Pacifism a difficult value to adhere to absolutely

Q: In my experience with pacifists, they are at times forced to call the police. The contradiction being that they are willing to ask for the assistance of someone very willing to resort to violence, if necessary. What’s your opinion of pacifism? — C.Y., Las Vegas

A: Let’s go the long way around the barn …

For some people, moral values are black and white. If you’re one of these people, you’d look at a pacifist calling the police and conclude hypocrisy. End of story.

For me, nothing can be moral until and unless it can comprehend ambiguity. Lots of shades of gray. So many things unclear and inconstant. Just about the time you are certain you could universalize a value, you encounter a situation that might justify temporary suspension of that value.

An ethical man knows when his beloved value should stand down.

The black-and-white crowd rejects the notion of situational ethics, on the grounds that “situational” means wishy-washy. But for me, no moral value could possibly be moral if it cannot observe and discern the particularities of a situation.

If a 10-year-old boy steals a can of tuna from a grocery, runs behind the store to his giggling mates who break open the can with a pocketknife and smear the contents over the hood of the nearest parked car, that’s one thing. If, later, another 10-year-old boy steals tuna from the same grocery because he saw his sister cry as his mother announced her decision to give the pet cat away because she lost her job and could no longer afford to feed the cat … well, both boys have committed identical crimes. But only a moral idiot would respond to the boys identically.

Ambiguity is, in the end, the necessary antagonist of all moral deliberation. And one such ambiguity is that the passionate practice of any profound value invariable reveals contradictions and inconsistencies.

Examples: I could never hurt an animal, but I eat meat. I could never kill a human being, but I pay taxes to fund CIA operatives who are fine with that. I would never have an abortion, but I use an IUD for birth control. I would never steal, but I burn CD compilations to give away to friends. Christians decry the commercialization of Christmas, but most churches plan their major fund drives for December.

In short, I don’t see the pacifist in your question as a heinous hypocrite. More just a guy whose sincere value is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Same place most of our values eventually get stuck. Comes with the territory.

That’s the broad context of all moral dilemmas. Let’s focus next on the particular practice of pacifism.

Pacifism: an absolute moral value whereby I categorically refuse the use of violence at any time for any reason because violence is inherently evil.

My brain and conscience regularly anguish over any number of cloudy moral dilemmas on a given day. But, gotta tell you, pacifism isn’t one of those dilemmas. In fact, I finally had to admit that I had become kind of black and white on the matter. Rigid. Unyielding.

Strictly speaking, making a moral absolute of the value of pacifism is, well, immoral.

Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner says it this way: “If picking up a baseball bat is the only way to stop your neighbor from savagely beating his child, then you pick up the baseball bat.”

Protestant theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer says it this way: “Evil happens when good people do nothing.” From prison, he joined a plot to murder Adolf Hitler. In the dying days of World War II, the Nazis sent him to the gallows.

My friend, Paul, says it this way: “If you witness me being physically assaulted by a gang, and, because you are in possession of a superior weapon you have the means to overpower my assailants and stop my further injury, but you do not use this weapon because you are a pacifist … well, I’m afraid I’ll have to hold your value of pacifism in contempt.”

My Shawnee medicine man friend Nikke says it this way: “When Nikke’s family and home are threatened, he paints his face for war. A black line down the center from forehead to chin. One side painted red, calling the warrior to fight. One side painted white, recalling Nikke’s love of peace. Nikke is divided in himself, and a man divided in himself is a very dangerous man.

“You see Nikke painted like that, you run away quick.”

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to

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