Is Nonviolence Naive? | Sojourners

Is Nonviolence Naive?

...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.

All this is just scratching the surface, but these methods insist that violence, which starts a cycle of retribution, can’t end it. The cause can’t also be the solution.

What makes nonviolence Christian?

Jesus, the author of Christian nonviolence, presents us with a choice between the counterintuitive, life-giving behavior of the kingdom of God—humility, compassion, and unity—and the “natural,” uninspiring logic of empire: violence, exploitation, and competition.

Jesus makes it clear that we can’t serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Christian nonviolence begins by pledging allegiance to a king who was put on a Roman cross rather than a throne. It’s an upside-down kingdom whose constitution is the Sermon on the Mount and whose manifesto is the Beatitudes.

“You just need to look at what the gospel asks, and what war does,” Dorothy Day observed. “The gospel asks that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, visit the prisoner, and perform works of mercy. War does all the opposite. It makes my neighbor hungry, thirsty, homeless, a prisoner, and sick. The gospel asks us to take up our cross. War asks us to lay the cross of suffering on others.” Christian nonviolence relies on the promises of a God who understands that exposing the myth of redemptive violence might mean a life of suffering rather than inflicting suffering on others (1 Peter 2:21; Hebrews 13:12–14).

Is Christian nonviolence about doing what works or doing what’s right?

Doing what works and doing what’s right often overlap, but Christian nonviolence is quick to smash the idol of results. “We Westerners pride ourselves on results, effectiveness, and efficiency,” wrote Catholic peace advocate John Dear. “The entire culture of North America is built around the principle of achieving success.” But as Thomas Merton advised peace activist Jim Forest: “Do not depend on the hope of results. ... As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”

But since Christians are called to do justice, don’t we have a responsibility to be as effective as possible?

Yes, definitely! Results shouldn’t be idolized as an end in and of themselves. Just as the failure of the cross by the world’s standards was followed by the victory of resurrection, there is still a confidence that doing what’s right will ultimately be what works.

Embedded in doing what’s right is a psychological means of awakening and influencing the true self deep inside our enemies by creating a positive cognitive dissonance. “The purpose of nonviolence,” activist and writer Jim Douglass observed, is “to persuade the aggressor to recognize in his [or her] victim the humanity they have in common, which when recognized fully makes violence impossible.”

Think about the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus instructs us to reconcile with those who anger us, avoid violently resisting an evildoer, give more than what was stolen, offer the other cheek, go the second mile, love our enemies, and pray for our persecutors. Though counterintuitive, these commandments are often effective ways to disorient the recipients of our behavior. Instead of inviting retaliation, these actions say: “If you can’t acknowledge my dignity, I’ll take the responsibility to acknowledge yours.”

That sounds pretty idealistic; does it actually work?

Nonviolent peacebuilders are resolutely pragmatic and science-based, taking and recommending measured responses that consider every conceivable factor, stakeholder, and repercussion. Research by political scientist Erica Chenoweth has shown that, during the 20th century, acts of nonviolent civil resistance were twice as successful in achieving political and socio-economic objectives as acts of violent intervention.

Nonviolence requires creativity rather than laziness, wisdom rather than impulsiveness, maturity rather than bravado, courage rather than fear. Consider the Otpor (“resistance”) Movement in Serbia, that used street theater and other nonviolent tactics to overthrow Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. Or the Catholic bishops in South Sudan who invited armed factions, opposition leaders, and government agents to dialogue in a neutral forum. Or CoMadres, the committee of mothers and relatives of those incarcerated during El Salvador’s civil war that spread pamphlets and occupied a government building to pressure the Salvadoran government to release its political prisoners. Or Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a movement whose tactics included a sex strike and led to the end of the second Liberian civil war in 2003 and the election of the country’s first female head of state. Even the Nazis gave in to the women of the Rosenstrasse protest whose tactics secured the release of their Jewish husbands and loved ones who they feared were about to be sent to death camps.

Despite these examples, we’re still far too ready to cheer on knee-jerk violent means to achieving goals. “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries,” said historian Theodore Roszak.

What about when limited use of violence could save lives?

“War is impatience,” wrote theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Rather than indulge in quick solutions that produce unstable results, Christian nonviolence takes a long-term approach to the transformation of violent conflict. The so-called “collateral damage” of military munitions—the unintended victims—are the same people with whom practitioners of nonviolence engage to build peace and seek reconciliation. Whereas military interventions leave no room for human transformation, Christian nonviolence agrees with the one who preached that none of God’s creation is beyond the re-creation of the Creator.

