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Why I might be a pacifist: Part III (The Argument)

March 16, 2012

We left the Anabaptists as they were struggling to survive in the wake of the violent tragedy at Munster (see Part II for this story). Following in the example of Menno Simons, the surviving Anabaptists swore to never use arms in promoting their faith.

“The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife,” Simons writes. “They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, and know of no war.”

This was as much a public relations tactic as it was an ethical one. The group had to distance itself from John of Leiden and Matthys, who tried to usher in the New Zion: an earthly kingdom that was essentially Anabaptist in belief. To do this, the survivors had to convince people they were harmless, and wouldn’t try to mix religion and violence again.

This conviction, to be specific, was called “nonresistance.” I will use this term instead of the more common term “pacifism” to avoid confusion. Pacifism is not a strictly religious viewpoint; furthermore, some definitions of pacifism are universal (that is, all violence, to any creature, is wrong), while others are particular (“war is wrong,” for example). The kind of peace I am interested in discussing can only be framed in the scope of religion, can only be explained through faith: otherwise, it is nonsense (see my post called “Put a Stop to Videogame Nonviolence!” for why it is absurd to talk about a universal pacifism without reference to scope or context).

State Violence

Why do I think universal pacifism is unreasonable? First of all, because human societies, sadly, need violence. It is in the background of the entire justice system. The threat of force is ultimately the only way to stop and detain people who are actively seeking to harm society or individuals (for these people suggest, by their actions, to have given up on diplomacy, shared belief, and reasonable arguments that might otherwise stop them). Chaos, or a state of vigilante justice (equally violent), would prevail if all police officers were required to have their hands tied.

The same holds true for international conflicts. Without a threat of retaliation, there are governments that would wipe out entire ethnic groups within their reach. That I think governments should hold this threat of retaliation is not to endorse violence; rather, it is to recognize its terrible power. It leaves a trail of destruction all around it, where innocent people often get off worse than the guilty. The only war I believe worth fighting is a desperate war.

Such a view is actually in line with the post-Munster Anabaptists. According to the Mennonite 1956 article on nonresistance, “The [original] Anabaptists recognized the state as ordained of God for the maintenance of order by means of the sword in the sub-Christian society of this world. They did not believe, however, that the disciple of Christ was called to perform this coercive function.”

Church Violence

This division between church and state is needed, I think, to properly understand violence and the Old Testament. For if we believe violence is wrong universally, how can we reconcile stories of a God who, upon necessity, helps his chosen nation in war? We might be tempted to take the Jungian view that God has since learned from his past mistakes, or the opposite view, that violence is always a valid tool if the ends justify the means (and surely saving souls is worth disposing of a few bodies!). The Anabaptists in Munster took the latter view.

But both of these extremes are incorrect (to put it lightly). We may attribute the Old Testament violence to the fact that Israel was, first and foremost, a nation. Therefore, they would first and foremost abide by the rules described regarding State Violence in the section above.

The Church, at least in its disembodied form that Christ ushered in, was meant to act according to a different set of rules. This was to be a kingdom of the spirit, where membership was based on a desire for harmony, and profession of belief in a loving God that wanted a world full of loving people. Looked at honestly, this belief is something that can’t be forced on people, can’t be coaxed out with any force of violence.

Of course, people have tried to change belief with violence. Most often (and most shamefully) this has come from people within the Church itself. The worst examples, like the Spanish Inquisition, show why the Church cannot enforce its morality in the same way as the State. All it can really do, Menno Simons discovered, is ask dissenters to leave, hence his considerable (and somewhat out of favour) writing on “the ban.” But even the ban is meant to uphold the value the Church must place on freedom of the will, and peace towards those with which it disagrees.

Personal Violence

The Church and State are both groups: collectives of people that require a consensus in order to act. But we must also ask how individuals (who may be a part of both Church and State) are expected to act when they are confronted with violence. Here’s where things get muddy.

