Pacifism/Non-resistance Requires Altruism

This is a follow-up post is a contribution toThe New Pacifism: Cases For & Against Nonviolent Ethics hosted by Political Jesus.

Regardless if you call it, non-resistance or pacifism a person is required to forgo something intrinsic to our very nature. It obligates us in many occasions to abstain from what is identified as self-preservation. Self-preservation is the natural instinct that is universally present in all living things, this behavior ensues that an organism sustains life. This instinct generally sets in when the creature feels threatened or undergoes fear and pain. The natural reaction is either to flee from the cause of the aforementioned threats or attempt to defend itself by way of protecting the injured areas or by fighting off the source of the injury.

Even though this behavior is so inherent in our very being, there is precedence for living creatures to forgo it. In nature, we see certain animals pr insects demonstrate self-sacrificing behavior. This is generally found within eusocial contexts. Within the context of the insect world, you will find for instance that certain types of insects will sacrifice their lives in order to sustain the larger collective in which they are members. With insects, this is instinctive and unconscious. Humans on the other hand can perform in this very same fashion however, the processes of this behavior is more complex.

While the stimuli that trigger the flight or fight response (a built-in mechanism of self-preservation) can parallel that of other creatures, there are deeper reasons, psychological ones at work within humanity as regards selfless behavior. This lies in the size and processing ability of the human brain. Humans can consciously override biological functions or imperatives. This process is called ‘top-down causation’ (emergence), Paul S. Fiddes demonstrates how this relates to altruism. He writes:

The giving of ourselves to others, our self-sacrifice for others, is a highly complex activity. While we think of this as being characteristically human, we can in fact see comparable behavior throughout living creatures. The ‘honey pot’ worker ants, for example, do nothing but hang from the ceiling of the colony, acting a receptacles or storage jars for honey which the colony draws on when needed…It can partly be explained by evolutionary theory: genes favoring altruism ensure the survival of the gene pool in the social group, and so they will make sure that they get reproduced down the generations. However, some biologists insist that complex organisms are not simply the sum of their genes, and urge that we ought not limit the discussion to a ‘bottom up approach’ from the physical basis of life and behavior. This is where interaction with others becomes significant. There is a kind of ‘top-down’ causation in which the community itself—whether ants or humans—will nurture the development of altruistic behaviour. This is especially the case where the community as whole values self-giving. So what we think and do in community can actually shape or ‘sculpt’ the physical structure of the brain, the neural substrate, as the whole affects the parts.[1]

Returning to the previous course of thought, altruistic behavior occurs in the midst of eusocial settings where there is a united or group focus or goal in mind. In the same fashion as the honeypot worker ants, the individual sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the whole. The influence of the community allows the individual to look beyond its own well-being. A lot can be learned from the behavior of this creature and this would not be the first we learn something from an ant (Prov. 6:6).

When we come to faith, we become members of a community, participants in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom society’s aim is for the betterment of their fellow humans and to do this we too have to abstain from pursuing our own desires and even our biology, and reject physical violence in order that no harm comes to them (Cf. 1 Cor. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; Rom. 13:10). An alternate and straightforward fashion of looking at it is in the words of the Swiss Brethren during the Bern disputation of 1538:

[W]e as Christians live according to the Gospel and our only authority and Lord is Jesus Christ. Christians consequently do not use the sword, which is worldly, but they use the Christian ban. There is a great difference between Christians and the world, the former living by the standards of the Sermon on the Mount and the latter being perverted and governed by Satan. The world uses the sword; Christians use only spiritual weapons.[2]

To the Brethren many Christians reject the ‘sword’ or any forms of physical warfare or violence, their ethical standard being the Sermon on the Mount that contains the words of the Lord that admonished his followers to pray for those that persecute and love their enemies. To take up the name of Christ and do otherwise is deviant and originates with the enemy. The enemy will convince many to embrace their natural instincts, to preserve their life at any cost or even to preserve the life of others through violent means. This is not the way of the Kingdom, to a kingdom citizen all life is precious thus should not be intentionally harmed or taken for the sole reason that they bear the image of the Maker who truly loves them. Therefore, in this regard, whether one calls his or herself a pacifist or non-resistor they should be altruistic in all their endeavors.

[1] Paul S. Fiddes, Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context (Oxford University Press, USA, 2013), 136.

[2] Harold Stauffer Bender, “The Pacifism of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 30, no. 1 (1956): 9.


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