Conflict transformation recognizes that the type of cycle we want depends on the type of fuel we use to propel it. Even if violence seems to “work”—that is, stop more violence with less violence, or prevent a larger body count with a smaller body count—this is always temporary. Violence cannot disrupt a cycle of violence.

Instead, we aim to replace the cycle of violence with a cycle of nonviolence. Acting nonviolently disrupts the cycle of violence. “Despite recent scholarship demonstrating the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance,” wrote political scientist Molly Wallace, “when faced with a brutal or blatantly unjust opponent, many people are inclined to believe that only violence will bring about needed change or be able to protect and defend one’s community.” Antifa groups, who do not rule out engaging in violent confrontations to fight fascism, are a contemporary example of this logic—and its counterproductive effects. Not only does the presence of a “violent flank” in a nonviolent movement “provide necessary or further justification for government security forces to fire on protesters,” explained Wallace, but it further enflames the energy of “non-state groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, mobilizing more recruits and ultimately increasing the vulnerability of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and the marginalized and targeted communities whom they wish to defend.”

Nonviolence not only removes opponents’ incentive, it initiates a new cycle of love, hope, compassion, selflessness, mercy, empathy, and mutual altruism that renders violence incomprehensible and unattractive.

If Christian nonviolence leads to suffering, what hope can it give to those who are already suffering?

By choosing to accept suffering (1 Peter 2:21) rather than multiply the suffering of others, we follow the example of Jesus and refuse to fuel the cycle of violence. “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.”

Jesus refused to use evil methods to confront evil in the world. He had the option of calling on 12 legions of angels or allowing Peter to feebly hack at the Roman soldiers, but Jesus subverted the Zealots’ methods of violent insurrection—and the exclusivist “us vs. them” narrative on which it depended. Jesus also rejected the idea of a military messiah who would crush the brutal oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus exemplified creative nonviolent conflict resolution (as he did when he prevented the stoning of the adulteress in John 8:1-11) and forgiveness (as he did toward his own killers as he hung on the cross in Luke 23:34) en route to conquering through his resurrection that which violence produces, death.

But this does not mean we seek out suffering as a goal. Suffering is the by-product of a fallen, oppressive, violent world; when we choose to accept suffering, we participate in a form of dramatized truth-telling that exposes violence—much like the cross. Though we may choose to accept suffering in the interim, nonviolence is ultimately about undermining violence, relieving us of our own suffering that the violence of others engenders.

This also means we cannot prescribe this suffering for others. Participation in nonviolent acceptance of suffering is a personal and often difficult choice that isn’t applicable in all circumstances, least of all in situations of domestic and sexual abuse that disproportionately affect women, even more so women of color.

“We must measure Christian ethics by the extent to which its rhetoric on violence is applicable to the circumstances of women’s lives,” wrote Christian ethicist Traci West. “This is the proper test of the viability and adequacy of its moral prescriptions.” West reframed nonviolent acceptance of suffering not as a masochistic approval of abuse but as a form of resistance against the violence that engenders this suffering.

There is an important difference between the suffering of Christ on the cross and situations of abuse: The former was a voluntary means of exposing collective humanity’s violence of such intensity that it actually killed God (John 10:18); the latter is involuntary, trapping the victim in a private cycle that enables injustice by keeping it hidden in a cloak of humiliation and shame. This is not nonviolence. Nonviolence is, according to West, part of “an ethic of resisting violence against women” through various means that subvert systems of dominance—especially publicly as a way to de-normalize this abuse and offer solidarity and courage to those facing abuse.

This all sounds ... hard.

Christian nonviolence is hard; that’s why we need practice. We cultivate nonviolence not as a strategy to dust off in urgent circumstances or international crises, but as a way of life. Nonviolence is an antidote to the violence that infects our minds and souls. We need to practice it in everyday decisions, including interior and interpersonal struggles, our interactions with the environment, and our personal economic choices.

In all these actions, we try to recognize the image of God—the one who gives life and is life—in all human beings, whether we think they’re deserving of this or not. The word “deserve” does not belong in the vocabulary of a practitioner of nonviolence. Nonviolence undercuts the “us vs. them” dichotomy and refuses to distinguish between the culpable and the innocent; there are only those who are in need of more transformation, restoration, and healing than are others.

Rather than not violence and not death, the positive expression of Christian nonviolence is the percolation of life that bubbles up among the many expressions of violence in our world so that death is eventually overwhelmed. And this sums up the entire Christian vocation: participating in life as a way to conquer death. This is Christian nonviolence.

This appears in the July 2018 issue of Sojourners