Ask the Anarchist Reverend is a weekly feature here on the site. If you have a question you’d like to ask, you can send me an email (anarchistreverend at gmail), find me on twitter, or submit your question using formspring. The queue is getting a little low, so if you’ve got a question it’d be great if you could submit it soon!
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I was wondering if you could flesh out some of the things we were tweeting about the other day re: pacifism, violence, etc. I know you’ve written on property destruction in the past (as nonviolent activism), but I was wondering if you could detail some of your ideas on the violence/force distinction specifically vis a vis the christian anarchist tradition of nonviolence.
The other week Luke (the asker of this question) bemoaned the fact that every conversation he had on the subject of pacifism/nonviolence always got the same response: Are you telling me you would still be a pacifist if your partner was being raped? OR If you had the chance to take out Hitler? Several other people (including myself) shared that we had had the same conversations with people.
As a start to answering this question I want to point folks to a series I did about a year ago on nonviolence. I covered a bunch of different topics (including the one Luke mentioned above about property destruction).
But I also have a bit more to say, especially about the point brought up in today’s question: the line between violence and doing nothing. People seem to think that being non-violent or a pacifist means standing idly by while people are brutalized. I think this points to two oversights:
Nonviolence is a lifestyle and not something that happens “in the moment”. Hitler didn’t rise to power overnight. There wasn’t one moment where he had no power and one moment where he became untouchable. Nonviolence as a strategy isn’t something that happens overnight either. It’s a consistent lifestyle of resistance to violence. It’s both the rooting out of violent thoughts and behaviours in your own life and standing up to violence wherever it occurs in the world. So in the case of Hitler (which, honestly, come on now is that your best rhetorical strategy?) it would have taken a large scale strategy of nonviolent resistance over a long period of time. There were folks who were involved in such things: Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Resistance Movement to name one.
I think Walter Wink’s “Nonviolence As A Third Way” is really helpful to fleshing out nonviolence in the Gospels and bringing to light the idea of active non-violence as a kind of street theatre.
The other oversight is seen in the question of standing by and watching while someone you love gets attacked. Nonviolence in this situation isn’t to stand by and do nothing, rather it’s to put yourself in the way of violence without acting in violence. Think standing in between the person doing the attacking and the person being attacked. It’s all about getting in the way of violence when it happens and being willing to absorb the violence in your own person in order to save someone else/allow them to get away. Not fighting back could manage to deescalate the situation. Nonviolence is a lifestyle that should be so ingrained that you aren’t making choices in the moment. Instead you have a strategy for dealing with a situation.
I should say here that nonviolence is a choice that one needs to make for themselves. I would never tell someone being attacked that they shouldn’t fight back or that someone shouldn’t defend their child. In some cases one might choose violence determining it to be the lesser of two evils even as they recognize that violence is always something to try to avoid.
I’d love to keep this conversation going: What strategies are people using to be nonviolent in their daily lives? How do you root out violent behaviours and attitudes even in situations where violence isn’t happening? What is your response when someone brings up Hitler?