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Vereschagin's painting Apotheosis of War (1871) came to be admired as one of the earliest artistic expressions of pacifism.
Vereschagin's painting Apotheosis of War (1871) came to be admired as one of the earliest artistic expressions of pacifism.

Pacifism is opposition to war. Pacifism covers a spectrum of views ranging from a preference to use non-military means for resolving disputes through to absolute opposition to the use of violence, or even force, in any circumstance.

Pacifism may be based on principle or pragmatism. Principled pacifism is based on beliefs that either war, deliberate lethal force, violence or any force or coercion is morally wrong. Pragmatic 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 terms allude to the placid nature of the dove. The opposite of a dove is a hawk or war hawk. However, not all cultures perceive these symbols the same (as shown in Mars Attacks!).

Some pacifists, while opposing war, are not opposed to all use of coercion, physical force against people or destruction of property. Other pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that only non-violent action is acceptable.



Advocacy of pacifism can be found far back in history and literature, for example in the Classical world. Two instances from the Peloponnesian War 431–404 BC that have come down to us are the non-violent protest of Hegetorides of Thasos, and the Athenian women's anti-war sex strike in Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata.

Some religious organizations, such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Brethren have been pacifistic for centuries. In the 19th century pacifist sentiment grew. Many socialist groups and movements in that century were pacifist, 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.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand during the latter half of the 19th century the British, and its colonial settlers, tried many tactics to acquire land from the Maori, including warfare. In one case a Maori 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.

"Leading Citizens want War and declare War; Citizens Who are Led fight the War" 1910 cartoon
"Leading Citizens want War and declare War; Citizens Who are Led fight the War" 1910 cartoon

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 slightly later Germany after the rise of Hitler. In these nations, pacifism was denounced as simple 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". Even 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, later urged in 1941 a large-scale British offensive on the continent of Europe to combat Hitler and Nazism.

Pacifist sentiment rose again a generation later in the 1960s.

Pragmatic pacifism

"Pacifist" often less technically describes a person who accepts risks to 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 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 his non-pacifist counterpart only in 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 pretended 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; others were jailed, such as the American pacifist agitator David Dellinger.

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 the peace churches of Christianity and many Buddhist sects) 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.

Today, some countries (for example, Switzerland 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. It is perhaps inevitable that some form of world government will appear. 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. In the case of India and the United States this is because it is physically impossible (no separate armies) and emotionally unlikely (feelings of being part of one nation). 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

Such radical behaviour as pacifism is often induced by religious beliefs. In particular, many Buddhists are pacifist, as are members of the Religious Society of Friends, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Amish, Unitarian Universalist and some other Christian groups. There are also groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses which espouse neutrality rather than pacifism.

Opinions are divided among Christians over whether Jesus advocated pacifist teachings. Certain Christian denominations, known as peace churches, have taken the position that he did do so, and believe further that early Christianity was essentially pacifist in nature. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was a Christian pacifist. He argued that Christians were obliged to be pacifists, and that pacifists, in turn, were obliged to be anarchists — since government is based on the use of force. Tolstoy was influenced by Henry David Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience. Tolstoy's own writings on pacifism and nonresistance influenced Gandhi's nonviolent resistance movement in the 1930's.

In the modern era, theologians such as Mennonite John Howard Yoder and United Methodist Stanley Hauerwas have been strong advocates for Christian pacifism. Both have strengthened the pacifist argument with sophisticated philosophical underpinnings, grounded in the Bible and the life, words, and person of Jesus.

Non-pacifistic religions, including Judaism, many variants of Christianity, and Islam, have usually made no pretense of meaning "pacifism" when they teach that there exists an obligation to pursue peace: typically constructing rules, sometimes very elaborately defined, under which the use of aggression for the establishment and maintenance of justice may be legitimate. Non-pacifist Christians typically interpret Christ to have taught patience under even extreme religious persecution, but do not directly extend the teaching as a rule for the governance of nations or the strategies of police forces. Most (the Roman Catholic Church in particular) adopt some formulation of the Just War Theory, by which the use of violence or force is deemed legitimate and necessary under certain circumstances, on which occasions non-participation may be judged morally wrong.

While usually emphasizing the inherent limitations of aggression toward accomplishing these ends, and typically warning of the risk that aggression often works contrary to its aim, force is not a fundamental contradiction of their religious principles. However, it is almost universal among these religions to absolutely reject violence as a means for spreading their religion to uncoverted peoples — a principle for which their adherents are often chastised, from within and outside their communities, on account of the occasions upon which it has been ignored. Even some of the pacifist religions and philosophies have sometimes approved the use of force in apparent contradiction of their principles, although not always by stooping to take up weapons themselves. During World War II some Friends (Quakers) put aside their pacifist beliefs and did fight.

Followers of pacifist religions must often go to great lengths to be able to effect change. This does not mean it cannot be successful, as in the case of Mohandas Gandhi's application of the Jainist religious concept of Ahimsa, which played a major role in India's independence. Gandhi relied on his followers' committing acts of non-violence with the specific purpose of setting a perfect contrast with the violence used by the British against them, in order to sway public opinion.

