Confessions of a Cowardly Pacifist

(Warning: dark musings ahead.)

I dreamed the other night that I stabbed a woman to death.

In part, I blame the Walking Dead. Ben had been watching season two on DVD that night while I ran around the house doing odds and ends and I happened to catch a few glimpses. Every scene I witnessed contained horrific, graphic violence. (I do not approve of his watching that show, FYI. I don’t care how well-written it is. The violence is horrifying.) That alone filled my subconscious with dreadful images.

But the nightmare was also a consequence of some soul-searching I’d been doing that night. In response to the show, of course. I’d been meditating on what I would do if I ever found myself in some kind of nightmarish, violence-riddled world like that of the Walking Dead.

As someone who claims to be committed to radical non-violence, how would I really respond to threats of violence upon me and my family?

My meditations weren’t very optimistic. I felt like maybe I could surrender my own life if it were the only one at stake. But my daughter’s? Oh gosh.  I can see myself killing someone if that person were threatening my daughter and I had the means. I don’t believe it would be the right thing to do, but I can see myself doing it. (What do I think would be the right thing to do? I’ll get to that.)

That night, as I slept, I saw a woman hiding behind an open door, and I knew she was intent on killing me. The next thing I knew, I was frantically stabbing at her chest and abdomen with a large chef’s knife until she fell. (I don’t know how I had the strength to penetrate her ribs with a kitchen knife . . . and there wasn’t any blood, either. Just terror and madness and self-preservation).

I felt horrible about myself as I awoke the next morning. I felt the nightmare painted a true picture of my soul.

The truth is: I don’t want to face violence with love. It seems too horrible. For me and my family, that is. I completely believe that that’s what Jesus calls us to do, and I completely believe that he is God and the only hope of good in this world.

But the thought of actually practicing it sickens me. Like, when I actually envision myself in such a situation. I feel certain that I would fail to live up to my deeply-held convictions. The self-preservation instinct is soooo strong.

I understand that violence doesn’t work and doesn’t solve problems. But goddammit, I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to see my daughter harmed.

The nightmare was like a taunt.

I know the real you, it said. And she isn’t nearly as courageous and peaceful as you’d love to think.

Of course, I have no idea how I would really respond in a life-threatening situation. And I don’t think the scenario likely, given my status and situation as a white, educated Canadian girl in rural Southern Ontario. (I’m very trusting. I’m the kind of person who leaves doors unlocked and goes for nighttime jogs by myself because I assume no one wishes me harm.)

What I hope and pray, though, is that the Holy Spirit would indwell me so thoroughly that she would guide me to do the right thing if something that dreadful were to befall me or my loved ones. (Yes, I referred to the Holy Spirit with a feminine pronoun. I started out with the masculine, but it just didn’t feel right. The Holy Spirit just feels feminine, you know? Please don’t be offended. I’m still talking about the Holy Spirit of the Bible, the Advocate Jesus promised).

I will openly confess that I don’t think I have that good a relationship with the Holy Spirit at this point in my life. I’m not surrendering my desires and daily choices to her wisdom. Sometimes, I’ll even block her out if I suspect she’ll hint that I ought to do something I don’t want to do.

The nightmare was a reminder of how much I need the Spirit inside me, pervading every aspect of my life. I need to foster that relationship so that I will do the right thing in a moment of crisis. (This is relevant in all areas of life, of course, and not just conflict with knife-wielding strangers).

Otherwise, I’m just a cowardly pacifist, spouting out high-minded ideals.

I’m so far from where I want to me.

* * *

For further reading, check out this wonderful article: What Would You Do If Someone Attacked Your Family?

Image courtesy of VinothChandar.

What Does it Mean to be Committed to Radical Non-Violence?

(Note: I’m taking a quick break from my exploration of Mennonite history. I’ll be returning to it with my next post).

