A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence | Sojourners

A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence

There are different ways to understand the gospel's call to peace- and that's a good thing.

IN THE LATE 1930s, a large swath of the American church was reluctant for the United States to become involved in another war in Europe. The memory of the Great War was too fresh; what had been intended to be “a war to end all wars,” a crusade for freedom and democracy, in hindsight just looked like senseless horror. Entire denominations committed to peace positions.

This pacifist sentiment troubled Reinhold Niebuhr, who was following the rise of Hitler and spoke out against the atrocities committed against Jews long before they had reached the national consciousness. So in 1940 Niebuhr penned an essay to rally what he saw as a disillusioned, passive church into taking concrete action for social justice. He titled the essay “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” and argued that in a world marred by sin, coercion and violence were sometimes necessary to pursue justice.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Niebuhr’s argument against pacifism won the day; U.S. churches lined up en masse to support the war effort. Since then, many Christians have taken it for granted that violence is an unfortunate but realistic necessity if we hope to bring justice in a world where injustice is so pervasive.

Yet a survey of 20th century theology shows that many Christians have grappled with violence, justice, and the gospel and arrived at conclusions quite different from Niebuhr—and from each other. These Christian witnesses for peace include familiar voices such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas, but also many less well-known voices, such as the ones listed below. Examined together, these eight perspectives show that Christian nonviolence isn’t a singular position, 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.

‘Realist’ Nonviolence
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861- 1918)
Key Work: A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917)

A Baptist theologian born to German parents in Rochester, N.Y., Rauschenbusch is best known for popularizing the “social gospel,” a movement among mainline Protestants that believed Christianity should address the social evils of the industrial age. Yet when he protested the U.S. entrance into World War I, Rauschenbusch was deserted by many of his liberal minister friends. Although Rauschenbusch believed violence was incompatible with Jesus’ teaching, his protest of the war was based more on his conclusion that national leaders used idealistic rhetoric to mask their true financial motivations for going to war. “This war trade is not for patriotism but for profit,” wrote Rauschenbusch in “Private Profit and the Nation’s Honor,” a co-authored open letter that named specific U.S. corporations profiting from the war. “Capitalism has often sacrificed the higher values of humanity to make big profits.”

Rauschenbusch’s revulsion to the war involved a number of factors, including concern for his German relatives; yet, by the time of his death, his anti-war stance was rigorous. In 1916, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a newly formed Christian peace organization (which is now interfaith), and in his most enduring work, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he wrote that “governments have in the past waged war for dynastic and class interests without consulting the people.” Thus, while Niebuhr appeals to the reality of sinfulness to justify war, Rauschenbusch cites the reality of human sin as a primary reason to oppose war: Though leaders might appeal to “higher values of humanity” to justify war, he explains, the temptation of power and money means that upholding these values is rarely the real motivation—or outcome—of war.

The Nonviolence of the Disinherited
Howard Thurman (1899-1981)
Key Work: Jesus and the Disinherited (1949)

Howard Thurman is best known as a leader of the civil rights movement and a personal mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1925, Thurman became the first black board member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, founder and co-pastor of the first major interracial church in the United States, and a personal friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Yet Thurman never forgot the stories of slavery that his grandmother—herself a former slave—taught him as a child.

Whereas Rauschenbusch’s pacifism is rooted in his analysis of those in power, in Jesus and the Disinherited Thurman advocates nonviolence as a strategy of survival for the powerless. The oppressed, explains Thurman, have developed a number of survival mechanisms, including fear, deception, and hatred toward their oppressors. While these techniques work in the short run, they ultimately dehumanize the oppressed and thus play into the goals of the oppressors.

Thurman argues that “the religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: ‘Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.’” For Thurman, Jesus’ message of nonviolent enemy love is not only moral, but pragmatic—the most effective tool available to the oppressed for confronting and reconciling with their oppressors.

The Nonviolence of Christian Discipleship
André and Magda Trocmé (1901- 1971, 1901-1996)
Key Work: Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution (1961)

André and Magda Trocmé were designated by Israel’s Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the Nations” for their heroic resistance to the Vichy regime and the Nazis during World War II. Under the leadership of the Trocmés, the French Reformed Church that André pastored established safe houses to hide Jews and other refugees. When André was threatened by the Vichy government for not turning over Jews—numbering in the thousands—he responded, “We do not know what a Jew is; we only know people.”

In Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, André explains that Jesus could have aligned with any of the competing political approaches of his day: the collaborators (Herodians, Sadducees), the isolationists (Essenes, Pharisees), or the resistance (Zealots). Jesus was most tempted by the Zealot option, argues Trocmé, so that “it was only after an intense inner struggle, after the genuine moral agony at Gethsemane, that Jesus finally rejected resorting to violence.” But Jesus also rejected isolationism, pointed out Trocmé. Instead, “Jesus actually engaged in a kind of civil disobedience, whereby he and his disciples systematically violated those traditions that only helped to oppress the people.” Jesus’ death on the cross offers a model for a third way between withdrawal and violent resistance, a model that Christians are called to emulate—as the Trocmés did with their own lives.

Liberationist Nonviolence
Hélder Câmara (1909- 1999)
Key Work: Spiral of Violence (1971)

Hélder Câmara is known as the “bishop of the slums” for his work among the poor of Brazil as an auxiliary bishop, and later, archbishop, during Brazil’s brutal—U.S. supported—military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Although Dom Hélder did not consider himself a radical, he was viewed as such by the government and at times by his own Catholic Church for speaking on behalf of the oppressed. Nevertheless, Câmara became a key voice in the then-burgeoning Latin American liberation theology movement. In 2015, the Vatican granted permission to begin the process that could lead to Câmara’s beatification and canonization.

