Pacifism Reconsidered

I want to take the opportunity of this week’s Monday Memo to share with you reflections on a very personal life-long journey and one that continues to evolve. During the Viet Nam War I began to identify myself as a pacifist. I agreed with many Americans that this specific war was wrong politically and immoral. But I adopted pacifism out of deeply held belief in the sanctity of all human life (it would be several years before I would become a vegetarian). I held to an uncompromising, maybe simplistic view that all war – all killing was profoundly immoral. I rejected what I read about “just war” theories, because I believed there could be no such thing.

That impervious wall of belief cracked over the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo. Based only on what I knew from the media, the circumstances seemed to me and to most of the world outside of Serbia to be immeasurable, unjustifiable human suffering perpetuated by war criminals who appeared to not be deterred by warnings, sanctions, or negotiation. So, I agreed with the UN resolutions and NATO intervention that eventually ended the extreme suffering; if anything, I thought, it was too slow in coming.

Today we’re engaged militarily against multiple factions which, if we accept the accuracy of what we see in the news, commit unconscionable harm and atrocities against helpless people while driven by uncompromising agendas. So, I ask myself again what does my pacifism mean in a world where people with unrelenting political agendas commit unmitigated evil.  What does a pacifist, what does any conscientious person do in this world?

As American citizens and tax payers, we own the military actions of our government. Do we agree that we should be the world’s policeman? How do we sort out when military action serves purposes of justice vs. American economic or hegemonic interests? What if we don’t trust an administration to conduct military policy that is measured and moral?

Hard questions that need earnest, real world awareness, and I don’t claim to have simple answers any more. The Earth Charter’s Principle 16 points to foundational solutions:  Promote a culture of tolerance and peace. Encourage mutual understanding among all peoples and nations. Implement comprehensive strategies to prevent violent conflict, and use collaborative problem solving to manage disputes. Recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part.

-by Jerry King

Earth Charter