[Published in The Conrad Grebel Review 28.3 (Fall 2010), 22-38]
“One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”[i] These words opened Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers nearly twenty years ago — and voice the concern that remains at the center of many peacemakers’ sensibilities. Wink’s question about resisting evil without adding to it points in two directions at once, thereby capturing one of the central tensions we face. On the one hand, we human beings of good will, especially those of us inclined toward pacifism, assume that at the heart of our lives we have a responsibility to resist evil in our world, to seek peace, to be agents of healing — that is, to enter into the brokenness of our present situation and be a force for transformation. On the other hand, we recognize that efforts to overcome evil all too often end up exacerbating the brokenness. We recognize that resisting evil can lead to the use of tactics that add to the evil and transform the actors more than the evil situation.
So, how might we act responsibly while not only remaining true to our core convictions that lead us to seek peace but also serving as agents of actual healing instead of well-meaning contributors to added brokenness?
In recent years, various strategies with potential for addressing these issues have arisen. These include efforts to add teeth to the enforcement of international law (the International Criminal Court) and the emergence of what has come to be known as the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine affirmed by the United Nations Security Council in 2006. In this general arena of seeking to respond creatively to evil, we could also include creative thinking that has been emerging out of peace church circles related to themes such as restorative justice,[ii] “just policing,”[iii] and projects such at the 3D Security Initiative[iv] and Mennonite Central Committee’s “Peace Theology Project.”[v]
The tension seemingly inherent for peacemakers in these efforts at responding to evil appears in the tendency to incline either towards “responsibility” in ways that compromise our commitment to nonviolence and the inherent worth of all human beings, even wrongdoers, or towards “faithfulness” in ways that do not truly contribute to resisting wrongdoing and bringing about needed changes. We face a basic choice. Will we understand this tension as signaling a need to choose one side of it over the other — either retreating into our ecclesial cocoon and accepting our “irresponsibility” or embracing the call to enter the messy world in creative ways that almost certainly will mean leaving our commitment to nonviolence behind? Or will we understand the tension as a call to devote our best energies to finding ways to hold together our nonviolence with creative responsibility?
I affirm the need (and the realistic possibility) of taking the “tension-as-opportunity-for-creative-engagement” path. A number of the people and writings cited in notes 2 through 5 below have been embodying just this kind of path; I do not mean to imply that peace church practitioners haven’t make significant progress in understanding and applying our peacemaking convictions to the “real world.”[vi] However, I am not content that we have yet done the necessary work at sharpening our understanding and articulation of the “faithfulness” side of the responsibility/faithfulness dialectic. Our creativity in engaging these issues may be drawing on increasingly depleted traditions of principled pacifism that found their roots more in traditional communities than in carefully articulated theological ethics. We may not have the resources to live creatively with this dialectic unless we do more work on clarifying and solidifying our understanding of our peace ideals.
With this essay I will articulate a perspective on pacifism that might be usable for thoughtfully engaging human security issues. My contribution is mostly as a pastor and theologian, not a practitioner. My hope is to help with the philosophical underpinnings, not to direct a program of engagement — though I will conclude with a few thoughts on how I see the pacifist perspective outlined here possibly applying to our present situation. Continue reading