A secular worldview insists that violence must be done to right wrongs. It wants the state to hunt down and punish those who have committed crimes. If the state is not capable of this, this worldview deems it morally acceptable for individuals to take violence and revenge into their own hands (such is the theme of nearly every recent action movie and Western to achieve any popular success). Here, peace is only possible in the denouement, when all evildoers have been eliminated.

The words of Christ flip this viewpoint on its head. Peace is possible here and now, he says. But in order to get it, you must learn to love your enemies. How? By realizing that we do not need violence to right the wrongs done to us – there is another way, and that way is forgiveness.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

The words sound pleasant on paper, but who among us could follow these directions if we were being attacked? Could I follow them if I believed in a cause more valuable than my life? Could I follow them if not only myself, but those I loved, were being threatened? I do not know that we should follow these instructions at face value in every situation, but perhaps a few principles can be taken from these words.

First, by choosing not to resist a person who is intending to harm us, we make an appeal to their humanity. What kind of a person are you to attack someone who is unarmed, who will not fight back? I believe there is some good still in you.

When Jesus says “turn the other cheek” he is making an absurd gesture to stress this point. It is entirely tongue-in-cheek. Go ahead, he says, how long can you slap me before you realize you are in the wrong? Will you still take my cloak when I am standing here naked?

Second, his words recognize the inherent endlessness of violence. Sometimes, the message is just practical: as Jesus told Peter in that garden, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” An act of violence always makes an enemy. The cycle of an-eye-for-an-eye will continue until the world goes blind, as the saying goes. Furthermore, when two people are fighting, the most powerful will defeat the weaker. The outcome is then determined by strength, not justice. (It is actually here where a case may be made for secular nonviolence, too; see this article on nonviolence in Syria.)

It is by laying down our arms, not taking them up, that lasting justice may most often be brought about. And I suppose that’s why I might be a pacifist.


I’d like to know what you think. Is this position firm enough? Is it cop-out pacifism? Are there any scenarios you can think of that might put this to the test?


Desperation Vinaigrette

March 12, 2012

I pulled my container of spinach out for lunch at the office when I realized I had finished my bottle of ranch dressing sometime last week. Desperation! But after a few minutes of using my Bear Grylls scavenging skills around the kitchenette, I came up with the following recipe to make a tasty salad topping in a tight place:

Desperation Vinaigrette

1 package plum sauce (left on top of the mini-fridge by a coworker who brought in Chinese takeout)

1 package vinegar (packages like these are given out with an order of fries at a nearby diner)

1 pinch salt

1 pinch sugar

black pepper, to taste

[Half a tub of fast food sweet & sour sauce can be used in place of the plum sauce.]

Give it a try the next time you fear the dreaded dry salad and don’t want to leave the room. What do you think? Anything other common office items (aside from staples) that could be added to improve the recipe? Any other recipes you’ve come up with under similar circumstances?

On the KONY 2012 Campaign

March 7, 2012

Acadia University sociology and political science student Grant Oyston has some critical comments about the KONY 2012 campaign, which has just gone viral on social media. If you haven’t been urged to see the video yet, little children will surely come knocking on your door or posting on the wall before the week is over. The question is not whether the things Joseph Kony has done are wrong (and indeed, they are atrocious), but whether this campaign and charity should be supported. There are interesting tie-ins to the issue of non-violence that I have been discussing on this blog:

KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit … The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. … Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention.

See Oyston’s full post here.

What do you think? Should this video be shared, or contradicted? What is the appropriate response to people like this for those of us in North America?

Why I might be a pacifist: Part II (A History of Nonviolence)

February 11, 2012

[In Part I, I promised to present an argument in favour of pacifism today. But before that, I believe it will help to give a picture of the origins of Mennonite nonresistance. It’s an unexpectedly bloody story, and highlights a number of points I will use in constructing an argument in Part III.]

The tale unfolds in the city of Münster, Germany around the year 1530. Five years before, Europe saw the Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 and the first adult baptism, which took place in Zurich. Connections between the two events are muddy. While some sources believe the first adult baptizers believed in peaceful nonresistance, it is known that several emerging adult baptist (hereafter, “Anabaptist”) leaders, including Hans Hut and Melchior Rinck, were involved in the rebellion.

