What would you do…?

Those of us “pacifists” who have gone the conscientious objection route have heard all too much of the familiar question: “What would you do if…?” For those of you who are in the dark, let me reconstruct the argument used to challenge the nonviolence as a viable means of conflict resolution.

The accuser begins by placing you in a hypothetical situation in which you a faced with a choice of killing an aggressor that threatens the life of a loved one. You, the subject, hold the power to decide between one life and another. For example; your grandmother, sister, niece, or mother is held captive, a gun to her head (it seems arrogantly patriarchal that the victim consistently is portrayed by a feminine figure…), and you have the power to prevent the crime. Many accusers also insert the stipulation that death is the only thing that will stay the attackers hand. The great responsibility of choosing the moral necessity of killing the attacker rests upon you. What would you do?

It would be a waste of time to spend much time critiquing the unempirical and invalid technique of employing hypothetical situations to challenge one’s commitment to nonviolence. The question itself, when approached objectively, fails at any sense of criticizing one’s opposition to war, or even violence itself. The weakness of the question lies in its utter dependence on speculation. Any and all circumstances that are described rely on absolutes that simply fail the test of objectivity. In short, no one can know every nuance that the hypothetical situation presupposes. Let me deconstruct the question.

First, the question rests on the assumption of determinism on your part – that you have the only decision to make, and that it is only your decision that will provide resolution. If you do not act, the attacker will kill the victim, and your course of action will end in the death of the attacker. The accuser demands that the attacker is motivated only by pure evil, that there exists no hope of redemption. However, no crime is ever without motive, there is in fact something that will satisfy any attackers’ purpose for violent action (cooperating with their demand for money, safe harbor, etc.). It is simply unreasonable to believe that the only course must inevitably lead to death (the victim’s at the hand of the attacker, or the attacker’s at your own hand). No course is predetermined; the only limit to nonviolence is one’s own creativity and commitment.

The second assumption is that of omnipotence, that you have absolute control and that your course of action will undoubtedly result in success. We cannot know for certain, in any instance, that our own decision will unfold without event or unseen consequence. Furthermore, the victim is assumed to be incapable of sentient thought or free will, their reflexes and instincts are considered mute. Events put in motion by the attacker or the victim will unalterably affect whatever occurs in response to such a dramatic confrontation. It is ridiculously optimistic to pretend that one person, acting in concert with such unpredictable variables as a deranged attacker and a terror-stricken assailant, could enjoy absolute control over any situation, violent or otherwise.

Another baseless assumption the accuser must found his challenge upon is that of omniscience, the idea that you know with absolute certainty how your course of action will unfold. After all, the obligatory conclusion is that of death. You are expected to be able to operate without doubt, a convenience no person in history has ever been able to enjoy in such an event. In any and all situations, we can be sure of only one thing, that we know nothing for certain and must act out of consideration for the unpredictability of the situation.

Another assumption our accuser relies on is individualism, the belief that only my own interests are to be considered relevant. The victim’s relationship to me must inform my decision; I should not act outside their interests. If the victim shares my commitment to nonviolence, it would not be their desire that I use lethal force to save them from whatever catastrophe awaits them. If they do not subscribe to nonviolence, I would still argue that the desire to use a disproportionate amount of force against their attacker would be founded in self-centricity (on the part of the victim or the defender), an evil that already must have motivated the attacker. Put simply, true justice has in mind even the interests of the criminal. A defender cannot not justify adopting the role of judge, jury, and executioner alone and hope to be protected by the claim to have been objectively serving justice. Furthermore, when a person is reduced to a possessive object, such as the case when it is assumed that the victim has no capacity to influence what must be my decision, it becomes an act of self-interest disguised as a virtue.

Stemming from the last issue comes the presumption of righteousness. Your actions are immediately considered ethically superior to those of the attacker. However, you lose any credibility as judge and jury when your own interests and welfare are a part of your decision. Your objectivity is compromised. It is then that people often claim, falsely, that their decision is effectively determined by the actions of the attacker (“they made me do it”). Once the ‘victim card’ is played, your actions become sanctioned by a created sense of moral superiority. Far from being justified, you become the evil you had hoped to conquer.

Another common element employed has the goal of challenging your virility (if you are a male); claiming the victim is someone you have a personal relationship with (mother, daughter, sister, etc.), in order to provoke in you a sense of chivalry or duty. Without wasting time exposing the emotional distortion and the extreme chauvinism this suggestion presents, I would question if we have any less duty to care for and be the protector of all persons, including Iraqi or Afghani. We are, in fact, our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper; should I not be just as obligated to defend people of a different race, religion, nationality, or bloodline? Are we motivated to action only when it is our own that is endangered?

Finally, the accuser must presume that alternatives simply do not exist. It is a poor principle to live by to believe that lethal force is our only means of conflict resolution. It is self-defeating, this path of violence. Dr. King described it as a ‘descending spiral,’ that the cycle of violence is fed perpetually by our own refusal to seek peace and embrace reconciliation. In every instance that I am posed this proverbial question, I reiterate my willful refusal to use violence as a tool to shape peace.

It is violence and hostility that produces the attacker in the first place. They are products of a culture so misled about true justice that it teaches its members not to murder by murdering murderers. Those who would use violence often have never been shown the prophetic power of love to destroy fear. The Hitler’s of the world only know hatred and fear precisely because they have never been shown grace and reconciliation. Even if it means sacrificing my own life, I will not become a victim to the myth of redemptive violence.

So, how do you answer the question once posed (if you choose to entertain your accusers extensive conjecture)? That is something that only you can decide. Given the chance, I would show the attacker true compassion and sympathy. I would remind them that they are still human in my eyes, and that they are not beyond redemption. I would mourn with them the fact that they are driven to such an extreme course in desperation, that their own interests have been met by callousness and disregard by fellow men and women more interested in self gain and egoism. If necessary, I would do whatever I could to stand in the path of violence and remain committed to the victim as well as the attacker, until the end. Perhaps in showing my commitment to give life, not take it, I might embody peace, and not prejudice. It is in the fertile soil of care and compassion that the seeds of hatred find no root and are unable to produce the fruit of violence.


This essay has drawn enormous inspiration from John Howard Yoder’s book What Would You Do? (Herald Press, 1983)

2 thoughts on “What would you do…?

  1. i like this statement: “true justice has the interest of the criminal”

    and….everything you brought up about what is “chivolrous” in our eyes- the heroine being rescued by her knight as he slays the evil dragon. It is self-righteous and arrogant to put the rescuer above the attacker. Good thoughts.

    Oh yeah….now I’ reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, “The Princess Bride.” Wesley shows Humerdink compassion in the end by leaving him tied up, when it is expected that he will run his sword through him. A great classic- I wonder why!?

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