Both The Washington Post and The New York Times carried front-page stories last week from Oxford University. The event was a debate at the Oxford Union Society, a meeting place for student intellectuals. The debate was similar to one held in the same hall 50 years ago. The proposition then was "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." Last week, it was "that this House would not fight for Queen and Country."

In 1933 the motion carried. In 1983 it failed. "Pacifists Are Routed," said the Times headline. The Post's said the Oxford group "Reverses Historic Vote That Backed Pacifism."

The current debate on pacifism is larger than Oxford. In Europe, pacifist leaders are forces in the massive public demonstrations for peace. In the United States, traditional pacifist churches like the Quakers and Mennonites now see many of their positions shared by main-line Catholic and Protestant groups that until recently have been dead on their feet in protesting America's war preparedness.

Debates on pacifism, whether among Oxford's brainiest or when judges sentence the Berrigan brothers to another jail term for civil disobedience at an arms factory, tend to muddy rather than clear the waters. One of the newspapers, for example, reported that the Oxford speakers "exchanged heated views on whether pacifism or strength is more likely to preserve the peace."

Described that way, the pacifist position is already unfairly trapped. Pacifism is a form of strength. As taught and practiced by Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, and analyzed in the 20th century by Einstein, Schweitzer and Toynbee, pacifism is a moral force that uses such weapons as peaceful noncooperation against one's own militarist leaders, and organized nonviolent resistance against enemy leaders. It is neither passivity nor cowardice. It is not being a lamb among lions and it is not Utopianism.

We have trouble understanding pacifism because of unfamiliarity. In grammar school and high school history courses, our children are told more about the exploits of generals-- Grant, Lee, Pershing, MacArthur--than about the conquests of unarmed leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The textbooks glorify Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, Stonewall Jackson and Davy Crockett, but such peacemakers as Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Elihu Burritt, Jeanette Rankin, A. J. Muste, William Penn and Thomas Merton do not rate even footnote status.

Historical figures who think disputes among nations are best settled by weapons and violence are exalted, while those who think better of humanity--that reason, noncooperation and organized resistance can stop war --are seen as fools or dreamers.

Every school, beginning in first grade, should offer a peace studies course and give it a place in the curriculum along with science, math and language. This would at least be a tentative move toward the goal of giving pacifism the equal time it deserves.

Even then, someone well informed about the techniques and history of pacifism inevitably meets the so-called "real world" question of Hitler and the Jews. In an essay on pacifism, Dwight Macdonald wrote: "Pacifists are often asked: What would you have advised the Jews of Europe to have done after Hitler had conquered the continent-- to submit peacefully to the Nazis, or go along quietly to the gas chambers? The odd thing about this question is that those who ask it have forgotten that this is pretty much what most of the Jews of Europe did in reality, not because they were pacifists, for they weren't, but because they, like most people today, had become accustomed to obeying the authority of the state: that is, essentially, because they recognized the authority of force."

At Oxford, the opponents of pacifism equated it with appeasement. The distortion is as wrongheaded as the one often heard from unthinking pacifists: that anyone in the military is a warmonger. To get beyond this kind of sniping, a rephrasing of the issue is necessary: what is more likely to create peace, the strength of pacifism or the strength of armed might?

Believers in the latter have unpersuasive answers. An estimated $550 billion is spent annually by all nations on only the manufacture of weapons, but dozens of nations are in outright wars, and the rest are braced either to attack or be attacked. Where is the peace all their money is meant to buy? It's the opposite. "By their cost alone," the Vatican said to the United Nations in 1976, "armaments kill the poor by causing them to starve."

No such legacy of death is on the conscience of pacifists.