Christian Pacifists (or non-violent or non-resistant practitioners) get asked by Christian non-pacifists (for lack of a better term; don’t want to label them violence lovers or something like that) the “What would you do?” question constantly. The most common comes with a scenario having to do with a violent home invasion when the lives of our loved ones hang in the balance. But there are times when the question has to do with a historic situation, and they’d like us to share how we would solve the problem without the use of violence. Maybe the most popular is everyone’s favorite man to hate, Adolf Hitler. “What would you do with Hitler? Would you kill him?”
Along those lines, there’s, “How would you handle the massacres in Rwanda?” Or, “How would you have stopped World War II without dropping the nukes?” Or, “How would you stop the Muslim and Christian kill-fest in Nigeria?” And, of course, there’s, “What’s your solution to ending the massive killings between Israel and Hamas?” (Though, let’s be honest with that last one: they would have said Palestinians not Hamas, as if the two were equal.)
Whatever the particular scenario might be, there is a general problem underlying just about all of them. They are asking peacemakers (genuine peacemakers, who abstain from the use of violence) to fix a problem that was never created by peacemakers. These conflicts were created, long ago, by people who at some level of their ideology, philosophy, theology, or practice believe that violence has a just or proper place. They believed then or believe now that there is a time and a place where killing is necessary and right. When violence entered the conflict, and then violence was used as a counter or response, especially in attempt to solve the problem, the cycle of violence took over.
Violence was then used to stop the violence. What else could you do? We have to respond violently, because those people are being violent and will only respond to violence. Nothing will end this without a violent act. For decades and centuries, violence was the only solution that had any serious chance of making a difference.
And it’s at this point in the game when we’re asked what we would do to stop it. When violence is in complete control they want to know how we will put a stop to it. My knee-jerk reaction is, “What? It’s your mentality that got you into that mess. How are you going to stop it?” (I’ll touch on that some more in a little bit.) The problem is they want to take a completely populated ferris wheel going at full speed–faster than safety allows, with everyone already in danger–and hit the emergency brake, causing an immediate stop to the spinning. The ferris wheel will stop (end of the conflict), though everyone on the ferris wheel will die (collateral damage), but it was for the greater good. They feel as though the only viable solution is another Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and want to hear from us if there is a pacifist equivalent.
The answer to that is, “Of course not.” Keep in mind what the US did when they dropped the nuclear bombs on the Japanese people. While it could be argued they brought World War II to a quicker end, the clear reality is the action only added to the cycle of violence, with decades of threats, the Cold War, nuclear missile defense systems, the US wanting all other nations to eradicate their nuclear arsenals while keeping their stock at the ready. What ended exactly? Many people died as the ferris wheel stopped, but the killing kept spinning.
The mentality that believes violence is okay at times can’t seem to get away from it. People who have that mentality might say, “Only as a last resort,” yet reaching that last resort seems to come quite quickly these days. They create the deeply seeded situations where violence begets violence and violence takes control. When they see that violence isn’t solving the problem, they seek alternative solutions but still want it to look and act a certain way. My knee-jerk response earlier has some validity. Those who advocate the use of violence do need to answer how violence will solve the problem. If they can’t do it, they must immediately stop considering violence as an option.
Only then can they begin to understand how the pacifist will respond. Because the first answer is to look at the history and how we could have avoided, if possible, the problem in the first place. Then we move on to looking at how the road will be very long, and very hard. It will involve putting ourselves in potentially fatal situations among the people being killed while the various warring factions and leaders keep fighting over whatever they are fighting for.
It will involve emulating Jesus, who died more times than he killed.
And it will continue to seem pointless and misguided in the eyes of those who believe violence is necessary and right. If our non-violent ideas–which are nothing more than taking the words of Jesus seriously, as if he meant what he said–are pointless and misguided, then how do those Christians who support the use of violence propose to stop the violence without adding to the cycle?
As a last little aside, did you catch on to the underlying assumption here from the folks asking the pacifists what they would do? They tend to ask the question as if we aren’t doing something already. It’s a subtle idea, but pervasive: because non-violent action doesn’t look like violent action, it must not be action at all. Just something to remember as the conversations will continue to happen.