Why I’m Not a Pacifist

When Quakers say we want to work for peace, does that just mean a lack of war? Or is it something greater? Kristina Keefe-Perry wrestles with the deeper spiritual implications.

Jon Watts

Jon Watts launched and directed the QuakerSpeak project for its first 6 seasons. Keep up to date with Jon’s work at his website.

21 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Pacifist

  1. I think the word “pacifist” is a beautiful term imbued with profound meaning. Etymologically speaking, it means “peacemaker”:

    C16: from Old French pacifique, from Latin pācificus, from pāx peace + facere to make


    To be a pacifist is to be part of a grand depth and breadth of efforts, because “making peace” takes work of many kinds from many committed persons.

  2. “Why I’m Not a Pacifist” – okay, i listened. “Why i’m Not Your Fan” – because if you’re not even sure of what you wanted to say here, you should probably think about it on your own a bit more until you’re sure. Then go ahead and elevate yourself in giving your opinion opposing something so core.

    1. a little harsh and upbraiding, coming from a Friend. Clearly you disagree with her – cool – I don’t, I see where she’s coming from, but I do understand your wanting to “defend” what is usually understood as a core value or article of faith of Quakers. I s’pose I might have taken a more gentle tone.

      It happens that while I have in the past attended Quaker Meeting and have many friends who are Friends, I do not self-identify as a Quaker, for a number of reasons but one of them is that I cannot accept absolute pacifism (I served in the military btw and am proud of my service) there are too many extraordinary conditions – such as for instance, an existential threat by an aggressive invader – as may arise in the world that might require the use of force as the only morally viable option.

  3. When I hear the word, “pacifist,” my mental image is of someone not actually DOING anything. That may not be fair, but it’s my image, and I think it’s the image of many other people as well. On the other hand, if you say to me, “Let’s go Wage Peace,” then I’m thinking of activism. We’ll be DOING something. Let’s wage peace by engaging our representatives in conversations about alternatives to war. Let’s wage peace by helping people understand the real costs of war. Let’s wage peace through the conversations we have in our congregations. There are so many ways we can actively wage peace. Being a pacifist does not mean being passive.

  4. This is a very misleading title — she’s not saying why she’s not a pacifist; she is saying the term “pacifism” is not enough to describe her convictions. That’s fine, but it’s not what is implied by the title. We all have our personal journeys toward approaching the peace process. Sometimes we are conflicted, so sharing and guidance is helpful. I didn’t find this helpful, but I respect what she has to say.

  5. The concept of pacifism in its true for (and as preached by George Fox) is noble but difficult: that is, “the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.” It is nearly impossible when the adversary has no interest in any peaceful negotiation. You then are left with surrender/subjugation or violating your principles. Jesus, in Matthew 5:39–44, would seem to give us no alternative but the former. But later Paul and Peter wrote justifying the use of force to subjugate/resist evil. Quakers have mostly been practical in practice. They work for peace and always look for peaceful resolution. But in America, many joined the Revolution, Meetings were devoid of young men during the Civil War, and more fought in WWII than resisted. In the age of terrorism, no one, it seems, agree we should surrender. That doesn’t mean we abandon our principles: we always need to work for peace. In an age of religious extremism, this means education on looking for a path to justice, freedom and equality for all – basic human values. I’m always happy to negotiate with my adversary, but only when he or she can do me and my loved ones no harm.

  6. As a Quaker, I see an important distinction between Violence and Self Defense. Violence is the deliberate intent to harm or kill.

    Self Defense is the deliberate intent to stop harm or killing from happening to you or someone else. That can be verbal all the way up to physical force. It’s a spectrum

    I do not believe that negating the idea of self defense is the intent of the Peace Testimony, only to stop violence. What do you think about the idea of self defense?

  7. I agree with Mika Goldin and Steven Cleary. I suggest a reboot! Change the title to “An expanded view of pacifism” or words to that effect.

  8. The speaker challenges us to think more broadly about pacifism, a useful idea. But to dampen violence entails tackling the roots — concentration of power, subpar economic development, corruption, denial of civil rights. I’m inspired by success stories around those efforts.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found the provocative title distinctly unhelpful. I wondered what may have changed in this speaker/author since the time we had worked together in promoting Voluntary Service among Quakers, as part of peacemaking. It’s a good thing, then, that I didn’t stop by balking at the title. Reading the transcript (thanks, to whomever provides this!) led me to realize I agreed with all the substantive points being made.
    I appreciate the lead comment which gives us some linguistic background to this word which apparently was a stumbling block. And plaudits also to the one showing that “pacifism” is not “PASSIVE-ism.”

