April 11, 2003


THE PACIFIST PARADOX: I passed a Quaker vigil here in Ithaca, NY yesterday. It was noticeably different than the usual Ithaca protests, which feature anti-Bush demagoguery and palpable rage at not only American policy, but as often as not, at America itself. "Bush is a Nazi," "Stop the War," "I Weep for my Country"-- none of these slogans could be spotted. Instead, they had a sign that said "Quaker Silent Vigil"; one that read "Pray for Peace"; the most overtly political sign that I saw read "It's Complicated, but must PEOPLE DIE for it?"

The answer to that last sign is that people have been dying for decades thanks to Saddam Hussein, and would continue to die if he were allowed to stay in power. The children's jail, the torture chambers, the Fedayeen death-squad tactics, the apparent WMD sites-- all bear witness to this fact. By a simple utilitarian calculus-- the greatest good for the greatest number-- this war has been nothing if not moral.

As pacifists, the Quakers don't (as far as I know) have much room to think like this; to them, it is always wrong to fight. Clearly, if the whole world adopted Quaker ethics, it would be a fabulous place to live. It's easy, then, to view Quaker missionary work as a deeply moral endeavor, working toward a better world.

But herein lies the paradox. The whole world doesn't live by Quaker ethics; the world is in fact a dangerous place, full of evil people. The Quakers themselves can survive only because non-Quakers protect their right to free expression of pacifist religion. In this world, to try to instill pacifism in their non-pacifist protectors is suicidal. Besides, what is the moral difference between the fanaticism of, on the one hand, a radical Muslim who stones an innocent woman to death and, on the other, an activist Quaker who demands that no one fight to save the woman?

In a world of broadly-defined "good guys" and "bad guys," it's the bad guys who need to adopt pacifism first; if the good guys do so, they will be destroyed-- and leave the bad guys free to expand the nightmare they've created for those unfortunate enough to be ruled by them.

It is admirable to pray for a peaceful world; my own prayers for Coalition victory have included a plea to fulfill the prophecy that "Nation shall not lift up sword against another nation, nor shall they learn war any more." But that prophecy cannot be fulfilled until men like Saddam Hussein change their ways, or are destroyed. The destruction option, at least by man, is not available to a pacifist, so his only moral course of action, then, is to attempt to persuade evil men to renounce evil. And there's the rub: evil men cannot be persuaded without force.

How do Quakers resolve this? The obvious answer is to appeal to God. I don’t know enough about Society of Friends theology to say whether they can pray for God to smite evil, or to change the ways of evil men (most Judeo-Christian theologies seem to hold that a man has to open his heart of his own accord before God can enter it). Surely a simple prayer for peace, in the most general terms, is a moral course of action available to the Quaker.

But doesn’t this make a street-side demonstration problematic? Political advocacy in wartime is morally dicey for a pacifist, because he depends on the protection of those whose action he cannot countenance, and surely cannot approve of his protectors’ evil enemies. Even religious advocacy (“Pray for Peace”) is questionable; many secularists will read this as a political message. It seems to me these Quakers belong in church, not at a demonstration.

Posted by John Tabin at April 11, 2003 08:42 AM