Câmara’s short book Spiral of Violence is dedicated to the memory of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Câmara describes three kinds of violence: the established violence of injustice (violence No. 1), violent revolt of the oppressed or youth fighting for a more just world (violence No. 2), and the repressive violence of governmental authorities to quell revolution (violence No. 3). Although Câmara does not condemn those who are compelled to respond to oppression with violent revolt, he argues that doing so only perpetuates the spiral of violence and that “the only true answer to violence is to have the courage to face the injustices which constitute violence No. 1.” Unlike Trocmé, who explicitly contrasted the religiously motivated nonviolence of the Christian disciple with the secular nonviolent techniques of Gandhi, Câmara endorses Gandhi as a “prophet” who broke the cycle of violence by utilizing “liberating moral pressure.”

Nonviolence as Resistance to Death
William Stringfellow (1928-1985)
Key Work: An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973)

William Stringfellow was recently described by theologian Myles Werntz as “one of the most enigmatic theologians of his generation” who was “read widely in his own day but largely neglected in our own.” A lawyer by training and a self-studied lay theologian with a tenuous relationship with the Episcopal Church, Stringfellow addressed some of the major moral issues of his day—racism, sexism, poverty, capitalism, war—with theological creativity, incisive political analysis, and tireless activism.

Whereas the Trocmés derived their nonviolent theology from the gospels, Stringfellow’s nonviolent theology derives largely from the apostle Paul’s language of the “principalities and powers” as well as from the book of Revelation. In his polemical work An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Stringfellow describes U.S. society as inextricably committed to ideologies of death, a society like Babylon that does not merely commit acts of violence but “is violence.” Thus, Stringfellow argues that Christians should not try to save America but rather live a life of resistance to its culture of violence. Citing the case of Bonhoeffer, Stringfellow, like Câmara, does not rule out the possibility of violent resistance, but argues that Christian resistance comes through practicing the nonviolent gifts of the Spirit: speaking the truth, living humanly, and thereby exposing and rebuking the powers of death.

Nonviolence of Mystical Radicalism
Dorothee Sölle (1929- 2003)
Key Work: The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (1997)

Dorothee Sölle was a German Protestant theologian, poet, activist, and later liberationist, feminist, and mystic. During World War II, her family hid a Jewish friend in their attic for six weeks, and Sölle’s early work marked an attempt at post-Auschwitz theology, rejecting traditional concepts of divine omnipotence in favor of a God who suffers with humanity. In 1975, Sölle accepted an appointment at Union Theological Seminary in New York where she controversially referred to the policies of the 1980s Religious Right as “Christofascism.”

Sölle was every bit as radical in her resistance as Stringfellow, but as she writes in her magnum opus, The Silent Cry, her nonviolent theology was rooted in the deep tradition of Christian mysticism, including her contemporaries Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Thurman, and King. “To exist free of violence,” she writes, “means to think and act with other living beings in a common life. ... It is the mysticism of being at one with all that lives.” Such mysticism does not deny the existence of evil or enemies, but it does acknowledge that the difference between oneself and one’s enemies is not absolute—and certainly not absolute enough to justify their destruction.

Nonviolence as Communal Practice
Lisa Sowle Cahill (1948- )
Key Work: Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (1994)

Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology at Boston College. A Catholic moral theologian, Cahill has written widely on contemporary social issues, especially bioethics and the ethics of sex and gender, having served as president of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society of America.

In Love Your Enemies, Cahill traces the historical development of Christian pacifism and just war theory, arguing that these two traditions operate according to different logics. While Christian pacifism and just war theory both wrestle with the “problem of reconciling Christian discipleship with public responsibility” and share a presumption against violence, Cahill argues that just war theory tends to function according to a rules-based approach, and its advocates sometimes accuse pacifists of refusing to make any exceptions to the rule against taking life. In Cahill’s account, however, pacifism is not based on rules but on “the simple conviction that violence is just not consistent with the sort of person Jesus is or the life he lived, a life the discipleship community shares.” As with the Trocmés and Stringfellow, so too for Cahill, “the nonviolence of the kingdom of Jesus is not presented in the Bible as an absolute ethical system, but as a calling, as conversion, and even as beatitude.” While just war theory may have some usefulness in guiding wider society, concedes Cahill, nonviolence is the natural outflowing of an alternative Christian society with communal practices of mercy, compassion, and empathy.

Resistance to Intimate and Societal Violence
Traci C. West (1959- )
Key Work: Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (1999)

A professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University Theological School in Madison, N.J., Traci C. West is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and a member of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church. She writes frequently on issues related to race, gender, sexuality, marriage equality, and violence against women.

In Wounds of the Spirit, West offers a challenge to Christian ethicists, especially those who write on violence: “We must measure Christian ethics by the extent to which its rhetoric on violence is applicable to the circumstances of women’s lives. This is the proper test of the viability and adequacy of its moral prescriptions.” Thus, instead of beginning with issues of pacifism and just war or questions of geopolitical violence, West begins with the experiences of women of color and the issues of intimate and societal violence. And rather than advocating nonviolence per se, West calls for the development of “an ethic of resisting violence against women.” Such resistance, argues West, might take a multitude of individual and communal forms, including the encouragement of female defiance, the creation of rituals within the church that denounce male violence and domination, and the investment of political energy toward public disavowal of “the varied expressions of white supremacy, male dominance, and intimate violence.” The latter would entail confronting “the deceit and greed” of “the United States and its Western European allies” whose “life-threatening practices” are especially lethal to the poor in other parts of the world—an approach similar to the nonviolent realism of Rauschenbusch, though with an entirely different starting point.

This appears in the January 2016 issue of Sojourners
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