Pacifism and Giving Death: Why I’m No Longer (or Never Was) a Pacifist

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.

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17 Responses to Pacifism and Giving Death: Why I’m No Longer (or Never Was) a Pacifist

  1. jamesmccarty says:

    Wonderful post. I love this line: “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.” Me too, me too.

  2. How broadly have you read in contemporary and twentieth century Mennonite/Anabaptist thinking on this?

  3. 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.

    I suppose I don’t see this quote reflected in the work of Yoder or the new guard of Heubner, Dula, et al. For instance this is the opening quote (from Yoder) from a recent collection of writers in the Mennonite tradition (The Gift of Difference).
    The question is not whether one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kind of inevitable evil is preferable.
    Now a quote does not mean much. But what you are describing seems to be something other than ‘theological pacifism’ as it is being developed in this camp. On the ground there is always the temptation towards personal holiness no matter what your position. One of the pivotal moments for me was the simple posture of ‘seeking peace and pursuing it’ as opposed to the ‘realist’ assumption of well I guess I will need to use violence. So while this honours the story you described it also acknowledges the presence of the Mennonite church in the Congo that, according to a Congolese person I recently heard speak, encouraged more support from the Mennonite church as they represented a minority presence that offered a sustained framework in working for peace (even this wants me to puff my chest in pride a little . . . but that would be the temptation regardless). All this does not resolve the tension and contradiction only frames a particular orientation and approach. This of course being very different than the Radical Orthodox ‘ontology of peace’ that seemingly employs a necessary violence for its ends.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Thanks for both the quote and the story. I certainly don’t want to advocate the RO line of peace-through-(cultural)-imperialism, at all. Nor rehabilitate the calculus of Christian realism (which so often, like RO, positions itself within mastery and a firm knowledge of good and evil). What I find important about the Levinas quote is that unlike realism, he sees this to be THE question to ask (whereas for realism it’s a mundane fact that is presupposed) and yet closes out the possibility to extricate oneself from the dilemma. He orients thought, therefore, away from ethics as calculation or the pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil and places it within the demand that the Other (as he says) places on me and in my experience of living not with an Other but also with other Others. I think something like this is functioning within Bonhoeffer’s _Ethics_ (and his use of violence), with the Christological framework so that he is following the one–Christ–who bound himself to sinners and became (as Barth says) the Great Sinner (it’s not an ethics built on the separation implied through a mastery of the knowledge of good and evil).

      I have to head out but there is more to be said about the Yoder quote (where is it from?). For now, I’ll just mention that my intended target was more various conversations I’d have with people around Duke Div espousing pacifism as a “non-coercive” mode of engagement and living.

      • Tim McGee says:

        To clarify “target” didn’t mean “who I wrote this against” (I wrote it because I’d been thinking about the quote) but what I had in mind by “theological pacifism.” interested in yours and other thoughts, and i’ll post some more soon. (also, found the yoder paper online).

  4. tasersedge says:


    I love your thoughts here, especially the tremendous irony of theological pacifism as a Kantian ethic.

    As for the Yoder quote, Hauerwas says similar things, like that pacifism means that other people will be hurt or killed because of you. I’ve come to believe (particularly after some time at Duke) that no one can be a pacifist if s/he is under 30. The closer I get to 30, the more I think, “Or maybe 50.” Whatever the age, until then, you can only want to be a pacifist, unless you have personally experienced hell.

    And your encounter with the Burmese Christian shows why. I don’t have enough experience, and my judgment amounts to just that and no more: judgment.

    Of course, in the context of reading along with your blog, I don’t think that’s your primary problem with the theological pacifism you describe. I think it’s the other piece you name of believing that we can be the decider (or to put it less actively, the knower) of what is good and what is evil. It makes theological pacifism the opposite side of the just war coin, with the same problems mirrored.

    And here, I think the question is not “Is peace good?” but “Can I know what peace is?” which is essential far before “Can I be a peacemaker?”

    Still, it is frustrating to feel that I am against things I somewhat understand (rape, war, abuse, physical violence) and for something I don’t understand (peace). I would love to be FOR something rather than against things.

  5. Pingback: Nonviolence & Receiving Life: Yup, I’m still pacifist but why & how? | Political Jesus

  6. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks! It’s funny how the older we get, the quintessential age of wisdom gets further off. I like your use of “decider” since it implies the cutting off and separation at work in “the knowledge of good and evil” that concerns me.

    David and Nick,
    I read the piece from Yoder where that quote came from and would say that what Levinas is asking is how this pacifism works when “the prima facie duty” [B.11] to not kill is violated by our very act of living.

