outcome if their views were implemented as US foreign policy.

    By Blogger Jacob J, at 1/14/2008 11:11 AM  

  • Sure preaching pacifism can be a cowardly act when it is in self interest, but never when rubber meets the road. Pacifism is intrinsically connected with Civil Disobedience. Think Ghandi and MLK jr. here.

    It is not that some things aren't worth changing. It is just the idea that there are other routes for change. Violence does horrible things to both victims and perpetrators. How many Banana republic dictators started out trying to overthrow the bad people and protect the greater good. Problem is they then become dedicated to keeping the peace and reducing instability, sacrificing freedoms steadily and surely until blam, you are right where you started.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/15/2008 3:24 PM  

  • Doc, I believe what you say about the harm violence--even justified violence--can cause to our souls. However, whether the harm is physical, spiritual, or emotional, I think we may have to make that sacrifice sometimes.

    I believe that we'll all need a generous application of God's grace to heal our wounds. Even if being violent will wound my soul, I feel like that may be a better alternative than allowing others to be harmed because of my inaction.

    To be clear, I think violence should be a last resort when other options aren't working or available. But pacifism as a principle excludes the violent option and insists that it is never the right one. That's why I oppose pacifism.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 1/16/2008 12:23 PM  

  • Hey bro! It would seem that you are using the parable of the Good Samaritan to influence your view on foreign affairs and specifically how it relates to us going into other countries. I think you may have a point with the whole crossing the soil thing, but I am curious what you think we need to do now that we're there. That parable doesn't say that the GS hunted down the theives, but it does say that he succored the man that had been abused. He housed him, fed him, and even made sure he was taken care of when he had to split. How then do you think this parable should apply to where we are today?
    It seems to me that the New Testament doesn't give too much direction on what to do when someone hurts you except to say that you need to give them an increased measure of love. Of course the Old Testament is a great scriptural reference wen we want to justify being 'just'. Thank goodness for the Book of Mormon. I think it gives us some pretty good principles to go off of-what do you think? While there definately are some pacifist moments, I think we can feel sure that it is OK to fight for home and family. ( I do find it interesting that people who REALLY recognized their need for redemption became the ultimate pacifists in the BofM and I think it is wise for us to ponder that. )
    The tricky question is how does this translate into foreign policy? Motive becomes enormously important. The Good Samaritan didn't cross boundaries to aid the abused man to secure future resources. But on the other hand-we NEED oil (the real reason we went to war in my opinion) in this country to keep us warm and fed (literally) and therefore, we ARE fighting for home and family.
    I guess that is why it is our responsibility to pray for our country and for the wisdom of our leaders-to not do so would be a pacifist approach.

    By Blogger ShelleyG, at 1/16/2008 4:16 PM  

  • Shelleyg
    I don't want to offend here, but isn't it sort of a twisted mentality to say that you need something that someone else has and therefore it is ok to go to war for that and kill as a means of protecting your family? You say we need the oil, so we are justified in going to war right? Sorry, I think this is too much of a stretch for the teachings of the Book of Mormon.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/16/2008 4:41 PM  

  • RadMo, I don't see how your objection bears out here. We aren't taking any oil from anyone. We are obviously interested in preserving our ability to purchase that oil in the future, but we're not stealing it. Isn't that at the root of your objection?

    Do you think we could ever be justified in protecting resources with force, or must force only be employed to protect human life or dignity?

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 1/17/2008 11:41 AM  

  • Sorry if I wasn't clear. I often write what I think I'm thinking and later wonder what sort of drugs I was on when I wrote originally.

    My objection is to the notion that it is ok for us to go to war to protect our oil source in Iraq. That is what I understood Shelley to be saying. If we cannot survive without oil, or if we cannot protect our families without foreign oil, then it is time for us to learn to get along without it. If I cannot survive without something from my neighbor and he withholds it from me, am I justified in killing him and taking it away? No I think not.

    In Iraq we are not stealing oil, but if we did go to war for the oil (and I think we went to war in order to have control over oil resources, but not to own all of the oil resources... there's a difference) as Shelley suggests, then we are guilty of murder and theft in order to keep oil flowing.

    The Lord gives us a good formula for when it is ok to go to war in D&C 98. Other than the circumstances He mentions, it is strictly forbidden to shed blood.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/17/2008 4:32 PM  

  • Bradley,
    Yes, wounded souls can be healed. The fascinating thing I have learned as I have delved into the ideas of pacifists, is that this is their goal. It is loving your enemies in its purest form. South Africa had a decision to make when Apartheid ended and democracy came. They could have taken the route of many other African countries, with violent retribution, but with the help of Desmond Tutu and Mandela, they did not. I was deeply moved by the story of the truth and reconciliation committee . It really stretched my mind regarding loving our enemies.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/18/2008 3:18 PM  

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