By Aloysus Okoye
Religious and non-religious basis on pacifism
Some scholars have meaningfully argued that Pacifism (especially absolute pacifism) is often grounded in religious belief. Christian philosopher Stanley Hauerwas has claimed that “pacifism is a theological position because it is as much about eschatological faith as it is about ethics and politics”. A variety of religions have supported pacifist positions. Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists share a concern for ahimsa or nonviolence as a basic moral virtue. Likewise, Christians also find a commitment to nonviolence at the heart of their tradition. One reason that absolutist and deontological pacifism appears to require a religious foundation is that the commitment to peace can lead to suffering in the ‘real’ world of political life. But for some religious believers, the world of political life is only an apparent world and not the real world at all. In the Buddhist tradition, the world of dependent arising is a world of appearances in which suffering is ubiquitous. One of the ways to overcome this suffering is to see through the veil of “Maya” and the illusions of this world. Ahimsa or non-violence is a virtue that renounces the ubiquitous violence of the ‘real’ world. In a different way, the Christian tradition holds that the ‘city of God’ or divine providence is a mysterious reality that is infinitely more important than the reality of the ‘city of Man.’ The structure of this sort of religious belief is closely related to the absolute, deontological, and transformational nature of religious pacifism. In Christian pacifism, it is God’s commandments as articulated by Jesus that necessitate a commitment to pacifism. Of course, this is a contentious point; and some deny that Christianity requires pacifism. But Christian pacifists maintain that Christians should refuse to kill regardless of the consequences in the ‘real’ world. Related to this is the faith that God will provide both the strength to endure suffering and a final reward for those who remain committed to principles of nonviolence. Even though pacifism may seem imprudent or even idiotic from the standpoint of consequentialism or political realism, these consequences have no lasting significance from the standpoint of Providence. (This belief has been revisited by Catholic church for the sake of common good). Indeed, religious pacifists are not averse to the pain that they might suffer as a result of their refusal to take part in violence because they believe that this suffering will be redeemed in the larger structure of divine justice.
A further variety of religious pacifism is closely connected with the ideas of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics emphasizes the cultivation of virtues over the course of a lifetime. Virtue ethicists are reluctant to judge actions in isolation from the total context of an individual’s life. Religious pacifism has a virtue ethics component when the commitment to peace is conceived as a lifelong project of personal transformation. In the Christian tradition, this is understood as a project in which human beings learn to imitate Jesus in order to become closer to God. The Christian model of virtue is Jesus, and Jesus’ practice of nonviolence culminated in his crucifixion at Golgota. Christian martyrs have looked to this paradigm for millennia. However, it is important to note that virtue ethics need not be reduced to a merely religious idea: there are important non-religious articulations of virtue ethics and were defended by some authors. David K. Chan has argued, for example, that “while virtuous individuals would generally be averse to killing, they would not be absolute pacifists” A different argument for pacifism, based on virtue ethics, has been made Trivigno to opine that training soldiers to kill, turns them into bad persons.
A similar idea about the practical impact of violence or nonviolence is found in the Indian traditions. Gandhi’s practice of self-renunciation (brahmacharya) including his vow of poverty and his fasts, were closely tied to his commitment to ahimsa. For Gandhi, “non-violence or Ahimsa is part of a total practice of virtue.” Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr both claim that one of the most important ideas underlying this sort of pacifism is love, especially the objective brotherly love that is described in the New Greek Testament using the word agape. Luther explains it this way: “In the final analysis, agape means recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.” This idea represents the extension of Christian pacifism in light of Gandhian principles.
In the Buddhist tradition this is developed for example, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of “Being Peace.” The virtue approach emphasizes that pacifism is a lifelong project that requires discipline and practice.” This is true because we are not born virtuous. Rather, we learn to cultivate the virtue of peacefulness by gradually learning habits that help us control and resist anger, hatred, pride, competitiveness and the other emotions that lead to violence. In the Christian tradition, we may link this to the idea of original sin: we are born in violence and have to learn to overcome violence. Theological questions arise in Christianity about whether human beings can overcome violence by themselves or whether grace is needed in order to cultivate the virtue of peace.
It is possible to develop a version of virtue-pacifism from a non-religious standpoint. In the ancient world, some versions of Stoicism and Epicureanism come close to this. Stoics, for example, emphasize the virtue of tranquility or equanimity. One attains this state by learning proper discipline and by cultivating the other virtues that are essential for reigning in hubris. Hubris is wanton violence or pride or exaggerated self-confidence that runs amok. And in the Crito, Socrates considers the problem of whether it is ever justified to return evil for evil. Socrates begins with the assumption that we must do no harm; and he and Crito agree at one point that one “ought not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him”.
By Aloysus Okoye