What can the pacifist do when confronted with naked tyranny? With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, pacifists are faced with the dilemma of either helping Ukrainians defend themselves — and what spirit and courage they have shown, led by their unlikely president — or letting Putin have his way. If diplomacy stood a chance, it would be the alternative option for pacifists; but does it?
The surge of support for democracy in several former Soviet republics, prominent among them Ukraine, has fomented hostility to the West among those who resent the loss of Russia’s role as the alternative superpower. Fear of freedom, rather than NATO’s expansion eastward, is what drives the former KGB officer at the helm — the nightmare of a Slavic democracy on Russia’s doorstep, potentially stirring its citizens to rebel.
Putin’s animosity towards NATO is not entirely fanciful, however. It stood by as rapacious oligarchs, in partnership with Western capitalists, enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian people. The West is by no means blameless, with its long history of colonialism and all too frequent debasement of its liberal ideals. But the fundamental principles of European Enlightenment — respect for individual autonomy, space for civil society to nourish political life, protection of human rights and rules for international order — are perceived as a threat to those who have not embraced them. The Russian Orthodox Church, to which Putin pays lip service, can portray these principles as undermining Russian traditions and corrupting morals. In invading Ukraine Putin is ostensibly saving Europe from itself by upholding its Christian values. A more stupendous hypocrisy is scarcely imaginable.
This leads us to the central moral question: do even these grave threats justify armed resistance, meeting violence with violence?
Throughout history, pacifists have been brought up short by the reality of imminent violence and the need to compromise with states intent on warfare. The earliest Christians could fairly be described as among the first pacifists (Buddhists and Daoists eschewed violence centuries before). But as the church became established in the Roman Empire and eventually provided it with its ideology, reasons were found for Christians to enlist in the Roman army despite its ruthless brutality and oath of loyalty (sacramentum) to the god-emperor, culminating in the unfortunate doctrine of ‘just war’.
In the late medieval and early modern periods sectarian movements such as the Anabaptists, Mennonites and Quakers embraced pacifism, refusing to take up arms as states and even Christian groups warred against one another, but there too ways were found of delegating their military service to others so they could be exempt.
During the First World War pacifists who resisted this imperialistic conflict were persecuted as cowards (for example, being sent white feathers in the mail) while supposedly Christian powers demonised one another.
As the Second World War loomed, the noted American Protestant ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr resigned from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, citing the urgent need to resist Fascism by force and maintaining that pacifism was a misconstrual of Jesus’ teaching. Tolstoy’s pacifism remained aloof from political reality, but Gandhi and Martin Luther King had to make concessions to realism. Pacifism was never an easy option, especially at times when the primitive ideology of heroism on the glorious field of battle reigned supreme.
Part of the problem is that when pacifism is regarded as an absolute principle brooking no exceptions, individuals and indeed states (for example, Japan’s attempts to repeal Art. 9 of its ‘pacifist’ constitution) can be put in an impossible position. To refuse to take up arms even when the innocent are being mercilessly attacked, as is happening now in Ukraine, becomes itself morally dubitable. The Right to Protect (R2P) is a moral principle complementary to pacifism. But I believe an even more subtle and widespread objection to pacifism is simply that peace is seen as boring.
Humans seem to thrive on competition and conflict; that these can become violent is accepted as inevitable. Militarists hark back to the doctrine of Heraclitus in ancient Greece that war is the father of all things. It is all too easy to sanctify violence as a divine obligation, a means of purification and ennoblement (for instance, the mythologies of ANZAC, ISIS and the IRA). But there is a counter-argument which seems to me irrefutable. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the context of pacifism has changed radically. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who stole and made public the Pentagon Papers which brought down Richard Nixon, recently wrote a book on the consequences of a nuclear war. The picture he paints is one of total extermination on a par with the extinction of the dinosaurs. That this must not be allowed to happen has become the categorical imperative of our time.
Let us not kid ourselves that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is enough to deter nuclear powers from actually using their weapons. The likes of Trump, Kim Jong-un and now Putin drop hints about their nuclear arsenals and betray the mentality of Mafia bosses. Even apart from the fact that a growing number of states possess nuclear capability (think of China, Pakistan, India, Israel and Iran), the global armaments industry is massive and ruthless beyond the imagination of both citizens and politicians. The Middle East correspondent for The Independent, the incorruptible Robert Fisk, who is intimately familiar with the damage armaments can inflict on the innocent, was horrified, when he visited an arms fair, by the casual way the destructive potential of the weapons displayed was advertised.
I have always thought that sooner or later those who have achieved the status of a nuclear power will want to play with their toys, and what better proving ground than a full-scale war? The weapons proudly paraded in Red Square and Tiananmen Square on national anniversaries are more than capable of inflicting appalling destruction when deployed against civilian populations, as we see in Ukraine and as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. To trivialise this reality in the nuclear age shows breathtaking irresponsibility.
So where do pacifists stand? The one overriding imperative is that humanity must learn to defend its interests and solve its conflicts non-violently, otherwise Einstein’s prediction will come true: if the Third World War is fought with atomic weapons, the next one will be fought with sticks and stones.
Peaceful resolution can happen, though it is a long and difficult process. I think of the rapprochement between Nelson Mandela and Willem de Klerk in South Africa and the Northern Ireland peace agreement, which took patient commitment by leaders such as the late John Hume and David Trimble to the point where even Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley could bury the hatchet and advocate for peace together. When we urge diplomacy in the situation facing Ukraine, we must remember that you cannot reason with fanatical dictators, as those who tried to do deals with Hitler had to learn; you can only defeat them.
Yet much can be learned from the peacemaking of Indigenous peoples, such of those on the island of Bougainville after years of civil war. Religions, despite their complicity in warlike rivalry and state-sponsored violence, bequeath us an arsenal of peace principles that has hardly been exploited. Christians have traditionally seen pacifism as a counsel of perfection which does not necessarily apply in the world of Realpolitik. My former colleague Heinz-Günther Stobbe countered with the remark that the Sermon on the Mount is the most realistic text in the New Testament. In Buddhist sensibility perpetrators of violence harm not only their victims but themselves, which is verified by survivors of torture who see through the façade of their torturers.
I am convinced that the unleashing of war on Ukraine spells the beginning of the end for Putin. Violence is ludicrous, war is absurd. As Desiderius Erasmus put it centuries ago: ‘If you look narrowly into the case, you will find that they are, chiefly, the private, sinister, and selfish motives of princes, which operate as the real causes of all war’. Putin has proved the point all over again.
John D’Arcy May is Associate Professor of Interfaith Dialogue, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin.
With thanks to Eureka St where this article first appeared.