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Pacifism is the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes. Pacifism covers a spectrum of views ranging from the belief that international disputes can and should be peacefully resolved, to absolute opposition to the use of violence, or even force, under any circumstances.



Pacifism may be based on principle or pragmatism. Principled (or Deontological) pacifism is based on beliefs that either war, deliberate lethal force, violence or any force or coercion is morally wrong. Pragmatic (or Consequential) pacifism does not hold to such an absolute principle but considers there to be better ways of resolving a dispute than war or considers the benefits of a war to be outweighed by the costs.

Dove or dovish are informal terms used, usually in politics, for people who prefer to avoid war or prefer war as a last resort. Some people termed dovish would not view their position as pacifist as they would consider war to be justifiable in some circumstances (see just war theory). The description refers to the story of Noah's Ark in which the dove came to symbolise the hope of salvation and peace. The opposite of a dove is a hawk or war hawk.

Some persons, who consider themselves pacifists, while opposing war, are not opposed to all use of coercion, physical force against people or destruction of property. Antimilitarists, for example, are specifically opposed to the modern nation-states' military institutions rather than to "violence" in general. Other pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that only non-violent action is justifiable.

Early history

Advocacy of pacifism can be found far back in history and literature. Compassion for all life, human and nonhuman, is central to Jainism, founded by Mahavira 599–527 BCE. This doctrine values human life as a unique opportunity to reach enlightenment and regards the killing of any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, as unimaginably abhorrent.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, however, pacifism seems not to have existed except as a broad moral guideline against violence between individuals. No philosophical program of rejecting violence between states, or rejecting all forms of violence, seems to have existed. Aristophanes, in his play Lysistrata, does create the scenario of an Athenian women's anti-war sex strike during the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BCE, and the play has gained an international reputation for its anti-war message. Nevertheless, it is both fictional and comical, and though it offers a pragmatic opposition to the destructiveness of war, its message seems to stem from frustration with the existing conflict (then in its twentieth year) rather than from a philosophical position against violence or war. Equally fictional is the nonviolent protest of Hegetorides of Thasos. Aristotle, in the second book of his Politics, does criticize the constitution of Sparta for promoting soldiery and war without emphasizing the resulting arts of peace, which he implies are of higher value. Nevertheless, he says the discipline of the soldier contains many elements of virtue, and in the seventh book of the Politics, he says most tellingly, "there must be war for the sake of peace."


Many have understood Jesus to be a pacifist, drawing on his Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus stated that one should "not resist an evildoer" and advised instead, "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well... Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." The New Testament story is of Jesus, besides preaching these words, surrendering himself freely to an enemy intent on having him killed and proscribing his followers from defending him.

There are those, however, who deny that Jesus was a pacifist and state that Jesus never said that you should not fight and give examples from the New Testament they represent as running contrary to a totally pacifistic Christ. One such instance portrays an angry Jesus driving out dishonest market trades from the temple using a whip. Jesus also spoke about the need to set free prisoners who are oppressed and persecuted. Others have interpreted the non-pacifist statements in the New Testament to be metaphorical and state that on no occasion does Jesus shed blood or urge others to shed blood.

The pre-Constantine early church practiced Jesus' pacifist teachings quite literally. However, beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine I, the church began to be integrated into the rest of society, including into positions of power and authority and the strict practice of pacifism began to be viewed as impractical and even irresponsible when Christians with access to power confronted evil and injustice. Early church leaders such as Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas wrote of the nature and justification of the use of arms as a last resort in the protection of innocent life from attack and injustice, what is now often called the Just War Theory.

Modern History

Historic peace churches, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren, have been pacifistic for centuries. Quakers-controlled colonial Pennsylvania employed a pacifist, anti-militarist public policy. The colonial province was, for the 75 years from 1681 to 1756, essentially unarmed and experienced little or no warfare in that period.

