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The Difference between a Pacifist and a Passivist

Pacifists and passivists are agreed in being nonviolent. The latter, however, is determined not to react or respond to violence with any actions of opposition; whereas the former may be very determined to oppose violence by any means except violence.

Interestingly, both may appeal to Jesus’ example of turning the other cheek to substantiate their position. The passivist may point out the literal words of the story in which Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek if struck by our enemies on the one cheek. But the pacifist will likely point out the historical context of the shame it would put on the perpetrator to hit one on the other cheek, not only because the egregiousness of excessive violence but because the act of turning one’s other cheek would require the pugilist to use the back of one’s hand to strike the person again — which in that culture was a repugnant taboo. By offering the other cheek, one was thus publicly humiliating the initial strike of one’s opponent whether or not they actually struck again.

Passivists, in doing nothing, accept whatever is done to them without challenging their enemies. But a pacifist has the option of publicly challenging the morality of the aggressor, and this may include shaming, protesting, boycotting, or employing many other acts of civil disobedience, political resistance, economic sanctions, and the like.

In being pacifists we do not have to be passivists. Nonviolence is necessary, but it is not sufficient without resistance. We need to forgive our enemies, but also hold them accountable and call for their repentance — else we enable the very evils we deplore.

— Bret S. Myers, 8/19/2017

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