My Thoughts on “Nonviolent Action”

Erin Dufault-Hunter, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, recently wrote:

Many Mennonites shirk the label “evangelical,” especially as it often associates us with US Christians who narrate their relationship to the nation-state quite differently than we do. But most recently my tiny adopted tradition has become cool; nonviolence has become fashionable (and God help us if we so depreciate the cost of waging peace).

Though I am not drawn to the Mennonite tradition (and I certainly love my evangelical tradition/label), I can definitely agree with her that among evangelicalism – nonviolence and Anabaptism has become quite cool. Its probably for good reasons though – the Anabaptists are on to something when it comes to their ethics. But its not just the Anabaptists – you can find some reformed (lower case “r”) writers writing about non-violence (see Preston Sprinkle’s Fight – I wrote a review here). So being reformed myself and committed to non-violent action, I’m glad to see more resources come out that are accessible to evangelicals. Ron Sider has a history of writing books that have pushed evangelicals to be more socially Nonviolent Actionaware and engaged. He has pushed them (us) to think through issues that we might have ignored i.e. the legitimate use of violence as Christians. His latest book: Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried is one such book.

On the back of the book – Richard Mouw writes that Sider has written a “wise, balanced, and inspiring book” that is “a richly instructive guide for all who have pledged their allegiance to the Savior who is also the prince of peace.” Whether you agree with non-violence or believe in just war – the fact is that as Christians we are called to follow the Prince of Peace and we are called to be peacemakers. So at the very least non-violence is an issue that all Christians have to deal with. We have to ask ourselves – is this the best way to live as disciples of Jesus Christ or is there some other way?

Alright – lets actually get to the book…

Non-Violent Action

The structure of the book is pretty straightforward; there are four parts. Each of the first three parts is intended to inspire people to nonviolence and to show people that unlike what many opponents say, nonviolence actually works. Part 1 covers the early days of nonviolence by looing at non-violence in the early church and nonviolence through leaders like MLK and Gandhi. Part 2 show us how non-violence helped topple the soviet empire. Part three takes a look at non-violent movement in the last decade or so. Let it be known that all of the cases he examines are not necessarily Christian movements (i.e. Ghandi & the Arab Spring) however a majority of the cases he follows are Christian an Sider’s call to non-violence is ultimately grounded in Christianity.

For me, the fourth part was the most interesting. It consisted of Sider’s constructive argument for non-violence. His first argument is that non-violent movements contrary to popular opinion, actually work. They accomplish their goals with far less loss and they tend to lead to stronger democratic societies. The reason for this latter accomplishment is that “those who win by the gun tend to rule by the gun.” His other argument for non-violence is that non-violence as a strategic systematized method has not really been tried yet. Regarding this, Sider makes a great point,

Pacifists have long claimed that they have an alternative to war. But that claim remains empty unless they are willing to risk death, as soldiers do to stop injustice and bring peace. (158)

If pacifists think that they have an alternative to war, then they must have the guts and integrity to prove it in the brutal world in which dictators such as Hitler, Somoza, Stalin, and Marcos kill and destroy. If pacifists are not ready to run the same risk as soldiers in nonviolent struggle against evil, then they have no moral right to pretend they know a better way. (167)

Those are powerful words! Sider’s other point is that According to the just war tradition (which most Christians find themselves in) lethal violence must always be the last resort. He calls into question the notion that just war theorists have been consistent with this position. He points to the fact that just war theorists have not spent the amount of time and money to explore the possibilities of nonviolent action.

"Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace" - one of the stories of a successful nonviolent movement that worked.
“Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace” – one of the stories of a successful nonviolent movement that worked.

Sider’s book however ignores the most important argument for nonviolence (although the title does imply it) – namely that it is what Christianity demands. When I hear most people argue against nonviolence (usually for loving reasons and to protect the weak) the argument almost always goes something like this…

Non-violence would be great. But we live in a sinful broken world. Non-violence just doesn’t work because we don’t live in an ideal world.

Arguments around non-violence almost always center around the idea that “it doesn’t work.” Sider here set out to argue that it does in fact work, and history has proved that it can and it does! However that misses the point of Christian non-violence. The call to Christian non-violence isn’t a call to pragmatism. Even if nonviolence didn’t work and Jesus called us to it then we would have to do it! (Whether God calls for it is up to debate; I certainly believe he did call us to peace.)

What I’m trying to point out – and what Sider so unhelpfully forgot to address – is that: The call to nonviolence isn’t grounded on what does or does not work. The call to nonviolence is grounded on whether or not this is what Jesus calls his followers to do.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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