More Like Prayer 1

Out of the story of America’s social history in the 20th Century will arise the names of people who, instead of using violence, chose a militant nonviolence — a stubborn, robust, principle-driven approach to establishing justice and abolishing injustices. Those names will begin with Martin Luther King Jr, but behind him and alongside him will be the names of his forbears, like Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi. No one has been a more articulate thinker for nonviolence than John Howard Yoder.

His last book, published posthumously on the basis of his lectures in Warsaw (Poland), Nonviolence – a Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures , is an exceptional primer for those who want to learn how to “wage war” without the weapons of war but with the weapons of peace.

Who has had experiences with nonviolence? Now a big one: How can the principles of nonviolence help in church conflicts? What do you make of his idea that nonviolence is more like prayer or more like faith?

Here is a money quote, where he states that nonviolence is a posture of prayer and faith and hope, an embodiment of a kingdom vision:

Before it is a social strategy, nonviolence is a moral commitment; before it is a moral commitment, it is a distinctive spirituality. It presupposes and fosters a distinctive way of seeing oneself and one’s neighbor under God. That ‘way of seeing things’ is more like prayer than it is like shrewd social strategy, although it is both. It is more a faith than it is a theory, although it is both.

The first three lectures are on the history of nonviolence — short sections on Leo Tolstoy and then Mohandas Gandhi. Then a solid chapter on Martin Luther King and the struggle for rights for African Americans in the USA. This leads him to a summary chapter on the lessons learned about nonviolence. Here are some of them:

1. Nonviolence knows of no enemy to be destroyed; there is an adversary to be reconciled.
2. Nonviolence works with the grain of the universe by refusing to place the adversary outside the circle.
3. Nonviolence can only be used for a good cause and appeals to the moral insight of the adversary.
4. Nonviolence has tactical advantages but it transcends tactics.
5. Nonviolence provides the opportunity for creativity — those with weapons wait for the first strike.
6. Nonviolence is not quietism or legalistic; it enters into conflict but seeks to preserve the adversary’s honor.

7. Nonviolence for the Christian is rooted in the cross as paradigm for ending violence and showing love.

"And the Ten Commandments."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"The priests in the temple read from the scrolls and copied them exactly letter for ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"I think the point is not about errors or inerrancy, or specific hermeneutics (literalism v. ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"As a child growing up in a conservative church, I heard all the "emotional" arguments ..."

What Women Want (Leslie Leyland Fields)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thanks Scot for putting this out there – I had known the Warsaw Lectures were out there, in published form, but had forgotten to check on it.

    How about that very first bullet point of lessons learned!? Wow. That is awesome. Ministers of reconciliation? I dare say! Haha.

    Thanks again, brother!

  • John Mc

    On a practical level how does one approach a situation where the adversary’s motives are inherently evil and they have demonstrated that they will kill without conscience? Specifically, I am trying to come to terms with the international intervention in Libya. As much as I am a pacifist, how can I gainsay the intervention?

    It seems that not only is Ghadafi a conscienceless sociopath, the international community was unable or unwilling to to make any greater non-violent effort to prevent him from wreaking further slaughter on the people of Libya. As a powerless onlooker it is easy enough for me to criticize the violent intervention, but how can I conscientiously do so knowing that the certain consequence of non-violence is the slaughter which Ghadafi explicitly threatened in the face of non-intervention?

    While prayer is my only answer, for those threatened with death by the rantings of a willing and able madman, I cannot find the heart to criticizes the intervention.

  • Good stuff as usual Scot. Many thanks. Now I’m gonna have to pull my Yoder off the shelf and crack it open.

  • Rod

    You know,

    I was wondering how long it would take before two things happened:

    1. Pacifism is accused of being impractical.
    2. The question, “What about Hitler/what about this dictator?” came up.

    It only took within the first 2. Seen this conversation before.

  • briank

    Thanks for posting this Scot. I have been amazed at how “practical” Non-violence really is. As a Mennonite I see Jesus’ call to pacifism as a call to fight a war with the weapons of his kingdom & not the weapons of this world.
    But this is not just “wishful thinking”, Gene Sharp is one of the most dangerous men in the eyes of dictators. His handbook ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ teaches the art of non-violent revolution used in Eygpt, Eastern Europe, India, & America. I don’t know his religion, but he preaches Non-violence. I love his quote:
    “If you fight with violence,you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon.” Jesus has given us better weapons!

  • Here’s actually a reflection that someone else had on the Libyan situation… this from an actual Mennonite. 🙂

  • Steve Billingsley

    Rod #4
    If you have seen this before, do you care to share with us the answer to these quandaries? That is, if you can rouse your world-weary intellect to condescend to the questioner(s).

  • More practical… I’m reading the Eric Mataxas biography on Bonhoeffer and, on the Hitler question, it’s very interesting that, if the Confessing Church of Germany had been more outspoken, more active in their verbal resistance of Hitler, perhaps things would have turned out differently… There’s a difference between a pacifism of non-action, and a pacifism of non-violent action. If German Christians had taken non-violent action earlier on, would the atrocities of Kristalnacht or other such things of the Third Reich ever happened?

