Privilege in Christian Pacifism: My Life is Not Your Thought Exercise

October 23, 2013Sarah Moon

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Editors Note: Originally posted at Sarah Over the Moon

I’ve been thinking about pacifism lately. It’s come up in my church, in Twitter discussions, and in blog posts. This is not a response specifically to any recent discussions of pacifism, but since it keeps coming up I do want to let out some of the thoughts on the topic that have been bouncing around in my head for months now. This may take more than one blog post, because I have a LOT of thoughts on this topic.

I want to start out by saying that these thoughts apply to me as well. I’m not sure if I’d apply the label “pacifist” to myself anymore (though I still hope for and try to work for a world free from violence), but I used to, and I’ve used that label to be an ass–to be judgmental and dismissive of other peoples’ experiences and emotions. I definitely don’t think everyone who takes on that label does this, but I’ve done it and I continue to see it all the time.

So, speaking to myself and to privileged Christian pacifists…

We need to rethink some things. 

I’m going to start with the thing that’s been bothering me the most lately, which isthe privileged Christian pacifist tendency to treat the real lives of survivors of violence as hypothetical thought exercises. 

I get tired of seeing privileged Christian pacifists try to play this What Would You Do? game where they say things like, “I’ve been sheltered from violence my whole life, but if someone tried to rape me I would . . .” Or “Thankfully I’ve never experienced abuse, but if I were in an abusive relationship I would . . .”

I’ve heard other pacifists dismiss this game, saying we shouldn’t focus on unlikely, extreme scenarios like this because they’re just a distraction.

But my life as a survivor of rape and abuse is NOT a game, and it is NOT unlikely or extreme. 

These people who admit to never having experienced this type of violence or abuse talk over those of us who have experienced it. Sometimes I wonder if they even believe we exist. 

When I’ve tried to jump into these conversations with my own story (I was in an abusive relationship. Escaping my abuser involved hitting him in self-defense), I’ve been quickly dismissed with out-of-context Martin Luther King Jr. quotes (and, as much as I have been hurt by this, I’ve probably done this to others as well in the past–again, speaking to myself here as well).

They condescendingly remind me that two wrongs don’t make a right! That violence only leads to more violence and can never ultimately end all abuse.

They tell me about [this oppressed group/person over here] who overcame their situation without using violence. I’m told that I could have been more like [that oppressed group/person]. Not only is my life treated as a game, but the lives of people who were in situations that allowed them to act non-violently become nothing but pawns for winning abstract arguments about what might be or what could have been.

These people who weren’t there for the months and months where I tried to reason with my abuser, tried to calm him with kind words and loving behavior, tried to set boundaries and assert my humanity only to succeed in making him angrier and trickier.

These people who cannot feel the physical pain I was in. Who don’t understand that someone was hurting me so badly that I felt like I was going to be ripped in half, and setting the world right and ultimately ending all abuse were the furthest things from my mind.

These people who have no idea assume that my situation and the situation of some other person in some other setting at some other point in time can be solved by the exact same measures.

I’m not anti-pacifism.

But I am done spending nights lying awake wondering how I could have responded in a more “Christ-like” matter, in order to please privileged pacifists who want to treat my life and the lives of other survivors as aChoose Your Own Adventure book. 

Many privileged pacifists need to stop using these stories to pit survivors against one another. They need to understand that no matter how many times they ask themselves “What would I do?” they will never be fully prepared to respond to violence if/when it happens to them. Privileged pacifists need to stop pontificating about issues that they have no experience with and learn to LISTEN to survivors of violence and to members of marginalized that face systematic violence. 

