Back at the beginning of April, I wrote a blog post ostensibly about global warming, but also in part about the various forms that our own complicity in and justification of violence can often take. I was amazed, and pleased, when this theme of violence was picked up by readers in the comments. After all, warriorship is a common topic of conversation in modern Paganism, especially among those practicing traditions with a particularly Norse or Celtic flavor. Given the sometimes less than subtle militaristic overtones of our modern Western culture, it can be all too easy to assume a simplistic warrior archetype that conflates nobility, honor and courage with the use of violence or the
imposition of brute force. Rarely do we hear of the “peaceful warrior,” or the ways in which responsibility and strength inform the goals of practical pacifism and enable modern Pagans to prevent, circumvent and withstand violence. By focusing too exclusively on our pre-Christian historical roots and the role of the warrior in ancient sociocultural structures, we miss an opportunity to integrate into the warrior ethic a uniquely modern emphasis shaped by our more recent social history of feminism, civil rights and environmentalism.
This last (r)evolution, in particular, exemplifies the changing conversation about the efficacy of violence when working towards mutual protection and prosperity. More and more, we see the image of the valiant, spiritually-grounded eco-warrior fighting, through political activism and conscientious conservation rather than through bullying and threats, to protect the earth and its diverse environments and ecosystems from the violence of exploitation and pollution. Such an inspiring, living archetype is a powerful example of practical pacifism in action.
When I use the term “practical pacifism,” there are always those who shudder, or shrug, or laugh and declare that there is no such thing. These days it’s very common to hear that a philosophy of pacifism — that is, essentially, an ethic of creative nonviolence and loving-kindness — is at best an unrealistic ideal that can be only imperfectly realized, if at all. Some people go so far as to insist that pacifism is a kind of aberration of good intention, characterized by a weak stomach and lazy thinking, and more likely to allow harm to occur than to accomplish any actual good. “A military force,” some have argued, “is a necessity born of human civilization, and humanity may never be able to eliminate its necessity.” For those who believe that violence — not just personal violence, but large-scale, state-sponsored, organized violence — is an inevitable consequence of human society, pacifism can appear at best like a luxury of the well-protected, and at worst like a dangerous form of denial.
As a strongly-committed pacifist myself who grew up reading Gandhi and King (not to mention a certain Jesus fellow), I doubt it will surprise anyone to hear that I hold fundamental disagreements with some of the objections outlined above. The belief that any given social institution, particularly one founded on violence, must be inherently and eternally necessary to human civilization overlooks the great capacity for creativity, adaptability and freedom we humans possess. In fact, the claim artificially restricts our alternatives for peaceful action to various forms of more or less overt complicity in either individual or systemic violence. Meanwhile, to dismiss pacifism as unrealistic is to ignore our natural tendency as social animals towards imaginative empathy, and the extreme acrobatics in logic we use to justify our own acts of violence precisely in order to mitigate our instinctive sense of guilt or responsibility.
One of the more popular philosophies of necessary violence is known as Just War theory. Developed in Roman antiquity and elaborated upon by the Catholic Church, the theory attempts to lay out the conditions sufficient to establish the “right to go to war,” including such stipulations as the severity of the threat, the likelihood of success, the proportionality of response, and the failure of all peaceful attempts at resolution. All these are, of course, common concerns when determining the ethical nature of any act of individual or group violence. However, any philosophy that proposes to set out conditions under which violence may sometimes be acceptable opens the way for manipulative doublespeak and back-bending to allow leeway for “us” while strictly condemning “them.” For every act of individual violence, there is a rhetoric of fear, ignorance or spite feeding a kill-or-be-killed worldview in which violence is declared necessary. For every act of organized violence, there is inevitably an innocent civilian population back home, the domestic hearth-center of the community, in need of protection, security or increased prosperity, and willing to support violent action against “the other” in order to obtain it. Whether we call these violent acts “national security measures,” “preemptive war,” “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “terrorist attacks,” the justifications of urgency, desperation and necessity are the same: my right to life and prosperity must be weighed against yours, and yours must come up lacking. In other words, to quote a modern-day trickster-god, Captain Jack Sparrow, “Now we’re just haggling over price.”