As the inhabitants of Münster heard about the uprising in the Peasant’s Revolt, they, too, grew angry over their own poverty and the religious problems with the Catholic church, that still clutched the control of religious power in the town. Rebel leaders emerged, including Bernhard Knipperdolling (a merchant), Jan Matthys (a baker), and John of Leiden (a tailor). The protestant teachings of the Lutheran preacher Bernhard Rothmannspread, and slowly the peasants began to kick the established order out of power in the town and church. Somehow, before the Catholics could stop it, every church in the city (aside from the cathedral) was being run by an evangelical minister.

Historical view of the German town of Münster by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg (between 1572 and 1618).

In 1534, religious fervor ran high. Matthys the baker declared that the city was destined to become the New Jerusalem. On January 5, his followers began to baptize adults. Soon, 1000 adults had been rebaptized, including the Lutheran Rothmann. On February 9, a group of rebels seized city hall. Bernhard Knipperdolling, the former merchant, was named mayor. Munster was now completely under the control of these rebaptizers.

Evangelists across the countryside began to spread word of the victory. Many attempted the journey from as far away as Amsterdam, escaping on boats or horseback. The city became a refuge for the outcasts and the persecuted. Matthys and John of Leiden began plans to conquer the rest of the world, using Munster as a base.

Not everyone was happy to hear the news. Word came back of an enemy force gathering on the horizon.

The rumors were true. Guards on the city walls alerted the mayor of the advancing horde. Franz of Waldeck, the bishop that the rebels had expelled, had returned with an army.

He laid siege to the city.

The Anabaptists, now held prison within their own New Jerusalem,  grew restless. How could God be letting this happen to his chosen “children of Jacob”?

On Easter Sunday, April 1534, Matthys preached a fiery sermon. He prophesied that God’s judgment would come to the wicked that very day. The people cheered. He proclaimed himself to be the second Gideon, and found thirty men willing to join him in confronting the enemy army, as in the days of Israel.

The small group slipped outside the protection of the city walls, overwhelmed with hope. The bishop’s army closed in.

The best fighters began to hack a swath through the black-armored bodies around them. Their hands dripped with blood. But then one of their own men was taken down, slain before their eyes. Another one turned to look. He, too, fell. Suddenly, the group was surrounded.

Matthys let out one final cry. He was hacked down. One of the bishop’s men sawed off Matthys’ head, another disrobed him and ripped off his genitals. These were nailed to the city gate. His head was put on a pole.

The Anabaptists in the city began to panic. John of Leiden took the place of the fallen Matthys. He declared himself the successor of David, and absolute King of the new Zion. He appointed 12 elders to rule underneath him, and declared that all goods in the city were common property. He legalized polygamy, and married sixteen women. One of them he called “Queen” Divara. She was the widow of Jan Matthys.

In December 1534, Rothmann wrote a new tract. It was an appeal to use violence in defense of the New Jerusalem, and the church in general. The King of New Zion sent out 27 apostles, hoping to establish new zionist settlements and to bring in reinforcements from the Netherlands.

They held off the bishop’s forces all through the bitter winter. But no help arrived. Some people began to doubt.

In May, 1535 a cabinetmaker-turned-guard by the name of Heinrich Gresbeck had reached a crisis of faith. He had been holed up with the Anabaptists in the the city for 15 months. For him, all of the promised glory had turned to ashes. He was hungry, and was starting to wonder whether the King of New Zion actually had the power to make things better.

That night, sitting alone at his post on top of the walls, he watched the few lamp-lights flickering in the city below. Out on the other side, he knew the enemy waited in darkness. A terrifying peace settled over it all.

His boot found a foothold in the brick on the outside of the wall. I must be crazy! Heinrich thought as he lowered himself, hand by hand. He was watching here when Matthys and his thirty men ran out into that crowd and were lost. Why should they have mercy on me?

