What Does it Mean to be Committed to Radical Non-Violence?

(Note: I’m taking a quick break from my exploration of Mennonite history. I’ll be returning to it with my next post).

Bekah recently asked me this question in response to my post exploring Leboyer’s exploration of violence. What exactly does a commitment to radical non-violence entail? I realized it might be worthwhile for me to try to define what I mean.

Others might define it differently, but when I talk about a commitment to radical non-violence, I mean the following:

  •  It’s a deep conviction that violence never solves problems. It only breeds more violence.
  •  There is no such thing as good or redemptive violence.
  •  “Violence” refers to intentionally inflicting pain on another person, for any reason,* and includes anything from murder to name-calling.

(*The one exception I can think of is for medical reasons, e.g. setting a bone – which may involve extreme pain — so it can heal properly.)

With this definition, the following (in no particular order) might all be considered forms of violence to someone who is committed to radical non-violence:

  • hitting a child to compel obedience
  • destroying an unwanted human fetus
  • participating in any kind of military action
  • suing another person (i.e. demanding payment for personal injury through legal process), especially with the intent to make the other person suffer for what they have done
  • capital punishment
  • bullying
  • verbal abuse
  • revenge

I believe that radical non-violence was central to Jesus’ message and ministry.  Jesus taught it explicitly in his Sermon on the Mount, particularly his famous “turn the other cheek” verses (Matt 5:38-41). He also demonstrated it, like when he healed the soldier’s ear that Peter lopped off (Luke 22:51). He lived it when he accepted the cross without resisting.

I will concede that violence often gets you what you want for a time. Punishing children and citizens is often (though not always, by a long shot) effective in getting them to obey, and often results in temporarily improved safety (for the individual, for the community, etc). Killing a baby before she is born can prevent all kinds of difficulties and inconveniences for the parents. Using military force to remove a corrupt dictator will stop that particular dictator from doing any more harm.

But it doesn’t work long-term.

Violence can achieve temporary compliance but it doesn’t change hearts. It can’t get that kid to actually want to behave, or get a criminal to stop hating or coveting. Citizens might grudgingly comply with the rules, but that won’t make them good or compassionate people. And as soon as the threat of violence is removed, or they discover a way to avoid getting caught, they will return to their destructive behavior. They haven’t been given a good reason to stop.

The abortion doesn’t address the deeper problems that may be at play (the mother’s poverty, the troubled marriage), and the military invasion doesn’t ensure that other dictators won’t immediately fill the void, requiring more violence.

And we’re not even taking into account the damage (spiritual, emotional, relational) that happens to the person inflicting violence.

But what are the alternatives to violence?

What’s the alternative to spanking, to declaring war, to shooting down an attacker?

I don’t always know. Heck, I don’t usually know, and almost never offhand.

For starters, each and every situation is extremely complex and requires a unique solution. I (or any other individual) can’t possibly know the best solution to any given problem without a familiarity with all the details.

But if I’m committed to radical non-violence, it means I come at every problem with the fundamental assumption that violence is never, ever the solution.

There is always a better way. But to discover it requires creativity and imagination. It requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It requires self-discipline, courage, and an unwavering commitment to non-violence.

Jesus gives us a few ideas in his Sermon on the Mount. He suggests disarming the attacker with some very peculiar behaviour:

  • If a person slaps you, turn your face and look your attacker in the eye, daring him to hit a second time (Matt 5:39).
  • If someone sues you, demanding your undergarments, take off your outer clothing and offer them as well (Matt 5:40).
  • If someone forces you to carry something for a mile with them, offer to take it for a second mile. (Matt 5:41).

I’m also trying to learn the ways of radical non-violence from some other radical peacemakers who have gone before me.

I’ve been learning about how to raise children without using violence from Alfie Kohn.

I’ve been learning about how to live in peaceful community from the folks at Conspire Magazine, Jesus Radicals, and from Greg Boyd (and, more recently, through the legacy of my Mennonite ancestors).

One of my goals for Becoming Peculiar is to explore some of these alternatives with you.

Will you join me?

What are your thoughts of radical non-violence? How does it resonate with you?

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  1. Radical non-violence really intrigues me. Sometimes I think that it really is the right thing to do, but other times I have doubts.

