When a person says, “I am a pacifist”, the reply is always the same: “What about the Nazis?”
In this essay on (non)violence in Charlottesville, Logan Rimel asks himself that very question. Rimel is a Christian and was a pacifist sorta, but those Nazis were so darn scary that… nevermind.
As it happens, I am a pacifist, and I can tell you what about the Nazis — specifically how pacifism can and does stand up to Nazis, and might be our best protection from fascism. I can tell you how Rimel is wrong and how we can do better.
That Rimel might self-identify as a pacifist, yet not have an answer to ‘What about the Nazis?’ beggars belief. It’s the basic test for whether you are a pacifist, but Rimel never really explains what pacifism meant to him absent an answer. The most substance we get about Rimel’s views is that his was “untested, hypothetical… weak pacifism”. I would say at best he had an interest in pacifism, but did not possess the thing itself.
And it turns out Rimel’s self-identification with pacifism is only part of a rhetorical strategy leading to a defense of Antifa, the real object of his essay. His thesis statement — “white Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa” — I suspect he thinks is a throw-the-first-stone level profundity, but I take it as invitation to continue to critique Antifa’s abetment of white supremacy, on which more below.
In particular, Rimel wants to rebuke white Christians, whom he takes to be too soft on fascism because they disapprove of Antifa. He implies pacifism is an obvious Christian doctrine, but might want to check in with Reinhold Niebuhr on that. Niebuhr also asks, ‘What about the Nazis?’, the difference being that he was writing about real Nazis during a real war. Both men argue against straw men, but Niebuhr at least uses a lot more straw.
Anyway, in Rimel’s telling of Charlottesville, his reduced-carb pacifism crumbles at the first sight of a firearm, as though he is surprised that violence might be part of the white supremacists’ agenda for the event. He finds shelter under Antifa’s wings, which then leads him to slew of leading questions and false dichotomies, because he is not interested in the moral or practical aspects of pacifism.
“Are you willing to take a bat to the head?” asks Rimel, and of course the answer is ‘no’. But pacifism doesn’t require you be willing to take a bat to the head, only that you be willing to take the risk of a bat to the head — and Rimel’s conflation of the two seems intended to obscure rather than illuminate. You can wear a helmet and still be pacifist. You can hold up your arms or curl up in a ball and still be a pacifist. You can duck and dodge and still be a pacifist.
Even if Rimel was sincere in his pacifism, there is a vast difference between his milquetoast version, of wishing there weren’t violence, versus the kind I adhere to, of actively working against violence without violence. And I think Rimel’s argument falls apart when confronted with the latter sort of pacifism.
Rimel and Niebuhr and pretty much every other critic argue against a pacifism that is absolute in its intolerance for violence. For that sort of pacifism — which I have never seen in the wild — the ‘What about the Nazis?’ question is supposed to be an airtight trap. Obviously Nazis need to be resisted with violence, right? And so, the reasoning goes, any tiny admissible violence is the undoing of pacifism, and a validation of militarism.
But watch this part closely: my pacifism is not absolute. Pacifism for me means I don’t trust myself with violence, nor do I trust anybody with violence on my behalf, and I want to work for less violence in society. Nothing about that requires an absolutist stance. I can point myself away from violence without turning my back on it completely, and that is both a morally and logically consistent position to take. Even Jesus has the bit where he tells his disciples to buy swords, but it’s very hard to read that as an endorsement of unrestricted warfare. (Granted, some people do.)
Let me say that my version of pacifism stems not from Christian doctrine alone — as Niebuhr points out, there’s conflicting support in the Bible — but from ample experience with and observation of violence. I’ve tried violence, and I quite enjoy it, but it makes things worse far more often than it makes things better, especially in terms of God’s kingdom on earth. So I am a pacifist in part because of my Christian beliefs, but also because those beliefs are informed by my experience of violence.
Once you grasp that pacifism need not be absolute, the ‘WatN?’ nonsense evaporates like mist. George MacLeod, Scottish pastor and pacifist, answered ‘WatN?’ by describing himself as a “55% pacifist”. I consider myself an 85% pacifist, but he lived through World War II and I didn’t. I will allow that there might theoretically be some instance in which I trust myself (or someone else) with violence, but it hasn’t happened yet in my lifetime. I have been sorely tempted, mind you.
Here’s an example of admissible violence: a friend of the family is a police officer in Florida. Several years ago she responded to a call, and found herself ambushed by two armed criminals. They shot her ten times. She killed both of them, in self-defense. That episode does not bother me, and certainly does not void my pacifism.
You might say, “well, that’s not really pacifism” — but if I told you I am 85% Nazi, you would have no trouble thinking of me as really a Nazi. (I am zero percent Nazi.) To frame my pacifism more concretely: I doubt that even 15% of the wars we have fought in the last hundred years were necessary. I doubt that even 15% of the people killed by our government deserved to die. I doubt that even 15% of the people in our jails and prisons deserve to be there. I doubt that even 15% of the people wiped out in the Great Recession deserved their ruin.
Back in Charlottesville, Rimel thinks pacifism means “outsourcing the violence” the pacifist will not commit, which — again — is not pacifism. Pacifism is about preventing and protesting violence, not about delegating it. He then asks of the pacifist, “Are you going to rely upon a different type of violence – that imposed by the state – to protect you – even knowing it is a danger to your neighbors?” And this I think is the crux of his problem.
My answer is, “yes?” By that I mean: if violence is necessary, then I want that violence to be performed under tight constraint and with thorough accountability by agents of a democratically-elected government. I don’t see at all how that is less preferable to vigilante groups. Granted, the state I want is not the state we have, but I am extremely skeptical that we can get from here to there via unrestrained violence.
