Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Christian Nonviolent Resistance

“True non-violent resistance is…a courageous confrontation of evil by the powers of, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of share in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi

Earlier this year I received an email from one of my Palestinian friend’s living outside Bethlehem. Abdullah sent me an email asking if there was any way I could help him. Why? Because his uncle’s home had just been demolished by the Israeli military (click here to learn about this issue). As a Christian living in the midst of such injustice what is one to do? Zooming out to the larger picture, what is a Christian to do in the midst of a whole societal conflict in which a whole people are oppressed and subjugated by another? In the following I would like to make the case for Christian non-violent resistance, something often quite misunderstood and caricatured. It is from within this context that some passing comments on the pacifism vs. just-war theory debate will be made.

What would you do if you were Abdulla’s neighbor? Usually two options are offered: a) violence (grab a shot-gun and defend the home) or b) acquiescence (let them destroy it while you sit and watch). This is the same in larger situations of conflict. The classic example usually given is that of World War 2. Usually in discussions of violence people say, “well, what about WW2? Either you do as Neville Chamberlain did and abdicate to Hitler or you stand up to him like Churchill.” (Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler and signed a treaty with him in an attempt to avert war--to no avail). There is another way, however, a way to fight without bombs: Non-violent resistance, the “third way.” This is a way to oppose evil without mirroring it (by responding also with violence). It is the way to resist, whether as a third party or one intimately involved in the struggle, without acquiescing and thus becoming complicit to evil by one’s inaction.

Non-violent resistance is not well understood within Christian circles. Often there is some general association with people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but this is almost to its detriment as it is thought of as some saintly or otherworldly practice only able to be used by such great people. “It may work for saints, but in the real world it’s the gun that works.” This, however, is not the case. Gandhi and King largely succeeded in their goals, not because they practiced non-violence, but because they led movements where thousands and millions of common everyday people chose it over violence. (Furthermore it is a myth that violence actually works. Violence multiplies itself; it is the mythical beast medusa that if you cut off one head grows two in its place.)

So what is nonviolence? Non-violent resistance is a means/method of balancing power between two parties, of seeking to bring about change in a specific situation of injustice. Some famous examples are the lunch counter sit-ins and the bus boycotts during the civil right’s movement. Each were used successfully to counter specific elements of racial segregation. Non-violence is not to be confused with pacifism, the belief that all violence is morally wrong. It can be practiced by those who believe all violence is wrong and by those who believe violence isn’t necessarily morally wrong. There are two kinds of non-violence: 1) pragmatic non-violence believes simply that non-violence is more effective in bringing change than violence. It doesn’t necessarily believe that violence is morally wrong. 2) Principled non-violence believes that violence is wrong ethically and that it is ineffective.

There are three main categories of non-violent action: 1) non-cooperation: such as an Israeli soldier who refuses to serve in the military and goes to jail (see: the refuseniks) or the Palestinians who refuse to pay taxes to Israel. 2) protest and persuasion: such as in the first Intifada or uprising (which was largely nonviolent) of Palestinians against the occupation. It was illegal to fly the Palestinian flag or to sing at weddings and yet Palestinians did both and often went to Jail with pride 3) Non-violent intervention: getting in the way of a home being demolished. (see:

For Christians there are really only two ways to look at war and violence: the just-war theory and pacifism. What many Christians forget is that the Just-war theory still views war and violence as evil, though at times a necessary evil, a tool to bring about justice. To be true to the theory and to church tradition from which it comes, a Christian should go to war with fear and trembling and with a tear in their eye. There is no room for the glorification of war and violence for Christians. This is still speaking from the perspective of just-war theory. What non-violence offers to both pacifists and just-war theorists is another option to resist evil. If nonviolence as an option is an effective method then there is no excuse for Christians of any kind to use war or violence.

[There is much more that could be discussed here related to pacifism and the just-war theory. One more point I’ll quickly mention is that just-war theory only legitimates violence done on behalf of the state and those in power. The theory offers no justification for violence by the powerless and oppressed who, as in the case of Palestinians, have no state to legitimate their violence for the sake of justice. This is a major weakness in the theory.]

Non-violence offers a way for all parties to avoid violence. It is a tool that can be used by the weak and the powerful to bring about change. It is not a fanciful, utopian or impractical method. It works in the real world. As has often been said of Christianity, it is not so much that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it is not really been tried very often. Generally, though more research needs to be done, when it has been tried it has proven more effective than violence. See here for historical examples where non-violence has worked:

So as a Christian living in situations of injustice one is called to resist. Whether this be Hitler in World War Two or Israeli bulldozers coming to demolish Palestinian homes in Israel/Palestine. Silence and passivity are not options. Neither is violence.


emily said...

Thanks for writing this- it helped me understand a bit more.

Praying for your friend!

Hope your summer's going well!

Emily Goldberg

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