Two Wars and No Peace in Sight: The Role of Faith-Based Pacifism

Sharon Nepstad is a sociologist, and director of the religious studies program at the University of New Mexico. Her most recent book, Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement, tells the story of the Plowshares Movement, an international activist effort begun in 1980 when a small group of Catholic pacifists broke into a weapons plant, poured their own blood on documents, and attacked nuclear missile parts with hammers: swords into plowshares.

Almost thirty years later, Americans are waging two wars that have dragged on almost a decade. Strong voices of opposition to the wars are typically framed as morally pure, but politically irrelevant. Violence is regrettable, but necessary, and nonviolence is morally admirable but unrealistic in our deeply conflicted world. Are these the only two options?

Nepstad thinks otherwise, and her research into faith-based pacifist movements in the United States and Central America shows how nonviolence can be an effective strategy and policy in a violent world. In so doing, she cracks open the imaginative paralysis that has kept nonviolence outside our repertoire of realistic policy options. —The Eds.

RD: What got you into peace studies?

SN: It started when I was a freshman in college and I took a course called “Christian Perspectives on Peace and War.”  I went in not necessarily knowing what my position was, and through the course of the class I watched a couple of films that profoundly shaped my thinking. One of them was a film that showed a lot of footage of Vietnam War victims and the effects of Agent Orange and napalm; the other one was a film about Hiroshima and what happened after we dropped nuclear bombs. And when I watched those films, it was clear to me that this is not a morally acceptable way to deal with conflict. It is not ok to say that we have a disagreement so we are going to kill a hundred thousand of your people in one bombing. That was the starting point, just acknowledging that the use of massive violence is a morally unacceptable means of dealing with conflict.

So then I asked, “What is the alternative?” If you can’t use violence, which has been our societal standard, what alternatives are there? That got me into reading Gandhi and King, and what impressed me about them is that they were so practical. We tend to think nostalgically about Gandhi and King, viewing them as these idealized saints. But if you read about their lives, you see that they were brilliant strategists who knew how to make nonviolence work. As King put it, “You don’t have to be a pacifist to be in this movement. But nonviolence is the only viable path for us. It’s our only chance of winning.”

This was in the 1980s when there were a lot of civil wars in the world. I was particularly watching the conflicts in Central America and in the Philippines and I began wondering: how do you take Gandhian nonviolence and apply it in that context? How do you take King’s strategies and adapt them to another cultural situation? Then in the late 1980s, I ended up working for an international peace organization in West Germany that was supporting the peace initiatives of the East German churches. At that time, nobody thought things would change because this was the center of the Cold War, the battlefield between East and West. There were so many nuclear bombs stationed in East and West Germany that a nuclear war felt like a real possibility. But then, very unexpectedly, the Berlin wall fell. We watched this happen, and it was at that moment that I realized that we have to figure out how nonviolence works and how it can be adapted to other countries. I realized that nonviolence was a practical option but people did not consider it very often because there were a lot of misconceptions about it. The more I researched nonviolence, the more convinced I became that this is something that people need to learn.

What do we need to know to make nonviolence a viable option?

We need a better understanding of how power operates. On this point, the work of Gene Sharp has been extremely helpful. We tend to think that all the power is concentrated in the government, but in fact the population has numerous forms of power. And once we figure that out and claim it, then we can use this power nonviolently to transform our societies. Peace activists have to think strategically. People don’t think of peacemaking as a strategic phenomenon. They think of activists carrying signs that state: “We’re against the war.” Yet peacemaking must be as strategic as military actions are; otherwise it will be unsuccessful. Generally, regimes don’t fall because you hold up a sign. So I think there has to be more research into the strategic approach to peacemaking. My own research interests deal with the factors and conditions that make nonviolent struggles succeed.

What is violence?

The most prevalent form of violence is structural violence. Certainly, there is physical violence such as spouse or child abuse. But structural forms of violence systematically affect whole groups of people. This type of violence occurs when structures—such as an authoritarian regime, a patriarchal system, or racial segregation laws—limit a group’s opportunities and life chances. Such structures do violence to people by systematically oppressing them, by treating them in a degrading manner, and by obstructing their chances for success. I think it is important that we conceptualize violence in a broad way. Violence is not just restricted to physical or verbal forms; whole societal structures can be violent.

To what extent are certain strategies used in protest violent?

The question of the line between violence and nonviolence is an ongoing debate within peace movements. My own research on the Catholic Left-inspired Plowshares movement is an example of a group that really pushes the boundaries by destroying and damaging military equipment. The debate over property destruction has not been settled within the peace movement.

But what I respect about the Catholic Left is that in the 1960s they were ones who began to say that sometimes protest is not enough. There had been hundreds of protests against the Vietnam War but the government didn’t change its policy or position. So the Catholic Left started to call on people to interfere with the government’s capacity to wage war. These activists asked: “Would it be violent if people dismantled the gas chambers in Auschwitz?” Some activists were still opposed to property destruction as a resistance tactic, but the Catholic Left activists argued that they were saving lives by destroying draft cards or by attempting to disarm weapons of mass destruction.

Even traditional Gandhian tactics can be violent if they are used in a coercive manner. The Gandhian concept of satyagraha emphasizes that we ought to search for the good in our opponents; we ought to persuade them as we implement nonviolent acts of noncooperation. But if a nonviolent tactic is carried out in a coercive way, or if it is done with the view that the opponent should be humiliated or degraded, then it becomes a violent form of resistance. It is something that I think activists have to be constantly reflecting upon. The division between violent and nonviolent tactics isn’t always as clear-cut as we think. In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the spirit in which a campaign is conducted.

