How I Became A Pacifist

Administrator’s Note:  This is a chapter of a book that I was asked to write for a friend starting a publishing company.  I apologize for the length but I think it will play a role in further posts in which I plan to expand upon my pacifistic beliefs.  Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.

It was February 2004.  Armed (how they were armed is another issue) criminals had crossed the Haitian border with the Dominican and were terrorizing the Haitian countryside.  Every day the news read of a new town threatened by the presence of these men.  The end game was to remove the democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide in what would eventually be the second coup-de-tat against him.

The weeks leading up to this event are the setting to one of the most life changing nights of my entire life.  I was nineteen and serving as an intern at an orphanage in the northwestern town of Port de Paix.  The government’s already tenuous hold on the country was slipping away daily.  The police had fled, as they were often the first people in a town to be attacked by the rebellious groups.  With no real police presence in town (a few weeks later I watched the police station, situated on a hill overlooking the city, burn) criminals were allowed to roam the streets uninhibited.  Most people stayed indoors as much as possible, avoiding any conflicts, roadblocks or other unpleasant experiences that were caused by this highly visible minority.  You see Haiti often receives a bad rap as a country full of miscreants, criminals and the like but the fact of the matter is that most people want to simply go about their lives and provide for their families, yet the government has no control over the country so often a small group is allowed to act with impunity while the vast majority of people suffer the results, which are often violent and perpetuate stereotypes that keep Haiti from developing economically, but that is another issue.

On this particular night I was the only English speaking person on the campus.  The room where I was staying was built above an outside wall facing the main street in our section of town.  Below me and about fifty feet behind me was where Miss Myrone, the Haitian nurse and primary caregiver for the children lived.  Even further back were several Haitian families that lived and worked in the orphanage.  The dorms for the children were between the two positions.

The room where I slept was a small area of about fifteen by twenty feet and was actually where the orphanage director and his wife lived but where I was staying while they were out of the country.  Walking out the door and across a wide catwalk of sorts would bring you to another building, a larger common area where we would often cook, eat, gather, have meetings and also show the children movies from time to time.  The fact that this was a completely detached room and also directly above the main street meant that theft had been a problem over the years as it was an easy target.  After several break-ins we decided to install a basic alarm system that was purchased in America.  It was a simple system that involved sensors on the doors and windows of the detached room and a receiver in the small room, where I was sleeping at the time, to warn of any intruders.  Before he left,  the director explained to me the ins and outs of the system as well as several other tips and rules for assisting the staff in the daily operation of the orphanage.  One of these instructions was on the use of a sawed off shotgun that was kept in a safe in case of an emergency.  It was highly unlikely that it would have to be used, it had never been required before but it was something that the director felt was important to share with me before he left.

I was asleep one night when the alarm’s deafening and unceasing sound woke me.  I fumbled in the dark to the keypad where I typed the numbers to deactivate it.  I thought that surely if there was in fact someone in the other room that they would have heard the noise and fled immediately.  I was wrong.  As I looked through a small window I had only a slightly obstructed view into the common area room where I saw that the lights were on and a person in a red shirt was walking around.  I fumbled over to the safe, again tried to remember the numbers required to open it and eventually managed to retrieve the gun and a few shells of which for some reason I only loaded one.  I opened the door slowly, and inched my way towards the entrance of the other building and turned the knob.  The door was locked.  I honestly cannot remember if I had locked the door before going to bed or if the thief locked the door to keep someone from entering, though I suspect the latter.  Either way the noise of the doorknob turning caught the attention of the thief and I could see from a window above the door by standing on a rail that he was attempting to escape through a window in the furthest corner of the room from my position.  I quickly ran around to the rail against the outside wall where he was scrambling through the window.  He emerged from the room and was still about thirty feet away from where I was standing, leaning over the rail that looked down upon the street.  Out of some sort of warped instinct I reached as far as I could over the rail to achieve the angle needed for a shot, pointed the shotgun at him and fired.  The noise was deafening in the night.

