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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Nonviolence and Pacifism Part I (by Jonathan McRay)

Nonviolence and pacifism are often pitted against one another, even though pacifism was once considered the activist term to distinguish it from nonresistance. Now, pacifism is thrown under the bus, even by vigorous advocates of nonviolence. For instance, Gene Sharp clarifies that nonviolent action is, appropriately, action that is nonviolent, as opposed to pacifism.

Nonviolence and pacifism are often pitted against one another, even though pacifism was once considered the activist term to distinguish it from nonresistance. Now, pacifism is thrown under the bus, even by vigorous advocates of nonviolence. For instance, Gene Sharp clarifies that nonviolent action is, appropriately, action that is nonviolent, as opposed to pacifism (Sharp, 2005, p. 41), whose wardens might see nonviolent action as too coercive (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). In many definitions, pacifism is almost pejoratively defined as rejecting violence on moral grounds without a concern for social transformation, while nonviolence is viewed as political change without violence as a strategic move. Arab arguments for nonviolence have strongly differentiated it from pacifism, which is associated with abandoning “a concern with redressing social grievances, and a commitment to changing unjust social structures” (Crow & Grant, 2009, pp. 34-35). Still others go further, equating pacifism and nonviolence but arguing that they are ineffective and impose patriarchal morals on the poor. Nonviolent advocates and pacifists, these critics say, ignore the vital role of violent militants in supposedly nonviolent movements because nonviolence is usually proposed by privileged whites who expect poor people of color to suffer through injustice while waiting for the fabled critical mass (Gelderloos, 2007, p. 23).

Criticisms of nonviolence and pacifism are extremely important and indispensable.[1] American nonviolence remains predominantly symbolic: bumper-sticker signs, marching, and petitioning the powers for permits to petition the powers. Symbolic acts are necessary, but they could simultaneously function as rituals and as subversive disruptions, such as when the Plowshares Movement burned draft cards with homemade napalm and hammered millions of dollars of damage into, and poured blood over, nuclear warheads while quoting biblical prophets.

Even so, taking some of the above criticisms seriously is a bit difficult.[2] Nonviolence does sometimes support the state, but violence doesn’t fare much better. And, ironically, arguing that nonviolence is racist actually sounds a little racist. These arguments assume that Indian independence and American civil rights mainly worked because they faced Christian nations with moral consciences (Apsey, 1990, p. 27) and wouldn’t have succeeded if they opposed repressive dictators, presumably black or brown dictators. Overlooking ignorance about British massacres and American segregation, I wonder how critics explain the ousting of Pinochet in Chile, nonviolence among the revenge-oriented Pashtuns, and Danish resistance to the Nazi invasion through an underground press, demonstrating with cultural songs and events, major strikes, property destruction to halt Nazi transportation and exports, and smuggling out Jews. 472 Jews were captured during raids, but over 7,000 safely escaped to Sweden (Ackerman & Duvall, 2000, p. 224). Since 1900, nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent ones (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 7) partly because they do motivate diverse mass participation (ibid, pp. 30, 39, 192). Maybe critical mass isn’t so fabled after all.

Violent wings of nonviolent movements shouldn’t be ignored, but they may actually prohibit success, with 50% leading to civil war within ten years, compared to 27% of movements that didn’t have armed campaigns (ibid, p. 218). Radical responses do sometimes coexist, and sometimes make easy distinction difficult such as in People Power in the Philippines. But it was only after the nonviolent mass movement emerged that major change occurred in overthrowing the U.S.-backed dictator (ibid, p. 169). Additionally, while the first Palestinian intifada didn’t end the Israeli occupation or halt settlement construction, the uprising “achieved more than had decades of armed attacks” (King, 2009, p. 146). Supposedly, extremist coalitions make moderate oppositionists appear more attractive, but the opposite is also likely: armed groups cause regimes to violently unify against the threat without distinguishing between nonviolent and violent campaigns (ibid, p. 43) and governments repeatedly pay spies to infiltrate nonviolent movements to incite violence. Dividing the regime’s support base contributes to success, and nonviolence has the strategic advantage. Violent campaigns are physically exclusive and have a harder time recruiting women and the elderly (ibid, p. 35), making it inherently hierarchical. Nonviolent action has less physical, informational, and moral barriers (ibid, p. 34).

The moral barrier implies that defining lines between nonviolence and pacifism might be fuzzy. To be sure, pacifists can be haughty moralists who wouldn’t flick a fly, or blow up Danish railways to resist the Nazis. But nonviolent activists can also sound like world-weary martyrs who smugly lament their pragmatism but “such is life.” The difference between the two is often implicitly framed around morality and practicality: pacifism responds solely out of ideological dogma while nonviolence pays tactical attention to context. However, strategy can’t escape ethical judgments: arguing for nonviolent tactics values effectiveness first, or values the possibility of violence at some necessary point. Exclusively privileging faithfulness or effectiveness is a dangerous game, because one can result in pious inaction while the other can result in justifying the same tactics employed by the regime.