    Gandhi faced a similar challenge when in his “Experiments with Truth” he began mobilizing his people against racial injustice and economic exploitation, which involved “constructive program” but also a renunciation of violence. He invoked an ancient Hindi concept of “Ahimsa,” often rendered “Harmlessness.” Yes, it was a refusal to retaliated. But the British press characterized this liberation movement as “passive resistance.” I think that together with a misunderstanding of what the Anabaptist tradition means by “Nonresistance,” this may have impelled Gandhi to coin a new word, “Satyagraha.” It combined both a spiritual and a material/physical element, variously translated as “The Power of Truth,” “Struggle for Truth,” “Soul Force,” “Love in Action,” — or in the title of Martin Luther King’s early book, “Strength to Love.”

    We still use the catch-phrase “Nonviolence” –or, more appropriately, “Nonviolent RESISTANCE,” inplying the power of non-cooperation with unjust and oppressive institutions. And yet, the words may get in the way if and when they have that element of negation. We may say, “War is not the answer,” and it can lead to a constructive discussion about what may be the direction to finding answers, “Peaceful resolution of conflict.” (Thanks, FCNL!)

    When working in peace education for American Friends Service Committee in the late 1960s, I found myself often searching with war resisters to find what were the positive, affirmative, life-giving values and visions for which they were willing to sacrifice in opposing the State’s machinery of death. It was a good exercise for them and for me. About this time, we had a Pope who clearly declared, “If you want Peace, work for Justice.”

    And, happily, both of those elements are inferred in the word which seemed to be chosen by our author (I keep looking for an identification, and have so far missed it): She speaks of “Shalom.” It is a very rich Hebrew word which connotes rightness of relationship in the economic and political and social and interpersonal realms. Dr. King was on to this when he famously said that “Peace was not the absence of conflict, but the presence of Justice.”

    So, while I’ll still claim the title “pacifist” and welcome the discussions about the difference between the mass indiscriminate violence of war, and the institutions of peacekeeping which a Quaker might affirm, I’m also glad for Friends and their friends to keep exploring what are, as the prophet Jeremiah said, are “The things that make for peace.” Perhaps this venue, this forum, is part of what is getting us there.

    One more quote, from the eminent A.J. Muste with whom I was privileged to work: “There is no way to Peace; Peace IS the way.” All our efforts toward justice and amelioration of suffering must have (once more, as Gandhi taught) means that are consistent with the ends being pursued. “Seek Peace and Pursue it!” (My, I have a lot of good quotes floating in my head, many of them Biblical!)

    “Blessed are the PeaceMAKERS!”

  10. You gave a very thoughtful and sincere sharing of your peace testimony, seeking a place beyond pacifism.

    After 21-months of combat in Vietnam, I returned an alienated and broken man. In my dark night of the soul, I found a small Quaker meeting, and when I saw the Peace Testimony posted on the wall, I knew I had found my home. If I have been brought up a Quaker, would I have avoided my experience in war? A few years later, I had the opportunity to interview a Quaker who had volunteered to serve in World War I. I could understand Quakers who felt led to serve as medics, etc. in WW-II to stop Hitler, but WW-I seemed to me to be an unnecessary and unjust war, just like my war. Alfred told me that he believed in President Woodrow Wilson, that his was the war to end all wars, that his was the war to make the world safe for democracy. These were my reasons too. I believed in President John Kennedy and the mainstream churches, — that we had to make the world safe from godless Communism. Now of course, the mantra is to make the world safe from so-called muslim terrorism.

    When will they ever learn?
    — to live in the light and power that takes away the occasion for all wars; that there is no way to peace — peace is the way; that the love of money is the root of so much evil; that only the truth can set us free . . .

    When I sit in my meeting for Worship and reflect on the damage and destruction that the U.S. inflicts around the world, and then hold that in the light of our Quaker Peace Testimony, I only know that it is better light one candle than to curse the darkness — better to know truth as revealed by Divine Light Inwardly than to trust outward forms.

    Your testimony has lit one candle in the darkness. Thank you.

  11. I think of violence as a methodology for resolving conflict. I think of self defence as a motive for doing what you have to do in order to protect yourself and/or others from violent intent or danger meant to seriously harm them. Self defence needs to be considered in any discusdions about biolence or non violence.

  12. Might this speak to this Friend’s condition?


    The Theory of Active Peace– by John Wilmerding (January 4, 2009)

    Presented here, for comment and discussion, are the five developmental stages toward Active Peace.

