The Importance Of Nonviolence (Part 1 of 2)
“For nothing can be more abhorrent to the Christian man than wholesale slaughter. Nothing can be more desired by us than the promised era when men shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
–Charles Spurgeon, from his sermon: “A Good Soldier Of Jesus Christ”, 1870
The ethic of nonviolence is a good thing to ponder, and something that many accept in times of peace, but when the rubber hits the road, and bad things happen, questions like these start to enter our minds:
-What good is nonviolence in our imperfect world?
-When there is terrorism, when there are dictators, when someone breaks into your house…what good is nonviolence?
-If I do nothing…Innocent people will die. What is the greater sin?
-Won’t God forgive me anyway if I go against His will?
-Why is it important for me to believe in nonviolence?
It is only natural to assume that violence must be met with violence. As discussed before, we desire to respond against injustice where it is seen and found, and often, violence is the quickest solution that we can think of. But often, when we respond to an aggressor with violence, it causes more violence; either immediately, or at a later date. Like when we were children, and the “I’m gonna get you back!” game never ended. We need a better way to respond to violence than the methods we learned on the playground.
Nonviolence, or Just War?
How Christians think about our imagined responses to violence is extremely important due to the reality that injury and death of another human being is a part of the manifestations of the hypothetical situations we consider and debate. On a personal level, we are more emotionally involved in thinking about an intruder breaking into our house, than we are about thinking about who our military is fighting in wars. But it is still important for the Christian to consider what involvement they play in their nation’s roles of foreign policy, defense, and security.
As addressed before, I sincerely believe that the government has their responsibilities, and the Christian is not to interfere if it violates their commitment to the Will of God, but I do believe that a Christian is called to be a light in the darkness through advocating for, and working towards peace. Nonviolence and Just War Theory are two positions which seek to respond to violence in ways that go against what is commonly done.
Nonviolence is a fundamentally different way in which to address problems that face us because it does away with the dehumanization that is a natural result of war and violence in placing value upon people who do not deserve value according to our culture. However, in a fallen world, nonviolence is not a realistic political strategy.
Just War Theory is the idea that a country should only enter war if other means to resolve the conflict have already been tried. Once a war has been entered, Ju7st War Theory also advocates against civilian casualties, inhumane torture, and other good humanitarian things. This way of doing things cares enough about the enemy to at least attempt several peaceful resolutions before going to war.
But both of these ways in which to respond to violence are fairly foreign to the American People. For while we shake our heads and clench our fists at Hitler, at Stalin, at Sadamn, we gloss over our own bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in our historical recollections as if they were any less grotesque. Michael S. Snow captures this irony in the following quote from his book “Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way”:
““Blessed are the merciful…” – look at World War II and at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which resulted in hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths and untold suffering for children and aged alike, and then tell the Living God how merciful our nation has been.” (Kindle Locations 612-613)
You cannot control an Atom Bomb…You cannot control the bombs dropped by planes and drones over areas where the enemy is suspected to be. You cannot control the outcome of “carpet bombing”. Flawed logic will respond “The ends justify the means”…But how can a follower of Jesus Christ be okay with that? How can such actions be categorized as following “Just War Theory”? Instead, Nationalism tells us that we are justified in our actions because we are American, and our enemy is inferior to us.
But what happens when something BIGGER than nationalism united people? In World War 1 & 2; Christians were killing Christians because of the differences between where they were born, and the country they were fighting for. One could argue that those in Germany’s Nazi Party were not rightly following Christianity, but at the end of the day, they still claim to worship the same God that you do, and also keep in mind that German nationalism was an even stronger force than American nationalism. John Howard Yoder writes of this terrible reality of brothers killing brothers by stating:
Whenever a war happens, and members of the same communion, who find themselves defined by their governments as enemies, accept killing each other at the behest of their respective rulers, it is a mockery to speak of them as being united by their faith. – Yoder, “The War of The Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking”, p.95.
Yoder points to the irony in Christians called to be united, aiming their rifles at their brothers in Christ because of the uniform that they wear, or the leader they follow.
War is an extremely serious thing that should never be taken lightly, and solutions that could lessen the amount of casualties, even if Christians are not involved, should always be considered thoughtfully by the governments in power. Therefore, with all things said, at very minimum, Christians should be advocating for Just War Theory; the idea that wars are only justified after attempting to resolve the scenario peacefully in different ways, and even then, Just War Theory prescribes ways in which to go about war in a way to reduce the number of civilian casualties and injuries. How do bombings in residential areas fit into that?