Interconnection in Principle and Practice
Pacifism offers us an alternative to this quibbling zero-sum game, and contemporary environmentalism provides one of the clearest practical examples of the principles of pacifism in action. Our increasing understanding of ecology and the interdependency inherent in the natural physical world render it strikingly obvious that there can be no security or survival for the human species apart from that of the earth itself. A “loss” for the local environment wends its way into the global ecosystem as water systems grow polluted, animal and plant species die off, migrate or explode into monocultures, and climates worldwide readjust to compensate for changing atmospheric conditions, fluctuating wildly and setting off new local shifts, both subtle and drastic. In other words, a “loss” for the environment inevitably means a “loss” for human beings, as well. And not just those human beings who caused the initial damage, but a loss for all of us. There is no zero-sum scenario in which some of us may win at the expense of others. Action and consequence, cause and effect: environmental awareness requires that we acknowledge these as vital, and demands that we understand how our past actions have shaped the present, and how our current actions will shape the future.
This consciousness of interdependency and communal consequences is the very same principle that lies at the heart of practical pacifism. It connects us not only to each other, but to our shared histories and to the future towards which we all contribute. The ‘just’ice of most “just war” theories relies, inherently if not explicitly, on an assurance of “just this once.” But violence begets violence: destruction begets insecurity, urgency and need, and the justice of “just this once” fails again and again to make good on its promise. Yet well-intentioned citizens and political war-mongers alike continue to believe in the efficacy and practicality of violence. Rejecting lessons of the past as irrelevant, they cite history only as evidence that violence must be inherently unavoidable, since we have so far been so miserably inept at avoiding it. But because environmentalism is founded, clearly and deliberately, on principles of interconnection as well as on the practical knowledge of how these connections function in the world around us, a similar kind of “just war” approach to protecting the earth is so ridiculous as to be laughable. Politicians who attempt to drum up fear by accusing environmentalists of being “anti-human” are now increasingly dismissed as anthropocentric and ignorant, while those few who do resort to acts of violence in the name of environmental causes are denounced and ridiculed as equally confused in their priorities.
What does this mean? Something amazing, something downright revolutionary is going on here. For the first time in remembered history, it is possible not merely to imagine but to actually perceive as happening right now on a global scale a conception of protection and prosperity that does not — indeed, cannot — rely on violence for its realization. Ordinary people, whether they realize it or not, are incorporating the fundamental values of practical pacifism into their everyday lives: seeking out creative alternatives to callous destruction; practicing self-discipline and responsibility for the sake of a larger (and trans-human) community; working to realize relationships of honor, love and reverence with their local landscapes, their communities and the natural world. Campaigns for energy efficiency and alternative, sustainable fuel sources not only make economic sense, but speak to our increasing awareness of living in participation with natural forces worthy of respect and understanding which cannot be tamed or threatened into submission. People everywhere are rediscovering the joy and fulfillment to be found in the hard work of organic home-gardening and biking or walking to work. Even mainstream Judeo-Christian religions are taking cues these days from the nature-reverence of reviving Pagan traditions, abandoning the antiquated rhetoric of stewardship and dominion in favor of languages of love, gratitude and the immanent sacredness of our relationship with the thriving natural world. I for one can’t imagine a more exciting and hopeful time to be part of the environmental movement, and a diverse Pagan community that puts these concerns at the very heart of its spirituality.
Over the next couple weeks, in honor of International Pagan Values Blogging Month, I’ll be writing more on the themes of violence, ecology, nature, pacifism and the ways in which various cultural systems incorporate or undermine the goals of reverence, interconnection and peace. I hope you’ll join me over at my blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, to join in the on-going conversation!