    George Orwell has a couple essays on pacifism (http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79e/part51.html and http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/pacifism/english/e_patw) which you might find interesting. He points out that the problem with pacifism is that it allows the wicked to run everything, which is certainly true (if not necessarily a reason to be against pacifism). He also has an interesting essay on Kipling (http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79e/part17.html) which contains the provocative quote “He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” So true, especially in a religious context (think of the monks of the middle ages, for example).
    Grace recently posted..I Am Giving Up Meat (Mostly)My Profile

    • Thanks for your thoughts and for the links, Grace. I’m very interested in the points Orwell has to make. I know that if I intend to make radical non-violence a lifelong commitment, I’m going to have to be able to respond to objections like his.

      While I don’t have the time or space to respond fully to his essays, I do have a few immediate thoughts.

      in response to Orwell’s claim that pacifism allows the wicked to run everything: the trouble is that it’s often hard for us to determine the good from the wicked. We’re inclined (for starters) to assume that our side is the morally superior side. People all over the world, however, would consider America a wicked nation, so America’s attempts to use violence to overthrow certain regimes is actually (to many people) a further sign of America’s wickedness. One might argue that America is every bit as tyrannical as the evil empires they’re trying to overthrow. Because of our biases, it’s a difficult task, then, to determine which side we ought to support in the name of righteousness.

      Second, this is where my belief that Jesus is God incarnate comes in: I believe that it’s more important to be faithful to him than to follow human reasoning in trying to make the world a better place. If he teaches that we ought to lay down our lives for others rather than commit violence (as I do), I am personally committed to following him, even if it seems impractical. I trust that he knows what he is doing and will ultimately bring justice and peace to the world. I know that makes me a little looney!

      • You are so right about the difficulty about telling who’s the morally superior side. This is especially true in everyday life: it’s frequently almost impossible to do in arguments between siblings, for example.

        In the case of nations it is, I think, easier: during the time Orwell was writing–WW2–the differences were especially clear cut. While the Allies had their problems, they inhabited a completely different moral universe than the Nazis or the Japanese state, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. China today (a relatively evil state) frequently makes use of this very argument to excuse its glaring human rights violations, state-sponsored tortures and murders, and the like.

        For this reason even though it is very difficult, I think it’s important to try to judge relative righteousness. Even pacifists must choose sides (because not choosing is still a choice). This doesn’t mean that pacifism is impossible, though. In Orwell’s essay about Gandhi, he points out that Gandhi also took sides (assisting the British in several wars, though in a peaceful, non-combat role). I think that the Christian ideal would have to be similar (seeing as Jesus himself was certainly a most opinionated person).
        Grace recently posted..Penang: Fort CornwallisMy Profile

  2. While religiously I agree with you, politically I have a hard time with this. I have never, would never purposely act violently towards someone, and I plan to teach my children the same. I also would never sue someone, although I’d honestly never thought of that as a form of violence. I’ve always just considered that a very low-class thing to do.
    However, and I wonder if this is my American upbringing coming to the surface, I do believe in my right to own a gun and shoot an attacker if that means my family stays safe. I think my duty as a mother/protector far outweighs any duty I would feel towards ‘non-violence’ if someone attacked me or my family. Then there is always the fear that something will happen politically and my family will need guns to stay safe? And again, is that just a completely American way of thinking? I feel like most of my non-American friends have always found this thinking weird, intense, and maybe a little crazy?
    Bekah recently posted..Thoughts on Babies and Food.My Profile

    • Hi Bekah! I know that it’s so easy for me to talk about non-violence in theory, and the real test would be how I’d respond to a real-life scenario like you describe, where my family would be threatened. Who knows how I would actually respond. But intellectually, I actually believe my primary allegiance is to Jesus and the Kingdom, and my duty to my family comes second (though that goes completely against my instinct). I pray that in the heat of the moment, the Holy Spirit would direct me on the right thing to do.

      And as for the gun ownership thing — haha, yes, I think this is a very American thing. As a Canadian, I have literally NEVER heard a fellow Canadian talk about the importance of owning a gun. I know this must vary from community to community, but gun ownership just doesn’t seem to be a big issue to a lot of Canadians.

  3. I think radical non-violence must include animals, who after all are sentient and can experience physical and psychological pain and suffering just like we can.

    God calls upon us to be stewards over animals and the natural environment, and He prescribes a vegetarian diet (Gen. 1:29–30) in a world that is “very good” (1:31).


