Pacifism and Violence: Two More Thoughts on Why I’m not a Pacifist

I’ve appreciated the feedback and conversations on my previous post on pacifism. Please keep them coming–as I said, I’m not settled where I am but more recognizing where I am not any more (or where I never was).

I mentioned in a conversation on Rod’s blog that another way to approach my concerns with pacifist thought is that it seems to provide a very “thin” account of violence. In the beginning of Totality and Infinity, Levinas says,

But violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action. Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them. It establishes an order from which no one can keep his [sic] distance.

No one can abstract themselves from this violence which aims to destroy the very conditions for action as coherent, integrated persons.

Which leads to the second thought: many accounts of pacifism assume that the friend-enemy binary structures the political sphere, whereas the political should be rethought within the more complicated schema of friend-enemy-abject (see J. Carter’s articulation of the abject), or perhaps friend/enemy-abject. Levinas does not locate violence in relation to enemies, who are in fact, identical to your friends (Another blogger quotes Yoder: “The neighbor I must love is not my near neighbor; it is especially the enemy”). Instead of targeting this friend/enemy, violence is primarily related to the production of the abject, those whose lives are turned against life itself, living now in social death, as living non-agents whose very survival depends on their ability to constrain their own life.

This understanding of violence as primarily aimed at the abject helps clarify Fanon’s articulation of violence in Wretched of the Earth. The violence of the colonized is the “perfect mediation” because, in violence, the abject reconstitute themselves as political agents and clearly reflect back to the colonizers that violence aims towards the production of abject subjects.

For Fanon, this violence reintegrates the shattered psycho-social body of the colonized (the abject) and yet also carries with it the seeds for a new humanism (“reintroducing man [sic] into the world”). This counter-violence is “more than” the colonial violence for, once made the objects of war, the colonizers can “decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty” (62). Newly aware of the violent construction of their own subjectivity as colonizers, they can support the work of reintroducing the human into this world by  destroying the colonial infrastructure as it passes from direct state colonization to the hegemonic control of global capitalism (“what matters today…is the need for a redistribution of wealth” 55).

Certainly, there is an articulation of Christ’s life and death in the form of the slave as providing space for the reintegration or protection of one’s self that does not proceed through direct attack against the body of the master(s). I get this, love this, and celebrate this. My challenge to pacifists, then, is twofold:

  1. What does it mean when this view is espoused by someone who, like me, is socially situated in the class of masters (should we not, oddly following Yoder A.18.a, remain silent)?
  2. Once violence is placed within the production of the abject, should not anti-colonial action be our prima facie Christian duty (to again echo that Yoder article, B.11, and something expressed by James in his response to my first post), perhaps even overriding the importance of avoiding the physical harm of others? Would not this offer a way to account for Bonhoeffer’s choice of “complicity” in physical violence within his own trajectory of thought as Christian pacifist? As David pointed out in his comments in the last post, Yoder himself says: “The question is not whether one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kind of inevitable evil is preferable.”

Again, I’m looking for help thinking through these questions–so let me know what you think.

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5 Responses to Pacifism and Violence: Two More Thoughts on Why I’m not a Pacifist

  1. Hey Tim,

    Give me a chance to re-read Fanon’s “On Violence” and I will get back to you.

  2. Tim McGee says:

    Rod,
    No problem. One text that came to mind is on p. 50 in the Philcox translation:

    “The arrival of the colonist signified syncretically the death of the indigenous society, cultural lethargy, and petrification of the individual [the “native” as abject]. For the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist. Such then is the term-for-term correspondence between the two arguments.

    But it so happens that for the colonized this violence is invested with positive, formative features…This violent praxis is totalizing since each individual represents a violent link the great chain, in the almighty body of violence rearing up in reaction to the primary violence of the colonizer.”

    I also think of the long quotation from Cesaire, 44-46, where the “good slave” (neither friend nor enemy but abject) attacks the master’s house, and suddenly the master is forced to see the violence that, as master, he could not see, for the slave did not register as an enemy (“this one will make a good one [grown slave], the master said looking at me, and he was saying other friendly things…”).

    Thoughts would be appreciated as I’m still struggling through these texts.

  3. I’ve been letting these concepts kick around a bit more and find their value growing on me. Certainly in Mennonite/Anabaptist history the notion of suffering/violence was one of being viewed as the enemy (for breaking with Rome and the state). Rome in turn was a whore in our eyes (and in many others I suppose). But all these engagements assumed a type of mutual playing in field in which we could always ‘recant’ and return to the fold .
    Similarly, I have been working through Kierkegaard this year and am currently in the midst of a bulk of writing focusing on suffering. In my most recent post I reflect on the fact that Kierkegaard assumes a sort of ‘privileged’ suffering in which someone understands and owns a certain social worth or value but chooses another path (what he would call ‘meekness’). His experience is being mocked as an eccentric genius (privileged suffering) but the tragedy is his transferring this privileged suffering in speaking of the woman who should carry on in the midst of domestic strife with ‘patience and meekness’. Despite all her ‘meekness’ she will only ever be an appendage of his abusive self. In this way Kierkegaard needs to be read against himself and face the charge of his ‘individual’ as not actually standing alone before God, but standing within a certain privileged ability. It is the abused (abject?) who must develop/find the vision/action of differentiation from the consuming source of violence.
    Just rambling at this point . . .
    Anyway thanks for the thoughts.

  4. Pingback: A post on an essay on abjection | the de-scribe

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

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