I’ve had a couple conversations this week where good Christian friends I respect and love have seemed slightly concerned with my views of nonviolence as being a core part of what it means to live a life in the Kingdom of God. Now, while I do not expect everyone to agree with me on this (there is a reason anabaptists have been forced out of a lot of places throughout history by other Christians), I do want to at least lay out a few things that I feel help clear up a bit of the confusion. (And, I will try to keep each of these brief).
1. As Christians, we are called to be faithful to God’s ways whether or not they lead to “success”
The mark of a Christian life as described by Jesus is someone who loves their enemies. He says what good is it if you love those who treat you well? Everyone does that. To be called children of God we must love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. He gives parables about “good Samaritans”, which is the equivalent of us hearing a tale about the “good ISIS soldier” with the takeaway being we should be more like them. He constantly tells his disciples not to take up arms because his kingdom is not of this world and so there is no reason to defend it with weapons.
After the resurrection we have countless stories of Christians being persecuted and executed for their faith and yet one of the marks of the early church was that they refused to retaliate. Even the (misused) passages in Romans where Paul tells people to leave room for the vengeance of God have their initial purpose rooted in telling Christians not to “rise up” against people who wrong them. This all culminates with Revelation, which – and I won’t get into the crazy stuff – has a lot of words of encouragement and hope for people being persecuted. One of the primary messages reflects what Jesus said; that in this world you will have trials, but don’t be afraid because I have overcome the world.
So … we are not called to be “successful” in this world. We are called to be faithful in this world to what it looks like to be a resident of the Kingdom that is to come. We are ambassadors from another place, which means we will look and act differently than the way this world works. It should not be surprisingly to us when our Kingdom “common sense” conflicts with the common sense of the world on how to deal with the real issues that are affecting people we love, care for and want to protect around us.
2. Despite this, history shows us violence only and ever leads to more violence.
This runs against our initial reactions, but wars (even “just” wars), air strikes, military invasions, assassinations, etc … only ever lead to retaliation. The people in power can keep the violence to a minimum by continuing to use their power to suppress resistance, but eventually those being suppressed find a way to inflict violence in return on those in power.
I’ll just use recent history to illustrate this; World War I led to World War II, which led to both the Cold War, which led to a number of conflicts that impacted on Afghanistan and other places where the US and Russia were securing “allies”, as well as the creation of Israel, which led to the Israel/Palestinian conflict and much of the conflict that exists in the Middle East.
Now, naturally, these connections are much more complex than I could outline here, but the point is that no violent action, no matter how just we may believe it to be, results in the blissful peace we hope it will. It simply recycles violence to sprout up at another time and another place.
Further to this, many of the “real” changes in our world have come on the backs of nonviolent resistance. Things like racial equality and other similar bedrocks of our North American world did not come through violent resistance, but through nonviolent resistance as well as … and this is key … a lot of personal sacrifice even to the point of laying down one’s own life for the sake of the bigger cause.
Not surprisingly this sounds a lot like what Jesus said; “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. (And don’t forget, we are told elsewhere that our neighbour – our friends – should also include our enemies).
Refusing to engage in violence very well could cost us our lives, but there is more to our lives than just this side of eternity. The Christian hope is that there is something beyond and our lives need to be constantly changing into the likeness of what this new world will look like – and that means we should start living that way here and now.
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” – Revelation 12:11
3. A nation may choose – or even “need” – to engage in military action (violence), but our allegiance is first and foremost to the Kingdom of God
Speaking “practically” – and by this I mean from the perspective of what is most prudent and/or necessary in the eyes of the world – a nation may choose to defend themselves and/or engage in conflicts as a way to reduce the potential for impact to their own people from outside threats. This is natural and to be expected; however, it is not the concern of people of the Kingdom of God. Our constitution is the Sermon on the Mount (amongst other teachings and the life of Christ) and it is what we are told to be faithful to no matter what. If that means not supporting tactics that make sense to our earthly home, so be it.
I would never expect a nation of people not committed to the Kingdom of God to be willing to lay down their lives for the sake of others, but I would expect that from people who are following the crucified Christ as their example.
4. Refusing to use violence is not the same thing as “doing nothing”
This should be self-explanatory, but often people who oppose military action (violence) are accused of standing on the sidelines and doing nothing. This is absolutely not true. As was mentioned in #2, nonviolent resistance is often a more effective way of accomplishing change. For example, sanctions, divesture and boycotts are a very real, nonviolent way to accomplish change by putting economic pressure on a group that is oppressing others.
Being unwilling to kill another human is not the same as saying you will simply leave the oppressed to their own devices. It is saying that you do not feel violence is the best way to accomplish real change. It is looking at the cycles of violence that have led to this point and the cycles of violence that will lead away from this point and saying; “there has to be a better way!”
Surely our best minds can come up with nonviolent methods to resolve conflicts and protect the oppressed. Might it require self-sacrifice to accomplish that? Most definitely, but that should not be a concern to a Christian.
And so, while this is not a full treatment of why I believe in nonviolence as a core principle of the Kingdom of God, it should at least illuminate a few of the values that helped lead me in that direction.
Grace and peace.