After World War II, the Allied powers asked one another, “How did this happen? How can we prevent it?” And the answer they came up with was that the Nazis were able to roll back the rights of their own citizens without fear of censure or sanction, and once the Nazis had assimilated all of Germany they went looking for other lands and peoples. And so one leader in particular advocated for a Charter of Human Rights, as a bulwark against, “all forms of tyranny, ancient or modern, Nazi or Communist”. That leader? Winston Churchill.
Churchill was not a pacifist, and was in fact a bit disingenuous in his work for European unity: he wanted European governments bound by a Charter of Human Rights, so that they would not start wars with each other and drag Britain back in. But his basic prescription proved correct: the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights is the only international body with real power to adjudicate and enforce human rights in member states. There is good evidence that members who comply with the court (so not Turkey or Russia) are far less likely to engage in war, not to mention far less likely to use violence against their own people. So… it works.
When we talk about human rights, we are really talking about when and to what extent state violence is acceptable. The pacifist position with respect to internal violence by the state is simply that human rights should be as maximal as possible, and infringed as rarely as possible. The pacifist position is that governments should not use violence on their own citizens, or anyone else — insofar as it is avoidable.
Granted the U.S. government is not close to that standard, but for the most part the fascists and Nazis aren’t rallying in deep redpressive states like Alabama and Texas: they’re in blue cities in blue states, like Charlottesville, Virginia, or Berkeley, California, or Boston, Massachusetts, that generally have a good record of protecting the rights of marginalized people. I would not say I trust these governments, but they are not sympathetic to fascists or Nazis — so maybe it is admissible that we leave to those states the violence necessary to preserve our rights.
Rimel warns us that we’re not safe, that our Muslim, immigrant, black [sic], disabled, indigenous, Jewish, and transgender neighbors are not safe. “If you feel safe now, it’s an illusion born of your relationship to power.” But my relationship to power is one in which I have rights asserted against that power, enshrined in laws constraining that power. My rights aren’t an illusion, and neither is the centuries-long and ongoing struggle to protect, preserve, and expand those rights. Fascism is a threat precisely because it wants to build a state whose power is self-justifying and absolute, and cannot be constrained by rights or other rules — and then use that power to kill me.
Against this threat Rimel offers Antifa, members of which routinely insist they do not recognize the rights of those with whom they disagree. Which, let’s be honest, is kind of the same as saying ‘we don’t recognize rights’. But rights only make sense in a context of state power and violence, so implicit in this argument is Antifa’s endorsement of state power that is self-justifying and absolute, and cannot be constrained by rights or other rules. And this is my critique of Antifa: that they operate fully within the Nazi worldview, instead of challenging it.
As I have explained, the name ‘Antifa’ comes from Antifaschistische Aktion, a Communist paramilitary in Weimar Germany, which opposed (but probably hastened) the rise of the Nazi party. The organization was based on a belief in the necessity of total revolution — of nihilistic violence — in order to bring about Communist society. They were not pro-democracy, pro-rights, nor were they protecting Weimar society. As an aside, I don’t know who is pushing the whole lower-case ‘antifa’ not-an-organization thing; I can see how it’s good brand management, but in terms of historical literacy it makes about as much sense as talking about little-n nazis.
In terms of theological literacy, the fact of Christians and clergy defending, as Rimel does, an organization/movement/brand with roots in militant Communism makes about as much sense as defending nazis. Later Rimel calls “disparagement of antifa… a moral equivalency from the depths of Hell if ever I saw one”, but let’s be clear: I am not saying Antifa cannot be differentiated from the Nazis. I am saying that Antifa clearly differ as weaker than, less clever than, and accomplices to the Nazis. It seems irrelevant to me whether their motives make them more or less ethical than Nazis, if their consequence is counter to their stated goals.
In this one respect I am equivocating: I doubt our rights will fare any better under an Antifa government than they will under a Nazi government. Because that is what is at stake: who will control the government? The prize the Nazis are after is nothing less than total control. We have had a taste of the violence they will unleash once they achieve it, but resisting tit for tat only emboldens and empowers them in the meantime. By the time we get to a point where vigilante violence is the best available strategy against fascism, it will be too late to offer meaningful resistance.
The real struggle against the Nazi agenda is not happening in the streets, but in voting booths and courtrooms and town halls. It is community organizing and voter registration and canvassing and — yes, alas — fundraising, but none of it is violent. So a pacifist can indeed fight back against Nazis, and far more effectively than Antifa, at that. Even passivity is still doing more good than Antifa, because at least it is not affirming the Nazis’ worldview. (My critique would still be on point even if I weren’t willing to risk a bat to the head.)
Rimel’s rejection of pacifism isn’t bold or hard-nosed, but instead a retread of an argument nearly 80 years old, made with less conviction and less comprehension than the original, and with far less evidence in its favor. Rimel wasn’t a pacifist — he was lazy. Rather than engage in the tough and often tedious work of maintaining a democratic society, Rimel prefers the immersive gratification of confrontation. From his essay, it looks very much like Rimel would rather swing a bat than lift a finger to protect and expand our human rights.
The white Christian church has been too passive — or worse, complicit — in the fascist inroads against our democracy. That has to end — Rimel is right about that, at least. We cannot afford to be disengaged, to turn up our nose at politics (although many of us never did). But Rimel is dead wrong that we have to embrace violence in order to protect one another.
We best protect one another by resisting violence in all its forms, by resisting the very idea that violence can save us or redeem us or protect us. We have to fight — non-violently — to protect our rights.