There was strong anti-war sentiment in the West during the 19th century. Many socialist groups and movements in that century were antimilitarists, arguing that war by its nature was a type of governmental coercion of the working class, who were forced to fight and die in wars of no benefit to them at the behest of their political and economic masters who never suffer in the war's front lines. French socialist leader Jean Jaurès's assassination on July 31, 1914 was followed by the Second International's abandonment to chauvinism and militarism and failure to successfully oppose World War I, considered one of the socialist movement's biggest failures.

Tolstoy was another fervent advocate of pacifism. In one of his latter works The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy provides a detailed history, account and defense of pacifism.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand during the latter half of the 19th century the British, and Britain's colonial settlers, tried many tactics to acquire land from the Māori, including warfare. In one case a Māori leader was so inspiring that he was able to encourage warriors to stand up for their rights without using their weapons; in an atmosphere where similar warriors had defeated opposing forces in earlier years, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai convinced 2000 people to welcome battle-hardened soldiers into their village and even offer them food and drink. This same, peaceful, leader allowed himself and his people to be arrested without resistance.

Gandhi (1869–1948) was a major political and spiritual leader of India, and of the Indian independence movement. He was the pioneer of Satyagraha, the resistance of tyranny through mass civil disobedience strongly founded upon Ahimsa (total non-violence), which led India to independence, and has inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

In the aftermath of World War I there was a great revulsion with war in much of the West, and pacifist doctrines gained many new adherents. However, pacifist literature or public advocation of anti-war ideals was banned in some nations, such as Italy under Mussolini, the Soviet Union, and in Germany after the rise of Hitler. In these nations, pacifism was denounced as cowardice. With the start of World War II, pacifist sentiment declined. Bertrand Russell argued that the necessity of defeating Hitler was a unique circumstance where war was not the worst of the possible evils; he called his position relative pacifism. H. G. Wells, who had claimed after the armistice ending World War I that the British had suffered more from the war than they would have from submission to Germany, urged in 1941 a large-scale British offensive on the continent of Europe to combat Hitler and Nazism.

In a rare example of pacifism in the World War II era, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement urged young Americans not to enlist in military service.

Pacifist sentiment rose a generation later in the 1960s. Notably, Martin Luther King, Jr (1929 - 1968) was a Baptist minister, who was considered the leader of the American civil rights movement. In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton University, and he was subsequently appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. Thich Nhat Hanh had written a letter to Martin Luther King in 1965 entitled: “Searching for the Enemy of Man” and it was during his 1966 stay in the U.S. that Thich Nhat Hanh met with Martin Luther King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. Dr. King gave his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, his first to publicly question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Pragmatic pacifism

"Pacifist" often less technically describes a person who accepts risks to her or himself and others, or prefers the penalties which might accompany a non-aggressive stance even in extreme circumstances, for the sake of avoiding a violent or military solution especially in politics. A pacifist person may be distinguished as more than usually confident in peaceful means for the resolution of any conflict, more of a pacifist than others, earning the reputation as a "dove" or a "peacemaker". Pacifism also describes a stance in particular circumstances, in contrast with those who believe that the circumstances justify violence. An advocate of a pacifist strategy may be more optimistic or opposed to violence in the situation, differing from her or his non-pacifist counterpart only in her or his assessment of the means the situation calls for. Positions which advise non-aggression under normal circumstances but reserve the right to self-defense under crisis, while not pacifist in an ideal sense, may be called pacifist in a pragmatic sense, reflecting strong commitment to the natural and nearly universal preference of peace over war.

The political theory of Green parties lists "non-violence" and "decentralization" towards anarchist co-operatives or minimalist village government, as two of their ten key values. However, in power, Greens like all politicians often compromise, e.g. German Greens in the cabinet of Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder supported an intervention by German troops in Afghanistan in 2001, but on condition that they host the peace conference in Berlin — and during the 2002 election campaign forced Schröder to swear that no German troops would invade Iraq.