  • Sufilizard

    Thanks for this Sarah. The older I get, the more I realize that nobody has the exact same experience that I’ve had and I can’t judge them for doing/thinking differently than I do. Jesus not only modeled non-violence, but he also modeled grace.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    Thanks for this, Sarah! I’m always appreciate your perspective, even (or perhaps especially) when it challenges my own. And I definitely fall into the while male privileged Christian pacifist category. So, it is with much fear and trepidation that I offer a bit of push back to this extremely important post. In my experience, as a (privileged while male) pro-war evangelical Republican turned (privileged white male) Mennonite pacifist, I would say that the “What if . . . ?” argument is raised 99% of the time by the former (pro-war person) as a way of marginalizing the position of the latter (pacifist). It’s almost an immediate reaction when someone learns I’ve “converted” to pacifism to respond, “Yeah, but what would you do if . . . ?” as though my desire for consistency should override my desire not to kill other humans. The two kinds of responses you describe are usually just that: responses. So, as a privileged white male, I MIGHT respond to someone’s “What if . . .?” question by admitting that I’ve been sheltered and haven’t had to deal with this in real life but that, if I did, I hope I would do or not do x. Or I MIGHT say, you know, as a privileged white male, this isn’t really a very likely scenario, so I’m not going to play that game with you. It seems that both of those responses are actually ways of admitting privilege and trying to take that into consideration with my (non)response, that is, with my refusal to make light of actual violence or turn it into a game. It seems this is why the Martyrs’ Mirror is such an important book for Mennonites: it is a continual reminder of the consequences of their (our) views.

  • cordobatim

    I’m convinced that I should not take another person’s life. I’m against the taking of revenge and the use of violence.

    Yet I also know that no one can answer the hypotheticals that are thrown around. When an intruder held my 18-month-old daughter and put a gun to her head, I would have killed him given the chance. I fervently prayed afterwards not to meet on the street any of those men who invaded our home, for I knew that I would seek “justice” by my own hands.

    You can’t know. You can’t judge. Hypotheticals are rarely worth much of anything and, as you rightly point out, damaging to those who have lived through what for others is merely a hypothetical.

    That being said, I’m more than a little puzzled as to why you point to the pacifists. I’ve been in many discussions about violence and Christians, and I’ve never seen the non-violent ones be the ones to bring up the hypotheticals. it’s typically, “You’re against war? Then what would you do if you came in the house and found someone…” Pacifists may not deal with those issues well, but they don’t seem to be the ones focused on them.

  • Nekeisha

    I think Sarah is addressing the correct group on this. She is not talking about the people who try to debunk pacifist arguments that nonviolence can be a successful, effective alternative to violence. She is addressing people within Christian communities who claim pacifism but are quick to dismiss the real life stories of people who have actually suffered at the hands of violence because it is inconvenient for our worldview. To quote her directly: “I get tired of seeing privileged Christian pacifists try to play this What Would You Do? game where they say things like, ‘I’ve been sheltered from violence my whole life, but if someone tried to rape me I would . . .’ Or ‘Thankfully I’ve never experienced abuse, but if I were in an abusive relationship I would . . .’ I’ve heard other pacifists dismiss this game, saying we shouldn’t focus on unlikely, extreme scenarios like this because they’re just a distraction.” Our communities do this. All the time. I know because I have probably done it on more occasions than I can recall. The point isn’t necessarily to condemn pacifism or pacifists. Instead she is pointing out how those who have never been victims of violence can be blind to the fact that there are real authorities on this topic who need to be part of the discussion, if not at the fore. A pacifism based on hypothetical arguments made by people who are certain about what we think we would do (despite never having so much as gone through a nonviolence training of any kind) is uninformed and unhelpful. (And yes I include myself in this.) If we really want to know how to resist violence, we need to be most attentive to the real experiences of those who have survived violence instead of worrying that including them in the conversation will water down our convictions or prove us wrong.

    • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

      Agreed on all points, Nekeisha. I take it that cordobatim and myself were simply pointing out that pacifists are not typically the ones raising these thought experiments just for the heck of it. Usually it’s in response to a specific challenge from a non-pacifist interlocutor. But, if and when pacifists take the bait and engage in hypotheticals to win an abstract argument, or, as you say, “are quick to dismiss the real life stories of people who have actually suffered at the hands of violence because it is inconvenient for our worldview,” then that is a problem indeed.

  • Hilary J. Scarsella

    Sarah, thank you for this post. You are articulating a frustration that I hear in private conversation from survivors of abuse all the time. And, I heard the same from Iraqi Kurdish partners when I spent time in northern Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Being mindful of how and when and whether we talked about pacifism with our friends and partners who had experienced generations of war and oppression and genocide was a big topic of conversation on our team. It is a huge relief for me to see these concerns enter a more public sphere, and I hope you will keep writing!

