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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

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

At the very least we might say that both nonviolence and pacifism should attempt to understand and redirect violence. And maybe we should shelve the tired terms for a spell and speak of life-giving or death-dealing acts, which might reframe exhausting debates about property destruction. Pacifism should not be at odds with physical force, with the force of physicality such as sit-ins, strikes, human chains, roadblocks, or even strategic property destruction.

At the very least we might say that both nonviolence and pacifism should attempt to understand and redirect violence. And maybe we should shelve the tired terms for a spell and speak of life-giving or death-dealing acts, which might reframe exhausting debates about property destruction. Purist definitions ignore the fact that it’s not possible to act and remain perfectly pure (Deming, 1990, p. 95), or even to be inactive and remain pure. Pacifism should not be at odds with physical force, with the force of physicality such as sit-ins, strikes, human chains, roadblocks, or even strategic property destruction. Sociologist Asef Bayat describes nonviolence as the art of presence, which is collective action that evades restrictive control by opening new spaces to explore potentiality (2009, pp. 48-49). We strategically place our political bodies in the body politic. “But what would you do if someone’s raping your sister or mother or girlfriend?” Apparently for such patriarchal paternalism, one can insert any female at this point, pun intended. “Well, what would you do?” You pull the attacker off her! Nonviolence is not legalistic inaction to preserve individualistic purity; it is analysis and engagement that disrupts the spiral of violence at every level it can. Nonviolence, or pacifism, is relationship, and you can’t have a relationship with someone while they’re raping your best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt.

If we shelve these cumbersome concepts, we could talk about satyagraha and the commensurability of ends and mean. Satyagraha, grappling with the force of truth, means that aggression and energy aren’t ignored and repressed but are instead converted and transfigured. We must come to grips with the anger and rage within ourselves. In this understanding, nonviolence is not the absence of violence but is violence transformed; it is what Timothy Flinders calls “transviolence, where the power of passions like anger, hatred, and fear is reshaped into a potent fighting force” (1990, p. 189). After all, violence is a form of communication; it intends to say something which might be very worth saying. However, as anarchist David Graeber suggests, violence may be the only communicative act that has predictable effects on the other party without any need to understand them (Graeber, 2011, p. 48). Graeber thinks this is violence’s most characteristic trait: “its capacity to impose very simple social relations that involve little or no imaginative identification” (ibid, p. 49). He suggests that violence is “the trump card of the stupid, since it is that form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response” (ibid, p. 49).

As far as I can tell, Graeber is referring more to the structural and repressive violence of state regimes than to the revolutionary violence of the poor. And so he should, but revolutionary violence often seems to be the main target of critique by liberal proponents of nonviolence (Myers, 1994, p. 243). Privileged activists and peacebuilders run the risk of looking down our condescending noses at the violent actions of the oppressed without ever experiencing constant domination. However, militarized revolutions almost always reproduce the cycle which they sought to overthrow, because they are dependent on the same worldviewing and the same resources, like the international arms trade, to resist empire. The result is more deaths and another suppressive regime. As Audre Lorde said, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine transformation” (Lorde & Clarke, 2007, p. 112-3).


The first Palestinian intifada was predominantly a concerted and mobilized nonviolent revolution, and it paved the way for the Oslo Peace Accords. But in the aftermath of Oslo’s failure, the second violent intifada began in which suicide bombings drastically increased. Ten years later, the situation on the ground is far worse with a massive concrete wall, intensified movement restrictions, and accelerated settlement construction. As radical educator and theologian Ched Myers reminds us: “The romantic myth of the guerilla fighter armed with only an AK-47 and a heart full of revolutionary love is just that—a romantic myth” (Myers, 1994, p. 243).

Privileged activists must tread carefully when offering strategic responses to oppression they do not suffer, especially if they can’t see the difference between Israeli soldiers with automatic guns and Palestinian kids with rocks. But polite silence is not solidarity (ibid, p. 239); imperialistic intervention and wholesale acquiescence are both dead-ends. However, once we know and have witnessed we are called by the event to respond, whether in action or feigned ignorance. Allies can offer insights, advice, and experience, which are all embedded in valuations of the world. But ultimately we should trump voicing concerns and making suggestions with leaving the final decision to people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined with persecution. I am a pacifist who respects the Zapatistas, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Native American resistance to European conquest. Solidarity is most clearly expressed not in what we say but in how we listen.