He reached solid ground: the bottom of the wall. He sprinted across the open space, desperately looking for the cover of some shrub. Someone shouted. He kept running. Even the ground was hard to see in such little light. He was hit hard in the ribcage by a blunt object. He collapsed. Laying on the ground, he pleaded for his life. I’ll tell you everything! he promised, as long as you let me live.

Heinrich was thrown in a makeshift jail cell and held there until he produced a map. On it, he had drawn a rough outline of the city walls, and the place where he was often posted as a guard. The walls were easy to climb, he told them, and the guard is often alone.

On June 24, part of the bishop’s army executed a surprise attack on Münster. They entered at the spot marked on the map. Before the fighters in the city could mass together, the bishop’s troops had control of the main gate. Matthys’ private organs welcomed the full army into the city.

The King of New Zion and Münster’s mayor were both captured alive. They endured half a year of torture.

On January 23, 1536 there was a public execution in the city square. The crowds cheered as Knipperdolling and John of Leiden were put to death. Their bodies were never buried. Instead, they were tossed in giant rectangular cages and raised to the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church for all to see.

The cages still hang there to this day.

Cages of the leaders of the Münster Rebellion still hang at the steeple of St. Lambert's Church. Photo by Rüdiger Wölk.

When Menno Simons heard what happened at Münster, he was devastated. Here was a flock led into the desert by its shepherds. He knew these leaders. He had visited with them personally in 1534, before the greatest part of the tragedy had occurred. But he could do little to change them; he was still a practicing Catholic priest.

“My soul was troubled,” he wrote after the meeting, “for I perceived that though they [the Munsterites] were zealous, they erred in doctrine. I did what I could to oppose them by preaching and exhortations, as much as in me was. I conferred twice with one of their leaders, once in private and once in public, but my admonitions did not help” (“Reply to Gellius Faber,” 670).

Now, Menno feared for the city of Munster and the people there thrown into spiritual disarray. And he feared for his own heart, as well. How long had he believed in adult baptism, like these poor Munsterites, and yet continued to practice the infant baptism of the Catholic church?

He resigned, and threw away his vestments. When Menno Simons emerged in public sight, he was preaching among the Anabaptist remnant.

Much of his teaching was an attempt to undo the damage caused by the Munsterite leaders. His first essay was titled, “The Blasphemy of John Leiden.” It was written as much to distance his Anabaptists from the Munsterites as it was to proclaim sound doctrine.

In that essay, Simons teaches that Christians must never use physical weapons to enforce their beliefs, in contrast to Matthys and Leiden. The kingdom of God cannot be brought about by human means, he writes; it will be rejected on this earth, and persecuted.

The persecutions were quick to follow. Neither the Catholic church, the Lutherans, nor the Calvinists seemed to recognize the distinction between Munsterite and Mennonite that Menno Simons was so desperate to make. Mennonites were hunted down and killed. Only this time, they did not fight back.

Why I might be a pacifist: Part I

February 8, 2012

When Mennonites talk about what makes Mennonites “Mennonite,” the belief in nonviolence will be mentioned right alongside adult baptism and the ability to make schnetke (yes, the line between culture and creed is sometimes hard to cut straight). And it’s true, nonviolence has defined Mennonite action for the last few hundred years, most notably in the migration from Russia to North America following threats of military service. And it’s undeniable that the Martyrs Mirror, a book about the martyrdom of nonresistant Anabaptists, is a firm number two on the Mennonite best-seller list (the list is not long).

But it’s a belief I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with, even as a fairly “Mennonite” Mennonite child. I mean, how can we say that the number one bestseller tells us to be peaceful, when the first half of it plays like a hack-and-slash? Second, I know it would be nice if we could all put down our weapons and wish for world peace like the blessed Madonna, but isn’t this a messy world that calls for messy solutions? Why shouldn’t we want to go all Bonhoeffer on Hitler’s ass? If God is just, why shouldn’t He follow just war theory?

In the next installment of “Why I might be a pacifist,” I’m going to take a look at the startling foundations of Mennonite nonviolence. It’s all leading towards an argument that “might” salvage a logical position for being a pacifist today.

