The Violence of Dogmatic Pacifism: A Setting Sights Review

By Gregory Stevens
Hampton Institute
July 30th, 2018

“Violence means working for 40 years, getting miserable wages and wondering if you ever get to retire…

Violence means state bonds, robbed pension funds and the stock market fraud…

Violence means unemployment, temporary employment….

Violence means work “accidents”…

Violence means being driven sick because of hard work…

Violence means consuming psych-drugs and vitamin s in order to cope with exhausting working hours…

Violence means working for money to buy medicines in order to fix your labor power commodity…

Violence means dying on ready-made beds in horrible hospitals, when you can’t afford bribing.”

– Proletarians from occupied headquarters of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), Athens, December 2008

I was once a hardcore Christian pacifist who would justify non-violence in the face of rape, robbery, military occupation, police violence, or systemic racist violence. I have read much of the literature, attended and taught pacifist trainings/conferences/events, and have previously been one to publicly shame more militant tactics. As my political work has transitioned from liberal policy activism to revolutionary organizing (lead by and for the oppressed, working toward collective liberation) I have learned more historically-nuanced notions of violence, non-violence, and self-defense. I have come to think dogmatic Christian pacifism can be extremely dangerous and violent to oppressed human and non-human peoples.

One of the first things done in religious debates about pacifism is proof-texting verses from the Bible, picking verses (usually out of context) to prove one/your vision over the other. If we hold a more complex and nuanced version of our faith stories we recognize the goodness and the vast diversity, often contradictory, in biblical narratives and Church traditions. Much like the diversity of gospel accounts shows us the diversity of the early Church, the diversity of revolutionary tactics within our biblical stories and faithful traditions can help us shape our contemporary movements through a diversity of tactics. Rather than assume one way of thinking is right for all times and all places, no matter the context or people involved, we are better off using a diversity of tactics in our goal of our collective salvation from sin (aka our collective liberation from oppression). We need every tool in the box, we need all sorts of tactics available, and we need a great multiplicity of strategies if we want to win in taking down the capitalist, imperialist, hetero-patriarchal system destroying planetary life.

I do not think the world will ever be, or has ever been, a world without violence. Violence is a broad word with many different meanings. I am using the term violence in a very general sense when I suggest that the world will never be a place without some forms of violence. An indigenous Elder of mine teaches this in relation to rain: just the right amount of rain creates new and thriving life, too much rain and life is violently swept away. When the hungry tiger pounces on an antelope, digging their sharp teeth into the flesh to kill for nourishment, violence erupts for life to maintain living. When a glacier cracks and crumbles down into the fishing villages of the far northern regions, entire communities can be lost to the tidal waves and impact of the moving mountains of ice. When a fire takes over a forest, burning down trees and decaying plant matter to ashes, nutrients flood the soil and stronger rays of sun can then reach the forest floor providing more ingredients for new life to flourish.

Mother Earth is not a dogmatic pacifist, she uses violence to transform the world. It’s not always Her favorite tool, but it sometimes is; it doesn’t seem to be Her ultimate philosophy but a tactic within Her larger strategy for survival.

To claim a completely pure dogmatic pacifism goes against the patterns we see in the world around us. Pacifism becomes a fundamentalist religion or ideology rather than one of many tools within our revolutionary strategies. It is important that we begin to see non-violence or non-resistance as a tactic within a diversity of strategies; it is not the only answer but one very useful answer to very specific historical moments. Non-violence is not dogmatic pacifism, non-violence does not need to be universalized as an ideology for all times, places, and circumstances as in pacifism. The militant non-violent tactics used by some of the civil rights movement (boycotts and sit-ins) have shown that some non-violent tactics can be successful. The militant self-defense tactics used by others within the larger liberation movements (Black Panthers, Young Lords, UHURU etc.) were also proven successful. Neither would have been as successful without the other.

