By Keith Pavlischek
Toward the end of my last post in this series I said that in my next post I would show how those who embrace this crypto-pacifism, or functional pacifism, or “just peacemaking” typically distort the classic Christian just war tradition and doctrine. I will get to that soon enough, but it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile first to say something about how this crypto- or functional pacifism has had a profoundly corrupting and debilitating effect on classical Christian pacifism and Christian pacifist organizations in America.
In my last post I commented on this statement by Michael Walzer:
Many clerics, journalists, and professors, however, have invented a wholly different interpretation and use, making the [just war] theory more and more stringent, particularly with regard to civilian deaths. In fact, they have reinterpreted it to a point where it is pretty much impossible to find a war or conflict that can be justified. Historically, just war theory was meant to be an alternative to Christian pacifism; now, for some of its advocates, it is pacifism’s functional equivalent — a kind of cover for people who are not prepared to admit that there are no wars they will support.
I pointed out that Walzer himself is clearly a man of the Secular Left and is an eminent left-wing academic, and so writes without any conservative or neo-conservative axes to grind. I also noted that Walzer acknowledges that this tendency to treat the Christian just war tradition as little more than a form of functional pacifism ” “is especially strong on the left,” adding that this is why “it is stronger in Europe than in the United States.”
Walzer, I think, is quite correct, in all this. And it is here that we find another reason that so many of us who are non-pacifist Christians find it so hard to take contemporary Christian pacifists all that seriously when it comes to public policy and foreign affairs. Many of us are quite aware of the recent history of Christian pacifist organizations in the US — and it ain’t pretty. The simple fact is that the major Christian pacifist organization in the latter half of the twentieth century traded their Christian pacifism for a pot of Marxist left-wing porridge.
If you are inclined to think that is an overly harsh judgment, then I would call your attention to Guenter Lewy’s classic study and devastating critique of American Peace organizations, Peace and Revolution: The Crisis of American Pacifism. Lewy exhaustively documents how major pacifist organizations, particularly the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and The War Resisters League, came to compromise their pacifism in favor of New Left inspired activism in the period during and following the Vietnam War. What is particularly devastating about Lewy’s history, is his extensive documentation of the futile attempts of a few honest pacifists, including long-standing leaders of these organizations, to stem the tide and keep their organizations truly pacifist. But in the end, as Lewy shows, they lost out to those who hijacked these pacifist organizations for the cause of New Left ideology.
For example, Dan Seeger, the executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in New York concluded as early as 1967, that “pacifists had lost all effective influence in the peace movement. Some were seduced by the sudden potentiality of impact through numbers to blur their principles in order to be ‘relevant.'”
Lewy also documents the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Alfred Hassler, the longtime leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and editor of its magazine, Fellowship, to keep the FOR consistently pacifist. Hassler was dismayed that once again many pacifists had convinced themselves that all wars were to be opposed except the current one, “with the piquant addition that in the immediate situation those whom we support happen to be the immediate enemies of our country.” He was referring, of course, to the National Liberation Front (NLF) otherwise known as the Viet Cong. For his honesty and his attempt at being consistently pacifist, Hassler was pushed out of his leadership position in the FOR, in favor of the quasi-pacifists aligned with the New Left.
These are only two examples of the many documented by Lewy, but the upshot is that by 1988 Lewy could conclude, “While the major pacifist organizations today accept the use of force in the struggle against pro-American regimes, they at the same time continue to adhere to pacifist principles with regard to wars between nations.” If that sounds hypocritical, that’s because it is hypocritical.
But how do we account for that hypocrisy? Those who embrace this view obviously don’t think they are being inconsistent or hypocritical.
The answer that question brings us back to Walzer’s contemporary observation that this quasi-pacifism or functional pacifism is more prominent in Europe because the Left is much more prominent there. But that kind of thing could be found in the US as well. In 1988 Lewy would conclude his study by stating:
American pacifist organizations….are less than candid about the muddled Marxist ideology that they have embraced and that they clothe in innocent sounding humanitarian slogans. Pacifist groups counsel policies that are couched in the language of peace and justice but that in fact support and promote some of the most brutal and ruthless forces in the world. Instead of openly acknowledging that they have become partisans of Communist revolution in the Third World, the call themselves progressives, and speak of working for the establishment of a new economic world order.
Now, not all American pacifists, have embraced this Marxist Leftism or the blame-America first ideology that co-opted so much of the American “peace movement,” including that of the “peace churches.” Many hold to their pacifism, but aren’t concerned with jumping into the political fray. However, when pacifists decide to become “activists” and decide to speak “prophetically” and become involved in the political process or decide to “give advice to Caesar” on foreign policy, recent history tells us that they either end up embracing some form of leftist ideology, or they get politically high-jacked by those willing to take advantage of their pacifism for their own political ends.
Of course, all this may be a matter of historical interest only. Maybe we don’t have to worry about our contemporary pacifists being high-jacked by “progressives” for their own ideological ends. Maybe. But then again, maybe not. I tend to think that Walzer has alerted us to the simple fact that the problem is not merely historical.
This is something to think about the next time you hear about one of those pacifist “peace summits,” claiming to “move beyond” stale old debates over just war and pacifism.