I hope I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this issue. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you a Mennonite by birth? If so, do you still believe in nonviolence, or is it just a pipe dream? What do you think nonviolence entails?

If you come from another background, is there any element of nonviolence that appeals to you, or is the whole concept largely absurd?

Put a stop to video game nonviolence!

February 5, 2012

There’s a fascinating article in this week’s Wall Street Journal about a radical way of playing video games: as a pacifist. The article tells the story of Daniel Mullins, who plays a character called “Felix the Peaceful Monk” in one of the most popular games of the year, “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” It’s an open-ended swords-and-sorcery type of game with the nearly universal adventure game expectation that players will have to use violence in order to achieve their goals. What makes the Peaceful Monk so interesting is not his prowess with the sword, but his vow to not harm any creature or enemy in the game. And guess what – it can be done, with a mix of running from conflict and charming opponents.

A screenshot from Skyrim.

I can appreciate what Mullins is doing if I look at his play in terms of social commentary. And it seems that Mullins is turning to pacifism out of a genuine distaste for the proliferation of violence in the video game field. It’s true, there is a lot of violence out there, and a lot of time being spent immersed in violent video game worlds.

But this doesn’t mean that we should be pacifists in regards to video games, not even those few people who call themselves pacifists in day-to-day life (wait for my upcoming blog post series “Why I might be a pacifist”). To do so is to commit an error in scope, to think that game ethics are the same as life ethics.

This is the same problem found in a February 1 Comment op-ed entitled “The Devil Plays Catan.” It’s a bit of a heartbreaking piece by Ph.D. candidate Kyle Bennett, arguing that we should not play the (classic but slightly passé) board game, Settlers of Catan.

Catan brings out the worst in people,” Bennett writes. “It’s an insidious masquerade of a game that causes the most placid and civilized to degenerate into the most tempestuous and belligerent.”

It’s clever writing, an almost Swift-esque satire. Except that Bennett isn’t kidding:

It’s not me; it’s the game. Truly. This is a game designed with the most conniving and destructive intentions and methods ever conceived. It forces you to seek the misfortune of your opponents. Imagine that. It’s almost as if its designers wanted to give birth to conflict and bring madness into your relationships. One would think they are interested in breaking up friendships and ties with family.

Lord knows what would happen if his family should ever play Monopoly. Richard Clark has it right in his February 2 (ah, the glorious speed of the information age!) critique of Bennett’s column. “Bennet has it all wrong,” he says. “He’s talking about the fact that in order for you to win at Catan, the other players must obtain less resources and have less opportunity to score points. He’s right about that — but this is the case with almost any game.”

He goes on:

The truth is that, yes, some games are more profitable than others. Some push our ethical limits. Balderdash asks us to “bluff”. Games like Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica often force one player to be the “traitor”, sowing mistrust in the group. Many videogames ask us to “kill” other players for points … [But]  like a digital avatar on a videogame screen, the actions we take in a board game are mere representations of real-life actions: they are not the actions themselves. If we are able to keep that perspective, not only are we able to play them with a clear conscience, but we will be able to learn from them.

And that, I think, is the incredible potential for video games (although my bias of having worked as a writer in the video game industry may show through). Video games allow people to learn from mistakes, without actually making mistakes in reality; if I walk off this cliff, I die. Video games allow children to adventure and explore, things that kids have always loved to do. Even violence can be a positive teaching tool,  in the same way we find value in reading about violence in Hemingway, or even Shakespeare (before you decry the excessive violence in our age, read his Titus Andronicus).

Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka) after her attack in a 2006 production of Titus Andronicus.

But we first have to see things in the correct scope: to know the difference between fantasy and reality, game rules and life ethics. It’s one of the essential developments in teenage years (although facts show it can be a problem even for those old enough to get a Ph.D.), and caution should be used around any child without this understanding.

Once a child understands this, parents need to step back and let children explore video game worlds for what they are. Let them walk around the Skyrim world carrying a sword. I’m fairly confident that violence in video games doesn’t turn people into monsters. To believe that it does is to claim facts that aren’t there, to confuse cause-and-effect.