The thief was probably too far away to shoot with a sawed off shotgun and the fact that he was furiously maneuvering his way out of the window and across another roof meant that he was unfazed by the buckshot as he slipped over a wall and out onto a small street behind the orphanage.  I yelled for my friend Bernard who was, among other things, the de facto head of security and lived in the back of the property.  Soon everyone on campus including the children were awake and I found myself standing in a pair of gym shorts, shirtless, looking at my hand which had somehow been cut by the steel of the shotgun in the awkward reach and attempted shooting.

I re-enacted the story for the other orphanage employees, telling them as many details as I could think of, including the direction in which the man went and the fact that he was wearing a red shirt.  In the midst of me recounting the events it became clear that there was some sort of disturbance outside of the walls of the orphanage. One could tell that a small crowd was forming and soon people were banging on the solid metal gates that opened up into the large courtyard where during the day the children of the orphanage would play when not in school.  We let the group in and immediately saw that they had a man in a red shirt bound in front of them, his face almost equally red from what must have been a fairly severe beating.  At the time my Creole was lacking as I had only been in Haiti for about six months, but what I lacked in Creole could be made up with a few people who spoke a small amount of English.  The story that was relayed to me was that the noise of the gunshot caused the family living behind the orphanage, outside of the gates, to wake up just in time to see the man they currently had bound running away.  He was caught and after a discussion with a few other neighbors it was found out that the shot had come from the orphanage and that this man may have been involved, so he was brought to us.

I honestly could not tell if this was the man that I had seen in the house.  He was wearing a red shirt but I began to question myself even on what I thought had been true only moments before.  The crowd essentially left the man’s fate in my hands.  My initial decision was to send someone to bring a police officer to the orphanage.  I was told that the police would not be at the station.  My next suggestion was that we keep the man locked in a room until the morning and then take him to the police.  Bernard informed me that I did not understand the situation, the police were not around because they had skipped town as the political stability weakened, the police were not really an option.  The crowd clamored that I hand the man over to them so that they could deal with him themselves.  I initially gave in only to see a man respond to my handing over of the “prisoner” by running a machete across the poured concrete slab and flicking the blade with glee. I immediately changed my mind and decided again that the man would simply stay in the orphanage tied up until the morning.  Again the crowd wanted nothing to do with my solution to the problem.  Thievery is not tolerated in Haiti and places like it where many people survive on scant resources.  I contemplated what I was to do next as the presumed thief begged me to not hand him over.  He pawed at me literally on his knees begging that I not hand him over to the crowd, covering my clothes (by this time I had put a shirt on) in his blood.

The crowd became angry and threatened to have people break down the door of the orphanage if I did not hand the man over.  It became quickly apparent that I should have never let these people in the gate in the first place, but that time had passed and now a man lifted a cinder block over a four wheeler threatening to destroy it as well if the man was not handed over.  I justified my decision in my head by saying that it was for the safety of the children in the orphanage.  It was only later, after being asked by the director why I did not fire a shot in the air to clear everyone out, that I even thought of the gun in my hand as an option.  The entire time I had been holding onto the shotgun as if it were some type of oversized gavel in the circus of a trial that was taking place in the yard.  My decision was made and the man was handed over to the crowd, which left peacefully.

I asked Bernard what would happen to the man, his response was expected yet still shocking.  He told me that the crowd would most likely take him away, cover him in gasoline and light him on fire before throwing what was left in the ocean.  I stayed up all night, looking down at my plain white t-shirt covered in blood, thinking about the fact that I had just sent a man to his death.  Needless to say I did not sleep much that night nor any other night for months to come.  A few days later I asked Bernard to go find out what had happened to the man.  After some investigating Bernard found that that man was in fact alive but in the local hospital “he will not be walking for a while” I was told, but the fact was that he remained very much alive.  I was relieved to say the least, though still deeply disturbed by my decision.

I cannot even begin to explain the feeling of thinking that I had been responsible for a human being’s death.  I was appalled by my decision making skills though for the most part both Haitians and later on Americans had found no fault in the way in which I had dealt with the situation. Not only had I aimed a gun at a man with the intention of killing him but also when given the chance to remedy my mistake and keep the man from the harm of the crowd I again made the wrong choice.  Sometimes I like to think that I made these decisions because I was young, naïve, pressured into it, or protecting the orphanage, but in reality it was simply a wrong decision that I have to deal with and thank God nobody was killed because of it.

