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Shades of Non-Violence

Rev. Douglas Taylor



Part I

Joan Baez is an Absolute Pacifist, her pacifism is a personal, principled conviction. (Our reading was from Joan Baez’s book Daybreak )

And this is what most people assume the word pacifism means. An Absolute Pacifist will not use violence, will not advocate the use of violence in any situation – even self-defense. When you imagine a pacifist, you may call to mind a stereotype of some sort, or you might call to mind a friend, someone here in the congregation, you may even consider yourself to be so identified. You, like Joan Baez, may say “I am a pacifist.” “I’ll take Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.”

Interesting fact: Gandhi was not a pacifist in this sense. Gandhi was not an Absolute Pacifist. He advocated for the use of self-defense. After India won its independence, he encouraged people to fight in the Boer War. Gandhi was a Conditional Pacifist – a pacifist for strategic reasons. He used non-violence because it worked. People have said he ‘weaponized’ nonviolence. Gandhi used nonviolence as a tool to fight his country’s oppressors. He did not insist that all his followers adopt pacifism as a way of life, as a principled ideal for all situations. He advocated, instead, that his followers use nonviolence because it was more effective than violence given their political situation. He was a Pragmatic Pacifist, suggesting there are some situations where nonviolence is a better choice and there are other situations where violence is preferred.

People like the interviewer in the dramatic reading with Joan Baez, will insist that there is only one way to be a pacifist, and, further, that this one way is wrong-headed. But there are shades of nonviolence. I’ve used several different adjectives for Gandhi’s sort of pacifism: Conditional, Pragmatic. Let me unpack a little of the way I am using these terms. Conditional Pacifism is really a large umbrella term for any kind of pacifism that is not Absolute Pacifism.

Absolute Pacifists say no violence is ever justified, that violence is always wrong. Conditional Pacifists say it depends. Under the term Conditional, there are several sub-categories, nuanced arguments about how or why it depends. A Pragmatic Pacifist will argue for nonviolence because the use of violence will make the situation worse. It’s not that all violence is always wrong, it’s that violence in this situation will not be effective. I’ve never been an Absolute Pacifist. In recent years, I think I am becoming a Pragmatic Pacifist.

As a youth, however, I was more of a Technological Pacifist, or as it was known then – a Nuclear Pacifist. This subcategory of Conditional Pacifism argues that modern warfare has grown too indiscriminate and too overwhelming. Our technology has outpaced our morality.

A recent report from UNICEF ( highlighted the change in wartime casualties over the past century. One statistic from that report shows that civilian casualties climbed from around 5% in 1900, to 15% during WWI, 65% during WWII, and 90% in 1990. Civilians are now the bulk of those killed or injured in war. Partly, we have changed how we do wars, we no longer line up on different sides of a field wearing different-colored uniforms. Also, while our weapons have become more technologically precise, but they have also become vastly more destructive.

As a youth I was deeply opposed to a potential nuclear war, not because I thought all wars were wrong, but that there would be no coming back from a nuclear war. It would be too destructive to humanity as a whole, to the earth as a whole.

It is interesting to me that when I was teenager in the 80’s, the classic image of a pacifist was a 1960’s hippie. Yet today, I look back and see how clearly I was a 1980’s, no-nukes pacifist. I attended the rallies, I watched and discussed the movies, wrote letters to President Reagan, carried signs, and identified strongly with that song from Sting: I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.

There are a few other versions of Conditional Pacifism, but I think they begin to blend in with the others: Fallibility Pacifism says violence can be used if it is justifiable, for example if a war abides by the Just War Theory of St. Augustine. However, the Just War Theory is a fairly high bar and it has been a while since any war has met the criteria. Therefore, Fallibility Pacifists argue modern wars fail to be justified and should not be fought.

And there are Selective Pacifists and Collective Pacifists … there is a pretty good “Stuff You Should Know” podcast on the topic which I found interesting, you might too. I’ll include the link when I post this sermon. (

So, what kind of pacifist are you? I used to be a Nuclear Pacifist myself and over the past decade or so I’ve shifted into a Pragmatic Pacifist. How about you? Have you ever considered yourself a pacifist? What are your opinions and convictions about peace and the use of civil resistance? Where do you find yourself in the taxonomy of nonviolence?

I invite you to ponder that as we move into our next hymn.



