Pacifists and pragmatists

Pacifists and pragmatists

Progressive communities, including Unitarian Universalist congregations, are prone to painful rifts between pacifists and pragmatists.


Some Unitarian Universalists take personal and principled stands against all use of military force, even in response to aggression and terror. There is a long tradition of such witness among us. The Rev. Adin Ballou, a 19th-century Universalist minister who served the Unitarian congregation in Hopedale, Massachusetts, wrote a notable treatise, Christian Non-Resistance, that influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. During the Vietnam War, the UUA established a denominational registry for conscientious objectors.

Yet we have never been a "peace church" like the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Mennonites, or the Church of the Brethren, in which rejection of military service or national defense has been normative for church members. Many Unitarian Universalists, while deeply committed to peace and justice, have been willing to take up arms, though reluctantly, on behalf of justice and in defense of principle.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker kept a pistol in his desk to protect the escaped slaves in his congregation. He supported the radical abolitionist John Brown, who was anything but a pacifist. His friend Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the Civil War, though later she initiated the observance of Mothers' Peace Day, which became simply Mother's Day. Many Unitarians and Universalists have served and now serve in the military.

I once went to call on the late Elliot Richardson, a staunch birthright Unitarian, who had served briefly as Secretary of Defense. It was shortly after William Perry, another UU, resigned that office, and President Clinton had named as his successor William Cohen, still another UU. So I asked Richardson why, with our relatively small numbers and our liberal values, three Unitarian Universalists in three decades had been placed in charge of the world's largest military establishment. He replied that our commitment to the use of reason might have something to do with it.

The terrorist attacks have forced Americans to confront many hard questions. What would love of neighbor require if, for example, a gang were to firebomb a neighbor's house? I believe that it would require me to support the police in every effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. Otherwise another neighbor's house might be next. Or my own.

Coming of age during the Vietnam War, I tried to be a Quaker. But I could not in good conscience say that I objected to all war and all use of force. My father and uncles had served in World War II. Like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, I reasoned that the creation of greater justice and peace in an unjust and dangerous world often requires us to choose between greater and lesser evils.

Like other religious leaders, I have spoken out for restraint and temperance in the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks. My reasons are not only moral in character. They are pragmatic as well. Indiscriminate response would only mirror the murder of civilians, make martyrs of those treated as "collateral damage," and help recruit more terrorists. Many know this. Even before the U.S. military response began, a Gallup poll showed 73 percent of Americans saying that it should target "only those responsible," and not innocent others.

We all felt victimized by the tragedy of September 11. A new sense of spiritual unity, transcending ideologies, arose from that shared experience. As time goes on, however, and as our responses to "the war against terrorism" become more pained at what is being done in our names, divisions will re-emerge.

Progressive communities, including Unitarian Universalist congregations, are prone to painful rifts between pacifists and pragmatists. During World War I, pacifists felt ostracized among Unitarians. Former U.S. President William Howard Taft, as moderator of the American Unitarian Association from 1917 to 1918, persuaded the General Assembly that all ministers and churches receiving aid from the AUA be required to support the "crusade for democracy." Pacifist ministers lost their posts in some places, and the distinguished New York Unitarian minister Dr. John Haynes Holmes actually left the AUA with his church.

During the Vietnam era, virtually the reverse occurred in some congregations. Pragmatists sometimes felt morally condemned by pacifist UUs. The current response to terrorism must not be allowed to have that effect. Let those UUs who would witness for consistent nonviolence do so as a matter of conscience. But let us also recognize that pragmatic reasoning about reducing the threat of terrorism can be conscientious as well.

A public tempted by calls for angry, xenophobic vengeance needs to hear from pragmatic voices on behalf of more restrained action in pursuit of justice. And those activists tempted to deepen their anger and alienation from American society and institutions to the point of violence need the witness of committed pacifists.

Unitarian Universalism can be a healing presence in society to the extent that we model listening patiently to one another's perspectives, speaking temperately, and respecting one another's ministries and rights of conscience. We are not a peace church. We are not a war church. We are religious community of both pacifists and pragmatists, taking different spiritual paths toward a common goal: a world of greater justice and peace.

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