I learned more about the value of human life that night than I could have reading a thousand books.  I learned more about violence in that one night than I had in my entire life and what I learned was that it is wrong.  The overwhelming grief and disappointment in myself after that night started forming in me my pacifistic views, which I studied further in college.  Even to this day the idea of pacifism, particularly in relation to Jesus, is something that I battle with, going back and forth on, much like my decision making process on that night in Haiti.  Would Jesus support a war or the death penalty?  I cannot say for sure but I do know that he brought about his kingdom peacefully even when he was offered the help of the sword.

I am not willing at this point to categorically denounce all forms of violence including war but I certainly do lean that way.  I often look at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler, for which he was later executed.  The thing is that Bonhoeffer actually thought that he was sinning by trying to kill Hitler.  The Bible clearly says that we are not to murder, but how many people would actually blame Bonhoeffer had he been successful in the attempt?  It is because of issues like this that I cannot categorically condemn the use of violence.  So perhaps I should call myself a Bonhoeffer pacifist in saying that while I do not condone any type of violence at all, I would not rule out the idea that I may be willing to transgress under certain extreme situations, as unlikely as they may be to present themselves. What I do know with utmost certainty is that shooting at another human being is something that I will never do again.

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16 Comments on “How I Became A Pacifist”

  1. Anthony
    July 12, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Wow. Man, thanks so much for sharing this. Despite you being one of my best friends in college, I always felt like there were so many experiences that shaped who you are and how you think that I knew nothing about.

    This site has produced a lot of good content, but this is without a doubt the best post I’ve read on here. Challenging and provocative without being totalizing and absolute.

    • curtisrrogers
      July 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      Thanks for reading man. There is no doubt that experiences in Haiti have, and continue to, shape my life. I have usually kept these stories to myself but I think that a few of them will pop up here on the site.

  2. July 12, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience. Thanks for sharing.

    • curtisrrogers
      July 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for reading the site man.

  3. July 12, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Wondering if being a pacifist has something to do with how tightly you hang on to possessions. I think I would willingly fight for my family but not for “stuff”. I also think that you fired the gun in a gut reaction to protecting the children in the orphanage.

  4. July 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Good thoughts and reflections curtis. What publishing company are you writing for?

    • curtisrrogers
      July 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

      I am actually writing an ebook for a friend starting his own company. It is a small startup but we will see what happens. It was a great reason to finally write down some experiences I had on paper. Thanks for checking out the site.

  5. July 14, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Bonhoeffer, from my study of him, came to the point where he felt like God was truly leading him to conspire and assassinate Hitler. He felt like obedience to Gods specific direction in your life superseded obedience to an understood ethical code from God. His main reference was Rahab, but it went much deeper than that. “To be true to God in the deepest way meant having such a relationship with him that one did not live legalistically by “rules” or “principles”. One could never separate ones actions from one’s relationship to God. It was a more demanding and more mature level of obedience, and Bonhoeffer had come to see that the evil of Hitler was forcing Christians to go deeper in their obedience, to think harder about what God was asking. Legalistic religion was being shown to be utterly inadequate.” from Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer biography.

    I think it’s all about the closeness and intimacy with Christ and His Spirit in us to give us the convictions that lead to actions/stances. Sounds like you are doing just that bro. I remember you tellin this story in the dorms, still crazy to hear to this day. Hope all is well.

    Can I start calling you smokey now? “Smokeys a pacifist man, he’s very fragile!”

    • curtisrrogers
      July 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      You can most definitely call me smokey. I also like the way you explained Bonhoeffer. It is not so much that he thought it was wrong to kill Hitler but that obedience to God was the more important thing. “He felt like obedience to Gods specific direction in your life superseded obedience to an understood ethical code from God.” I like that line. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and studies. I like the way you explained it much better, I will have to change that in the book. Thanks for reading man, hope you and your family are doing well.

  6. Ben Taylor
    July 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    Just, wow. I’m going to make my students read this. Can you keep us posted on the status of the book?

    • curtisrrogers
      July 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      No problem, we will probably post about the books (Drew is working on one for the same project) when they come out. Thanks for reading man.

  7. Taylor
    July 16, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    Curt. You are my hero. This is good. You are awesome.

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