What Does ‘Christian Nonviolence’ Actually Mean? | Sojourners

What Does ‘Christian Nonviolence’ Actually Mean?

The cover of "A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence" features a clenched hand holding an olive branch.
A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, by David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz, will be released in February 2022.

For most folks, Christian nonviolence evokes unified images of civil rights marches, Vietnam War resisters, and bumper stickers calling us to “turn the other cheek” or “beat swords into plowshares.”

But as David Cramer wrote in his 2016 Sojourners article, “A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence,” Christian nonviolence isn’t a single school of thought, “but rather a rich conversation wrestling with what it means to live out the biblical call to justice amid the complexities of ever-changing political, social, and moral situations.”

Now, six years later, Cramer, an Anabaptist pastor and theologian, and Myles Werntz, an ethicist and theologian at Abilene Christian University, are releasing a new book by the same name — A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence — in February 2022.

In their book, they identify eight different “streams” of Christian nonviolence, including those who see nonviolence as a political strategy, those who see it as a way for oppressed people to break cycles of violence, and those who see nonviolence as a resistance of death — with each viewpoint representing a uniquely Christian perspective. They include thinkers like Howard Thurman and Thomas Merton, who represent what the authors call the “Nonviolence of Christian Mysticism,” and the fifteen Anabaptist and Mennonite women who helped develop “Christian Antiviolence” — a response to the failures of nonviolent theologians to connect the violence of war and genocide to gendered and sexualized violence.

These different streams of Christian nonviolence are not rigid boundaries nor strict descriptions, the authors say, but rather a guide to exploring the distinctions and disagreements among Christians’ nonviolent practice and ideology. Figures in one stream might influence the leaders of another — and some might arguably belong in more than one stream.

The book offers an entry point for anyone who wants to consider the rich and varied tradition of Christians who refuse violence. And it provides readers with a chance to weigh each stream’s motivations and histories in contrast with others.

Werntz and Cramer sat with Sojourners assistant news editor, Mitchell Atencio, in December 2021 to discuss the book, its subjects, and whether blowing up an oil pipeline counts as nonviolent resistance.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How do you hope people will apply what they learn in the book in their own lives?

Myles Werntz: We hope that people come away with a greater sense of the breadth of nonviolence within Christianity and that nonviolence touches on what it is to be a disciple of Jesus at various points. It’s not only politics, not only the way that we think about gender and sexuality, not only inner mystical experiences — it's all of those things together. It's our relationships with our neighbors, the way in which we think about art, the internal life of church — it’s the way that we think about our relationship to God.

David Cramer: In the first part of the 21st century a lot of discussions on nonviolence focused on North American, white, male theologians. There can be an impression of nonviolence that it's a perspective of a majority community foisted onto other communities.

And we are both white male, North American theologians, but what we tried to do was show that nonviolence arises from all kinds of different contexts. We look at Latin American liberation theology, we look at the civil rights movement — which would be more well known to people — and we look at even writings in the ’70s and ’80s around sexualized violence from feminist scholars that are looking at forms of resistance to violence that we might not often think about as a form of nonviolence.

We hope to show, as Myles said, the breadth of nonviolence transcends any one religious community, theological tradition, or sociopolitical perspective.

How did you each get interested in nonviolence, would you both describe your theologics and ethics as nonviolent?

David Cramer: My story started around 9/11. I was a freshman in college and grew up in an evangelical tradition that wouldn't have emphasized pacifism or nonviolence. But in the years after 9/11, I read my way into Anabaptist theology. Much to my surprise, a couple of years into seminary I realized, “I’m becoming Anabaptist,” and I saw how all the pieces of my Christian upbringing found coherence in a nonviolent approach to my faith. It wasn't necessarily an ethical add-on as much as it was a way of conceiving of Christianity that is best lived out in a life that strives toward nonviolence. I don't know that I could say “I'm nonviolent,” because I think so much of our lives are wrapped up in Empire and implicated in so many forms of violence.

There might be an analogy with racism: If somebody says, are you racist or not? Saying “no” probably indicates you haven't done enough thinking about it, but if you answer that you’re trying to commit your life to anti-racism, that shows that you're making an active commitment in that direction. The same could be said for nonviolence: Our lives are inextricably linked to our society, which is a violent society, but trying to live our lives in such a way that resists that — in appropriate ways — exemplifies the virtue of nonviolence.

Myles Werntz: My story is very similar to David’s. I was in seminary in 2001 and was in an early morning class when 9/11 happened. A secretary came in and told us to turn on the news and we just stood there watching it for probably an hour and a half.

