The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice


A personal and social philosophy that seeks to replace diverse forms of violence, especially war, with a state of social justice and reconciliation. Pacifism utilizes persuasive and coercive nonviolent methods of conflict management and conflict resolution. Pacifism is neither a state of passivity (as in nonaction or "passivism"), nor a state of militarism (as in the threatened or actual shedding of blood).

Historical Context

Although the concept of pacifism is ancient, the word "pacifism" is of twentieth-century origin (F. pacifisme). Hence, especially since World War I, pacifism has been popularly interpreted to connote individual resistance to war through conscientious objection to military service. In fact, however, pacifism enjoys a much older history and includes several varieties that address a wide spectrum of personal and social issues. 

The Latin root of pacifism is pacificio (pax and facio), which means "to make peace." Pacifism has existed, in various forms, in many ancient cultures and civilizations and is found in aboriginal and preliterate societies. Forms of pacifism exist even in some societies that are warlike in nature. As in contemporary nation-states, some preliterate societies require pacific practices in internal matters, while glorifying militaristic practices in external relations.

Pacifism as "peacemaking" has roots in ancient Hinduism, which — despite its acceptance of violence — required a vow of ahimsa (noninjury) of those who would undertake yogic practices. Buddhism and Jainism (sixth century B.C.E.) more explicitly rejected killing in their requirement that ahimsa be rooted in monastic and daily life and in their teaching of compassion for all living things. The Chinese were receptive to Buddhism in part because the Taoist concept of wu-wei connotes the absence of aggression and the ideal of peaceful living.

In the West, pacifism has foundations in the universalist thought of the Stoics and the mystery cults of Hellenistic and Roman times, which looked to a "Golden Age" of ubiquitous peace. The Greek concept of eirene connoted a sense of harmony or order in society. The Romans sought through the Pax Romana to establish peace through war and conquest. This led to the narrow concept that peace was a "pact" or agreement not to fight or to wage war, or that peace was the result primarily of military conquest.

The Hebrew concept of shalom referred to a state of physical and spiritual wholeness. Central to the achievement of peace in Hebrew thought was the presence of justice both in an individual and social context (the Arabic, salaam, has a similar meaning). While justifiable war was certainly a feature of Hebrew thought, the prophetic literature (Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah) clearly looked to a time when there will be no more war among nations (Isaiah 4:2-4). Later rabbinic thought recoiled from the glorification of war. Central to the desired relations between people and nations was a peace based on respect and dignity.

Based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, the early Christian communities associated peacemaking with resistance to violence and the reconciliation of enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5; Luke 6), Jesus commanded his followers to overcome evil through love of their enemies. Since this love precluded bloodshed (the "an eye for an eye" ethic), love must manifest itself through the performance of good works: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … " (Luke 6:27). Hence, Jesus urged his followers not to resist evil in the manner of the Zealots, who were a violent political movement in his time. Jesus' counsels to "turn the other cheek," to "give your cloak as well," and to "go also the second mile" however, are counsels of nonviolent resistance to various oppressors of his time, including the Roman occupation forces. Hence, both good works and resistance to enemies are the hallmarks of the Christian peacemaker. Or, stated another way, for the Christian, active nonviolent resistance to injustice is itself a "good work" toward one's enemy.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that the early Christians held "all things in common" and that they "would sell their goods and possessions and distribute them among all according as anyone had need" (Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35). Later forms of monastic pacifism and, in modern times, Christian socialism have linked the "love your enemies" command with the concept that goods should be held "in common" to fashion a pacifism that not only opposes war and injustice, but also promotes social justice in the economic and political structures of society. Indeed, in the early church, Greek and Latin Fathers fiercely opposed the injustice of the rich, and some proscribed Christian participation in war and gladiatorial contests.

Pacifism as a mainstream Christian posture ended with the promulgation of Christianity as the religion of Rome in 380 and with the concomitant teaching of Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo that Christians could participate in "just" wars to defend both the empire and the faith. Christian pacifism continued in the clerical and monastic life, however, since priests and monks were forbidden to shed blood. Gradually, Christians became warriors and war fought by knights was common among Christian princes in the Holy Roman Empire. In the medieval period, the Peace of God and the Truce of God were introduced to restrict who could be killed in battle, and to limit the periods of fighting effectively to the summer months. In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to conquer the Holy Land from the followers of Islam, and even priests and monks participated in battle. A Crusade was preached in Europe itself against the Cathari, a pacifist sect in southern France.

In the thirteenth century, a pacifist movement for both monks and laypeople was begun by Francis of Assisi. Francis linked reverence for life with nature, and his thought is a source of "environmental" pacifism in the late twentieth century. The Reformation in the sixteenth century led to the founding of the historic peace churches: Brethren, Mennonites, and Friends (Quakers). During the Renaissance, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus held that war was opposed to every purpose for which humanity was created and his thought is foundational for many humanist pacifists. In seventeenth-century Russia, the Great Schism in the Orthodox Church resulted in the creation of the pacifist sects the Doukhobors and the Molokans, who used nonviolent methods to oppose participation in war.