    We can’t say for sure because what’s done is done… can’t re-live history. But we can use those lessons learned and say, “Is there anything that Christians could have done BEFORE the need (and that point is debatable) of a No-Fly Zone ever came about?” There probably is a LOT more that could have been done…but now we won’t know so we’re stuck. All we can do now is pray…

  • briank

    if the Church would have spoke out before WW1 there would have never been a WW2….No Nazis…No concentration camps…No communists(possibly). We can go all the way back to the Fall with this hypothetical game. What matters is what we do now. As Christians we should know that Evil begets more evil, & the Good that comes from God will conquer any evil.

  • You can never go wrong with Yoder!

    Whenever I hear some one suggest that pacifists are anti-American, I can’t help but think, “Does this mean all of the Amish, Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers need to move to France?” (And I’m pretty sure Fox News would say, “Hell yes!”)

  • DerekMc

    If you are interested in tangible ways to apply non violence in this world, along with supporting initiatives, you can check out the following link for a brief description:

    Just Peacemaking:
    Ten Practices for Abolishing War

    (Pilgrim Press: August, 1998)

  • Daniel

    Steve @7, don’t hold your breath.

  • Jean

    Robert Martin #6 – Interesting article! Thanks for the link, I have shared it with my fb friends.

  • Jean

    Sorry Robert #6, my mistake, I shared the article from by Alan Stucky on his book review of Rob Bell. Check that one out too.

  • Rod


    I actually has posted these answers, at two blogs, my own and my friend Craig’s:

    For mine, Go to and search for The Gift of Meekness series, I deal in depth with the questions asked.

    For Craig’s go to and search for The God Of Peace series currently in progress.

  • Rod

    @Daniel #7

    Read my response to Steve. Already dealt with these questions before hand. You are welcome to comment as well.

  • Two things always strike me as significant when these discussions take place: the first is the lack of a robust political ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as an alternative to the nations and not simply a prop for the state. My take on this is that most Christians believe the latter (even though they will not admit it) because they believe the nation state is where the political action is instead of the church.

    The second concerns the assumed efficacy of violence. But as Yoder himself so eloquently stated, in war violence fails 50% of the time.

  • John Mc


    In your response you overlooked the fact that I was posting a genuine quandary. I was not attacking pacifism, because I too am a radical pacifist. The post expresses my frustration as an isolated soul sitting safely in a suburban home in the Midwest to the slaughter and the counter-slaughter happening to other souls on the other side of the world.

    For me the question of pacifism is mostly an abstraction (given the peacefulness and security of my life) but for the people in Libya and their neighbors the matter is not abstract – it is reality and it calls for a real world response. And the people on both sides do not share in any way my commitment to nonviolence. So how do I remove this matter from an abstract posture in my life and respond to the reality of it? How do I respond to their reality?

    I am not throwing in the towel on my pacifism – I am expressing grief at its seeming impotence on this day and at this time. I am exploring how I should assess and respond to their reality, and in truth to the continuing reality of violence which has once again gripped our world.

    I appreciate that you are comfortable with your answer to the issue and that you have moved on confident in your analysis. But for me I have to revisit the fundamental ideas and the reality of my profession of faith and pacifistic principles each time the world falls apart. I am not able to dismiss someone else’s violence with a mantra and a prayer.

  • Jake

    @John Mc – Your post was very well written; you put down in words what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t articulate. Thank you.

    Now, does anyone have more thoughts on the matter?

  • Rod

    @John Mc,

    While I do see where you are coming from since I have been there before, I think I have (as it is right now)settled at least for me more than “a mantra and a prayer” and that nonviolence is about concrete practices, embodying the forgiveness and grace of the messiah. I am grateful to be reminded, by pacifists and nonviolent advocates that it is truly God who rules the world, and that war adds up to be nothing but failed attempts at stealing God’s sovereignty.

    Those are my thoughts, if you wish, you are invited to read my posts on Political Jesus and Simul Iustus Peccator as well. Would like your criticism, comments, if you want.

  • Thanks for posting this, Scot. Some time ago I did a blog series on pacifism addressing many of the issues raised here. While running the risk of self-promotion:

  • John Mc


    OK, I’ll bite, what concrete practices do/did you employ on response to the circumstances in Libya? And, what was your response to the intervention? Support or opposition? If you supported it, how could you square that with your principles? If you opposed it, how did you respond with any degree of compassion in a meaningful way?

    For me, the driving factor in my pacifism is compassion, not principle and not Scripture. Violence injures the victim and the perpetrator, and those who witness the violence and those who endure it’s consequences – whether they know it or not. I am not an ideologue, my principles are written in pencil, they are constantly being re-negotiated – not because they are necessarily invalid, or because I am weak-willed, but because, as much as I want to get it right the first time, it doesn’t always happen. My perspective changes, and my instinctively compassionate reponse often forces me to forgive and to relent, or just to recognize that as smart as I am, I don’t have the answer.

    So for me, as much as pacifism is a principle, it is more of a corollary of compassion, and compassion is the true core out of which my pacifism emmanates.

    But I truly do want to know what concrete practices you undertook in direct response to the fighting in Libya.