I remember leaving the building that morning. And, almost out of nowhere, I heard the words of the Sermon on the Mount: “forgive your enemies.” I wasn’t consciously searching out for some sort of theological response to what I had just witnessed, but it seemed like this inescapable tension had just shown up that I had never really considered before. There was a real tension between Jesus’ call to love our enemies and the violence that I had just witnessed on television. So that for me became part of a much larger search for how to bring those two things together. It became the subject of my dissertation and a lot of projects since then, trying to navigate: What does it mean to be a Christian in a world which is saturated in violence? And what does this pursuit of nonviolence have to do with being a Christian?

In the book, you note the different ways each stream defines violence, but there’s not one sole definition. Why is it so hard to define violence?

Myles Werntz: My sense is that the definition or the conception of violence develops over the 20th century, and it begins primarily with discussions about international conflict, as if violence and war are something which happen “out there,” but are not something that happen in the everyday seams of our lives. As the century wears on, people become more aware that violence is not something that just breaks out in terms of war, but it's something that affects many of the aspects of our ordinary lives.

That's where you start to get thinkers, looking at how poverty is a form of violence, or how our domestic relationships are infected with violence, or how social structures perpetuate violence. It begins in one place, but then expands very quickly into this acknowledgement that violence is ubiquitous.

David Cramer: There can be a resistance to that: If everything is violence, then nothing’s violence anymore. But I think instead [by] leaning in and saying “violence is such a bigger deal than we understood,” nonviolence also needs to offer a more holistic response.

You end the book talking about climate change — a slow violence” as it's been called. In his book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, ecologist Andreas Malm argues that sabotage — actions that destroy financial investments in property but don't harm individuals — is necessary to avert climate catastrophe. He argues that we should be slashing the tires of gas guzzling SUVs, and blowing up oil pipelines so that they can't continue causing ecological destruction.

But some may say that if you blow up the pipeline and hundreds of people are suddenly out of work and can't provide for their family, there's a psychological and material violence done to them. How might different streams of Christian nonviolence answer this question: Is blowing up a pipeline nonviolent action?

Myles Werntz: One of the streams that we discussed is apocalyptic nonviolence — a variety that shows up around the time of the Vietnam War. There’s a figure, William Stringfellow, that we discuss in the book. And one of the linchpins of the apocalyptic form of nonviolence is clarifying what the enemy is. The enemy for apocalyptic nonviolence is death itself. And death proliferates in a variety of forms and in a variety of ways, so the aim of nonviolence is to extricate creation itself from the machinations of death that are operational in structures and the way that we think about the world.

So apocalyptic nonviolence struggles against these “emissaries of death.” In the era of the Vietnam War, these folks began to do things like breaking into draft offices and burning draft cards, or climbing over fences at nuclear installations and symbolically beating on warheads with hammers.

The ethos there is that if you want to be serious about nonviolence, you have to be serious about rooting out those elements of our common life that are contributing to violence. It's a literal “beating swords into plowshares” mentality.

With respect to this question of blowing up the pipeline: I think this is something that they would be amenable to. They would see [a pipeline] as something which is contributing to death running amok within the world.

The question that you bring up is the right one. And this is where apocalyptic and liberationists would have to have some hard conversations. Because on the one hand you're eliminating something which is causing death and destruction, but you're doing it in a way which really does materially impact the livelihood of people, so it exacerbates a form of poverty on the other.

So that's where some of these tensions are. How do we go forward? If we agree that this pipeline is causing damage, then there's resources within the book for kind of teasing out what would be the prudential way forward? If we agree that this is destructive to the world and this needs to be dealt with, how do we go about this? And you have figures in the book that might take a different approach to actively opposing the presence of something in the world that is causing death.

David Cramer: Another stream we talked about in the book is realist nonviolence. Realists are drawing from the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, and others from the 20th century, but taking it in a nonviolent direction. One of the insights that realists provide is that we are always implicated. We're always compromised and there are always ambiguities.

So seeking peace or acting nonviolently doesn’t avoid conflict — there’s always going to be conflict in the pursuit of God’s justice and God's shalom. I won’t go on record answering your question directly, other than just to say that I don’t think conflict is the same thing as violence. And I don’t think destruction of property is necessarily the same thing as violence either.

What would a nonviolent state look like? Is a nonviolent state possible?

David Cramer: The advocates within some forms of nonviolence would be happy to say, “Christians are called to nonviolence, the world is not.” Nonviolence of Christian discipleship, the first stream we talk about [in the book], might try to witness to the state or influence the state in certain ways, but they're going to accept, by and large, that nonviolence is a practice for Christians to show how we're distinct from the world, where we have allegiance to a different kingdom.