What are the main goals of your work? Are you trying to create activists? 

My primary goal is not to make students into activists, but that may happen when students read about some of these cases and movements. I would like to see people acting on their convictions but, of course, that could take a lot of different forms. I see my role as a combination of a storyteller and a social analyst. In the movements that I have written about, there was always an important story to tell. My early work focused on the Central America Solidarity Movement and the role of churches in challenging US military involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

I felt that it was an important movement to document, but I also thought there is a fascinating story here about the role of religion. For whatever reason, a lot of people still have the assumption that religion is a purely conservative force. So I wanted to show another side of it and to show what elements of a faith-based movement make it effective in working for peace. I was also interested in how a shared religious identity helped to link Christians in North and Central America, bridging some of the cultural, class, and ideological differences between these groups. My purpose is to make these peace movements known—since history still tends to focus on wars rather than peace efforts—but I also want to reveal how these movements operate, what makes them distinctive, and what forms of innovative peacemaking they engage in.

Do successful nonviolent movements require a “great” leader?

The media likes to focus on charismatic figures, but the reality is that most movements don’t have charismatic leaders. If you think about the women’s movement or the environmental movement, they are not really movements that were forged by a charismatic leader. Most movements are grassroots initiatives that probably have numerous leaders who never rise to national prominence. So it is definitely possible, and in fact most of the movements in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were trying to create leaderless movements because they did not want a hierarchical system; they were promoting democracy and egalitarianism.

In reality, there are both advantages and disadvantages to having a great leader. Part of the problem with charismatic leaders is that they become easy targets for repression. It is not a coincidence that Gandhi and King were both assassinated. When that happens, movements often flounder or collapse. So in some ways it is precarious to have that much dependence on a charismatic leader. But certainly there is an advantage to having a brilliant visionary who can mobilize the masses and gain national attention. People like Gandhi and King were very good at articulating a vision of an alternative society and thus the media focused on them, enabling their message to spread to a wide audience. So those movements that have charismatic leaders have to be careful that they don’t become too reliant upon them. It is a double-edged sword; great leaders can really mobilize and energize a movement but the movement can really suffer when they are gone.

What is the role of nonviolent movements after agreements such as a peace treaty or armistice?

Some people feel that once a peace treaty is signed, the conflict is over. But it is certainly not; there is a whole lot more work to be done. Many times during the course of the conflict there have been so many wounds created that it sets the stage for another conflict to erupt. More attention is now being given to post-conflict reconciliation and that is essential. If you look at the literature over time, early references name this field “conflict resolution.” The assumption is that we have fixed the conflict and it’s now completely resolved. More recently, people are starting to use other terms such conflict transformation; people are recognizing that you don’t typically solve conflict in one fell swoop. These are often longstanding, historically-rooted tensions that you can, overtime, transform into a more peaceful situation. But it usually is not resolved with one peace treaty.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Obviously that one peace treaty did not completely resolve the conflict or stop all acts of political violence, because this conflict has been around for hundreds of years. The peace treaty is not going to change cultural attitudes. It is not going to change the fact that most Catholics and Protestants are living in different areas, that they are physically segregated.

I think more and more people are recognizing that conflict transformation is a very long process of change. Maybe you need those peace agreements to generate a ceasefire or establish some basic provisions, but then you have to undo the many years or decades of hatred and prejudice that have been passed on for generations, as well as transform oppressive social structures. In Northern Ireland you have the Protestants going to one set of schools and the Catholics going to another set of schools. The societal structures have been reflecting that conflict. To undo that is going to be a multi-stage, longterm process.

What advice would you give to someone who came to you looking to create a successful nonviolent movement?

I think the first place to start is to read about historical nonviolent movements. There is no reason to go out and reinvent things that have already been tried. We are fortunate that there are now places you can go to do undergraduate and graduate work in peace studies. You can learn about why some movements succeeded while others failed. You can study the dynamics of power, how to shape policy, how to enact change by working within the political system or by pressuring it through other methods. We should also learn lessons from failed nonviolent movements. Too often we only look at the successful cases and most of the really valuable lessons can be derived from the failed cases.

Second, I think we have to reflect on Lenin’s statement that you can’t fight a revolution without a theory of revolution. This is true with nonviolent revolts, too; not just armed ones. There has been a lot of academic work that provides theories about how to mobilize a nonviolent movement and then there are numerous practitioner approaches. In my opinion, there needs to be more synthesis between these two bodies of work: synthesizing practical experience with theoretical knowledge is key. I think that most people who want to create peace or stop conflicts don’t think that it has to be a rigorous field of study or that is necessary to do an apprenticeship as you would do for other types of work. But that is partly why we are not highly effective at peacemaking. Many people think that all we have to do is stand with a sign or poster and things will change. Generally, peacemaking is a far more complex and multifaceted process than that.

What about the idea that violence is inherent in human nature? 

I think that a lot of people believe that all human and animal life is driven by the survival of the fittest. Many people assume that we are innately aggressive and thus nonviolence is against our nature. But if that were true, why would we have to send soldiers to boot camp? Boot camp is designed to teach resocialize recruits so that they can overcome their moral qualms about killing. Its not just learning how to use certain firearms systems, it’s a whole training that breaks down the civilian culture they have been immersed in that tells them it is not okay to kill others. Since the time when we are young, our parents are telling us, “dont hit your siblings” and “dont fight with your friends.” Then you join the military and you have to unlearn that socialization.

I think it is a false assumption that we are all innately violent. While conflict is inevitable, violence is not.