    Jumping on emerging conversation… I am both a life-long Mennonite who grew up with pacifist teachings and someone who, until the last few years, related almost exclusively with a secular social sphere. I’ve definitely been challenged by those who are not pacifists with the “what ifs.” I’ve also heard these “what ifs” at least as frequently from the mouths of pacifists – in sermons, during congregational adult education classes, in college and seminary halls, written on the pages of the most popular “pacifist” books. When I was growing up, Sunday school was a progression of “what ifs” from first to twelfth grade, designed to help youth become able to actually respond nonviolently to conflict in their adult lives. Once, after returning from a stint in Iraq with CPT, I even led an entire congregation in role-playing “what if” scenarios. The intention was to give people an opportunity to safely practice creative responses to conflict, but this is still an example of pacifists generating the “what ifs” themselves. I’m sure we all have different experiences when it comes to where we hear the “what ifs” most, but it is not true of my experience to say that they come predominately from non-pacifists. I gather from Sarah’s post that it is not true of her experience either (Sarah, correct me if I’m wrong), and I have heard from other survivors of abuse that conversation about pacifism from within communities committed to nonviolence are difficult and painful. It seems to me that one of the gifts of Sarah’s post is that it draws attention to dynamics within pacifist communities that we (myself included) might not always notice and calls all of us to become more aware of the manner in which pacifists talk (with each other and with the rest of the world) about nonviolence. So important.

    • Menolite

      Hey everyone, another longtime Menno-pacifist here. I just wanted to affirm Hilary by saying that we really do need to be conscious about putting our own language in check before we check others. Nonviolence means taking a hard look at ourselves to see if we may have acquired oppressive language somewhere along the way. I’ve found time and time again that being conscious of the words we ourselves and others are using is one of the best ways to check privilege. Very important.

      • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

        “Oppressive language”? Help me out with some examples of what you mean?

    • Rachel Halder

      I, too, definitely affirm Hilary in being conscious about putting our language in check. Additionally, per her recommendation, I’m curious if I could cross-post this piece to Our Stories Untold (www.ourstoriresuntold.com)? I’m not sure who to go through for this request – Sarah or Jesus Radicals admin – but it would be great to make some sort of arrangement. You can email me at rachel@ourstoriesuntold.com. Thanks!

      • Jerry

        Just checked out your site Rachel, lots of wonderful articles! The article, ” The Politics of John Howard Yoder: 41 years of tiptoeing around power” by Tim Nafzinger was especially interesting for me as someone who always heard that Yoder had genuinely repented of his sexual abuses. It deeply saddens me to hear that wasn’t the case. Thanks for the link.

    • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

      Okay, so how should we talk about Christian nonviolence? Sarah suggests listening first to those who have experienced violence and abuse. That sounds right. But what do you (or others here) suggest as appropriate ways for us to talk about nonviolence?

      I’ve heard about “nonviolent language” again and again, but those guidelines seemed more about being liberal and PC than about following Jesus’ example (which regularly included some pretty extreme and violent language, even when preaching nonviolence, e.g. Mt 5.21-22). But maybe you have something else in mind?

      • Nekeisha

        Two words: sensibly and sensitively. For example, people who are at least a little conscious of racism are more likely to articulate themselves honestly while choosing their words carefully if they happen to talk about race with Black, Indian and Mexican conversation partners. Since people don’t walk around signs saying “I am a survivor of rape” or “I am a survivor of sexual molestation”–since this is largely invisible in our communities–folks who have not had those experiences are much more likely to throw around scenarios and hypotheticals that do not take into consideration the fact that a significant number of their hearers are likely to be survivors of abuse–or perpetrators. And that’s what makes what Sarah is raising all the more scary. The way we talk about nonviolence almost always is about blessing the enemy, putting the perpetrator’s needs above one’s own, being the sacrificial lamb etc. We need to find other ways to talk about violence that do not revictimize and that do not disregard the need for accountability and repentance, both of which are also part of what Jesus talks about and what the earliest churches were working through as a community. As for Jesus’ lack of tact in some of his conversations, it is worth paying attention to who he was roughest with. I can’t think of one instance of Jesus verbally attacking someone who was already a victim of the society. He reserved his harshest words for people who were dominant and privileged in the religious and social structures; and who did nothing to respond to the needs of people they helped victimize. Seems to me Sarah is on the right track also.

        • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

          I agree. Well said. I’d just point out that “nonviolent language” doesn’t seem to be something Jesus practiced, though as you say, he usually directed his harshest words to those more powerful than himself.

          This may be going off-topic, but now I’m curious what you and others think of Jesus words to the Syrophoenician woman, about tossing the children’s food to the dogs?

        • Joe

          I have been studying and thinking a lot in recent years about Plato and the inherited thinking processes from him in western Christianity. Plato seems to be into this idea of ‘forms’ – perfect heavenly images of behaviour that we on earth are supposed to strive for and try to emulate.

          Sometimes I wonder if pacifism has actually become a Platonic form that we idolise and at the same time like to think is a norm for all times and in all situations. And then we struggle to understand anyone who has used a different ethic in times of trouble – even though we ourselves have never faced that kind of trouble and have only really experienced thinking about the form.

          But then I’m finding this increasingly common in Christianity of all kinds, that we tend to be taught that there are easy solutions and easy ethics to apply in all situations, when the reality of life seems to indicate that things are messy and that there is no pre-recorded ethic that answers all the questions.

      • guest

        Hi Paul,
        “the privilege walk” Is one highly effective way I’ve found to open up discussion about nonviolence and privilege. http://www.albany.edu/ssw/efc/pdf/Module%205_1_Privilege%20Walk%20Activity.pdf
        Of course this isn’t the only activity or way to talk about these topics but I’ve found it to be extremely effective as a conversation starter in classrooms, church parties and other social gatherings.

        • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

          I see your “walk” addressing privilege (another topic that seems more important to our modern sensitivities than it was to Jesus, as far as I can tell) but how do you see it applying to what we’re talking here about here, communicating nonviolence/nonviolently?

          • guest

            The way I see it, activities such as the privilege walk help us to become aware of the violence we are unknowingly doing to others. The language we use plays a big part in becoming aware of privilege and violence because the words we use directly impact our thoughts and perceptions. All of these small adjustments move us towards a more nonviolent way of being allowing us to be better followers of the nonviolent way of Jesus. Perhaps there were some times when Jesus used harsh language with people but I don’t think taking a few passages of scripture and using them to validate violence is how followers of Jesus are supposed to do things. Ultimately the cross is our reminder that we follow a savior who was nonviolent in the face of violence.

          • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

            Could you give an example of “the violence we are unknowingly doing to others”?

            I sometimes get the impression that we are being accused of violence simply because we happen to be “privileged” in our oppressive society. But maybe you’re not suggesting that. Jesus was also relatively privileged in his oppressive society, wasn’t he? I don’t see any hand-wringing or apologizing from him about that. He just didn’t make use of that privilege to oppress others.

            But to get back to the main point here, the fact of Jesus’ privilege did not make him avoid using severe (even “violent”) language at times, when he thought it appropriate. Usually to those more powerful than himself, but not always (the Syrophoenecian woman comes to mind, or when he called Peter “Satan”).

          • guest

            Yes I would say those of us with white male privilege are guilty of violence against people of color and women. The violence is structural and deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. I’m not sure what privilege you’re referring to with Jesus, remember he was a laborer in an oppressed people group.
            I don’t know why Jesus would compare a woman to a dog or why he would make a whip or why he would tell Peter to bring a sword. I would not do these things.

          • http://cimarronline.blogspot.com/2004/05/paul-munn.html paul munn

            I asked for an example because you are speaking very abstractly: “The violence is structural and deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.” A guilt rooted in such an abstract and impersonal belief is very different from the guilt Jesus addressed and offered freedom from. It seems to me the guilt you speak of is based on mistaken ideology (a common modern ideology that Jesus did not seem to share).

            As for Jesus’ privilege, wasn’t he male in a heavily male-dominated society? And he was a Jew in a society where the Jewish religion was powerful and oppressive. Yet I don’t see him expressing any guilt or repentance for these privileges.

            On a personal note, if you would make different moral choices than Jesus, what are you basing your choices on?