Capitalist Violence

To claim some sort of purist pacifism as the only way forward is also illogical for those who live, move, and have their being within the capitalist world economy. Central to Marx’s critique of the capitalist system was the inherent violence of private property, centralization of wealth, worker alienation, and vast hierarchies of domination. Through the ownership of other humans, water, air, and land; the pillaging of global lands for resource extraction; the centralization of property ownership within the hands of the few; and the endless pursuit of ‘infinite growth’ on a finite planet, life itself is being violently destroyed. With billionaires and millionaires centralizing their wealth and power, strengthening and broadening the gap between the rich and the poor, extreme acts of violence run amuck in society: rampant impoverishment, and no or terrible access to healthcare, food, education, shelter etc. While capitalist pacifists sit rich and pretty, a majority of the world suffers immeasurably.

The capitalist system thrives on the racialization of peoples and their subjugation to colonial power through extreme violence. The capitalist economy thrives on war for oil, land, monopoly-imperialist power, and for the many markets opened up through the production and sales of millions of high-tech weapons. To claim a pacifist existence of non-violence is to assume your life is not actively executing violence on the world through the very social systems those who claim such lofty ideals benefit from.

It is white middle-class pacifists who do not experience capitalist violence in the disproportionate way black, brown, differently able, queer, trans, mothering/care-giving, migrant, female, and religiously diverse people experience daily. It is these same middle-class pacifists who greatly benefit from the violence enacted by the state and corporate business forces on Earth and peoples around the world. They experience health, wealth, and property; they experience the abundance of food, shelter, and access to the excesses of capitalism but they do so on the backs of the global south and the middle east. It is these white middle-class dogmatic “peace police” who scream and yell at people defending themselves from state violence, telling them they are immoral and violent. In this way, they stand directly in the way of someone seeking their own liberation.

Writing in his personal journal about the rise of fascism in Germany, George Orwell mused, “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one.… others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.… Despotic governments can stand “moral force” till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force” (emphasis added).

Pacifist capitalists are extremely violent and can even be regarded as home-grown terrorists, as they are committing senseless acts of violence by perpetuating a state of extreme inequality through violent relations of domination, hierarchy, alienation, and exploitation. They project this violent privilege onto the impoverished, the working class, and other radical organizers who seek to defend themselves from the extreme violence of a capitalist society. Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to this problem among political leaders, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.” ( “Nonviolence as Compliance” in the Atlantic )

A key to understanding this problem lies within the social location of many pacifists. The free-market, private ownership of property, elected governmental officials, and the legal system itself have all been managed by and for white people (often white Christian men). When all of these systems do not work in your favor and when they do not protect you but are in fact a great source of the violence you face, then your political actions focus on ending these systems of death, if not just defending yourself from their violence. This is exactly why disenfranchised people do not always choose “civility” as their response to liberal violence. The state defines “civility” and their “civilization” – they chose to define their civil state through genocide, colonization, imperialism, slavery, inequality, etc. Civility is the problem.

Revolutionary Resistance, Diversity of Tactics, and Liberation

People of color, trans people, and folx with differing abilities know this, and have been leading struggles with diverse tactics for a very long time. In an article posted on April 26, 2015 on the Radical Faggot blog , Benji Hart writes, “Calling them uncivilized and encouraging them to mind the Constitution is racist, [sexists, ableist] and as an argument fails to ground itself not only in the violent political reality in which black, [trans, and differently abled] people find themselves but also in our centuries-long tradition of resistance – one that has taught effective strategies for militancy and direct action to virtually every other current movement for justice.”

In reaping the benefits of violence and then subjecting oppressed peoples to violence so they cannot escape their oppression, you not only thrive off their perpetual suffering, but you take away the ability to claim dignity and self-determination. It is extremely violent to push pacifism on those who exist under the heaviest of boots of capitalist and colonial exploitation when you greatly benefit from the exploits of capitalist and colonial violence.

The colonizer tells the colonized not to defend themselves.

The rapist tells the raped not to defend themselves.

The attacker tells the attacked not to defend themselves.

The murderer tells the victim not to defend themselves.

The slave owner tells the slave not to defend themselves.

The civilized tells the savage not to defend themselves.

The pacifist tells the oppressed not to defend themselves.

The revolutionary joins the colonized, raped, attacked, victim, slave, savage, and oppressed in solidarity; together they seek collective liberation. It is “precisely marginalized groups utilizing these tactics – poor women of color defending their right to land and housing, trans* street workers and indigenous peoples fighting back against murder and violence; black and brown struggles against white supremacist violence – that have waged the most powerful and successful uprisings in US history.” (from an April 2012 pamphlet written for Occupy Oakland, Who is Oakland? ).

