[Workshop presentation at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary School for Leadership Training, Harrisonburg, VA, January 17, 2005]
I grew up the child of a father who fought in World War II and a mother who also served in the U.S. military during that war. Our family definitely was not heavily militaristic, but I certainly would willingly have gone into the military myself had I been drafted when I was 19. As it turned out, the draft ended the year I turned 19 as the Vietnam War wound down. In the several years after that, I thought often and intensely about military service and my faith. When I was 22, through a kind of mystical awareness, I came to a clear conviction that I could not, at the same time, be both a follower of Jesus and a participant in or even supporter of warfare.
Only at this point did I first learn of the Mennonite tradition, with its long held refusal to fight in wars. I loved what I learned and, about 25 years ago, joined the Mennonite church. I continue on the process of faith seeking understanding—what does the peace position mean? What’s basis? How might it be put into practice?
Defining “pacifism,” “nonviolence,” and “nonresistance”
The most common definitions of “pacifism” focus on what pacifism rejects, characterizing pacifism as the in-principled rejection of participation in warfare. Some pacifists would say that all war is wrong, others more that they simply themselves will never fight.
Focusing on what pacifism affirms, I define pacifism as the conviction that nothing matters as much as love, kindness, respect, seeking wholeness. Hence, nothing that would justify violence matters enough to override the commitment to love. In my understanding, pacifism is a worldview, a way of looking at reality; there is a pacifist way of knowing, a pacifist way of perceiving, of discerning, of negotiating life.
The term “nonviolence” is recently prominent as a near-synonym for pacifism. I will use the terms interchangeably, though if we trying to be truly precise, we could find nuances that might make us want to differentiate between the two terms. One distinction would be to say that “pacifism” focuses more on underlying principles and values, “nonviolence” more on tactics and actions.
“Nonresistance” is the more traditional term, widely used among Mennonites, for the refusal to fight back against evil. Typically, it has carried the connotation of witnessing to peace more through living as an alternative community in some sense separate from secular politics than through direct engagement.
The Bible’s witness to peace
My definition of pacifism more in positive, worldview terms links more closely with the logic of the biblical story than simply defining pacifism as the rejection of warfare. The Bible, famously, does not overtly reject warfare for believers; in fact, in certain notorious cases the Bible actually commends, even commands, God’s people fighting.