The Problem With Pacifism – On Answering the What About Hitler Question

Image  I went to an Evangelical school that really challenged my views on pacifism, and for that, I am thankful.  It’s easy to be a pacifist when everyone you know agrees with you and only argues with you to help you articulate your thoughts better.  It’s a lot harder when people argue with you and you know they don’t believe a word you are saying.  Nevertheless, I still maintain that every aspiring pacifist needs to go through the fire if they want to come out deeply rooted. 

At Tyndale, I did meet a few other pacifists, though I often found myself being the only one when the crowds started gathering.  In my first year, I was an oddity – the only Mennonite student on campus, since then, there have been a few others who have attended school there.

The image will forever be emblazoned into my mind.  Me, the lone pacifist, sitting at a table on the first day of university surrounded by a group of well-meaning, somewhat staunch evangelical Christians.  The group approached me and began to converse.  They didn’t ask my name, rank, and serial number, but they did the next closest thing.  They asked me my name, my hometown, my program, and my denominational affiliation.  Taking me to be a Baptist or at most a wild Pentecostal, they stood speechless when I told them I was a Mennonite.  What’s a Mennonite?  The question had barely escaped their lips before their second gasp came in response to my definition, “A Mennonite is a peace-loving Christian.”  Thinking me to be a cultural and religious oddity, they pressed further.  Sure, everyone was always about peace, to some degree anyway, but what exactly did I mean?  I meant that I was an absolute pacifist.  Absolute.  I would not even pick up a weapon or inflict physical pain in the name of self-defense.  To do so would be an affront to the morals that I held so dear.

Well, that went over very well to say the least.  It wasn’t long before people started peppering me with what would soon become everyone’s favourite question for the resident pacifist: what about Hitler?  At first, this conversation was fascinating – Hitler was indeed a very evil man, what if we hadn’t stopped him?  Unfortunately, three weeks later, I found myself in the office of the only other Mennonite on campus, Dr. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast discussing with him the book “What About Hitler” and sharing my frustration with him over the fact that the students who were asking these Hitler questions did not actually seek an answer.  They simply wanted to make a point and to have the conversation end.  They simply wanted to win the argument thinking that there could be no possible way for rebuttal.

Thankfully, I am not one to give up easily, so my semester found me reading many articles by some of my favourite peace authors, namely John Howard Yoder and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Yet, as interesting as these authors were, I soon found myself realizing that peace and pacifism had to be much more than just theoretical concepts.  I soon found that my strongest ally was not in these evangelicals, nor was it in my hippie friend who wore flip flops year round and lived in an intentional community, rather, my strongest ally was a soldier in the Canadian Military.  He had worked his way up the ranks and was training to be a chaplain.  Interestingly enough, he was the only student I found who was willing to respectful debate points on pacifism and to see the value in it even though he would don his fatigues hours after our conversations.  From our discussions together and from my time learning to articulate peaceful viewpoints to non-hippies, I learned that pacifism does indeed pose some very serious problems.  It’s all fine and good to say that you would never take up a gun even in the name of self-defense, but if put into a position where you have to defend yourself or your children you are not going to spend precious time trying to moralize the whole thing.  You are going to act on impulse.  It’s very helpful to spend time secluded in your room being part of a “peaceful cloister” with your friends Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., but when a bomb goes off outside your house in a series of unholy fireworks, it becomes a totally different matter.  It’s fine for me to dodge the What About Hitler question, meanwhile talking to a fellow classmate whose mother was murdered before her eyes in the Rwandan genocide (my friend is a pacifist, by the way).  It’s just that somehow the question of pacifism takes on a whole new meaning when it is you, your family, and your culture that is put into question.

The only solution that I can really come up with after completing my first full year as a graduate peace studies major, attending a few protests, aspiring to one day be vegan, and trying to get into planting communal gardens, is that I really do not know how I would react because thankfully I have never been in a position where I have had to react.  I try to train my mind to think like a pacifist and to try to have the reflexes of a pacifist.  I run through countless scenarios in my head and challenge myself to think creatively.  Thankfully, I have never had to use my self-made pocket survival guide.  Hopefully in a moment of panic I will remember where it is stashed and be able to retrieve it.  I also realize that peacemaking is a process.  It’s not something you come by overnight – in fact, it might not even be entirely attainable in my life time.  Being a peacemaker is not about passively sitting around and doing nothing – it’s about getting involved.  I love the poster that says “Pacifist NOT Passivist” because it reminds me that the What About Hitler question is not really about not standing up to gross evil, but rather standing up in a way that brings even more dignity and honour to those mistreated and abused.

Being the resident pacifist at my school taught me one thing – before you answer the What About Hitler question, you first need to answer the What About You question.  What are you doing to make the world a more peaceful place and to help spread pacifism?  For it is only in our small actions that we build the global village.  Each individual must take part.

11 thoughts on “The Problem With Pacifism – On Answering the What About Hitler Question

  1. The “What about Hitler” question is a complex one, ans as you correctly summized, is not one that many truly want an answer to. It comes down to people making a choice that they will not participate in oppressive systems. There are consequences for refusal to comply with oppressive systems that many are reluctant to accept, just as there are consequences for complicity.

  2. The scary thing about Christians using the Hitler question is it is using the real world to interpret scripture instead of allowing scripture inform our way of interacting with the world.

  3. I have been very interested in the “what about Hitler” question for some time. I’m just finishing a book on the moral legacy of World War II and have posted a lot about it on my blog.

    I was kind of disappointed with Brimlow’s book, though he has good stuff to say.

    I think one of the reasons pacifists should grapple with the Hitler question (or World War II question in general) is because to acquiesce the notion that it is irresolvable often leads to the acceptance of preparation for war.

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflections.

    • I agree with you. Though, I did enjoy Brimlow’s book. I read it twice (the first time was in my first year of Tyndale, I re-read it over Christmas break after a semester of peace studies at AMBS). It’s a good read, though definitely is more of an over-view rather than super in-depth.

      Thanks for your blog link. I’m looking forward to checking it out.

  4. Deborah, what a fantastic post! Thank you so much for writing this! As a pacifist Christian, I’m constantly having my eyes opened to the violence in my own heart, lingering anger, unforgiveness, etc… You’re right – the place to begin is “What about you/me?” There are ways of speaking to the Hitler scenario with theological integrity – but I need to first chip away at the log in my own eyes. Thanks for your powerful reminder.

    • Marco, thank you for your kind words. It’s indeed a challenge to look into ourselves first, but well worth it. God speed on your journey towards continuing theological identity.

  5. Though out numbered, you are in good company. Most Evangelicals do not know that heroes of the faith like Dwight Moody and Charles Spurgeon were pacifists.

    On the Hitler question. we ought to remember that WWI, a war fought by ‘Christian’ nations, prepared the seedbed for someone like Hitler to arise. No Jaws, No Jaws II; No Star Wars, no Return of the Jedi.

  6. I think you led us to an important point: pacifism is individual. What will I do, not just in the moment of violence, but actively in my life? Working to promote situations that bring peace is pacifism, too. Good post!

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