It is often argued that by offering your own life in martyrdom, the violence of the state will be exposed when the state or armed forces act in violence against you for all to see, and then put an end to once and for all. This is terrible logic, especially if applied to every context in all of history. We should not expect someone to die or not defend themselves in abusive and violent situations so that the violence of their actions can be exposed, somehow convincing others not to be violent in the same way.

Jesus was nailed to a cross and Caesar didn’t have a change of heart in the face of such oppressive brutality. He celebrated.

Black and Brown people were lynched, and white supremacists didn’t have a change of heart in the face of such oppressive brutality. The community celebrated.

Violence is exposed all the time, and nothing is done about it. How many videos of police murdering unarmed teenagers do state officials need (or do liberals need) to watch before they realize their violence and magically chose to stop it via a change of heart? How would that even make sense coming from an institution founded just after slavery to harass, watch, and catch non-white former slaves? The very same legal system that didn’t have a change of heart in the face of violent white supremacy but rather created an entire white supremacist billion-dollar business: the prison industrial complex.

White feminist theologians in the 1960’s critiqued the idea of “sacrificial living” as the mission of their faith-filled lives. It was being forced upon them by liberal theologians of the day: the highest calling is kenotic, sacrifice, emptying oneself for thy neighbor. The white cis male liberal theologians making these claims on the bodies of women did not consider the thousands of ways women are already subjected to capitalist hetero patriarchy, especially the unpaid reproductive labor it takes to produce such a society. This critique was later enhanced in the 1970s by revolutionary black feminists in the Combahee River Collective who first wrote about intersectionality: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”

This narrative of sacrificing one’s life to the powers and principalities also assumes that the upper class, the capitalist class, and the exploiting classes will suddenly choose to sacrifice their wealth, power, and privilege in order to liberate the masses who have (at their own expense and for their own survival) produced all of their wealth, power, and privilege. Not only does this idea take autonomy away from the oppressed, continuing the elitist narrative that the oppressed are uneducated filthy savages, but it also supports oppressive violence through demanding non-resistance in hopes of revealing the brutality of oppression to the oppressor.

Here’s another example: A man breaks into a woman’s house with a knife and has intention to rape, rob, and kill her. As a pacifist she chooses not to use a gun to defend herself. Rather, she creatively tells him that his ways are unjust, that there is another way of living, and that compassion is the way of truth; she hopes that her rape and murder will be a shining example of compassion and courage – she offers her own life as a sacrifice to show him that his ways are unjust, that he should change his ways, that he should rape, rob, and murder people no more. She hopes to convert his heart along the way, through her sacrifice she hopes he will repent.

It’s also absolutely absurd to think a woman who fights or kills a rapist, becomes like the rapist. Colonized Indigenous and African peoples forced into slavery did not become like their slave owning colonizers when they violently rebelled, resisted, revolted, and rioted. The Jewish people who killed or fought the Nazis trying to exterminate their people, did not become like the Nazis. Using violence against those who exploit, oppress, and abuse you does not make you like them. Reality is more complex than dogmatic pacifism allows.

Don’t Speak Truth to Power; Destroy Power

If someone is suffering and experiencing oppression, we should act to stop the violence and not hope that timely bureaucratic answers of policy reform will actually do anything to alleviate suffering and fight injustice. Wasn’t it the elite classes and their bureaucrats who created the very legal system that attempts to make extremely complex realities into black-and-white situations for “educated” judges to dictate someone’s future?

Most people in the world are already experiencing violence and are not defending themselves; most people are not acting violently in direct confrontation with their abusers, and these hoped-for non-responses have not motivated liberals or conservatives into action. Slavery did not end because all the salves were full of hope or because they were pacifists. Slavery was abolished because of slave revolts, organized rebellions, and armed underground rail roads like the one Harriet Tubman led thousands to freedom through. Slave abolitionist, Frederick Douglas , speaks so eloquently to these ideas in his 1857 speech delivered on the 23rd anniversary of the West India Emancipation:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

Liberal dogmatic pacifism is one of the most effective tools of violence used by the State to keep marginal and oppressed communities from rising up, restoring their dignity, and protecting themselves from further abuse through liberatory communal armed self-defense.

