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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