Peace Through (Nonviolent) Strength

By Rose Marie Berger 03-03-2011

Erica Chenoweth directs Wesleyan University's program on terrorism and insurgency research, which she established in 2008. Her work will be featured in the upcoming May issue of Sojourners magazine. Erica is doing innovative research on the strategic effectiveness of civil resistance and nonviolent revolution. Recently, she wrote a post at Monkey Cage on why traditional "peace and security" academic programs should include nonviolence and civil resistance tactics as part of their programs. "It is time for security studies to take nonviolent conflict seriously," writes Chenoweth, "and to incorporate such episodes and their dynamics into the canonical literature." Here's an excerpt:

I would argue that nonviolent mass movements are actually superior at undermining regime opponents through asymmetric approaches. This is not because of the "moral high ground," but rather because their reliance on nonviolent resistance confounds their opponents, whose usual response to internal challenge is to use force. As Qaddafi's response to the Libyan uprising shows, many dictators are willing to use force against nonviolent protestors; however, this is seldom costless for these dictators. They usually pay a major price in the form of loyalty shifts among security forces or civilian bureaucrats, who are more likely to defect to a nonviolent opposition -- especially one that appears to represent diverse constituencies within the country -- than to a violent campaign, where their survival is not assured. This may be because violence causes the opponent to cohere and unite. Thus, violent movements play to the regime's strengths, whether they use indirect or direct approaches.

The study and practice of nonviolence must be approached from several angles -- particularly the tactical, practical, philosophical, and spiritual. As Christians we root ourselves in the spiritual commitment to nonviolence to which we have been invited through the cross of Christ. This does not mean that "having a moral Christian high ground" automatically delivers temporal victory. It may not.

Chenoweth's research looks at civil resistance from a tactical and practical perspective, not a philosophical or spiritual one. Her work allows for Christians to join our deep faith commitment with strategic effectiveness in serving the causes of God's call for justice. "Nonviolent resistance is here to stay," says Chenoweth. Christian's faith bear forward the ancient story of peace and nonviolence and respect for human dignity in our very bones. It is our scripture. The challenge before us is to envelope the tactics and practices of nonviolence in a vibrant theological hope. How this will be done is a critical topic of conversation from Cairo to Madison. Read more from Erica Chenoweth in the upcoming May issue of Sojourners.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at She's the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood available at

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