    • Molly: I suspect that you may be right. It’s something I’ve been grappling with for a while. Currently, I still eat meat, but I try to limit myself to animals that were raised and slaughtered humanely (i.e. those that my family have raised and slaughtered). I can’t say for certain whether I will continue to eat meat for the rest of my life.

      Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

    • Molly, very interesting point. I find numerous reasons that a vegetarian diet is the better way to do things. One of these reasons is that I truly do value the animals that YHWH has created. And to support industries which abuse and inhumanely treat animals doesn’t seem to be in line with those values. So, as far as vegetarianism being a good idea, I totally agree.

      However, I’m not sure if I would say that it goes along with radical non-violence. It is true that as lovers of Peace, we should carefully consider the lives that we take of non-human creatures. But I do not necessarily believe that we must abstain from the taking of all non-human lives. Death is something that is very natural, and very much a part of natural life cycles. To deny that is simply to not be very in tune with the natural world, I feel. Also, YESHUA was not a vegetarian, although He did in many ways set the standard for radical nonviolence. He didn’t seem to have a problem with killing animals for the sake of eating. I therefore don’t believe the two are intrinsically related (although I could see how a nonviolent person would eat less meat, and from more humane environments).

  4. “He suggests disarming the attacker with some very peculiar behaviour…”

    Great food for thought. In theory I’ve always thought and believed there would be reasons where “just wars” would be applicable, but in practice those are hard to defend since like you said, both sides can be rationalized. And one thing is true, the Church loves martyrs…I’ve never heard of any saints that were violent (maybe there is one? seems counter-intuitive). So as I just mentioned in my previous comment, my entire family is military and almost everyone owns multiple guns. I still don’t know if that’s objectively wrong but this definitely made me pause the first time I read it and again now. I guess it hits close to home since I have lived the ‘freedom isn’t free’ mantra my whole life. again, this probably effects how i view ‘pride’ in my family history too…i am proud that i have a connection to those that were willing to sacrifice for our freedoms, as opposed to those that just take advantage of them without realizing what it costs, yet i’m also proud that i find my value in who i am and what i believe, including Christ’s teachings, apart from my family and our history.

    on a separate note and relating to a previous commenter, part of me does think that non-violence is also a Canadian thing, given Canada’s history and current relationship with Britain. of course who’s to say it wouldn’t have happened anyways, but a teensy part of me does believe that relationship is so amicable precisely because the US was so aggressive…and succeeded. that’s neither here nor there in this discussion about what is “Christian”, just maybe somewhat related to what a previous commenter wrote about Americans and guns. kind of ironic since of the two, isn’t America considered a more Christian nation?
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

  5. I really like this post! A while ago, me and some friends were talking about radical non violence. And this is kinda what I think: Using violence shows the world that violence is the ONLY way to solve a problem. Its playing the same old game, over and over. And I think that Yeshua called us out of that, set us free from the ways of violence. :)

  6. I just found your blog from the no ‘poo post and I am glad I did! I started reading Alfie Kohn almost two years ago while working for a school district – one of the things that got me dismissed from said district. How much have you read of Tolstoy? He was one of the greatest Christian advocates of non-violence I can think of. Also Ivan Illich (not to be confused with the character in the Tolstoy story!), John Holt, Peter Gray and others. You can read much of Illich’s work online at http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich.html.

    Thanks for posting and God bless!
    Charles Stanford recently posted..Typecast: an open letter to teenagersMy Profile

    • Hi Charles! I haven’t read ANY Tolstoy, which is crazy because I have an MA in English literature. I will have to look into his work, thanks! And I’m SOO interested in John Holt, too. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is an interesting read. As a Mennonite myself, I am very familiar with the Anabaptist non-resistance stand. I agree that intentionally hurting others should never be ok, including verbal assault, revenge and more. Here is my counter to the implication that (all) inflicted pain except medical; is deemed ‘violence’. From your posts I gather you do not believe in spanking your child, as that would cause physical pain; what other (if any) means of discipline does not inflict pain, emotional or mental? In my mind, the exception of the medical procedure of setting a broken bone you described, is much like disciplining children. If not set properly when it occurs, the damaged limb will ‘heal’ improperly; possibly resulting in a lifelong handicap.It’s not fair to the child! Don’t get me wrong, I do NOT condone beating children, but I do believe some ‘inflicted pain’ when done properly and in love is necessary.

    Jesus made a whip of chords to drive out the money changers in the Temple (John 2:15) . what are your thoughts on this?
    Rachel recently posted..The Year of PrayerMy Profile

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