Bekah recently asked me this question in response to my post exploring Leboyer’s exploration of violence. What exactly does a commitment to radical non-violence entail? I realized it might be worthwhile for me to try to define what I mean.

Others might define it differently, but when I talk about a commitment to radical non-violence, I mean the following:

  •  It’s a deep conviction that violence never solves problems. It only breeds more violence.
  •  There is no such thing as good or redemptive violence.
  •  “Violence” refers to intentionally inflicting pain on another person, for any reason,* and includes anything from murder to name-calling.

(*The one exception I can think of is for medical reasons, e.g. setting a bone – which may involve extreme pain — so it can heal properly.)

With this definition, the following (in no particular order) might all be considered forms of violence to someone who is committed to radical non-violence:

  • hitting a child to compel obedience
  • destroying an unwanted human fetus
  • participating in any kind of military action
  • suing another person (i.e. demanding payment for personal injury through legal process), especially with the intent to make the other person suffer for what they have done
  • capital punishment
  • bullying
  • verbal abuse
  • revenge

I believe that radical non-violence was central to Jesus’ message and ministry.  Jesus taught it explicitly in his Sermon on the Mount, particularly his famous “turn the other cheek” verses (Matt 5:38-41). He also demonstrated it, like when he healed the soldier’s ear that Peter lopped off (Luke 22:51). He lived it when he accepted the cross without resisting.

I will concede that violence often gets you what you want for a time. Punishing children and citizens is often (though not always, by a long shot) effective in getting them to obey, and often results in temporarily improved safety (for the individual, for the community, etc). Killing a baby before she is born can prevent all kinds of difficulties and inconveniences for the parents. Using military force to remove a corrupt dictator will stop that particular dictator from doing any more harm.

But it doesn’t work long-term.

Violence can achieve temporary compliance but it doesn’t change hearts. It can’t get that kid to actually want to behave, or get a criminal to stop hating or coveting. Citizens might grudgingly comply with the rules, but that won’t make them good or compassionate people. And as soon as the threat of violence is removed, or they discover a way to avoid getting caught, they will return to their destructive behavior. They haven’t been given a good reason to stop.

The abortion doesn’t address the deeper problems that may be at play (the mother’s poverty, the troubled marriage), and the military invasion doesn’t ensure that other dictators won’t immediately fill the void, requiring more violence.

And we’re not even taking into account the damage (spiritual, emotional, relational) that happens to the person inflicting violence.

But what are the alternatives to violence?

What’s the alternative to spanking, to declaring war, to shooting down an attacker?

I don’t always know. Heck, I don’t usually know, and almost never offhand.

For starters, each and every situation is extremely complex and requires a unique solution. I (or any other individual) can’t possibly know the best solution to any given problem without a familiarity with all the details.

But if I’m committed to radical non-violence, it means I come at every problem with the fundamental assumption that violence is never, ever the solution.

There is always a better way. But to discover it requires creativity and imagination. It requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It requires self-discipline, courage, and an unwavering commitment to non-violence.

Jesus gives us a few ideas in his Sermon on the Mount. He suggests disarming the attacker with some very peculiar behaviour:

  • If a person slaps you, turn your face and look your attacker in the eye, daring him to hit a second time (Matt 5:39).
  • If someone sues you, demanding your undergarments, take off your outer clothing and offer them as well (Matt 5:40).
  • If someone forces you to carry something for a mile with them, offer to take it for a second mile. (Matt 5:41).

I’m also trying to learn the ways of radical non-violence from some other radical peacemakers who have gone before me.

I’ve been learning about how to raise children without using violence from Alfie Kohn.

I’ve been learning about how to live in peaceful community from the folks at Conspire Magazine, Jesus Radicals, and from Greg Boyd (and, more recently, through the legacy of my Mennonite ancestors).

One of my goals for Becoming Peculiar is to explore some of these alternatives with you.

Will you join me?

What are your thoughts of radical non-violence? How does it resonate with you?

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