This suggests that many who advocate "non-violence" or pacifism, especially political parties that participate in government, actually advocate what is more properly called de-escalation or even arms reduction (on a very large scale) rather than outright disarmament (which is advocated by many pacifists). Many outstanding pacifists of this sort have taken part in defensive military actions when their countries were attacked, but others prefer to leave their country if it is preparing for aggressive war (such as Germany in the 1930s). Clearly a party that writes and enforces law is not non-violent. It can be pacifist, however, by refusing participation in external conflicts, refusing to supply weapons, and sheltering refugees but not combatants. There are many definitions of such "pragmatic pacifism".

Principled or radical pacifism

While those who believe that war is normally preferable to peace are rare indeed, pacifism as a distinctive belief is not at all common. The distinction of pacifism is not only an extraordinary faith in the effectiveness or benefits of peaceful means of resolution of conflict, but the principled rejection of all justification of violent means under any circumstances. At a minimum, this stance is adopted as a matter of personal conviction limited to one's own choices, which sometimes leaves the individual conscientiously free to serve in a war effort as a non-combatant if required to do so. Some people who felt they could not in good conscience fight in a war served as ambulance drivers during World War I, but pacifists have often been jailed, the American pacifist agitator David Dellinger being one example.

The ultimate pragmatic argument that may be offered by pacifists is that violent resistance to violence always fails to bring about peace, that war can only be expected to establish a realignment of forces under principles of violence. Besides, pacifists may argue, war frequently fails to accomplish the political or economic ends to which it is supposedly directed, nor do the benefits usually outweigh the cost, and rarely in actuality is war motivated by the high ideals that its supporters use to justify it. Not all forms of radical pacifism make pragmatic assumptions, and rather simply oppose violence as such. Radical pacifism is controversial, and only a few religions (such as Jainism, several Buddhist traditions and the peace churches of Christianity) advocate it.

Pacifism has both a passive component (refusing to fight) and an active component (working for peace). Many pacifists may seek to be recognized conscientious objectors by their government, and may actively seek other ways to avoid all participation in their nation's maintenance or use of military forces. Pacifists believe that if their community is threatened by a crisis of aggressive opposition, all aggression as such should be opposed, including self-defensive "aggression". Those who advocate a philosophy of total non-violence at all levels may offer pragmatic arguments for the benefits of non-violent resistance; however, a radical pacifistic position is in the final analysis a moral, spiritual or religious principle intended to be maintained at all cost, and therefore does not necessarily imply any optimistic expectation for the material benefits of this policy. Radical pacifists would believe that it is better to be killed while sticking firmly to their principles of nonviolence than to fight back and survive (principle over practicality). They would consider submitting to violence against them the only morally acceptable option, and consider their death noble martyrdom.

Today, some countries (for example, Switzerland, Norway and Germany) offer civilian service in order to allow pacifists not to go into the military.

Pacifism and international aggressions

Some pacifists and multilateralists are in favor of the establishment of a world government as a means to prevent and control international aggression without the UN veto problem. Many large regions (such as the United States, India and Europe) have banded (or have been banded) together to form a political entity. Groups of people within the organization may not like or agree with each other. However, war between themselves is considered very unlikely. A world government, however, is less likely when different regions are separated by culture, language and economic development. These give rise to frictions due to different perspectives on laws and on social equality. There is less of a feeling of 'us'. It is also easier for politicians to divide up such separated people by appealing to tribal feelings.

Pacifism and religion

Pacifist social movements in Buddhism

In Buddhism, leaders of pacifist movements often go to great lengths to effect change. For example, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a nonviolent pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (Burma). A devout Buddhist, Suu Kyi won the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and in 1991 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a repressive military dictatorship. One of her most famous speeches is the "Freedom From Fear" speech, which begins "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

Also famous for leading a pacifist movement, Tenzin Gyatso is the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, and as such, is often referred to in Western media as simply the Dalai Lama. On November 17, 1950, at the age of fifteen, he was enthroned as Tibet's Head of State and most important political ruler, while Tibet faced occupation by the forces of the People's Republic of China. After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso fled to India, where he was active in establishing the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) and preserving Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees who accompanied him. A charismatic figure and noted public speaker, Tenzin Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West, where he has helped to spread Buddhism and to publicise the cause of Free Tibet. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Christian peace churches

