A Pacifist Primer

by Clark Hanjian
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Pacifists oppose war. While this statement is true, it is only a small part of what it means to be a pacifist. For all of my adult life, I have been a pacifist and associated with pacifists. We are a minority, largely misunderstood, and often disparaged. In light of our precarious standing, I would like to clarify what many of us mean when we say “I am a pacifist.”

Pacifism is often viewed as cowardly or naive opposition to the use of physical violence. Many believe that pacifists avoid conflict due to some utopian hope that conflicts can be resolved without courage, sacrifice, or direct engagement with the adversary. I will address this myth by reviewing the analysis, intentions, methods, and training that are, in my opinion, central to being a pacifist.


Conflict is the tension we feel when we interact with others whose goals appear to be incompatible with ours. Often, the tension is bearable and we learn to live peaceably with our adversaries. Occasionally, the tension is intolerable and we must act to relieve it.

How we approach conflict is the primary ethical, spiritual, and practical problem in our lives. If we fail to handle a conflict well, we suffer, or our adversaries suffer, or perhaps both. Thus, before we engage our adversaries, we need to be clear about our intentions and our methods.

The popular approach to conflict, as highlighted in our media and modeled in our entertainment, encourages us to maintain the following intentions: (a) define your desired results before engaging your adversary; (b) achieve your desired results using whatever means necessary; (c) achieve your desired results as quickly as possible; and (d) if suffering must occur, ensure that your adversary suffers more than you. To support these intentions, we are encouraged to use methods such as deceit, coercion, stress, confusion, threats, humiliation, distraction, exploitation, dehumanization, and violence.

This approach to conflict has many adherents, it enjoys a long history in human affairs, it is easy to understand, and it is reinforced daily throughout our culture. Nonetheless, pacifists reject this approach for three primary reasons.

First, although the popular approach to conflict has the potential to bring quick results, these results typically lack substance. Current symptoms of the conflict might be suppressed, but deep-rooted causes are ignored. Alleged solutions are short-sighted and inadequate. The conflict appears to be resolved, but soon thereafter the celebrated resolution begins to unravel.

Second, the popular approach to conflict is filled with suffering. We leave our adversaries dissatisfied, hurt, angry, and vengeful. These feelings set the stage for old conflicts to resurface and new conflicts to emerge.

Third, although the popular approach to conflict is often marketed in moralistic terms, it typically abandons the highest callings of most ethical traditions. Little value is placed on engaging our adversaries with respect, generosity, understanding, or compassion.

In light of these concerns, pacifists seek an approach to conflict that offers more substance and less suffering. Riding roughshod over our adversaries might provide short-term results and immediate gratification, but pacifists are more concerned with sustainable results and genuine reconciliation. To this end, we suggest an alternative with a completely different set of ground rules.


Pacifism is an approach to conflict based on four intentions:

Use Means Consistent with the Ends Desired: This is the intention to engage our adversary using methods that embody the outcome we desire. We reap the fruit of what we sow. Thus, if we desire to live in a world where practices such as respect, understanding, truthfulness, and compassion are the norm, then we must endeavor to use these methods when approaching conflict – even under the most demanding circumstances.

Touch the Adversary’s Heart: This is the intention to connect with our adversary on a personal level so that our conflicted relationship can change. If we use force to compel our adversary to change their actions, we do nothing to address their concerns, and we can expect that they will return to their original course as soon as the opportunity arises. If we use persuasion to change the mind of our adversary regarding a particular conflict, we do nothing to address conflicts involving other matters. However, if we use methods that touch our adversary’s heart, we cause them to pause, and we open a door to a new relationship that will enable us to approach current and future conflicts more fruitfully. A change of action or a change of mind might yield some short-term relief in a conflicted relationship, but a change of heart redefines the relationship.

Leave Room for Error: This is the intention to make allowances for the possibility that we are mistaken. Due to our limited capacities as humans, there is always a chance that our perspective on a conflict is incorrect or incomplete. Thus, we should use methods that are flexible enough to: (a) provide our adversary with some benefit of the doubt; (b) provide us with opportunities to gather more information about the situation; (c) leave space so that we might have a change of mind or a change of heart; and (d) allow us to explore options that might be better than anything we can envision at the moment.

Intend No Harm: This is the intention to abandon any desire to hurt our adversary. In the heat of conflict, we consider bringing harm to our opponent directly or indirectly, physically or emotionally, quickly or over time. In moments of reflection, though, we know that these desires undermine our efforts to resolve conflict. Harmful intent only fuels the fire. Thus, when we approach our adversary we are challenged to intend no harm, intend no offense, intend no humiliation.


How might we engage our adversaries in a manner consistent with these four intentions? Pacifists offer the following ten methods. These methods have been practiced and promoted for ages. Nonetheless, when push comes to shove, when we face our most critical conflicts, we rarely use these tools. In light of the intentions outlined above, pacifists suggest that these methods deserve fresh consideration.

Each method below can be practiced in the familiar settings of conflict: families, organizations, communities, politics, commerce, and international relations. Each can be exercised with dignity and honor. Not every method is suitable for every person or every situation. But as we increase our skills with these tools, we can customize methods appropriate for the conflicts we face.

