Intro to Spiritual Anarchism, part 4: Pacifism, Not Passive-ism

So what is the practical value of all this anyway? Where is the rubber-meets-the-road point at which spiritual anarchism becomes a useful vehicle? Or what is the point of bringing the political concept of anarchism into one’s spirituality? Why not just find a practice to develop the interior life, be a decent person,  and call it good?

That depends on how willing one is to see political anarchism as a practical and useful tool for improving human life. There are many eloquent spokespersons for the benefits of life without coercion and social hierarchy, and I won’t try to duplicate what they say in my limited space here. They also tend to preach to either the choir or the deaf, with the vast majority of the audience being the latter. Anarchism as a whole is almost universally dismissed, even among would-be anarchists, as impossible and impractical. I’ve been there myself, because looking at the state of the world at present, it is, undeniably.

But a lot of things we take for granted now were once impractical and seemed impossible, and it’s a good thing we never stopped thinking and dreaming about them. For how many centuries did we attempt to master controlled flight, for example, before it became possible? How often did our winged contraptions fail to get off the ground before someone noticed that slight curvature of the wings was needed to create the physical effect of lift? Now we fly many thousands of times every day as though it were second nature.

Spiritual anarchism is the curvature in the wings of its political counterpart. If that bird is ever going to take off, it needs to be conscious of what gives it lift, and cultivate that trait in any many people as possible.

The principle of anarchist aerodynamics at work here is simple: the need to be governed arises from a disconnect in the self-other relationship that is our most fundamental interaction with our environment.

Most people feel that they can trust themselves to behave in a way that is beneficial to their own interests and at least neutral to others. Fair enough. But by and large, we do not extend that trust to others, perhaps for good reason historically because humanity has lived in a purgatory-like mental space between instinct and intuition for most of the era of civilization. We are very erratic, individualistic critters who have mostly lost the sixth sense to perceive danger without yet finding the insight that there is nothing to fear. 

But each self is also part of everyone else’s “other.” So we submit to authoritative control over our own lives in order to have a sense of security from others. But we chafe at that control because we certainly don’t need the government to monitor and run our lives —they are the reason we need social hierarchy and its cascading levels of authority. Civilization thus becomes a competition to move up the hierarchy into increasing levels of autonomy for the self and authority over others, with a self-perpetuating cycle of increasing institutional use of force and coercion as a result. 

Political anarchism correctly points out the folly of this vicious cycle in which no one is truly free and says “another world is possible.” But to the unregenerate muggles of this world, anarchy means unleashing  the chaos of “other” into their sense of security, and that will not do. Security becomes an increasingly privatized commodity in the mind of the hyperindividualistic human who has lost all sense of common ground with “other.” The “Don’t Tread On Me” sentiment of contemporary right-wing politics can be summed up in this Orwellian manner: everyone should be free, and everyone else should live in a police state.

The only thing that can reverse this cursed state of mutually assured distrust is a shift in the essential nature of the self-other relationship, from the deception of perceived disconnect to its true inherent Oneness. We cannot expect an atomized individual self to relent on its need to desire freedom and control the other, paradoxical as those needs may be, as long as the other feels like an imminent threat to the only life it knows. Spiritual anarchism needs to defuse the threat first. 

Pacifism –another word that doesn’t mean what you think it means, or at least shouldn’t — is the key. 

Google defines pacifism as “the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.” It’s a fine definition if you are only interested in looking at the surface of what a pacifist is. But what are “peaceful means” of settling conflict? Is peace nothing more than the absence of physical violence? If so, does this mean pacifism is nothing more than conflict avoidance? How does one arrive at the state of mind and heart in which peaceful means that could result in death are preferable to fighting for one’s life? The definition gets mushier with each question.

I suggest we use this definition that is at once broader in application and more specific in source: Pacifism is any systematic method of cultivating inner peace and expressing it into the outer world. Since we don’t want to use the word to define itself, “inner peace” is the lack of existential tension between self and other. Another common term for that is “love.”

Let’s be clear about what this definition implies: it is pacifism, not passive-ism. It requires deliberate and principled action, rising from the wellspring of conscience and uninhibited by the fear that the true self is something that can die. Any fair reading of the Bhagavad-Gita will admit that Krishna is teaching Arjuna inner peace so that he can take it into battle. Whether that is literally the battlefield of Kurukshetra as the narrative portrays or a metaphor for an internal war, it is clear that pacifism does not make us into inert, apolitical neuters or navel-gazers. To the contrary, the true pacifist is one who has actively deposed the ego and thus faces death like an actor faces the closing of the curtain onstage.  True pacifists needn’t ask anyone how to treat others –they know, as Ramana Maharshi did, that there are no others.

In the YouTube clip that introduced this series, Utah Phillips recalls conversations about pacifism with his mentor, the Catholic anarchist Ammon Hennacy. This passage illustrates the connection between Hennacy’s pacifist and anarchist principles. It was his response to Phillips, then a young Korean War veteran struggling with PTSD and violent behavior, saying he would “try pacifism:”

“That’s not enough…You were born a white man in mid-20th century industrial America, and you came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege: racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. If you want to be a pacifist it’s not just about giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that.”

Giving up all forms of privilege essentially means living in a society without stratification, in which all people are considered free and empowered to use their apportioned abilities without the yoke of authority holding some up and others down. If that seems like an impossible state for an individual to achieve alone, it is; this describes political anarchy as achieved by a corporate body. But that body is made up of individuals who have undergone the spiritual process of deposing the ego, by any means available. They have surrendered the errant notion that the definitions that comprise the ego define the true self. The weapons of privilege are rendered useless in the hands of those who see the self in others. 