What then does it mean to love your enemy? Does it mean you continue to allow you enemy to attack you? Is it loving to allow someone to attack you, to bomb you, to exploit you, to oppress you – is that really what Jesus and the early church were getting at?

“Love your enemy” does not mean: stay in an abusive relationship, take the abuse because it’s good and holy. If such an abusive relationship is complexified and organized on a mass scale why would the logic of resistance be any different? Why is the abuse of the state or of right wing fascists any different than the abuse of a spouse? It absolutely seems more intense, it seems more organized, it seems more brutal – and if anything, it doesn’t seem to be worthy of our acceptance. We should always defend ourselves and others from oppression. Why would we accept the abuse as if pacifism is more righteous? Ending the abuse and setting each other free is far more righteous.

When experiencing oppressive violence, it is important to remember that our struggle is a struggle for life itself. We are not struggling for voter recognition or policy reforms, we are not assuming life is good and just needs a few adjustments; we are struggling because our very existence depends upon it. The 13th trans woman to be murdered in 2018 was killed on July 10th; the police have killed 446 people so far this year (1,147 people in 2017); the military has dropped thousands of more bombs than ever before, murdering record breaking numbers of people and places; over 1,200 children have literally been lost by the federal government; white supremacists were directly responsible for 18 out of 24 US extremist-related deaths in 2017; and over 200 species go extinct every single day amidst apocalyptic ecological conditions that are ultimately leading to our very own species’ extinction.

There is no time to wait for oppressors to stop oppressing us, as if one day they will wake up to their extremely violent ways. This is exactly what the plantation owner would hope their slaves believed. We must choose life, and we must choose to defend ourselves, our communities, and our ecosystems from colonization, industrialization, state formations, and coercive social control. To live for life is to live in opposition to capitalism and the violence it perpetuates on the world around. We do not advocate revolution because we hope to see our tendencies win the day, but because we seek the flourishing of planetary life.

Liberatory self-defense is a far greater framing than dogmatic pacifism as it encourages dignity, self-determination, and participation in the shaping of a new world beyond appealing to “representative” authorities to pass less abusive policies. When these politicians do make decisions for the masses they create more bureaucracy and make it possible to define and categorize more bodies, and thus further discriminate, oppress, and define our bodies through legal definitions. Under the rules of pacifism, the oppressors win, they always hold the bargaining power, and they always decide who gets the goods and who gets nailed to a cross.

Liberatory, Community, Armed Self-Defense

Scott Crow’s recent anthology, Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense , explores liberatory, armed, community self-defense as a tactic within a larger revolutionary strategy through theoretical reflections and historical studies. He and the various other author-activists make it very clear that the armed component of any self-defense strategy should never become the center (or we risk becoming standing militaries). Rather power is sought to be shared and equalized as best as possible, thus distinguishing armed self-defense from armed terrorist, armed insurrection, armed military organizations, armed guerilla armies, or armed law enforcement. Crow writes, “The liberatory framework is built on anarchist principles of mutual aid (cooperation), direct action (taking action without waiting on the approval of the authorities), solidarity (recognizing that the well-being of disparate groups is tied together) and collective autonomy (community self-determination).”

Crow goes on to say that this form of liberatory self-defense is not to be used to seize permanent power, or that arms are to be used as the first resource for self-defense but should be taken up only “after other forms of conflict resolution have been exhausted.” This isn’t about revolutionary vanguardism or storming the white house with guns. This is about self-defense from literal Nazis who have been murdering, mass shooting, and assaulting people at record-breaking numbers in the past few years (Rest in Power Heather Heyer ).