However, even accepting Just War Theory as an ideal has failed Christians and nations alike because the process of trying other things before warfare rarely ever happens. Instead, since Just War theory allows for the possibility of war and violence if all else fails, more often than not, other solutions for resolving the issues a country faces are not even thoughtfully considered before they enter a war. Just War theory looks great on paper for a nation to follow, but it is rarely followed because of the existence of a seemingly easier solution that is provided as an option from the start of the conversation. It would be like a Christian Bride and Groom entering a marriage while both partners leave the possibility of divorce open as an option if all else fails, instead of believing that divorce is not an option, and only arriving to it upon MUCH effort working for resolution. The effort of making things work is less appealing when you start the conversation believing that you know of an option of that would seemingly end a problem once and for all. I believe that we need to call for a stricter commitment to Just War Theory as citizens and as Christians.
In the 1980s, Catholic and Methodist leaders wrote documents (Catholic: “The Challenge of Peace”, Methodist: “In Defense of Creation”) that advocated for either true Just War Theory, or nonviolence, and though each of them advocated against total war, those documents and the thoughts laid out in them rarely play out in how nations conduct foreign policy, or even in how people of faith view these wars. John Howard Yoder affirms this unfortunate truth in “The War of the Lamb”:
The actual rhetoric and the actual practice of modern nations, including Methodists and Catholics in positions of responsibility as citizens, statesmen, and soldiers, have in the vast majority of cases been neither just war nor pacifist. Total war has in fact characterized our culture. Sometimes what broke through all restraints was simple national selfishness, which some call realism. Sometimes what led to total war has been a transcendent religious or ideological claim, which some call holy. Sometimes the cause for which blood has been shed is morally even less worthy than that; namely, the need of some ruler to reassure himself and his people of his masculinity. In each of these ways war was totalized, so that there was no effective restraint in most of the Western world’s experience of war. Just war theory has not been operational in any significant way in the military reality of the last centuries. (p. 87-88)
Just War Theory, as it has been implemented, fails the Christian utterly because it is rarely followed. However, it is an ideal worth intelligently advocating for and thinking through at the political level.
Nonviolence is virtually impossible for a nation to follow due to the fallen nature of humanity across the globe; pride, jealousy, greed, and anger will always get in the way of peace until the day our Lord returns to earth and sets things right. Still, for the Christian, I believe that nonviolence is the only ethic that we can faithfully affirm, as followers of Christ, as our personal committed ethic. Therefore, a Christian is not to kill in any circumstance, regardless of what the government, or any other authority that is over them, calls them to do. The Christian is called instead to actively work for peace in nonviolent ways in order to serve God, and serve others. In relation to their government, a Christian abiding by nonviolence is to resist any clearly unjust violence of government using Just War Theory as a guideline (unjust warfare, torture, police or military brutality), and to speak and live out their message of peace in the pursuit of following the words and teachings of Christ.
Imagine if your local community’s Christians were of one mind on this matter regarding violence and personal living; so much so that if you were a Christian, you were assumed to believe in Nonviolence. Imagine what great work for the Gospel could be done if your community saw your Christians as a peaceful and loving people who hold their convictions out of a strong commitment to their God, and are not to be feared. Imagine how many stereotypes you could break in the minds of people whose opinions of Christians and Christianity have been made from years of seeing Christians being just as violent, if not more so, in their speech and action, as everyone else, while claiming to follow Jesus who said to “love our enemies”, and “Pray for your persecutors”. Imagine these advocates of peace as not reacting to your community’s military personnel, or your veterans, in a way of protest, but rather loving them as people out of their compulsion to love others as themselves. That is the difference between secular peace advocacy and Christ-centered peace work; The individual soldier is not lumped into your protests of wars and violence.
However, as much tangible good can be said of following Nonviolence, the main reason to follow it would be to be in submission to Christ. Though that submission is not always without sacrifice; in fact, in many cases, to strictly adhere to nonviolence requires a lot of sacrifice, whether socially, politically, or physically. Nonetheless, it is a pursuit worth living.
So why is it so hard for me, for you, for others, who are Christ followers, to accept Nonviolence?