Good Faith: In all relations with the adversary, maintain truthfulness, keep my word, be trustworthy, bear no intention of deceit.

Unconditional Respect: Value the adversary under all circumstances. Show high concern for his or her well-being. Do not take advantage of any misfortune the adversary experiences. Defend the adversary from third party attacks. Show respect even when respect is not reciprocated.

Humble Engagement: Before approaching the adversary, review my contributions to the conflict. Maintain an openness to the possibility that I am mistaken about one or more critical elements of this conflict. Give the benefit of the doubt to the adversary. Be prepared to offer apologies, and to correct any misunderstandings I might have. Extend forgiveness. Refrain from insulting the adversary directly or in communications with others.

Correct Understanding: Make genuine and multiple attempts to learn more from the adversary about their perspective. Inquire: How do you see the circumstances? How is this situation impacting you? What are your key concerns? What are your intentions? What are your feelings? Analyze their perspective for new information and insights, and be prepared to revise my perspective. Share my revised understanding with the adversary to confirm my accuracy.

Sensitive Clarification: Clarify for the adversary important information about myself: how I see the circumstances, how this situation is impacting me, my key concerns, my intentions, my feelings. Share this information in a manner likely to be digested by the adversary. Be sensitive to timing, location, manner, and content. Even when my intentions are good, evaluate the potential impact of my sharing. Minimize sharing that is likely to make the adversary defensive and closed-minded. Maximize sharing that is likely to open a path for future interaction.

Selfless Service: Work to address the needs of the adversary. Touch the heart of the adversary by offering assistance with no taint of self-interest. Also, work to address any external circumstances that might be contributing to the conflict. Demonstrate good will and sincerity by serving with no desire for compensation, recognition, or reciprocation.

Material Generosity: Contribute resources to help address the needs of the adversary. Abandon my illusions of security in favor of offering concrete assistance to the adversary. Give freely of my money and possessions. Place the adversary’s well-being over my own.

Purposeful Self-Suffering: Use self-suffering to demonstrate my sincerity to the adversary. Suffer the adversary’s attacks without responding in kind. Instead of retaliating, knock on the door of the adversary’s heart by responding unexpectedly: lower my defenses, share my resources, make genuine attempts to understand and address the needs of the adversary. Use self-suffering to create a dissonance that the adversary might resolve by a change of mind or a change of heart.

Courteous Non-Cooperation: When facing a demand from the adversary to act against my conscience, politely decline to cooperate. Do not participate in, contribute to, or consent to activities which rend my heart. Maximize the possibility of touching the adversary’s heart by making an effort to use some of the aforementioned methods before proceeding with non-cooperation.

Honorable Self-Defense: When I am under attack, when I have lost my stamina to experiment with other methods, and when I feel unable to touch the adversary’s heart, the option remains to defend myself honorably. This means attempting to free myself from the adversary’s attack while simultaneously maintaining a genuine intention to bring no harm to the adversary. This method includes techniques such as: verbal protest, aikido-style actions that redirect the adversary’s energies, physical escape, identifying those who provide support to the adversary and touching their hearts, and resolute non-cooperation with the adversary in the face of threats and attacks.


The intentions and methods outlined above are embraced by many, but their use is generally limited to low-risk conflicts. Pacifists push the limits by suggesting that these intentions ­and methods are suitable – even necessary – for high-risk conflicts.

In order to approach a high-risk conflict as a pacifist, one strives to maintain these intentions in the heat of the moment. One strives to wield these methods instinctively and competently while under pressure. Hence, a pacifist invests in three areas of training:

Technical Training: Much is known about the very practical aspects of each intention and method outlined above. A pacifist attempts to develop proficiency in each area, drawing especially on the fields of psychology, interpersonal relations, and group dynamics. Particular attention is given to developing skills in communication, facilitation, and collaboration.

Spiritual Training: We are powerless to maintain these intentions or wield these methods unless we are spiritually fit. In order to approach conflict fruitfully, a pacifist trains in the very concrete practices of tolerance, patience, compassion, understanding, generosity, and voluntary simplicity. We try to develop nonattachment to views and possessions. We try to rid ourselves of strong aversions and strong desires. And we try to increase our ability to ease the suffering of others, regardless of whatever suffering we might endure. Support for this type of spiritual training can be found in most religious traditions.

Daily Experimentation: A pacifist trains by experimenting with these intentions and methods daily. As one consistently applies this practice to the small concerns of life, it becomes easier to approach the larger conflicts with skill and courage.

Pacifism is not a panacea. As pacifists, we always risk some degree of failure: our skills might be inadequate to the task; our adversaries might not be moved; we might suffer emotional distress, loss of property, physical injury, or death. On the other hand, we also risk some degree of success: we or our adversaries might have an insight or a change of heart, opening the door to a resolution and long-term benefits which could never be achieved through intimidation or violence.

In failure or success, the pacifist approach to conflict enjoys a ripple effect. Whenever we engage our adversaries with integrity, respect, and compassion, we throw a stone into the waters of the status quo. Sooner or later, the ripples touch our adversaries and other neighbors. In small but certain ways, these ripples promote the evolution of the peaceable society.


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