The growth of peace studies and peace-seeking ecumenical organizations bode well for better relations between religion and outsiders and amongst religious traditions. When I came to Fuller Seminary, I feared that I might have found a cadre of bible-thumping, just war theorists, who subscribed to an ethic of justified violence. I feared that I might find myself defending the ethics of Gandhi and St. Francis, only to be dismissed by these moderately conservative Christians as a hippy or a liberal. To my surprise however, the trend at my seminary is moving in the opposite direction. With the presence of peace-loving Mennonites and a student organizations like the Peace and Justice Advocates, the campus is exposed to and increasingly subscribing to various degrees of pacifism. While this peace-friendly environment is good for future ministers and leaders of the church, I worry that pacifism can be just as paternalistic position as violence is destructive.
Being a pacifist and an American is virtually impossible. Typically, the peace and justice community focus on violence issues, human trafficking, and other visible forms of oppression. They come out against war and unsanctioned military engagement (which is basically the status quo in the global capitalist empire: instead of war, we have police action). All of these things are unjust and need to be opposed, but ultimately they are the blood dripping from wound that we keep wiping up without recognizing their source: global capitalism. The wars that are opposed and the crimes committed in Africa that are so easy to bemoan are a direct result of our patterns of consumption that fuel global capitalism. Military force is used to prop up the system when certain sectors of the empire don’t play by the rules of property and capital. In other words, the violence out there is perpetuated by our violent daily lives. This point has been reiterated countless times by Slavoj Zizek and others, about turning the gaze away from the spectacle of capitalism back on ourselves, its diligent disciples. Pacifists need to recognize that as long as they continue to remain cogs in the capitalist system, they are not pacifists.
Pacifism, in the way it is done at Fuller and other places, is also a class program, a posture made possible by privilege. I have written previously about Foodies and how the food culture breeds class division because foods labeled as ethical (organic, local) are the foods that the poor cannot afford, making food ethics tantamount to the way of the wealthy. The freedom to not have to join a gang in order to survive is an assumption for most us from the suburbs. The fact that we can choose whether or not we join the military is privilege we don’t think about, not so in places like Singapore and Israel. Most of us have never encountered the threat of losing our land to a multinational corporation or aggressive Israeli settlers. Our choice for peace is on the back of violence and in the absence of direct violence to us. And this absence of violence is directly related to living in what is the equivalent to the Roman Empire. The theology of nonviolence, despite its unreality in most of our lives, can be a good thing, if it is directed at our participation in global capitalism by deconstructing our daily participation in its pernicious practices, but not if used to pat ourselves on the back about purchasing ethical commodities or choosing to live “peacefully”.
The part that worries me the most is that by attributing an ethic of nonviolence to Jesus, we are further subjugating the poor. There is a problem when a western, mostly white seminary, makes a blanket statement like “Jesus was a pacifist,” not only in its misuse of terminology, but also in what such theological statement means for the outer parts of the global capitalist empire. We cannot theologize pacifism because it takes away one of the tools of the poor to resist capitalism. Paulo Friere wrote in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that the poor are the ones best equipped to know how to liberate themselves. Good-hearted western teachers try to rescue the poor, channeling some paternalistic version of the white man’s burden, and help the poor understand that non-violent action, like Gandhi and MLK, is the best approach for their liberation. Nonviolence, however, doesn’t always work, particularly in Latin America where many priests were forced to take up arms in resistance cells. Other times it has worked, in the case of Gandhi. The point is, however, that that the strategic choice of violence vs. nonviolence is not for the western oppressor–us–to decide: the poor ultimately are the best theologians for their own liberation. We need to be careful that our advocacy of nonviolent resistance not become a tool of global capitalism to cripple resistance movements that seek to end systems of violence that kill droves of people. As much as we’d like to metaphorically follow Jesus’ path with the poor and marginalized, we cannot because we are not living in Israel with Jesus-type people, the poor and marginalized; rather, we live in Rome, with all the wealth and splendor.