A core principle of anarchism is that love can only exist between equals. Any hierarchy creates a disparity of empowerment. The interpersonal dynamic changes from voluntary association between equals to one that involves some degree of obligation, force, or coercion, and love, the natural state of one who is experiencing inner peace, is never achieved through these means. Love neither asserts nor responds to authority [1].   

A truly egalitarian society therefore can only be made up of people who have resolved the dichotomous self-other tension and found inner peace in its place. It is obvious that this would lead to the disappearance of all oppressive master classes of people and the weapons of privilege. What’s less obvious is the responsibility for the oppressed to assert their own empowerment, let go of all conditioned identities that define them as second-class and servile, and create inner peace in the midst of their oppressors. Class warfare can be won by no one, and must be surrendered by all.

This is not to deny that we exist to serve and elevate each other; it is to assert that service must come from love, which means it must be voluntary and mutual, or it is something disruptive to true peace. If service comes from authoritarian coercion instead of love, it is a disservice; it perpetuates a disparity of power that breeds further self-other existential tension. For the servant class in an unequal society, resistance to oppression is actually an act of love, aimed at dismantling a system that keeps us all in chains.

The ultimate exemplar of what you might call “active pacifism” is Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Christian gospels. I’m not going to make the argument that He was a political anarchist —I’m not interested in debating the meaning of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”— but He was undeniably a pacifist and active resistor of religious and state authority, Not in a way that reactionary political hacks will recognize, of course, because it was far too revolutionary.

I received a timely reminder of this yesterday in the form of the daily email from the Center for Action and Contemplation, established by the contemporary Catholic mystic Fr. Richard Rohr. In the email, Rohr cites the book “Jesus and Nonviolence” by his colleague Walter Wink. (If you bristle at all this deliberate use of Christian sources, you need not see Jesus as a supernatural being to appreciate this, in fact it’s better if you don’t. Consider him an archetype for the fully realized potential of inner peace to unveil the true self, or if you’re feeling whimsical, the reincarnation of Adam who finally got his shit figured out.)

“There are three general responses to evil: 1) passivity, 2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses.

“Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. 

“Jesus’ Third Way bears at its very heart the love of enemies. This is the hardest word to utter in a context of conflict because it can so easily be misunderstood as spinelessness. But it is precisely the message [Martin Luther King, Jr.] made central to his efforts in the polarized circumstances of the American South:”

“To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. [3]” 

The capacity to endure suffering and love of one’s enemies both speak to a pacifism rooted deeply in inner peace, not outer passivity. There is no nullification of struggle nor avoidance of conflict in King’s words, only the recognition of a self that transcends the combatants. In his pacifism he refused to “other” his enemies even as he stood firmly against them. This recognition of “that of God within” his opponents is the soul power that will always wear down and outlast the limited physical force available to be used by the perpetrators of privilege and injustice. This is the same reason that even as a man facing his mortality, Jesus refused to condemn his crucifiers, because doing so would be to condemn part of his immortal true self. As Fr. Rohr said in his commentary, it is our inability to achieve inner peace and love/co-identify with our enemies from the perspective of ego that draws us out of ego and into what Christians call grace, or what we could simply call Oneness.

Like Hennacy and the Catholic Workers, Reverend King’s pacifism  was inspired by his religious convictions. But his philosophy of nonviolent resistance also came from a more modern lineage, via Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, to the eminent Transcendentalist writer and abolitionist agitator, Henry David Thoreau. In the opening lines of his seminal essay “Civil Disobedience,” an early clarion call for conscience over fealty to the law, Thoreau minced no words in establishing an evolutionary anarchist platform for his pacifist resistance:

“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’  and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” [italics mine]

But Thoreau’s ardent defense of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown and many critiques of capitalism show that he was no socially aloof libertarian,  nor a private enterprise fetishist who wanted to strangle the government in the bathtub so the master class would be free to exploit at will. Thoreau seemed to understand that what makes a society prepared for a government which “governs not at all” is widespread attention to conscience, and social structures which reflect this attention rather than divisive stratification and forced passivity. It is better in Thoreau’s view to have a citizenry of righteously unruly malcontents than obedient masses living in the quiet desperation of a shallow peace. 

Jesus of Nazareth —a guy famous for whipping capitalists and turning over the tables of bankers —and any other spiritual anarchists worth their salt would likely agree.

So that would be my answer to the initial question we explored in this section: Spiritual anarchism describes the point at which an individual’s inner peace can be expressed as active love, unforced by governments within and without. When enough people realize that peace within themselves, the possible world will become our reality.


[1] Parenting might seem like an exception to this rule, but from a non-authoritarian perspective, it is no different. Parents may use the guise of authority over their children to guide them on the path to their own autonomy (as the King does to the peasant in my book), but the superlative parent knows this is a temporary role that is never the whole truth of the relationship; the child’s soul is always independent of the parent’s and equal within the true self. 

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Augsburg Fortress: 2003), 12, 13-14, 58-59, 60-61.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Christmas, 1957), written in the Montgomery jail during the bus boycott.

Introduction to Spiritual Anarchism

Part 1: Anarchism vs Anarchy

Part 2: Political and Spiritual

Part 3: Conscience, the Anarchist Voice of God

Part 4: Pacifism, Not Passive-ism

Part 5: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Possible, Another World is Within You

You may also read the whole series as a composite article at Not Two

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