Feminism and Nonviolence

My dear Wormwood…

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.                                           ~C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I’ve never been quite sure what “the feminist movement” consists of. The term brings to mind both musical scores and convoys of trucks. It is by now axiomatic to declare that women view the world differently from men (and this seems to be the basis of feminist literary criticism, feminist theology, and feminist psychotherapy, to name a few of the more recently tendered differing worldviews). It then follows that if women really are different, then they should be treated differently. That being the case, all separatist laws, theories, and cultural traditions must stand, not fall.

Somewhere in the distance a clear voice challenges: men and women are biologically different yet ontologically the same. Hence distinctions can be made for those parts of life which depend wholly on biology; unless the claim is made that one’s ontological nature depends wholly — or even in part — on biology, there follows an identical ground of being for all humans. This is the core of the women’s ordination movement. Secondary discussion, including arguments that women are more suited to this or that function of ministry, depends on biology and endangers the primary discussion, which ought to surround the notion that Christ was primarily human.

Somehow most feminists persist in underscoring the differences between men and women while they assume they are arguing about the similarities. Having been the target recently of a certain amount of verbal violence on the part of “feminist pacifists”, I am wondering whether I am en-countering the biological differences or the ontological similarities. To wit: is the term “feminist pacifist” oxymoronic?

Of course, I am not speaking about true pacifists. The people I wonder about are they who violently, vigorously, loudly and longly march, rally, sit-in, protest and otherwise obstruct normal daily activity in the name of “peace.” Their literature and their actions have a violent attitude, violent language, and violent intent. In general, the only solution possible for their grievances is violent overthrow of the current system.

Such does not speak to me of nonviolence. Nor is it, to my mind, a particularly feminine or even feminist response to the obvious and absolute atrocities rendered daily in so many ways — ways which the “feminist pacifists” may or may not protest. One tends to feel very much, when in the grip of their rhetoric, as if one is being beaten over the head by a “PEACE” placard.

Conveniently, “feminists” of this ilk tend to liken all military people, but most especially the foot soldier or Marine, to rapists. For some reason, as yet unclear, American “feminist pacifists” tend to view only American military people in this way. Even the military people in El Salvador who raped and murdered the four American church-women a few years ago were somehow translated into agents of the American government by this kind of logic. There is then the immediate jump from this sort of activity to the initiation of nuclear warfare.

Clearly, we skip a beat in making such a direct and causal connection. Such “feminists” are partly right — some men do find warfare both biologically necessary and satisfying. Is nuclear warfare as satisfying? The question of push-button war is and needs to be distinct from the close combat in which the vilest aggressions are vented, independent of the nationality of the victor or vanquished. Yet it is, in theory at least, that close combat which can initiate the mechanized devastation of nuclear war. Once the policy of war has been agreed to, its escalation becomes obvious, logical, and necessary. In addition, what a lot of people forget and what the rest do not like pointed out, is that men go to war to protect women and other property. The common argument generally runs, “and then what do you do when they are running wild, raping the women and…” In the extreme, the men of a nation protect “their” women from the rapist invader only because it is an offense against them, not because it is a devastation and desecration of the human victim who happens to be female. Raping the women of a country, in fact, is just as serious as killing its cows or burning its buildings.

While this attitude is offensive to any thinking Christian, too many feminists react violently in their opposition to it. Their stridence and their cacophony blur both meaning and argument, and remove in the wrong way “la difference” — they become that which they complain about. Given that the reasons for warfare always involve overt aggression on at least one party’s part, and given the right of the individual state to protect its integrity, conflict will exist as long as human greed is allowed to establish policy. To object to such policy by means of overt aggression simply mimics that which one decries.

It becomes, clearly, a question of perspective. I view the American military as a defense establishment, fully understanding that it is capable of precisely the same type of aggression against which this country can be rightfully defended. So evolves the basic definition of deterrence: action is not initiated because of the possibility of retaliation. My marines are nastier than your marines. My planes are faster than your planes. My nuclear weapons are bigger than your nuclear weapons. It is the same game little boys always play.

It is a totally unsatisfactory approach to the questions of war and peace. The weaponry is the symptom; disarmament will not cure the disease, only lessen its effects. The solution, the cure if you will, cannot come by means of counter-violence — whether hammering nuclear warheads or throwing eggs at military personnel — because the disease is that which is the common cause of all violence. The outlook of the rapist, the screaming peace demonstrator (“feminist” or otherwise), and the public official who sets a policy of aggressive warfare are all the same. What some might see as the sane feminist response of honest nonviolence in the light of it all perhaps we should hope is really that which ontologically binds us one to another.

To refuse to fight can be either an appropriate Christian response or an abrogation of Christian responsibility. The Christian will never be in lockstep with either prevailing mentality all the time, provided his or her initial and deepest commitment is to Christianity. All else can be measured against that commitment, not the other way around. We know what to do as Samaritans after the attack. Do we know what to do when the attack is imminent or even under way?

Is it a particularly “feminist” response to be “pacifist” or “nonviolent?” Need feminism and nonviolence be yoked together? It is becoming increasingly clear that the terms are and have been for some time very confused. That which we see as positive about “feminism” is simply that which subscribes to the legitimate notions of Christianity. So, too, with “pacifism” and with “nonviolence.”

We all prefer nonviolence. Whether it need or ought to be tempered by a particularly “feminist” approach I do not know. I do know, however, that the kinds of caricatured “feminists” whose boots stomp across the thoughts of all who disagree are neither Christians nor nonviolent, and because they have arrogated so many other causes to themselves, they leave a lot of women who believe deeply in biological differences and in ontological similarities unable to call themselves feminists.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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