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  • Violence as Self-Sacrifice:Creative Pacifism in a Violent World
  • Aaron Fortune

E. S. Brightman said that both individuals and communities have moral experience, a proposition more easily understood concretely than abstractly (Brightman 1938, 57-64). Regarding violence, it takes whole communities to build bombers, but it only takes a few individuals with box cutters to turn a plane into a bomb. As President Bush realizes, either could be an act of war, but as he probably does not realize, either could be construed as terrorism as well. Brightman's postulate is thus illustrated in the terrible arena of violence, and it connects his pacifism with Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent social action. However, the sword cuts both ways. A consistent argument for nonviolent action must deal not only with Bull Conner in Alabama but also with Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Violence is a cancer. Insofar as both societies and individuals are persons, violence destroys both and perpetuates itself. Like cancer, which sometimes is overcome through damaging treatments like radiation and chemotherapy, sometimes violence is overcome only with more violence. For this reason, I will argue that absolute pacifism, while ideal, is not tenable in a world where violence exists. Though Brightman and King rightly observe that violence damages the perpetrator's personhood more than that of its victim, there are times when the loving act is to sacrifice one's person and end violence violently.1

My position includes Brightman's pacifism and King's nonviolence without completely agreeing with them, so I will explore Brightman's and King's pacifism, followed by rebuttals from Charles Hartshorne and Malcolm X.2 Both sides of this debate, I will argue, are fundamentally correct in their observations, but neither fully realizes itself as a complement to the other. Personalist pacifism's weakness lies in its inadequate account of violence's effects in the real world. Hartshorne and Malcolm X correct this weakness through their limited justification of violence as self-defense, but they fail to capture the bitterness of their medicine. Violence, even as self-defense, destroys persons. If we lose sight of this fact, violence as self-defense may aggressive violence; it may become part of the problem. Though King is right that we choose between nonviolence and nonexistence, sometimes free, otherwise nonviolent persons must [End Page 184] choose nonexistence for themselves to keep violent aggressors from choosing nonexistence for all.

Brightman and King on Persons and Freedom

To understand how violence destroys persons, one must first understand the personalist notion of person in community common to both Brightman and King. According to Brightman, persons are the primary moral agents. Only persons make moral choices, and personal beings are those capable of moral experience (Brightman 1938, 58). However, persons are not atomic individuals. Abstractly, shared value structures define personal choice. Concretely, no person could survive childhood, much less adulthood, without community. Persons are always persons in community (58).

The person is free in several senses. If persons are beings capable of moral experience and if moral experience consists of voluntary behavior, then metaphysical freedom is built into the structure of the person, a freedom that, for Brightman, is the condition for the possibility of ethics (74). This freedom grounds the more concrete freedom of choice whose external manifestation is negative liberty.3 Society should provide a minimum level of negative liberty to all metaphysically free persons to recognize their dignity and worth as persons, but metaphysical and moral freedom still exist, according to Brightman, even if society grants no such liberty. Even if all my life circumstances are externally determined, I still choose my attitude. I can resist in my will, or I can resign myself to oppression. For Brightman, this choice is morally significant (75-76).

King agrees with Brightman that the person is metaphysically free and therefore worthy of dignity, moral value, and political liberty. However, King thinks some dignity and political freedom must be afforded a human before he or she can become a person. King sees Brightman's metaphysical freedom as possible rather than actual.4 Because King grew up a victim of violence, he could not take his personhood for granted, which made him...


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pp. 184-192
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