  • Rod


    I sense a bit of hostility in your inquiry; I feel that no matter how I respond, it would be insufficient for you. You are really begging the question here, “what would i do concretely for libya” as if i myself am a politician in power to do something. Also, i fear you are delving into the conservative variety of situational ethics (their ideas of justifying war is situational ethics, just like liberals and their views of sexuality). I see them as 2 sides of the same coin, really, because the Christian response, it assumes, should fit the situation, a project I must utterly reject (besides the fact that these views in themselves lead to more violence).

    I opposed Libya for a good number of reasons, but I think these lines of reasonings are interconnected.

    As a nonviolent Christian, I cannot ignore the Gospels or the letters of the apostles, (or the Old tEstament for that matter, but thats in my series the God of Peace on Craig’s blog, as I mentioned). Since Jesus was not a political revolutionary but the Messiah, he is the 1 teacher that we owe our allegiance. In the Pauline letters, like Romans, Christians are encouraged to honor the government, to put ourselves under the order of G*D, “subordination” and respect the authority of the government. The state has judicial power (to judge) but it has no right over life & death. But since has sinfully taken what is rightfully the Creator’s, Christians are told not to respond in violence (revolution, etc), but loving our enemies, accepting that vengeance is God’s alone. This may call for reading Romans 12 & 13 together, like Yoder does, which I agree.

    Concretely speaking, Christians are to honor the highest authority in the land, like the Petrine letters say (honor caesar). However, Christians in the US do not pledge an oath to an emperor, but to a document, the Constitution. On both christian nonviolent and constitutional grounds, I found the invasion of libya:

    My post was in response to a friend who is a Just War theorist, and as my subsequent post says, he was persuaded.

    So, I think the question, “What did I do for Libya?” is quite an example of begging the question. In the order of God, I am not a states-crafter. I am called to be a preacher, and as such, I much call for loyalty to the Constitution, and it’s general principles. I think concretely I can say that I am being non-violent by accepting God’s way, and not resisting it. I am not trying to be someone I am not, which would be disobedience, which would be violence then. I consider breaking with Constitutional priorities (Congress approving, and therefore the people approving of when to go to war–and i do believe the war powers act of 1973 is unconstitutional, it has just never been challenged) is an act of violence. As for arguments vs the constitution, like how it approved of the enslavement of my African ancestors, I would rebuttal that no piece of paper is perfect, and because the Christian allegiance to the Liberator and Reconciler far outweighed the 2 or 3 instances that enslavement was mentioned, that Christians were right to work towards changing the constitution. And that’s the loveley thing about our republic. We do not have to answer to Caesar who grants “life eternal” as some “son of g*d” but to a piece of paper, a secular covenant that is open to change.

    Like you, John, my perspective does change. On the issue of war, however, i do not believe it has from the days I was first baptized.

  • John Mc

    If you perceived hostility it was directed more at your ideological rhetorical styling than anything else. My perception is that we hold the same position on most of the issues, though It may surprise you to find me a little left of you on some.

    It was not I who begged the question but you, and thus, I began by saying “Ok I’ll bite…” which I tendered in response to your claim to have done more that a mantra and a prayer.

    The problem is that from our armchairs neither you nor I have done anything particular more than chant our mantras to further our shared agenda of non-violence.

    Also, I am not a particularly conservative Christian, I am just tired of being ineffective. It relieves me of no burden to claim that I am not a statesman – though I am not. And while I love my country I am not under any illusion that my country is always or even usually in the right – in fact being a child of the ’60s I have no qualms about vocally calling out our leaders when they are irresponsible. For example, those responsible for making our soldiers into torturers ought to be prosecuted by our courts including the president – I don’t care whether they eventually go to jail, but future leaders need to know that there are limits on what they do, and consequences when they cross the line.

    But to your basic question, my challenge to me and to you, is to find a way to effectively speak our truth to power. So what if we are right, if the powers that be fail to hear us. We must speak earlier, louder, and more effectively. Anything less is simply chanting a mantra.

  • Rod


    I was not insisting you were a conservative Christian, but that you were sharing the logic of Conservative Christians who wish to go to war based on their own version of situational ethics.

    Aha! and now we get to the cusp of the issue:

    “I am just tired of being ineffective.”

    “my challenge to me and to you, is to find a way to effectively speak our truth to power. So what if we are right, if the powers that be fail to hear us. We must speak earlier, louder, and more effectively. Anything less is simply chanting a mantra.”

    It was not clear for me that the issue was effectiveness. At this, i would respond that Christian ethics has not been about effectiveness, but about faithfulness to Christ (a mantra, yah i know), but it really isnt about faithfulness. Jesus failed (as James Cone said: )– we need to change our definition of what success is. The church’s duty is not to be heard or simply seen, but to bear witness and to remain faithful. It’s God’s job alone to convince the rulers’ of their wicked ways. And plus, nonviolent strategies can happen in a multitude of ways; i do not think nonviolent protest is a panacea for everything. I do not wish to live in a world where we are always referring back to the civil rights movement but a church that is moving forward, looking for all possible options to be nonviolent.