A contemporary figure like Greg Boyd would basically say nonviolence has nothing to do with the state, more or less, I'm paraphrasing there. They posit that the state is going to be the state, the world is going to be the world, and Christians are called to live differently.

But in other traditions, realists like Duane Friesen, a Mennonite ethicist, are trying to envision a world without war. On his account, sin is embedded within our world, but sin manifests itself differently under different conditions. So the idea that war or violence is necessary is basically saying we accept the conditions in our society that cause war to be a necessity. So his project says: “Let’s actually look at those concrete conditions that caused us to think war is necessary, and see if there’s things we can do to address those [conditions] besides through violence.”

I’ve seen a lot of good work being done right now on police abolition, to bring back your question of how this ties in with racism, and looking at forms of community care that don't necessitate violence in the way that our current policing system does.

I don’t necessarily have the utopian vision of a society or completely eliminating violence, but I do think there are concrete steps we can take in that direction to make our society less violent.

Myles Werntz: Some thinkers posit that the state has a monopoly on violence, that the state can legitimately exercise the sword in the way that private citizens are unable to — so to be a “state” is to hold the sword. But, that assumes that violence is just a necessary feature of not only international relations, but also our social relations.

It assumes that ultimately all of our interactions are only possible because there is, enough steps back, somebody with a gun that's mandating that everybody get along well, because if you don't then the hammer's going to drop. That’s the vision of the world in which violence is a necessity for a common life to occur.

David Cramer: If I can get a little "Jesus-y" for a minute. I think he presents one of the best visions of what that kind of society could look like in Luke 4, when he declares this Jubilee vision of what the kingdom is going to look like: Debts are forgiven, people who are incarcerated are set free, the poor are cared for and provided means for living. How can we take steps toward that vision, that resonates throughout scripture — it’s found in Deuteronomy, it’s found in Isaiah, and it’s found in Luke — would be a good place to start.

You wrote in the intro that you didn't intend to offer an apologetic or convince anyone to become a pacifist, and quoting from the book here, you said “arguments for and against rarely change the mind of the one holding the contrary view.” In your experience, what does change minds?

Myles Werntz: The impetus for writing this book was two-fold. One was that I had been on a couple of panels that were the kind of the stereotypical, “just war/pacifism” kinds of panels. And at the end of the day, neither side was really persuaded by the arguments of the others.

What does persuade people is the coherence of a life. Seeing the ways in which those convictions bear themselves in a coherent way across spirituality, across the way that we love our neighbors, across our convictions around how we eat, how we interact with one another, how we think about our relationships as the body of Christ, and all of these things. I think those are the kinds of things that help people to see that the Sermon on the Mount is not simply an eschatological ideal, but it is something that Jesus calls his disciples to in the present.

One of the most challenging critiques of nonviolence, for me, has been reading James Cone. He writes about how he sees nonviolent advocates as asking the oppressed to take on the burden of violence entirely, rather than it being spread across communities. Liberation theologians are often viewed as associated with revolution and sometimes violent, or at least willing-to-be-violent, revolution. How did the chapter on liberationist nonviolence develop?

David Cramer: I think liberation theology — whether it’s Black liberation, Latin American liberation, or feminist liberation — has been pigeonholed as necessitating violence in ways that other theologies haven’t been. I have some hypotheses about why that might be, that is, if this theology feels dangerous, then we don't engage with it. But every theological tradition is going to have some counter voices. There is a whole tradition of nonviolence within Latin American liberation theology that often gets overlooked. Some of the councils of the Catholic bishops of the ’60s and ’70s are reflecting deeply on nonviolence as integral to liberation, so it seems pretty deeply embedded within that tradition.

You have figures like Hélder Câmara, who was very influential in liberation, as a committed pacifist himself. And he actually viewed nonviolence as a way of breaking the cycle of violence. And I don't think it necessarily was the oppressed community taking on the violence; it was a way of trying to break free of the cycle of violence.

Although in the short run he may have said to the oppressed people, “Yes, you need to be the one to take the first step, which may involve taking on the initial kind of backlash.” Cone’s probably right about the fact that the community that says, “we are not going to respond violently,” may be the one that takes the brunt of it initially, but I think the long game is [nonviolence] is gonna be the way toward freedom or liberation.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story quoted Cramer as saying “liberationist nonviolence … has been pigeonholed as necessitating violence.” Cramer later clarified that he intended to say “liberation theology,” not “liberationist nonviolence.” The article was updated at 10:30 a.m., Jan. 27, 2022.