Andrew Klager, who lives in British Columbia, Canada, is director of the Institute for Religion, Peace, and Justice at St. Stephen’s University.

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Is Nonviolence Naive?

by Andrew Klager 05-30-2018
...and other questions about Jesus' most controversial teachings.

Illustration by Craig Frazier

"NONVIOLENCE" EVOKES IMAGES of well-known protests—Gandhi’s Salt March, Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington—and conveniently flimsy stereotypes: anarchist hippies, utopian peaceniks, futile protesters. The reality is more complex.

Christian nonviolence adds the further complexity of a shockingly irregular king who was enthroned on a Roman cross. If secular nonviolence seems naive, Christian nonviolence is downright scandalous.

What counts as violence?

Violence is any action that undermines the dignity of another human being, whether direct, structural, or institutional. This can be emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical abuse; actions that dehumanize the Other; forms of injustice, oppression, or marginalization; and war, genocide, mob violence, and armed insurrection. But violence is not the same as conflict. Conflict provides the space to air grievances and expose injustice; nonviolence entails ending conflict by eroding its causes without succumbing to the allure of violence. Nonviolence requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it, and to make it a link in the chain of a new process,” explained Pope Francis.

Does nonviolence mean passive withdrawal from conflict?

Practitioners of nonviolence do not withdraw from conflict; they face it with courage and creativity. A call to alleviate injustice propels practitioners of nonviolence from the sidelines to active solidarity with and participation in the struggles for human dignity. This intentional involvement provides practitioners front-row engagement with injustice, oppression, and exploitation that undercuts any naiveté about the challenges our world faces.

How do we engage with conflict nonviolently?

When we think about nonviolence, we often picture mass demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, labor strikes, boycotts, and other forms of noncooperation—modes of engagement that burrow into our collective consciousness by their deliberate desire to get our attention.

But the tools of nonviolence also include a broad range of strategic and collaborative initiatives, customized to particular violent conflicts: problem-solving workshops that provide a shared space for grassroots actors, middle-range community leaders, and high-level officials to address real needs and grievances; shared actions between enemy factions to encourage humanization and mutual personal investment in addressing the root causes of violent conflict; disruptive measures that include intercepting arms transfers and cutting off financial resources that fund extremist violence; trauma healing and restorative justice initiatives that promote transformation and reconciliation; and development projects that address physical needs to create the conditions that build relationships and discourage conflict.