          • IHOP

            Isn’t this taking a good thing too far.. I’m all for not being nonviolent but to say white male= violence seems a bit much. Jesus was telling the woman in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 that she was rewarded for being stubborn! He was testing her by insulting her and she came right back at him and said “even dogs like me can eat the scraps” by this she meant even those who are deep in sin can receive the healing grace of God and Jesus tells her she’s right! Christ Jesus doesn’t literally tell us to throw scraps to people under the table or to pick up a sword but I think prayer and longsuffering can help us to know when the time is right to bring the truth of these gospel stories into our own lives.

  • Mark Sebert

    I am new to the ideas of pacifism and it is on these hypotheticals that I hang my hat. For they as this dear Sister points are in fact not hypotheticals for millions. I may be a privileged white male but I have a hard time seeing defending oneself and fleeing as immoral. That is why I pose this question – Is it possible to be a semi-pacifist. To believe in non violence, non retaliation, and non interventionism but to allow for appropriate defense that is measured with intent on disabling attacker not killing. Or is this still pacifism but nuanced to allow for these real situations that happen everyday in our sin cursed world.

    • Joe

      Mark, Gandhi often said he was not a pacifist and that if you did not have the moral strength to practice non-violence then violence was better than passivity (not doing anything at all). It is entirely consistent to believe that there might be circumstances where violence is the only option, but that in any given situation you choose to believe that non-violence (or any particular type of non-violence) is the most effective solution to the problem. But then it can become difficult to arrange your thoughts to the point that you can justify them to yourself.

  • http://newaustralianwineskins.wordpress.com/ John T.

    I think the issue is bigger than a matter of pacifists being careful about the language they use. The key point that I got out of Sarah’s article is that people of privilege have a different perspective than people of suffering. A privileged perspective that is sugar coated in sensitive language is still a privileged perspective.

    Sarah’s article is great but I would extend the principle beyond personal and gendered violence to matters of economic and military violence in war and colonisation (which of course includes gendered violence). The issues are the same – the privileged have a different perspective to the suffering, often including matters of violence.

    Just as privileged pacifists might objectify victims of personal violence in their “thought exercises” they do the same thing to oppressed peoples, searching for better and more moral approaches to oppression than those devised by the oppressed people themselves, demonising and dismissing the political violence of the poor and oppressed as morally inferior and most importantly denying them solidarity and support because of it. Instead pacifists tend to imagine non-violent hypotheses (thought exercises) as an alternative to the violence of the poor and proclaim their solidarity and support to those hypothetical imaginings, in so doing objectifying the poor as just an element of the privileged thought exercises and dismissing the perspectives born of their oppression.

    A thought exercise of my own – Compare the issue of violence with the issue of racism. If white society, the beneficiaries of white power, simply use more sensitive language such as not using the “N” word or not using the word “white” as an adjective of purity and goodness, then nothing changes. Change comes through the recognition in the first instance of the structures of white power then a serious attempt to demolish or transcend them. Sugar coating white power in sensitive language is meaningless. So too with issues of privilege generally.

    It is the privilege that is the problem, not the language that privileged people use.

    • Joe

      John, I think this is a good point. I have been thinking for a while about how we seek solidarity with people in a very superficial way without addressing the fundamental violence on which our lives are built, but you’ve said it better than I could.

  • guest

    I know what I would do if I or the ones I love are attacked: I would defend myself as best as I can (even with violence) and I would not apologize for it.

    • IHOP

      Oh, come on… how would you really know what you’d do in a situation like that? I mean really, this is just macho man stuff . Wouldn’t it be better to maybe.. oh I don’t know… PRAY about how to respond before deciding that you would be violent!! Maybe I’m all wrong and way out of line in the world of “eye for an eye” but I’m pretty sure Jesus was all about forgiveness. Seriously, take a minute and think about it. Violence has ripple effects. I’m out, this is just me agreeing to disagree. Peace and God Bless.

      • Joe

        I know I wouldn’t pray about it. In the same way that I would do whatever it took to get my family out of the way of an out-of-control bus, I’d do whatever it took to get them out of the way of an attacker.

        I don’t believe that Jesus is calling for an ethic of non-violence which involves being a doormat for anyone who fancies having a piece of me nor that my claims to pacifism mean that I no longer have responsibilities to others (particularly my family).

        • guest

          Exactly.

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