We also need to strike a life-saving balance between self-assertion and respect for others (Deming, 1990, p. 104). This evolved instinct bypasses the domesticated nonviolence that mostly appeals to humanistic consciences, thus providing fodder for legitimate criticism. Radical action, said feminist Barbara Deming, troubles conscience and resorts to power (ibid, p. 100). Nonviolence is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or maybe a chimera of the two. Apparently, the only animals capable of love are those who maintain this equilibrium of self-assertion and other-respect (ibid, p. 104). Maybe Jesus of Nazareth was right when he said we love others as we love ourselves, or as we assert our own lives. Radical action might encompass the love of neighbors and love of enemies.

Las Abejas exemplifies this tension and also helps blend nonviolence and pacifism. Las Abejas is a Christian pacifist civil society of indigenous Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, committed to nonviolent resistance against neoliberalism, imperialism, and militarism. Much of their work centers on cooperative agrarian practices, threatened by Mexican and international economic policies (Kovic, 2003, p. 67). The land is intimately related to their identity as indigenous people: it is “our life and our freedom” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 61). Las Abejas means “the bees” in Spanish, because “like the bees we want to build our houses together, to collectively work and enjoy the fruit of our work . . . We want to produce ‘honey’ but also to share with anyone who needs it” (Tavanti, 2003, p. 5). One member noted that bees are also small insects that disturb a sleeping cow with one sting (ibid, p. 5).

Las Abejas began in 1992 in response to a land dispute in which one man was killed and several others injured (Kovic, 2003, pp. 62-64). Five men were arrested without warrant and wrongly accused of the attack (ibid, p. 64).  Las Abejas, promoting nonviolent resolution to the dispute, organized 200 indigenous Tzotzil to march 41 kilometers and sit in front of San Cristobal’s cathedral to protest the unjust arrests; by the time they arrived, 5,000 people had joined (ibid, pp. 65-66) and as far as I know white people weren’t overseeing with paternalistic gazes. The five men were soon released (ibid, p. 66). Five years later, a paramilitary group killed 45 members of Las Abejas who were praying in a chapel in Acteal as police officers stood 600 feet away and government authorities took five hours to respond. But Las Abejas, as they called for justice, also called for forgiveness and reconciliation. They believed that commitment to all three constituted their nonviolence.


This is a delicate constitution. For a month or so, friends and I slept a night or two a week in the home of a nonviolent protest leader outside of Bethlehem in case of military night raids. Soldiers were often in communication with this leader and obviously knew where he lived. They once suggested that they come to his house for tea and discuss alternatives to weekly protests against the wall. He replied that they were not welcome now because they had the power to come whenever and however they wanted. When the conflict was over, he said, they were welcome for tea, ahlan wa sahlan, but until then he would see them at the demonstrations. I’ve been called an anti-Semite for work I’ve done in the occupied territories, and for even calling them “occupied territories.” At the same time, an activist friend severely questioned my concern for Palestinians because I wrote for a reconciliation group. To her, all such groups are projects of normalization that care nothing for justice, for home demolitions or night raids or checkpoints or arrests or settlements. And yet she accused me as we drove to the home of the nonviolent protest leader.


Transformation may begin with covenanting ourselves to the wreckage and gift of the beautiful risk of life. The purported Realist, however, throws in the cards and says, “This world is what we have and we must accept it,” which isn’t really realism as much as it is elitism. To recognize the violence of the world, and to recognize that our current ways of living exacerbate it, and then to suggest that we must continue this currency, is the most unrealistic thing imaginable.


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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One thought on “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Nonviolence and Pacifism Part II (by Jonathan McRay)

  1. In the midst of academic, philosophical, theological, and theoretical rhetoric, we citizens of the United States need to offer forth a critique of the foment-er of violence through high tech attacks as well as supplier and supporter of those who maintain governmental control through violence of their own people. It is our tax dollars which under gird so much of the violence in the world and we need question why. To talk of non-violence and pacifism without questioning the role of the Pentagon and our so-called defense establishment is to ignore the beast that is us! Pogo the philosopher was so right – we am the enemy.

    Our politics are so stained with the blood of the poor, the out caste, and the oppressed that we are blind to our role in creating and maintaining their cultures of poverty and oppression. Barack Obama has done some wonderful things but he has been unable even to challenge the cloak of militarism which every President seems to put on and find comfort in. Our culture and especially our political culture is infected with the disease of militarism and our economy depends upon it. How we can ever move away from it is unclear but those of us who call ourselves pacifists or call upon others to challenge violence dare not ignore that disease, that infection. As a disabled, combat veteran of Vietnam, I pray that we have the courage to gaze into the mirror and see not darkly but clearly that we are the source and support for a world filled with violence and war and until we dare to challenge the politics of such here in this country we are simply flapping our gums. Peace.

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