Part II

Video (the first 5 minutes of this TED talk)

I got a new book which I started reading over my sabbatical. It is about “how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century.” It is called This Is an Uprising (2016) by Mark and Paul Engler. It is a thick book, but surprisingly engaging. The introduction, for example, has this paragraph,

Decade after decade, unarmed mobilizations have created defining moments. In the United States, these include the sit-down strikes in Michigan auto plants in the 1930’s, the antiwar and campus free-speech movements on the 1960’s, the welfare and women’s rights protests of the 1970’s, the nuclear freeze campaigns and AIDS activism of the 1980’s, direct action to protect old-growth forests and oppose corporate globalization in the 1990’s, and demonstrations against the Iraq War in the early years of the new century. Internationally, strategic nonviolent conflict has been critical in helping to overthrown undemocratic rulers in a litany of countries, from Chili and Poland, to the Philippines and Serbia, to Benin and Tunisia. (This Is an Uprising, p xv-xvi)

I originally thought the book would be a historical review of non-violent movements from the past century. That would have been enough to keep my interest. But it also has some fascinating “how to start an uprising” elements. It breaks down some of the behind the scenes and pre-work people had done leading up to the Gandhian Salt March, the Selma to Montgomery campaign, Arab Spring leading to Tahrir Square, and how Saul Alinsky’s methods differ from those of Frances Fox Piven.

The book acknowledges the distinction between Absolute Pacifism and Conditional Pacifism and seems to keep returning to the idea that in Pragmatic Pacifism: we can plan for the spark that ignites, we can foster the conditions that lead to a nonviolent uprising.

How many of you in the room have heard of Gene Sharp? Sharp is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute, where they “advance the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflict.”

If you’ve never heard of Gene Sharp, it is not too surprising. He is a researcher of nonviolence rather than an activist. His impact has been monumental, though largely unheralded. He comes up quite a bit in this book I’ve been reading, especially at the beginning of the book as a starting point. Sharp is known as the “Machiavelli of nonviolence,” and has been called the “dictator slayer.” His thin book from Dictatorship to Democracy was written in 1993 to help dissidents in Burma. But the book has turned up all over the world since then. It was read by Serbian students against Slobodan Milosevic and circulated in Arabic throughout Egypt in 2011. You can download your own copy from the Albert Einstein Institute website for free.

Sharp studied nonviolent actions from a pragmatic view. He has a report, for example, written during the 60’s about Gandhi, not as a spiritual Mahatma, but as a political strategist. Sharp’s research showed him again and again that nonviolent resistance movements were not random and spontaneous – they are predictable and can even be created. While the Catholic Workers movement favored symbolic, attention-getting actions and often quoted the axiom: “Jesus never told us to be successful, only to be faithful”; Sharp would counter with what he called “political jiu-jitsu” and suggested, ‘why not be faithful and effective?’

He collected a list of nonviolent actions people could use against repressive regimes. It is a famous list now. Some people mistakenly think Sharp wrote the list but he insists he merely collected it from examples he studied and witnessed. The list is sometimes known as the “198 Tactics.” And it is simply that: a list of 198 ways to resist. The classics that spring to mind are things like Sit-ins, Boycotts, Marches, Speeches, Petitions, Hunger Strikes, and Walk-outs. Sharp set these all into over a dozen broad categories such as Formal Statements, Symbolic Public Acts, Economic Boycotts, Physical Interventions, Noncooperation, and several more.

What can you do? Here’s another school shooting. Here’s a fear-inducing ‘bathroom bill.’ Here’s a parade of White Supremacists. What can we do? Here’s a story about children being taken from their families at the border. Here’s a headline about a politician grabbing power. Here’s an outrage. Here’s an atrocity. What are we going to do? Well, here is a list of 198 actions we could take.

Ask each other about the Poor People’s Campaign. Talk about PRIDE events. Share news with each other about that rally happening at a politician’s office. Follow the indictments coming out of the federal special prosecutor’s office. Watch for the next #BlackLivesMatter event. Take part. Show up. Or if you stay home, help in the planning or read up more – study what is possible when we support each other in making the world a better place. Consider how powerful and effective a tool we have together in nonviolent civil resistance.

Nonviolent resistance has a long and increasingly frequent and surprisingly successful history in human society – in our society. What kind of world do we want to create? This is not a rhetorical question. This is our country. This is our world. All the world’s people are our people. Another uprising is happening. The resistance is here.

In a world without end,

May it be so.