Billboard advertisement run by pacifists John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Times Square, New York City, Christmas 1969In the nineteenth century, pacifists played a leading role in the suffrage and antislavery movements and organized societies that pressed for international arbitration as an instrument to abolish war. At the turn of the century, some pacifists proposed socialism, and some socialists adopted pacifism, as an alternative to capitalist greed, which, they believed, sought to profit from war itself. This was especially evident in the Social Gospel and Progressive movements prior to World War I.

In the twentieth century, World War I convinced many pacifists that war could be abolished only with the creation of international juridical institutions along with socially democratic economic systems. The Gandhian experiments with nonviolence in South Africa and India persuaded many that nonviolence was an active personal and political force that could also be used effectively by nonpacifists. Pacifist organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation (1915), the American Friends Service Committee (1917), the American Civil Service Committee (1917), the American Civil Liberties Bureau (1917), the Women's lnternational League for Peace and Freedom (1919), the War Resisters League (1921), and the Catholic Worker (1933) have inspired, and collaborated with, many other nonpacifist movements and organizations to promote international peace and social justice. Movements for racial justice, labor unions, and women's rights have all been aligned with pacifist causes. In the United States, the successes of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent campaigns for civil rights demonstrated the power of a strategy that, while coercive, can also result in reconciliation. Indeed, as the twentieth century ends, with its numerous successful nonviolent struggles, both the aims and the means of pacifism have broadened considerably since the beginning of the century.

Varieties of Pacifism

Throughout history, three types of pacifism have developed: anarchist, utilitarian, and transformational. Anarchist or communitarian pacifists believe that people should live in small, self-reliant communities as free from the interference of the state as possible. Some anarchists have been active in politics and have advocated the abolition or severe restriction of governmental powers, especially the power to draft people into military service. Some religious anarchists hold that the divide between the virtuous "City of God" and the decadent "City of Man" is so severe that it is useless to try to reform the social order. The ancient practices of Buddhist and Christian monks, the rejection of the state found in some Mennonite communities, and the more recent teachings of Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman, and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker are examples of anarchist pacifism.

Utilitarian or reform pacifists believe that the use of nonviolent methods is tactically superior and more efficient than the use of violence. Utilitarian pacifists believe that war and systems of oppression have outlived their usefulness and can, consequently, be abolished through the wide variety of nonviolent methods now available for popular use. Generally, there is no "grand design" in the utilitarian's thought. Hence, nonviolence may result in some degree of social change but is designed primarily to solve a particular problem in a specific situation. Strategists of "civilian-based defense," many of whom disavow the label of pacifism for themselves or their ideas, advocate the use of nonviolent methods by nonpacifist citizens to provide for national security. In the nuclear age, some people referred to themselves as "nuclear pacifists," since they held that nuclear war must not be waged under any circumstances. The philosophers Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (USA, 1957) are examples of utilitarian pacifist individuals and organizations.

Transformational or reconstructionist pacifists believe that there must be a radical shift in consciousness that looks to intellectual, psychological, and spiritual means of dispute settlement. Transformational pacifists stress the spiritual unity of all people, both with each other and with the cosmos. They seek not only the abolition of war, but also the creation of an international juridical, political, and economic order that will promote the rights of all species. Consequently, transformational pacifists have historically been critical of sovereign empires and nation-states and of economic systems that place profit over person. Both "humanistic" and "religious" pacifists envision socially just societies in a world of harmony and tolerance. Siddartha Buddha, Jesus, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Muriel Lester and such organizations as the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, are examples of transformational pacifist individuals and organizations.

Joseph J. Fahey, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Pacifism
  • Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.
  • Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace. New York: Abingdon, 1960.
  • Chatfield, Charles, and Ruzanna Ilukhina. Peace/Mir: An Anthology of Historic Alternatives to War. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
  • Ferguson, John. War and Peace in the World's Religions. New York: Oxford, 1977.
  • Josephson, Harold, Sandi E. Cooper, Solomon Wank, and Lawrence Wittner, eds. Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood,1985.
  • Mayer, Peter, ed. The Pacifist Conscience. Chicago: Regnery, 1967.
  • Montagu, Ashley. Man and Aggression. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford, 1973.
  • Musto, Ronald G. The Peace Tradition in the Catholic Church: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1987.
  • Sharp, Gene. Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-Based Deterrence and Defence. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1985.
  • Sibley, Mulford Q., ed. The Quiet Battle: Writings on the Theory and Practice of Non-violent Resistance. New York: Doubleday,1963.
  • Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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