I’m not able to dispel all the divisions that exist between pacifism and nonviolence. I’m not really interested in doing so. Both words have been used to refer to a moral ethos and to strategic resistance. During the Nuremberg trials, Herman Göring explained that outlawing pacifism helped capture power for the Nazis, because if you denounce pacifists as unpatriotic, and therefore a threat to security, more people flock to the leaders. I call myself a pacifist partly because I like the word better. Etymologically, pacifism is one who makes peace. At a certain time, I preferred nonviolence over pacifism, probably because of the overused complaint that it sounds like passivism. But I resonate more with the word pacifism now because its cadence, almost a complicated narrative flavor, and it speaks to what it is rather than what it is not. Still, I like the linguistic via negativa of the word nonviolence.

Whichever word is used, I will reject both unless they energize toward alternative ways of organizing our social, economic, and political lives. Pacifism and nonviolence worth their salt will repent of their pretense to moral superiority, deny the individualistic assumptions latent in liberal nonviolence, and commit themselves to resisting the spiral of violence.[3] Unless they do so, I am in complete solidarity with the critics.


[1] See Jordan Mattox’s excellent piece.

[2] Especially with responses like George Lakey’s, who notes that a much higher proportion of people of color have engaged in nonviolent action than white people (see also Myers, 1994, p. 239).

[3] Helder Camara’s term for structural oppression, revolutionary violence, and repressive crackdown (Camara, 1971). Structural oppression includes what Martin Luther King called the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism; what Wendell Berry called the shibboleths of globalization, free trade, and the new world order (Berry, 1991, p. 9); and what Cornel West called the three threats to democracy: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism (West, 2004).


Jonathan McRay grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. He has worked in Palestine as a journalist, in nonviolent direct action, with a center for developmentally disabled youth, and is the author of You Have Heard It Said: Events of Reconciliation. Additionally, he worked with a resource center and community farm in Mozambique. He has a BA in English Literature and Language and an MA in Conflict Transformation (with emphases in restorative justice and community development). He and his wife Rachelle, a PA student, currently live with friends on a permaculture homestead in the Shenandoah River watershed, where he also works with New Community Project,  a sustainable education center and demonstration site; a supportive home for friends struggling with addictions, homelessness, and abusive relationships; and a project incubator to hatch local action for justice and resilience.



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Berry, W. (1991). “Conservation and local economy.” In Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight Essays (1993), pp. 3-18. New York City: Pantheon Books.

Camara, H. (1971). Spiral of violence. London: Sheed and Ward.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Crow, R. E. & Grant, P. (2009). Questions and controversies about nonviolent political struggle in the Middle East. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 31-42). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

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Flinders, T. (1990). The good fight—Badshah Khan, the frontier Gandhi. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 187-191). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gelderloos, P. (2007). How nonviolence protects the state. Boston: South End Press.

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King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In

M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Kovic, C. (2003). The struggle for liberation and reconciliation in Chiapas, Mexico: Las Abejas and the path of nonviolent resistance. Latin American Perspectives, 30, 58-79.

Lorde, A. & Clarke, C (ed.). (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

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3 thoughts on “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Nonviolence and Pacifism Part I (by Jonathan McRay)

  1. A few years ago I blogged on this at the outset of the civil war in Syria, responding specifically to a piece that Erica Chenoweth wrote in Foreign Policy. This pitting of pacifism and nonviolence against each other rubbed me wrong then, and it rubs me wrong still. Chenoweth’s claim that pacifism was primarily a philosophical-moral position seemed to implicitly claim that strategic nonviolence is somehow amoral, and that seems problematic at best.

    Plus the 1) construction of monolithic definitions of either word, and 2) dichotomous juxtaposition of them – strikes me as a modernist exercise from which we should be exorcised.

    Better to shoot (metaphorically and nonviolently, of course!) for thick descriptions…

  2. Brian, I’ll let Erica Chenoweth speak for herself, but as someone who’s been in the midst of chronicling and teaching strategic nonviolent conflict, I can say that few if any of us have pitted “pacifism and nonviolence against each other.” Some of my colleagues are dedicated pacifists. The reason they can be so, happily, is that the strategic value of nonviolent discipline in struggles against oppression of all kinds only reinforces their personal commitment to enjoin the avoidance of violence. Moreover, there is a rainbow of values that are usually implicit in the injunctions that leaders of nonviolent movements use in recruiting participants in those movements, from the redemption of the purpose of a society that has been hijacked by autocratic or perverse rulers, to the liberation of the individual from the comprehensive purposes of an authoritarian state. The latter, by the way, is why it seems that there are “individualistic assumptions” in movements against such states. It’s not that participants in those movements include liberals and the middle class (that’s often but not always true). It’s that the rights of individuals (including women, minorities and indigenous people, to cite three types of individuals around whom important movements today have been self-organized) are woven deeply into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which — unnoticed by most — has become virtually a sacred text of most human rights defenders, and those they’re defending, in the Global South.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mr. DuVall. I’ve really appreciated the research and chronicling you’ve done. I’m interested to hear that few of “you” pit pacifism and nonviolence against each other. I’ve certainly encountered that, including Gene Sharp. Aside from strategic rhetorical force, they don’t necessarily have to be put in opposition.

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