As strange as it sounds, participation in violent video games may actually make us less violent. Most of us are violent by nature; most children are prone to tantrums and hitting to get their way, and they must be taught that this behavior is not acceptable. This doesn’t get rid of the violent urge; it lies waiting in all of us.

Aristotle said that watching a tragedy could act as a catharsis to purge the audience’s emotions of pity and fear. In a similar way, could our actions in video games allow us to purge our deep-seated violence?

Is this a rustic table which I see before me?

February 2, 2012

I just stumbled upon the promising website called “ManMade: Creativity and the Handmade Life for the Postmodern Male.” Now, if that didn’t completely isolate you demographically, hear me out. The site looks like it’s been around for awhile, like it has stood the test of some time. In fact, the post I’m referring to comes from July 20, 2011, no. 01171 in which a mysterious man that only goes by the name “John” provides instruction on “How To: Build a Rustic Wooden Coffee Table from Scratch.” As you can imagine, this got me excited. If you’re interested in building things, please, read that post. Don’t let me stop you from heading down to the lumber store right away.

For those of you still in your seats (there can’t be many left by now), let’s get a little theoretical. Is this wooden coffee table truly a rustic wooden coffee table? I put emphasis on the word “rustic” for good reason. I’ve had an interesting history with the word. I was once in a band called The Rustic Poets (yes, the Tripod website is still online!). It was during that time I first got interested in living simply, in connecting with a Mennonite heritage that, since coming to the New World, often had to live through times of scarcity. I love the creative use and reuse that many Mennonites made of every item around the home. I think that’s a model of living that we ought to practice even more so in times of comfort.  But more on that in a later post.

What developed from these thoughts was a concept of the rustic lifestyle: a way of life that looked forward by looking back. Something that would make the postmodern male remember the premodern male, and so on. I never quite finished working out the details, but I did outline some principles on what I thought the rustic object ought to be, in essence.

1. Natural Origin

  • A rustic object must have simple natural origins. I doubt that aesthetics will ever be able to call plastic and nylon products “rustic,” no matter what backdrop they are placed in. Rustic objects come from wood, from basic metals, from feathers, from fur. These things capture a bit of eternity in them, as they are the same now as they were a thousand years ago. This is where the rustic obtains its original romantic qualities: it hearkens back to the babbling brook, the childhood forest, the adventurer and the pioneer. But to be called a rustic object, it must be taken out of nature and modified by human hands.

2. Human Craftsmanship

  • A handmade piece retains the sweat of the craftsman. As much as possible is made by one person, giving the work dignity and allowing for creativity instead of machine-like repetition. The most beautiful texture is found along the saw’s teeth. It is rough. Imperfections are visible. But rather than being marks of weakness, these are marks of authenticity. It is the absence of pitch correction in music. It is the need for pitch in shipbuilding; without it, the joints aren’t tight enough to keep water out.

3. Weathering

  • But having a handmade object of natural origins is still not enough to make it rustic. The object must be given back to nature. The transition will not be easy. There must be a struggle between the two, human and nature, like a piece of fence wood that has been driven into the ground and left for years in the rain. There must be a sense of death among life. The fence post has been taken out of nature, killed, modified, and returned to stand in a field of living grass and trees. There, it serves as a testament to both its former lives. But the rustic object has moved beyond these first two creations. It has become a new creation: it has found a new beauty.

With my theory of the rustic summed up as such, we can return to the table. Sure, the table is nice; I’d encourage you to make one yourself. But I don’t think it’s rustic. The uneven wood is nice, and there is certainly enough here to warrant human craftsmanship. But this is a tame table. It speaks nothing of the power that I see in the aesthetic rustic. Most of the pieces were found in a hardware store. Most of the wood has been pampered and cared for. None of it has faced that necessary return to nature, that confrontation with death.

But like I said, I’ve got a history with the word. What do you think? Is this table rustic? What does that word mean to you?