What Christian Ethics Demands, But Most Christians Have Yet to Seriously Try

By Ron Sider 1-28-2015
Banksy graffiti piece: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com
Banksy graffiti piece: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com

What good would it do for three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber dinghy to paddle into the path of a Pakistani steamship? For a tiny fishing boat with unarmed, praying Americans aboard to sail toward an American battleship threatening Nicaragua? For an 80-year-old lady in a wheelchair to stop in front of advancing Filipino tanks? Or for nonviolent protesters to defy the communist rulers of the Soviet Empire?

Soviet communism collapsed. The tanks stopped and a nonviolent revolution succeeded. The American battleship left and the threat of invasion faded. And the U.S. shipment of arms to Pakistan stopped.

Those are just a few of the many dramatic successes of nonviolent confrontation in the last several decades. Everyone, of course, knows how Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution eventually defeated the British Empire and – as the powerful film Selma now reminds us – Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful civil rights crusade changed American history. There have been scores upon scores of instances of nonviolent victories over dictatorship and oppression in the last 50-plus years. In fact, Dr. Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of nonviolence today, has said that the later 20th century saw a remarkable expansion of the substitution of nonviolent struggle for violence. More recent scholarship has not only confirmed Sharp’s comment; it has also shown that nonviolent revolutions against injustice and dictatorship are actually more successful than violent campaigns.

In my new book, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos Press, 2015), I analyze many of the most successful nonviolent campaigns in the last few decades to better understand their stunning victories. Frequently, nonviolent efforts work better both in the sense that fewer people die and also that they more often succeed. Of India’s 300 million people at the time, only 1 in 400,000 died in their successful nonviolent independence campaign against the British Empire. On the other hand, of Algeria’s 10 million people, 1 in 10 died in their violent revolution against the French. After analyzing all the known cases (323!) of major armed and unarmed insurrection from 1900-2006, scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan concluded, “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts” (Why Civil Resistance Works, p. 7).

Surely these facts suggest a crucial area of urgent exploration in the 21st century. The 20th century was the most bloody in human history. One scholar estimates that 86 million people died in wars fought between 1900 and 1989. That means 2,500 people every day, 100 people every hour, for 90 years. From the ordinary layperson to the most highly placed general, it is obvious that the search for peaceful alternatives is a practical necessity.

It is also a moral demand. Christians in the Just War tradition (a majority since the fourth century) have always argued that killing must be a last resort. All realistic alternatives must be tried before one resorts to war. After a century where Gandhi, King, and a host of others demonstrated that nonviolent action works, how can Christians in the Just War tradition claim that the violence they justify is truly a last resort until they have invested billions and trained tens of thousands of people in a powerful, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives?

Pacifists have long claimed that there is an alternative to violence. How can their words have integrity unless they are ready to risk death in a massive nonviolent confrontation with the bullies and tyrants that swagger through human history?

In short, the concrete victories of modern nonviolent campaigns, the devastating destruction of ongoing violent campaigns, and the moral demands of Christian faith all focus a clear imperative. It is time for the Christian church – indeed all people of faith – to explore, in a more sustained and sophisticated way than ever before in human history, what can be done nonviolently.

That does not mean that one must be a pacifist to engage in serious exploration of the possibilities of nonviolence. One can conclude reluctantly that we still must possess lethal weapons and at the same time fervently desire to substitute nonviolent for violent strategies wherever possible. The old debate between pacifists and Just War theorists need not be settled for both to join together in a massive, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolence. That has never happened before in history.

More and more top Christian leaders, denominations and councils are calling for a vast new exploration of what can be accomplished through nonviolent action. The National Association of Evangelicals in the USA, Pope John Paul II, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity have all urged this expanded investigation.

Groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International have demonstrated that even small groups of nonviolent international accompaniers can provide important protection to threatened local justice advocates. When right-wing death squads started killing the leaders of a parents group (GAM) that emerged in Guatemala to protest the disappearance of their children working for justice for the poor, Peace Brigades decided to send round the clock international escorts. After they arrived, no more GAM board members were killed.

We could vastly expand the number of such international escort teams. A very few Christian Peacemaker Teams have helped protect Palestinians in the West Bank. But prominent Christian Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab actually called — in vain — for a thousand such teams.

I believe the time is ripe for a broad group of Christian leaders to summon all parts of the Christian church to undertake a two-year exploration of how Christians could invest billions of dollars and train thousands of nonviolent activists to intervene peacefully in scores of violent situations around the world. Perhaps the Sojourners circle of leaders could be the catalyst to make that happen.

Unless we do something of that sort, Christians — both Just War and pacifist — blatantly defy their own explicit teaching. Just War Christians have always claimed that war must be a last resort. Before Christians dare go to war, they must have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives. But how can contemporary Just War Christians claim that they have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives in the face of two hard facts: 1) even without much preparation, nonviolent approaches have worked again and again in the last 50 years; 2) we have never systematically trained thousands of our people to explore the full possibilities of nonviolence in a serious, sustained way. In order to engage in a large-scale test of nonviolence, Just War Christians do not have to believe that nonviolence will always prevent war. All they must do is implement their own rule that war must be a last resort.

Pacifists have long claimed that they have an alternative to war. But that claim remains empty unless they are willing to risk death, as soldiers do, to stop injustice and bring peace.

The theological/ethical commitments of both Just War and pacifist Christians demand that they invest serious time and resources in sustained nonviolent peacemaking. Unless they do, they should admit to the world that they never meant what they said.

Ron Sider is an Evangelical Theologian at Palmer Theological Seminary, and the author of the forthcoming Nonviolence Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Christians Have Never Really Tried.

Image: Banksy graffiti piece: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"What Christian Ethics Demands, But Most Christians Have Yet to Seriously Try"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines

Must Reads

Subscribe