    I’m not sure if you read J. Carter’s piece a week ago (, but he challenges Schmitt and Kahn on their reliance of a friend-enemy binary that neglects to think from the position of the abject:

    “In terms of political theology as a description of the field of the political, the abject is neither friend (subject) nor enemy (object). The abject exists in the zone between life (full citizenship) and death (the enemy as one who must be killed).”

    The Yoder piece, I think, and perhaps theological pacifism more broadly, places the theological emphasis on the friend-enemy distinction, neglecting the ways in which this political world have been shaped not so much through the destruction of the enemy but through the seizing of land from those who were neither friend nor enemy (and thus had no political existence at all). Pacifism seems unable to take seriously the formation of the subject who distinguishes friend from enemy only to love them both. To fall back on Fanon, as I so frequently do, and to enter back into Yoder deconstructively, my worry is that the pacifist subject is still being structured as an ethical subject over against the abject (the black). Perhaps, these subjects should not say they are pacifist (Yoder, A.18) even if they hope to be, for claiming pacifism from a social position sustained through such death-work is both disingenuous and belittling.

  7. Thanks for that response. Much there I will still have to process. My major point is that much contemporary work in the stream of Mennonite peace theology is very much in tune and engaged with the problematics you outline. I am not versed enough in the literature to respond in a real substantial way. My direct engagement is in my own ecclesial context. For instance, this summer I am beginning the process of ordination in Mennonite Church Canada and part of the process is providing some commentary on our current confession of faith. What I hammered away at was our own problematic approach to peace and violence and how it is compartmentalized in forms that allow us to address it is an object as opposed to acknowledge the consequences of our social position and violence we are immersed in. I suspect your own work and direction would very much find an appreciative ear in many Mennonite theological circles.
    I’ll look forward to your further thoughts on the matter . . .

  8. I can’t say I followed all the conceptual moves your made here. However, this helped clarify a stumbling point I have had in my engagement with Yoder. In _Politics of Jesus_ Yoder emphasizes Jesus’s independence from the structures of power and violence in his age. Yoder’s tradition also places a high value on Jesus’s life as an actual model for ethical development and engagement. Given my position and my own consideration of some of the points you also outline above I cannot deny my implicit/explicit connection to structures of power and violence. Therefore the idea of following or living out some independence from these things becomes unintelligible. . . . Incidentally it has also led me to question the traditional notion of Jesus as living a life ‘without sin’.

    Is it just me or has Levinas almost completely fallen off the map in many circles in the past 5 years or so? Thanks again.

  9. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks for your thoughts as well. I’m working on another post to follow up with some of these very questions. I am finding Levinas as very, very helpful thinker, especially when read as a figure within the “French Atlantic Triangle,” and so in conversation with Fanon, Memmi, Beauvoir, and others. I connect Levinas to Fanon in the post I’m hammering out now (while my daughter is playing around the house–so you know, intermittently).

    Re. sin–I think what we see in Jesus as “sinless” is the display of what sin is, which is Barth’s point that we don’t know what sin and evil are until the atonement (so he develops his doctrine of sin not in the account of creation but in his doctrine of atonement). What we see in Christ’s life is that sin centers on faithlessness/disobedience to God (“man does not live on bread alone but on every word of God”) and not in terms of separation from evil.

  10. Pingback: On the Varieties and Challenges of Contemporary Christian Pacifism « James W. McCarty, III

  11. Pingback: Pacifism and Violence: Two More Thoughts on Why I’m not a Pacifist | veeritions

  12. Mike Ward says:

    Interesting post. I stumbled on this page when I followed a link from a friends page to a page that linked here.

    I was a no-kill pacifist until about two years ago, but I got over it.

    Thing is I still beleive in peace, and in sacrificing for the sake of peace, but I also think Paul prefaced his thought in Rom.12:8 with “If it is possible” because sometimes it is not possible.

  13. Pingback: On Violence: James Cone and Martin Luther King Jr. | veeritions

  14. Was referred to this post by a friend and fellow-member at church.
    For the past few years, I’ve concluded that nonviolence begins the USA with the refusal to burn children alive. Warfare by the U.S. since WWI has been predicated on a willingness to use bombs and missiles on civilian populations (all such wars have been waged as wars of invasion or occupation on Others’ lands, so it’s meant bombing Others). The moral question for American Christians is “Are willing to burn children alive, or to pay for those bombs?” The martyrological question has been “Are we called to obstruct the bombing of children and families?” Apart from the “Duke school”, most other ministry training grounds seem never to have recovered from Paul Ramsey’s justification for incinerating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and threatening the incineration of millions of Russians. Not that we justify that quite so blatantly, but there seems a determined refusal to engage the reality of missiles and bombs as the effective business end of our American wrestling with Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer and Levinas. I suspect our neighbors across the southern part of the globe would be gratified deeply if we simply took that step. I also suspect a certain first-century rabbi in occupied Palestine would regard that as a given.

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