An introduction to the book, Why I am a Pacifist, part of the Quaker Quicks Series

31/07/19 | By Tim Gee
Articles, Book News, Extract

I call myself a pacifist. I haven’t always done so and I sometimes hesitate to if I think I might be misunderstood. I am a pacifist – by which I mean that I try to play my part in making peace by nonviolent means.

Perhaps my pacifism hasn’t yet been fully tested. I haven’t been a soldier or a resident of a country invaded by another nor been forced in to the military through conscription. Nevertheless, as a resident of a country which drops bombs on other countries, sells weapons to governments engaged in human rights abuse and is complicit in climate change – causing perhaps the largest process of global violence imaginable – I feel a responsibility to speak out and do what I can to work for peace.

I am a pacifist first and foremost because of a profound physiological, psychological and spiritual sense that I couldn’t kill another person and that to inflict pain on others is wrong. Different cultures have used different words and explanations for this feeling. Within many world religions and cultures there is a group that feels likewise. In Britain – where I live and grew up – perhaps the best known is the Quaker community of which I am part. I declare my background from the start, and have no doubt my outlook has been shaped by my experience of this community. But true to the non-doctrinal, non-creedal tradition it is also a position I have come to myself.

The word pacifist is not widely understood. Culture shapes language, which in turn shapes the way we think and the decisions we make. That we speak of ‘nonviolence’ reveals that within our culture, violence is the norm. We do not refer to war as ‘nonpeace’.

We do, however, have the word pacifist. Even that, though, has come to be most often defined as what it is not – as a refusal to engage in violence. Sometimes it is intentionally misconstrued as a synonym for passivity, or even pacification. At its root though, pacifism means the act of making peace. As such it describes an active process.

Whilst blurring the meaning of pacifism is sometimes the intention of advocates of war, it does touch on a historic tension, still reflected today in movements for peace. As nonviolence educator David Gee (no relation) explains, we find the root of the English word ‘peace’ in the Latin word pax meaning agreement – in the sense of the word pact – and the Indo-European pag meaning ‘fetter’ or ‘chain’. Those with an interest in classical history will be familiar with the ‘Pax Romana’ – an imperial peace without justice imposed by Rome militarily on its empire.

That is not the only way to understand the word though: Also translated into English as ‘peace’ is the Hebrew word shalom and the Arabic salaam. This more spiritual sense denotes ‘wholeness, abundance, health, wellbeing – the integrity of our common aliveness’. Understood this way a commitment to peace encompasses a commitment to equality, economic justice and environmental protection. In contrast the origin of the word violence is to ‘break’.

The introduction of the word ‘pacifist’ to the English language is often traced to a speech about a system of international arbitration to resolve conflicts given to the universal peace congress of 1910 which spoke of the need for a word to denote work for a positive peace – rather than mere ‘anti-war-ism’. In the shadow of the First World War though, popular understanding of the word narrowed to mean mere non-participation in war – the exact definition it had been coined as an alternative to.

I often wish we had a better word. In an online video titled ‘Why I Am Not a Pacifist’ in the QuakerSpeak series, Kristina Keefe-Perry shares how the word ‘pacifist’ is too small for what she would like it to mean, falling short of the revolutionary possibilities implied in Jesus’ teaching against the multifaceted violence of poverty and greed, as well as war. ‘Shalomist’ and ‘pacificist’ are amongst the words used to convey shades of variety in approaches to work for peace. Rather than attempting to create a new word though, this book is an attempt to reclaim the word we’ve got.

When I talk about pacifism I am talking about a commitment to not killing, not supporting killing and trying to undo the systems and structures that lead to killing. It doesn’t simply mean going on peace protests every so often, then getting on with business as usual in-between. Even if our actions are imperfect in the present, we can each have a role creating the conditions where peace can thrive. So too it is a commitment to working for justice. Until that time comes we could probably think of the absence of fighting simply as a ‘truce’ rather than true peace.

This is a pacifism rooted in spirituality, reflected in the words of the best known early Quaker George Fox who declared that he ‘lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’.6 Already in prison for what we might nowadays call acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, Fox’s incarceration was extended for refusing to enlist in the army. In so doing he acted as an inspiration, pattern and example to thousands of Quakers – amongst many others – who have worked, struggled and sometimes suffered for their deeply held conviction that it is wrong to kill.



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