Lesson 6: Does Nonviolence Work?

peaceful antiwar protestWe ended the last lesson suggesting we need a new story if we are to stop the cycle of war begetting war and violence begetting violence. You hear that same call implied when Roman Catholic statements observe, “Whatever good we hope to achieve in modern warfare is always outweighed by the destruction to human life and moral values it inflicts.”

Some theologians, like Stanley Hauerwaus, believe that new story is really the old story that the early Church told when she proclaimed that Christ abolished war when he died for humankind on the Cross. We, like them, must form an alternative community that refuses to shed blood. Matt’s comment on the last lesson suggests we have no other recourse, because the government hides the truth under fig leafs of just war when it goes to war.

Other Christians believe this is not only naive but also irresponsible in our dangerous world. Pacifists come back by pointing to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King who brought tremendous social change using nonviolent methods. Both provide a new story in which love is used as a change agent to transform society.

An overlooked part of that story is that neither of these movements is based on love understood as a benevolent feeling. Both call for rigorous discipline undertaken for the common good. The success of both civil rights movements was due in no small part to the fact that never before have people been trained so extensively in following the proper procedures in using love as a tool against an aggressor. For instance, Martin Luther King breaks down love’s working into principles and steps that must be carefully learned and practiced. The six principles maintain nonviolent resistance 1) is not cowardly, 2) does not humiliate, 3) battles against forces of evil, not individuals, 4) requires a willingness to suffer, 5) believes love is central and 6) the universe is on the side of justice.

The tactics that implement these principles are 1) gathering information, 2) educating a team of people devoted to finding solutions, 3) negotiating peacefully, 4) taking action using peaceful tactics such as nonviolent demonstrations, letter-writing, and petition campaigns, and 5) working for a reconciliation that benefits both the advocate and the opposition.

A common response to King’s success argues his nonviolent resistance only worked because it was used in a society based on law and Judeo-Christian values. An article, “Drop Your Weapons” in the July/August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs challenges that position. Its authors report their extensive study of 323 campaigns to overthrown authoritarian regimes between 1900 and 2006. Those based on nonviolent resistance were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements in ousting tyrants and bringing democratic rule. The article noted the successful movements enjoyed mass participation, produced regime defections, and employed flexible tactics because they utilized careful planning, training, and coordination, features emphasized in King’s program.

Matt acknowledges advocating pacifism leaves many issues unresolved. One of them is how does the Church participate in the public conversation without seeming to be naïve, irresponsible, or self-righteous. One way is to make clear that pacifism is not passive, but has always come with a cost. King and Gandhi show that this involves disciplined training and action in our day. The early Church’s witness demonstrates that it might mean martyrdom. It all begins, however with an honest study of the Gospel that changes hearts and minds.

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  1. Rita says:

    Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.- Ernest Hemingway

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