In society such as it functions one cannot live without killing, or at least without taking the preliminary steps for the death of someone. Consequently, the important question of the meaning of being is not: why is there something rather than nothing–the Leibnizian question so much commented upon by Heidegger–but: do I not kill by being? E. Levinas
I used to be a pacifist, which, if pacifism is similar to being straightedge, I never was (“not now, you never were”). Maybe I wasn’t really one. I don’t know. I’ve been privileged enough to be protected by so many forms of social power that my resolve was never tested. I lost it vicariously, in talking to a refugee, a Christian man, who was part of a militia in Burma. He carried a gun to protect his village–his family–from slaughter at the hands of the military. My pacifist ideas would have seemed hollow and trite to him, and I knew that, so I kept them to myself, and realized a few hours after the conversation that I wasn’t really a pacifist–any longer, or, if you prefer, I realized I never was.
The quote from Levinas places quite succinctly one of the struggles I have with theological pacifism: it abstracts from the question of being, of living in this world where our very existence involves taking “preliminary steps” towards the death of others. The kind of principled rejection of violence–“come what may,” an oddly Kantian sentiment, where “Christ-like” is a cipher for “duty”–leads either towards a general blindness to the forms of death that sustain our lives or towards a kind of hopeless pursuit to disentangle ourselves from all of them. Our actions become oriented towards developing or displaying our own goodness, our own “peaceful” formation in/of the world. Our actions and lives become primarily oriented towards our self-justification (“holiness”) and not towards the demands that others have (or, as Levinas says, the Other has) on us.
To put it in the language of Bonhoeffer–who himself struggled deeply through these qeustions–I am still waiting to hear of a pacifism that has the courage to admit it might need to repent before God and others for this very pacifism. I am waiting for a pacifism to surrender the power to “know good and evil,” and the subsequent willingness to sacrifice others to sustain this judgment of itself as good. As Bonhoeffer learned through Nietzsche, this knowledge of “good and evil” is itself part of a social power sustained through death.
I know many people who think otherwise, and have spent more time thinking through this question, so please, let me know where I’m going wrong. UPDATE: here’s a response by Rod over at Political Jesus.