The Setbacks to Nonviolence
It’s Not Logical
Nonviolence is not humanly logical. To refuse to fight back goes against everything we have been taught as children, and as said before, it goes against our very own natural response to fight fire with fire. The very purpose of this project is to show how in order to accept Nonviolence, you have to abandon what you know as reason, and accept that which you are called to.
To accept nonviolence is to be stripped of all weapons in a room full of armed enemies, and to be left with a determination of following God above your own safety and security. It is not logical. It is dangerous. It puts yourself, and possibly others, at risk.
As stated before, it is unclear what any of us would do in a violent situation, particularly one that would harm our loved ones, or the life of an innocent… But coming to that argument out of a hope for following the Lord’s will, is a lot different than coming to it out of a primal urge to protect those we love “at all costs”. I will touch on this “situational ethics” question more so in the Appendix.
It Divides Allegiances
The Christian calling over our personal lives has been hijacked by many other things that demand our allegiance: money, status, our country, a political party, and a myriad of other labels. If left unchecked, these other things that demand our allegiance, and that seek to define who we are, and what we stand for, will corrupt our understanding of God’s calling over our lives.
The Lord Jesus Christ demands our complete, undivided, allegiance; He is not willing to share us with anyone, or anything else. When Christ calls for us to follow His will, we simply must follow Him, being willing to surrender all that we have, including our lives, if for the purpose of following His Will.
Allegiance to our country, to our status, to our wealth, and other things, can all get in the way of following Christ. When we marry anything foreign to our faith, that foreign element can impact our faith. If our faith is doing well when we are financially doing well, our faith will likely suffer when we are suffering financially. If our faith is tied to our political beliefs, our political beliefs have the chance to impact and warp our religious beliefs to make it congruent with our political preference. But the Gospel cannot be contained, or placed in a box; Christ demands our FULL and utter allegiance. And though, some influence will be nearly unavoidable, or go unnoticed, the Christian should at least be aware of the possibility that perhaps their opinions on certain religious topics are more influenced by their own culture, status, political identity, or even their own church, rather than seeking out the Scriptures.
As mentioned before, in the case of some conservative republicans, their political views against welfare programs could negatively impact their view of the people who receive such welfare, and that could lead them to be disgusted by poverty, instead of seeking to serve and help the poor in other ways out of a religious conviction. In the same light, some on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate may see the side of pro-choice as politically good, but they may do nothing to advocate against abortion within their churches out of a religious conviction; helping those who find themselves in crisis pregnancies.
In the reluctance to accept nonviolence, both major political party’s positions and philosophies can negatively impact a follower of Christ’s stance on the matter. A “For God and Country” mantra simply will not do. The two cannot be joined in a Christian’s mind. Jesus has to be the ONLY ruler of your heart, and the only receiver of your true allegiance.
The Fruits of Nonviolence
If we are to believe the message of John 3:16, that God loved the world so much that He gave his own son to save us, then we cannot view anyone as outside of possibility of salvation; we must view all people as possible recipients of the same undeserved grace which we have received, and that we continually receive. To advocate for nonviolence not only out of faithfulness to God, but out of concern for your friend, as well as your enemy, is showcasing the crazy grace that we believe has saved us.
That’s the fruit of nonviolence. A commitment to following what you believe to be the Will of God, at all costs, as well as possibly being able to show His crazy grace to others through your commitment to nonviolence. Nonviolence does not guarantee earthly success. But neither does war. In both, a commitment to nonviolent action, and in war, lives are sometimes put at risk when the odds of success are poor. War commands us to kill or be killed, nonviolence commands us to love until death takes our last breath. Both choices are messy, both require sacrifice, but only one remains unquestionably committed to the commands of Jesus. Note that action and nonviolence need to go together if nonviolence is ever going to accomplish anything, and if our nonviolence is ever going to be Christ-centered nonviolence.
But not too many of us will actually be faced with a life or death scenario in which we have to choose to take up the sword, or take up the way of the cross which could lead to our death. The average person doesn’t have to make international security decisions, and the average person likely won’t have to defend their home. I am not saying that those things won’t happen, but it seems silly to dismiss the call of nonviolence because it’s impractical when we likely will never face the situations that would demand some form of action – violent or otherwise.
(The Works Referenced in part 1 will be given at the end of Part 2)