Peace churches are Christian denominations explicitly advocating pacifism. The term historic peace churches refers specifically to three church traditions: the Brethren, Anabaptist (comprising Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites), and the Quakers (Society of Friends). The historic peace churches have, from their origins as far back as the 16th century, always taken the position that Jesus was himself a pacifist who explicitly taught and practiced pacifism, and that his followers must do likewise. Some pacifist churches vary on whether physical force can ever be justified in self-defense or protecting others, as many adhere strictly to nonresistance when confronted by violence, but all would traditionally agree that violence on behalf of a country or a government is prohibited for Christians.

Pacifism in mainstream Christian denominations

The Peace Pledge Union was a pacifist organisation from which the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (APF) later emerged as a pacifist movement within the Anglican Church. The APF succeeded in gaining ratification of the pacifist position at two successive Lambeth Conferences, though many Anglicans would not regard themselves as pacifists. Amongst modern Anglican pacifists, Desmond Tutu is a prominent example. Rowan Williams led an almost united Anglican Church in Britain in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, mirrored by Peter Carnley, who similarly led a front of bishops opposed to the Australian Government's involvement in the invasion.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, the Pax Christi organisation is the premiere pacifist lobby group. It holds positions similar to APF and indeed, the two organisations are known to work together on ecumenical projects. Within the Roman Catholic world, there has been a discerible move towards a more pacifist position through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Indeed, the Popes Benedict XV, John XXIII and John Paul II were all vocal in their opposition to specific wars. However, the Roman Catholic Church has not declared itself to be specifically pacifist. The Church officially still maintains the legitimacy of a just war. Part of Just War Theory states that nations can only resort to war when all other means of securing justice have been exhausted.

Since the nineteenth century there has been a notable trend among prominent lay Roman Catholics towards pacifism. Individuals such as Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen stand out among them. In addition, martyred El Salvadorian Bishop Oscar Romero was notable for using non-violent resistance tactics and wrote meditative sermons focusing on the power of prayer and peace. By taking the name Benedict XVI, some suspect that Joseph Ratzinger will continue the strong emphasis upon non-violent conflict resolution of his predecessor.

Pacifism in the Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith has a pacifist view in establishing world peace and the spreading of their religion; Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith abolished holy war, and noted it as a central teaching of his faith. However, the Bahá'í Faith does not have an absolute pacifistic position. For example Bahá'ís are advised to do social service instead of active army service, but when this is not possible due to obligations in certain countries, the Bahá'í law of loyalty to one's government is preferred and the individual should perform the army service. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, noted that in the Bahá'í view, absolute pacifists are anti-social and exalt the individual over society which could lead to anarchy; instead he noted that the Bahá'í conception of social life follows a moderate view where the individual is not suppressed or exalted.[15]

On the level of society, Bahá'u'lláh promotes the principle of collective security, which does not abolish the use of force, but prescribes "a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice." The idea of collective security from the Bahá'í teachings states that if a government violates a fundamental norm of international law or provision of a future world constitution which Bahá'ís believe will be established by all nations, then the other governments should step in.

Pacifism in Jainism

Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to Jainism. Human life is valued as a unique, rare opportunity to reach enlightenment; to kill any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is a religion that requires monks and laity, from all its sects and traditions, to be vegetarian. Some Indian regions, such as Gujarat, have been strongly influenced by Jains and often the majority of the local non-Jain population has also become vegetarian.

Peace and democracy

The democratic peace theory states that liberal democracies have never (or rarely) made war on one another. Furthermore, also lesser conflicts and internal violence is rare between and in democracies. It has also been argued that relatively rapid growth in the number of democratic states will, in the not so distant future, end warfare.

See also

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