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The derivation of the word “pacifism” – from Latin pax (peace) and facere (to make) – establishes an immediate connection with Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peace-makers” (Matt. 5:9). There have been many varieties of pacifism based both on religious and on secular philosophies – most notably Buddhism. Within the Christian church, the transition which culminated under the Emperor Constantine changed the church from being a religion whose adherents refused to kill in its first three centuries to being the religion of the empire and the army.
There has always been a minority tradition of Christian pacifism based on the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Francis of Assisi, the left wing of the Reformation (e.g. Mennonites) and the Quakers, founded in the 17th century in England by George Fox. A Quaker, William Allen, founded the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace in 1816. By 1900 there were at least 400 peace organizations. The mood of optimism and belief in progress was punctured by the first world war.
The abolition of war, like the abolition of slavery, had seemed a realizable goal to many at the time of the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907. War* is, historically, almost entirely a male activity, and feminist analyses link the social structures of patriarchy and war closely together. Pacifist women have been strongly represented through peace organizations from the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (early conferences in 1915 and 1920) through to the Greenham women. Eminent individuals among their number include Bertha von Suttner, Muriel Lester, Maude Royden, Dorothy Day and Aung San Sun Kyi (Myanmar’s Nobel laureate).
In the 20th century the Sermon on the Mount was returned to the Christian church as practical politics by a Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). He, in turn, had been inspired by such thinkers as Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) from the US and the unorthodox Russian Orthodox Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Gandhi used pacifist methods, including civil disobedience, in the movement to liberate India from British colonial rule. From Gandhi, the line of influence passes through such struggles as the US civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr, and black opposition to apartheid in South Africa, with such non-violent leaders as Albert Luthuli in an earlier generation and Allan Boesak, Frank Chikane, Desmond Tutu and Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara in Brazil in the latter phase.
Shortly after the outbreak of the first world war, the Fellowship of Reconciliation* was established. During the war conscientious objection led to significant numbers of people being imprisoned, including the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell in Britain. Disillusionment after 1918 gave a massive boost to pacifism, as churches realized that they had often lent uncritical support to national war efforts.
Between the two world wars pacifism became a mass movement under such leaders as Dick Sheppard, founder of the Peace Pledge Union. But as the storm clouds of fascism* darkened in the 1930s, support for pacifism waned. Pacifism as a mass movement was past, and a much smaller core of conscientious objectors refused to serve in the second world war. Nazism proved to be the decisive factor in undermining the popularity and credibility of pacifism. In theological circles, the critique of Reinhold Niebuhr and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer proved damaging for pacifism.
The advent of the nuclear era has made a profound difference to the traditional arguments between pacifists and adherents of the just-war* theory. Since the second world war, with peaks beginning in the late 1950s and late 1970s, major “ban-the-bomb” movements have developed with strong Christian and Christian pacifist involvement. The debate about German re-armament in the 1950s (led by Barth, Niemöller, Heinemann, Gollwitzer et al.) and the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set the trend. There was a growing convergence between pacifists and “nuclear pacifists”, who argued that strict application of just-war criteria precluded the use of nuclear weapons. The movement beginning in the late 1970s, with strong campaigns in the US and most of Western Europe (particularly Holland and the Federal Republic of Germany), had strong pacifist involvement, particularly through women’s organizations and participation. The anti-nuclear campaign drew many Christians into an activist and pacifist expression of their faith.
At the same time, pacifism has been challenged in terms of the right of resistance in the face of oppression. During the 1950s and 1960s decolonization* proceeded surprisingly peacefully in many countries, but in others armed liberation* movements were formed. The decision of the WCC to support the humanitarian projects of armed liberation movements in Southern Africa created controversy within its member churches. The strongest rejection came from churches not known for a predominantly pacifist position, particularly in the Federal Republic of Germany and Great Britain.
This debate followed the 1968 Uppsala assembly, where Martin Luther King, Jr, was to have preached. Before his murder earlier that year, King had taken an unpopular stance and courageously denounced the Vietnam war – a cause which unleashed the mass protests of the 1960s, including much of the 1968 student movement.
In Latin America, Brazilian bishop Helder Camara argued that in terms of both principle and practice, active non-violence was the best way to break the “spiral of violence”, whereas Camilo Torres, Ernesto Cardenal and others argued that armed resistance could be required. All stressed the primacy of liberation.
Recent events in countries as different as the Philippines and those in Central Europe have shown that mass non-violent movements can bring political transformation (although China serves as a counter example). It can be a costly method, as the teaching, example and death of leaders including King and Gandhi have emphasized. History is not so clear-cut or moral as to guarantee the success of non-violence, and political change often occurs as a result of a mix of non-violent and violent forms of resistance (e.g. in South Africa). Many historical examples show, however, that massive levels of state violence in war or repression have a severely declining utility, and mass non-violent action is increasingly seen as both a moral and a more effective approach. These conclusions also have relevance to the nuclear debate. Related concepts such as civilian defence, non-offensive defence and non-provocative defence are appropriate attempts to implement pacifism – or at least non-aggressive forms of defence – as a substitute for the weaponry of mass destruction. Gene Sharp has done prodigious work in cataloguing the range of techniques below the threshold of violence that people can use.
Ecumenical debate has reflected these shifts in the world political scene. The WCC’s first assembly (Amsterdam 1948) stated that “war as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”. From the European context, the final document of the European Ecumenical Assembly (1989) stated: “There are no situations in our countries or on our continent in which violence is required or justified” (61). It is perhaps a measure of the injustice in the countries of the South that there are no comparably clear ecumenical statements from other continents, or at the world level. The WCC’s world convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation* (Seoul 1990) spoke, however, of the need to overcome the institution of war, and it continued the clear denunciation of the possession as well as the use of weapons of mass destruction. Non-
violent alternatives received renewed impetus through the WCC’s Programme to Overcome Violence emanating from the
Johannesburg 1994 central committee. The Decade to Overcome Violence, 2001-10, conceived at the WCC’s eighth assembly (Harare 1998), invites all Christians to “offer their own gifts for peace-making according to their own particular calling, to learn from one another and to act together”.
Whereas the church consensus of the Constantinian era accepted war and state violence, the emerging ecumenical consensus rejects war but does not preclude resistance to tyranny or oppressive government. The historic peace churches* (Quakers, Mennonites etc.), pacifist fellowships within denominations and interfaith and interdenominational groups such as the International Fellowship of Reconciliation provide the organizational face of Christian pacifism. Churches have campaigned for the rights of conscientious objectors and succeeded in achieving this right in a number of countries.
n R.H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes to War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation, Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1982 n R.M. Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia, Westminster, 1987 n H. Camara, Spiral of Violence, London, Sheed & Ward, 1971 n J. Ferguson, War and Peace in the World’s Religions, London, Sheldon, 1977 n P. McAllister ed., Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, Philadelphia, New Society, 1982 n P. Meyer, The Pacifist Conscience, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966 n C. Moorhead, Troublesome People: The Warriors of Pacifism, Bethesda MD, Adler & Adler, 1987 n D. Parker & B.J. Fraser eds., Peace, War and God’s Justice, Toronto, United Church Publ. House, 1989 n J. Wallis ed., Peacemakers, Sydney, Harper & Row, 1983 n J. Wallis ed., Waging Peace, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1982 n W. Wink ed., Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 2000 n J.H. Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace, Scottdale PA, Herald, 1985.
The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)