Within the mainstream Christian churches, strong pacifist movements have emerged. This is particularly true of the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, both of whom have a strong focus upon the "social" gospel. This is in stark contrast to the personal salvation emphasis of many of the so-called "evangelical Protestant" churches.

The origins of the mainstream Christian pacifist movements can be traced back to the 1930s, when, in the wake of the First World War, modern pacifism emerged. It was first seen in predominantly intellectual circles, both religious and secular, particularly in Great Britain. In previous decades in that nation it had been associated with other radical movements, such as the suffragettes. In the backlash after the war, many writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Olaf Stapledon and Aldous Huxley brought pacifism to the forefront of intellectual thought. This caused many theologians and clergy to reassess their previously held positions.

Possibly the key figure in making pacifism "respectable" to the general public was Richard "Dick" Sheppard, an Anglican priest prominent due to his position as broadcaster of the BBC's first religious program. Sheppard, a former army chaplain, had come to believe that war, militarism and nationalism was blatantly counter to Christ's teachings. He thus founded the hugely successful "Peace Pledge Union," a secular organisation commited to "No More War!" The "Pledge" was as follows: "I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I support or sanction another." Within one year, Sheppard had 100 000 signatories to his cause, though the many were to later break this oath and fight in the Second World War. Sheppard's Christian philosophy can perhaps best be summarised by this quote, "Not peace at any price, but love at all costs. At all costs...Though my enemy slay me, I will die rather than hate him." Sheppard passed away in 1937, the loss of his charismatic presence being a huge blow to his organisation, occurring as it did at a time when the faith of some members was wavering due to the rise of Nazism in mainland Europe.

However, also in 1937, a strictly Anglican offshoot of the Peace Pledge Union, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, emerged. Both the PPU and APF are still in existence and are highly active in "constructive" or "positive" efforts towards peace (a contrast to the earlier "negative" pacifism, which defined itself as "anti-military" and "anti-war" without offering any pragmatic solutions to support this ideology.)

Currently (2005), the APF has approximately 1500 members worldwide, both clergy and laymen. Prominent early members of the APF included former British Labour Party leader (and Nobel Prize nominee) George Lansbury, literary figure Vera Brittain and Anglican theologian Evelyn Underhill. These were involved in a number of campaigns in the late 1930s, the most prominent being a drive to ban bomber aircraft (due to their ability to inflict huge numbers of civilian casualities). This latter cause has been likened to today's anti-nuclear rallies.

The most notable Anglican of this period not to be a pacifist was the academic and writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis, in fact, denounced the movement on his radio show during the war years. (It must be noted that many other theologians and clergy were blacklisted from broadcasting in this period by the authorities precisely due to their pacifist beliefs.) It should also be noted that, whilst hugely influential as a populariser of religion, Lewis' pronouncedly conservative views on many issues are not those of mainstream Anglican theologians today.

Perhaps the greatest success of APF has been the ratification of the pacifist position at two successive Lambeth Councils, though many Anglicans still do not regard themselves as pacifist.

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. Again, though, this was as the result of the circumstances of this particular attack. Whether opposition would occur to a more popularly supported war remains to be seen.

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 Church has not yet declared itself to be specifically pacifist, nor has it returned to the practice of its pre-Augustinian days, whereby those who served in the military were barred from the Eucharist.

There is a notable trend towards pacifism which emerged in the writings of other notable twentieth century Roman Catholics, such as the Americans Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and the Dutchman Henri Neuwen. 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. Whether this means a further move towards support for pacifist ideology remains to be seen. It is significant that representatives from both conservative and liberal factions of the Roman Catholic communion are giving expression to pacifist ideology.

The common link between these Christian pacifist organisations is their rejection of Augustine's so-called "Just War" theory and a desire to reform the Church in order that it return to the principles of its earliest era. Christian Pacifists reject the Just War theory on one of two grounds: namely, either that the criteria Augustine posits could never be met today or, conversely, that Augustine's teaching clearly contradict's Christ's Sermon on the Mount and was thus never valid in the first place.

Criticisms/paradoxes of Pacifism

Like all philosophies, pacificism, when taken to an extreme, will be found to be absurd by the majority of people in a population. An extreme form of pacifism is the total rejection of all violent means. The ultimate result of this extreme pacifism is the complete elimination of it - all the pacifists are killed by those of a different persuasion.

If a people are being suppressed violently and brutally by an organization (say led by a dictator) the extreme pacifist view from the inside would be to not oppose the dictator violently, and from the outside would be not to support military opposition to the dictator. However, this leads to a potential paradox. While it is true that military opposition to the dictator would result in violence, much violence is already being done by the dictator. Could a short bout of violence (to depose the dictator) shorten the long bout of violence (due to the dictator)? Is a pacifist supposed to worry about that ?


  • What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy? - Mahatma Gandhi.
  • In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful - Leo Tolstoy.
  • Being a pacifist between wars is as easy as being a vegetarian between meals - Ammon Hennacy.

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