My good friend Rachel (who has sadly since passed) used to run a ministry that built bridges between impoverished inner-city Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbia.1 She desired to help students learn and experience more about the city and its people who lived right next door to them.
I occasionally brought Sunday school groups to participate in these experiences. One year we got more than we bargained for.
Our assignment on this particular afternoon was to “start up a conversation with a homeless person on the street and use $5 to help them to meet some need.” Three high school students and myself were one team who wandered about looking for someone who would talk with us.
Working up the boldness to talk to a stranger on the street wasn’t easy, but eventually we started up a conversation with a couple people, the second of whom was a small, middle-aged guy with an Irish accent. He said that he had been a boxer, and I believe him – I’ve known punch-drunk former boxers before, brains reeling from years of abuse, and he looked and acted just like one of them. He told us that all he wanted was some prayer. And so we prayed for him right there on the street.
However, our assigned task was to use that $5, and so we asked if there wasn’t some need we could help him with. He thought about it and admitted that he could use some bus tokens. We asked how to get those and he pointed to the booth where they were available. It had a line.
It was already past the time when we were supposed to have everyone back, so I sent the students to join the rest of the group and told them to tell everyone I’d be late. The old boxer and I walked to the line to get the tickets.
The boxer cut to the front to talk to the ticket seller. In the process he disturbed a woman who was at the window, possibly bumping her. The woman’s boyfriend took offense and got in the little guy’s face. I attempted to diffuse the situation by standing in-between the two of them. The boyfriend did not take kindly to my presence, but the one he really wanted to deal with was the boxer, who felt he had done nothing wrong and at this point was really mouthing off at the young guy.
As I kept them apart from each other I realized that the woman’s boyfriend had pulled a switchblade knife and was holding it out. And I was between him and his target. Boy, that escalated quickly.
My main thought at the time was that I was responsible for this poor guy and had to see him out of the situation. I told the disgruntled boyfriend that the old guy wasn’t all there in the head and didn’t mean any harm. And I kept my position such that neither the boxer nor the boyfriend could get around me and meet each other face-to-face.
It’s okay, I’m sorry, he didn’t mean anything, he’s not all there, it’s okay, look, he’s not all there, he didn’t mean anything.
Eventually the situation cooled down and the guy put away the knife. The boxer got his tokens. I went back to the group, figured it was best not to let the students know what had just gone down but whispering it to the coordinator later.
Those of us who believe that Jesus preached an ethic of peace and nonviolence are often targeted as weak, or unloving. Somehow, the word “pacifist” was distorted by detractors into “passive.” The assumption developed that if someone steadfastly chooses approaches other than violence, they must be passive, unwilling to act, a coward. I’ve even been told that I don’t really love my family, by people who think violence is the only true act of love in violent situations.
There is an idea out there that if you believe in a peaceful response to violence, you will end up “doing nothing” while a loving action that requires violence is right before you.
This is never a true dilemma.
We don’t have to chose between “peace” and “love.” We believe in a peace with which God wishes to envelop all of His children on Earth, and that’s a peace that must be active, loving, and intentional in every situation. Whenever violence is confronted, there is something you can do that works towards that peace with love. The trick is spend enough time thinking and caring about such situations that you discover responses that result in peace while loving the potential victim and potential perpetrator. You’ll find those responses if you work hard enough at it.
Especially if you’re a pacifist.
Even if the other guy has a knife in his hand.
 Coincidentally, one of our coordinators there was Jason, who I didn’t know at the time but who is now a strong voice for nonviolent actions and enemy love.