By Matthew Benfield
Let me begin by saying that at this moment I have no settled convictions about pacifism. I have my thoughts and concerns, of course, but this article is not an argument for or against pacifism. This is about urging us to listen to one another.
In person, on Facebook, and on Instagram I often see disagreements take place where the participants fail to listen to each other. It appears–I say “appears” because I cannot be certain of the motive–that participants have pre-programmed responses to certain words and phrases which serve as triggers. Things like “religion”, “Democrat”, “Republican”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist”, “redneck”, “hick”, “racism”, “Christian”, “feminist”, “slut”, “player”, “constitution”, “rights”, “peace”, “war”, “terrorism”, “Muslim”, “gay”, “environmentalist”, “hippy”, “sexist”, “guns”, “gun control”, “evolution”, “second amendment”, and others. The hearer/reader, without listening, then takes the things which he/she associates with those triggers and attributes them to the speaker, regardless of the speakers objection, “That’s not what I’m saying.”
And, as an observer (and occasional participant) of the conversation, I often agree. That’s not what the speaker was trying to say at all. On such occasions I have tried my best to facilitate conversation between both sides, and this is one such occasion.
I want to encourage readers to see the upcoming film Hacksaw Ridge (you can watch the trailer here) and to “hear” what the film has to say. It is the true story of Private first class Desmond T. Doss. As a devout Seventh-Day Adventist he believed he could not touch a gun, much less take another’s life. Still, he served in WWII as a medic and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after successfully saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers. I believe this film helps to overcome two common associations I witness in regard to the triggers “pacifist” and “non-violence.”
First, as pictured in Hacksaw Ridge, some associate non-violence with cowardice. One of Doss’ fellow soldiers says to him, “I don’t think this is a question of religion. I think this is cowardice.” In his excellent lecture “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”, which can be read with benefit regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement, C.S. Lewis also suggests that pacifism (he suspects) may be motivated by cowardice. He makes the suggestion gingerly, even indicting himself, not wishing to insult his hearers. “Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself. But let me also say that there is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery.”1 He goes on to give one of the most succinct and vivid accounts of war anywhere written:
“All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil–every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”2
If pacifism did in fact call men to avoid that which threatened the realities described above then we would be right to consider whether or not our “conviction” was inspired by a personal wish to avoid such horrors. We find, however, that Lewis’ picture of pacifism is not nuanced enough. He goes on to say, “[I]t is certainly a fact that Pacifism threatens you with almost nothing.”3 Whereas this may be the case with some pacifists (I have not known any) it is not the case with all. If we take the time to listen we will discover that this is so. In fact, some shirk the label “pacifism” all together believing it to be too “passive” (though this mistakes the meaning of the word). They instead prefer the term “non-violent resistance” indicating their commitment to fight evil.4 This sort of pacifism is quite the opposite of what Lewis specifically describes as “nonresistance.”5 This sort of pacifism is that sort pictured in Hacksaw Ridge. Private Doss, nicknamed “Doss the Coward,” proves to be quite courageous. In one scene an officer says to him, “Private Doss, you are free to run into the hell fire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.” I feel safe saying that it would seem to take less courage to run into battle with a weapon than without one. Whereas there may be forms of pacifism which cater to cowards we ought not to hear “pacifism” or “non-violence” and simply assume the person advocating non-violence is thereby advocating cowardice. Hopefully Hacksaw Ridge will help train us to really hear one another, to listen to those who think differently than we do, and to learn to consider other ways, other perspectives. It does so here by showing that pacifists need not be cowards.
Second, in conversations I have had in regard to the topics of war, peace, non-violence, and nationalism some have objected on the grounds that pacifism somehow disrespects the soldiers that have fought and died to secure our freedom. It is believed that the suggestion of pacifism somehow belittles the courage and sacrifice of past and present soldiers. It should be noted briefly that though this objection may win a crowd rhetorically it is no accurate measure of truth. There are a great many truths labeled disrespectful regardless of how respectfully they are expressed. Even so, Hacksaw Ridge once again shows that associating disrespect with pacifism is unnecessary. Doss showed great respect for his fellow soldiers as well as his country. He respected others so much, in fact, that he could not simply send others to make a sacrifice on his behalf. He says, “I can’t stay here while all them go fight for me.” We make a mistake when we make people equal to ideas. The result is that when I disagree with a person’s belief that I am somehow perceived as being unjust towards that person. That is not the case. A person may disagree with the use of violent force without insulting or disrespecting those who support violent force. Again, Desmond Doss leads the way.
If our preconceived ideas about pacifism can so successfully be exploded, what other things might have been misunderstood? Is it possible that we have misunderstood gun control or Just War Theory? Is it possible that we have misunderstood evolutionary science as well as fundamentalist Christians? Is it possible that we have misunderstood the Democratic party as well as the Republican party? Could it be that we have misunderstood Islam and atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus? Some of these things I agree with and others I do not. But I do not want to make the mistake of disagreeing without first understanding. I do not want my prejudices and my fears to make me ignore a differing view. Sometimes a film comes a long that makes us take stock of our assumptions and question our beliefs. Maybe Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films. I believe that it is.
I am hopeful that Hacksaw Ridge will receive a wide viewership. I am further hopeful that we will not view the movie as simply entertainment or “about” pacifism. My hope is that this movie will do much more. I hope that Hacksaw Ridge will cause us to reflect upon all perspectives which may differ from our own. It is my wish that we will learn that those who think differently than we do are not necessarily our enemies, indeed they may be our dearest friends in time of need. I hope this film will help us learn to hear one another–to slow down, listen, and give others fair consideration. This is a Christian virtue (James 1:19), not to mention basic human decency. So join me in being simply human. Because you were born to.
©M. Benfield 2016 Be Simply Human
1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “What I Am Not a Pacficst” (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 88.
2. Ibid, 89.
4. Preston Sprinkle actually entitles his book on non-violence Fight to reflect this commitment. SeeFight (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2013), 25, 29, 30, 35.
5. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 85.