It should be noted that Crow’s brand of liberatory, community, armed self-defense differs from other forms of armed action in two main ways: the first is that it is organized but temporary, “people can train in firearms tactics and safety individually or together but would be called on more like a volunteer fire department – only when need and in response to specific circumstances” (9). The second, and probably most distinct and important element of liberatory, community, armed self-defense (as used historically by groups like the Zapatistas, those fighting in the Rojava revolution, and the Black Panther Party from the 1960’s), is power-sharing and egalitarian principles incorporated into the ethics of the group and its culture well before conflict is engaged (9). Unlike, for instance, right-wing militias (anti-immigration patrols of the Minutemen Militia, or the racist Algiers Point Militia that patrolled New Orleans after Katrina), who have nothing to do with collective liberation. “These militias are built on racist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and a macho culture where the strongest or loudest is the leader. They are typically organized in military type hierarchies with no real accountability to the people in civil society and the communities they operate within” (9).

Another key component to the tactics of self-defense is dual power which is about both resisting and creating. The resistance is toward exploitation and oppression, the creation is toward “developing other initiatives toward autonomy and liberation as part of other efforts in self-sufficiency and self-determination.” This model is about creating a better world, much like the Black Panther breakfast program did when they stopped waiting around for white governing officials and started to feed their own communities’ kids, so they might succeed in school and life generally. Self-defense isn’t merely about being armed, but about building networks and infrastructure of people powered mutual aid. The Church institution has muddled this but in many ways has a strong people powered infrastructure: when you get sick, the care team will drop off some dinner; when you have a baby, just about everyone in the church is willing to hold, play with, or baby sit your child as needed; and if you total your car in an accident, someone in the church offers to drive you places or gives you their grandma’s old car. How might we use this infrastructure in more radical ways with more revolutionary purposes? How might we use this infrastructure to establish the Queerdom of God in the US Empire?


What I hope to have accomplished with this article is to expose some of the more basic and less nuanced notions that are often used by dogmatic pacifists who refuse to engage radical critiques of their ideas. These dogmatic pacifists keep themselves in their privileged existence, waving the finger of judgment at both lumpen and proletariat communities that choose dignity through emancipatory self-defense. In relation to violence within our movements, our tactics, and our overall philosophies, it is important we continue to ask tough questions. Here are some really great questions to ask in thinking about violence in our direct actions:

o Are we harming state and private property, or are we harming people, communities, and natural resources? Is the result of our action disrupting state and corporate violence, or creating collateral damage that more oppressed people will have to deal with (i.e., Black families and business owners, cleaning staff, etc.)? Are we mimicking state violence by harming people and the environment, or are we harming state property in ways that can stop or slow violence? Are we demonizing systems or people?

o Who is in the vicinity? Are we doing harm to people around us as we act? Is there a possibility of violence for those who are not the intended targets of our action? Are we forcing people to be involved in an action who many not want to be, or who are not ready?

o Who is involved in the action? Are people involved in our action consensually, or simply because they are in the vicinity? Have we created ways for people of all abilities who may not want to be present to leave? Are we being strategic about location and placement of bodies? If there are violent repercussions for our actions, who will be facing them? [1]

In conclusion, some more thoughts from Scott Crow on forming organized, liberatory, community, armed self-defense:

o Many questions remain, including those concerning organization, tactical considerations, the coercive power inherent in firearms, accountability to the community being defended and to the broader social movement, and ultimately, one hopes, the process of demilitarization. For example: Do defensive engagements have to remain geographically isolated? Are small affinity groups the best formations for power-sharing and broad mobilization? How do we create cultures of support for those who engage in defensive armed conflict, especially with respect to historically oppressed people’s right to defend themselves? What do those engagements of support look like? Additionally, there are many tactical considerations and questions to be discussed and debated to avoid replicating the dominant gun culture. How do we keep arms training from becoming the central focus, whether from habit, culture, or romanticization?

Further Reading and Research

Akinyele Omowale Umoja – We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement

Charles E. Cobb – This Nonviolent Stuff′ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Cindy Milstein (editor) – Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism

CrimthInc – The illegitimacy of Violence, The Violence of Legitimacy

Derick Jensen – Endgame (Volume 1 and 2)

Francis Dupuis-Deri – Who’s Afraid of the Black Bloc?: Anarchy in Action Around the World

Franz Fanon – The Wretched of the Earth

Kristian Williams – Fire the Cops!

Scott Crow – Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense

William Meyer – Nonviolence and Its Violent Consequences



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