    [0. ‘Surface’ — conformity without question. Unconsciousness, unawareness, denial, or opposition to issues of social conscience involving violence, oppression, subjugation.]

    1. ‘Acquiescence’ — You know there is something wrong, but take no action, or it doesn’t affect how you live your life. Your response is to remain ‘quiet’ to others and within yourself. “Things have always been this way … there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to change them.”

    2. ‘Pacifism’ — You are no longer quiet within yourself. Your discomfiture with violence, oppression, etc. begins to affect how you live your life. You might turn the other cheek in a fight, for example. You are likely to witness to others (and to yourself) that organized violence and oppression is wrong.

    3. ‘Passive Nonviolent Resistance’ — Many or all of your private decisions become influenced or governed by conscience. ‘Conscientious objection’. You make changes in your own behavior by reasons of conscience but are not necessarily social about it, or don’t publicly, systematically cite your actions or your reasons for them. It’s also akin to the concept of ‘standing aside’ or of ‘abstaining’ on a vote.

    4. ‘Active Nonviolent Resistance’ — You take social leadership in attempting to thwart the forces of violence, oppression, and subjugation, or join with others who do, publicly, and attempting to spread the word about the initiative and get others to take part. ‘Standing In The Way’.

    5. The triad of ‘Active Peace’:

    5A. ‘Peacemaking’ — the transformation of conflicts away from violence, oppression, and subjugation by social and political means. Mediation, conferencing, circles peacemaking, and kindred ‘encounter’ forms. ‘Workshop’ methods such as AVP can also be effective. There are hybrid forms (encounter/workshop) such as HROC, a spinoff of AVP in Rwanda.

    5B. ‘Peacekeeping’ — Nonviolent Accompaniment. Need not be organized or public in its motivations, but is more effective when it is done publicly, and the reasons are publicized. [Not what the UN does with guns and uniforms, though they call it that.] Most well-know exemplars are Nonviolent Peaceforce, the proposed Canadian Civilian Peace Service, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Muslim Peacemaker Teams. “Why are the missiles called peacekeepers when they’re aimed to kill?” — Tracy Chapman

    5C. ‘Peacebuilding’ — Sustainable Development — providing for human needs so that the associated conflicts involving sustaining life (land, water, food, health care, etc.) are ameliorated or eliminated. Fair Trade as opposed to ‘”free trade”. Local economic initiatives. Local alternative currencies. Barter economies. ‘Organic’ agriculture. Methods of redistribution of wealth, including economic stimuli, may be useful on the way to more synergistic outcomes where the weal is more naturally held and distributed in common.

    One interesting aspect of the five-stages theory seems to be that the next one only becomes visible or understandable to you once you have attained the one before. In this way, each stage represents a ‘perspective’, both individual and social, and social ‘organisms’ can be said to progress through the stages as well as individual ones.

    Another dynamic is that, for various psychological reasons I won’t go into here, people or social groups can vary in how they move through the stages, and sometimes regress. However, my understanding is that one one has a firm purchase on a stage, retrogression becomes much more unlikely. Human beings and social organizations are very complex, however, so there is still much more to learn about how to bring everyone into higher stages. Education about these things is both inevitable and necessary.

    Of the five stages, only Active Peace — stage V — can accurately be interpreted as ‘the ocean of light flowing over the ocean of darkness.’

    Congratulations and acknowledgements go out to Gray Cox for first writing about Active Peace, and to Johan Galtung for his work in refining the development of the triadic theory — peacemaking, peacekeeping, peacebuilding. Thanks also to our colleague Howard Richards for his conceptual and theoretical treatise on Peacemaking, and his many other wonderful writings.

    Incidentally, many peace studies and conflict transformation programs throughout the world use these ‘triadic’ terms interchangably, and therefore inaccurately and misleadingly. Of those who do, the ones most likely to do so are those influenced by governmental or corporatist entities and agents.

    It is crucial that these terminologies be used accurately and consistently in order that humanity as a whole might progress toward Active Peace — or alternatively (as some see it) recover Active Peace as our natural state.

  13. I agree with what she is saying and am a fan of quakerspeak in general, but the title is unfortunately misleading “clickbait”. I guess it’s a tough marketplace and you need to get readers, but it seems somehow unquakerly to use such methods.

  14. the content of the video spoke to me – I think of violence as a very broad thing…. and I like the full meaning of “shalom”.
    But like others I didn’t like the title, it is not descriptive of the content

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