Stories of Heroic Nonviolence (or No Hero with a Gun)

Many of the responses to the Sandy Hook shootings, with their suggestions of armed guards and defensive weapons, played upon a common theme in the stories we tell about heroes.  Heroes in the American mind don’t die, they kill, or if they do die they do so while killing the bad guys.  This is comic book fair and it is also the vision put forward in most our movies and television shows.  When NRA’s Wayne LaPierre said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was merely stating the common outline of our hero movies.

It is no wonder then that mass shootings result in higher levels of gun ownership.  A public ruled by a mix of fear and heroic fantasies prepare to answer violence with the script Hollywood has given them.

Those of us who seek to follow in the way of the Christ’s teaching and example, putting away the gun and answering violence with love, need an alternative.  What we need are better stories, stories in which violence is shown for what it is and the way of Christian nonviolence is the truly heroic act.  I’ve been trying to think over those stories and I can’t name many in film or television.  The most profound example I can think of is in the movie The Mission where Jeremy Iron’s character, Father Gabriel, leads a group of South American Indian converts to their slaughter while singing hymns to God.  Father Gabriel and the Indians face their death bravely and their killers with love, following in the way worthy Christ.

What are other stories of heroic nonviolence?  Stories in which people bravely refuse to kill, even when they could find every justification to do so?  We need to collect these stories, show them and produce them in order to move away from this John Wayne mythology of a hero with a gun.

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About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (Convergent/Random House 2015).

  • Kimberly

    Film & TV I’ll have to think on, but I find this non-fiction story of forgiveness very heroic:

  • Matt

    “Gandhi” would be the classic example, I imagine. There are also a lot of those elements in “Les Miserables,” despite the violent revolutionary themes. “The Mission,” as you pointed out. Having problems thinking of more right now…

  • Kevin

    I always find forgiveness heroic: crime victims forgiving criminals, children forgiving their deadbeat parents, spouses forgiving cheating spouses. While those stories rarely make the news, witnessing them is truly inspirational! We Christians should do what we can to make sure the whole world takes notice when people choose to forgo violence in the name of love. I think we also have to be careful to assume that an act of violence is inherently contrary to the example of Christ. He once took the time to make a whip and went into the temple overturning tables, throwing their money out onto the ground and generally “driving out” the people who had turned the place of worship into a way to increase their own wealth and power. This was an unmistakably violent act. There are rare occasions where love just might involve violence towards those who would oppress or harm others for their own motives.

  • Hilary

    He’s not American or Christian, but Japanize filmaker Hayao Miyazaki is someone to watch. My favorite anime of his (that’s Japanese animated movies) are Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Princess Mononoke. I also have Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Secret World of Arriety (based of the novel The Borrowers), Pongo, and The Wizard of EarthSea was done by his son, based off of the EarthSea books by Ursela Le Guin. None of his films celebrate violence as an answer, although there is violence in Nausicaa and Mononoke. (Mah – no – NOH – ki). Take some time with this link, then get the movies. But I repeat, not Christian, and definatly not American. There is too much willingness for characters to have complex motives that are not just good or bad, and violence is never the final solution to the bad guys.

    • Hilary

      “Stories in which people bravely refuse to kill, even when they could find every justification to do so”

      I re-read what you are looking for, and Nausicaa (NOW – si – cah) and Mononoke are exactly that. Nausicaa watches her bed-ridden father be killed by assassins from Tolmekia, after she and the other people of the Valley spent the night burying Tolmekian dead from a crashed airship. Latter when she is taken prisoner by the Tolmekians and then the ships are under attack, she saves the life of the Tolmekian Princess Kushana, and saves the life of the man who shot them down.

      She fights pasionatly for all life, her own people and her enemies, and the Giant Insects that protect the Toxic Jungle even though the Jungle corrupts land, water and air making it impossible for humans to exist in the jungle for even 5 minutes without powerful masks to filter the poisen. Early in the movie when she is bitten by a small, vicous and terrified fox-squirrl, she calmly looks at it and tells it there is nothing to fear, and it becomes her animal companion. She also works to heal the broken connection between humans and the destroyed, polluted environment after the 7 days of Fire destroyed the ancient industrial world. Environmentalism, powerful non-violence and commitment to not killing, great sound track, and amazing Giant Insects the size of city blocks, this is good anime.

      In Princess Mononoke, the main character Prince Ashitaka (ashi – TAH – kah) defends his villiage against a giant Boar God that has gone mad with pain and rage and turned into a demon. His arm is infected with a curse that will ultimatly consume him, and he has to leave his village. He goes out into the world to find the source of the Boars injury, caused by a round iron ball, and to see with “Eyes unclouded by hate.”

      The story is set in a mythic retelling of Japan’s feudal past, and he finds Iron Town, run by Lady Eboshi, that is the source of the iron bullet from a gun, and that Iron Town is strip mining the forest where the great Animal Gods still dwell. However Lady Eboshi also hires out prostitutes to work the iron ore, giving them a way out of that life. Princess San is a human girl the Wolf God adopts, she is Princess of the mononoke, the forest spirits, and a fierce fighter who hates humans for ruining her forest and tries to kill Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka stops her from killing, even though Eboshi is responsible for the Boar God turning into a demon and the curse on his arm. In the end he fights both for the Animal Gods to protect their forest, and for Lady Eboshi and Iron Town to survive being attacked by the Emperor and samurai. He refuses to stand by and let the woman responsible for the curse that will destroy him be killed.

  • Hilary

    The movie Watership Down comes to mind, it’s about rabbits on the English countyside looking for a new home. There is violence in the movie, these are not Disney rabbits. There are a few scenes with fights between rabbits that end up with throats ripped out, and some somewhat psychedelic interpretations of death, but its courage, trust, and clever tricks that save the band of rabbits. Also, a cameo song by Art Garfunkel, and the most beautiful watercolor animation. It is one of the most beautiful stories that directly deals with death that I have ever seen. “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And if they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you – be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.” Both the movie and the book are wonderfull.

    Another classic childhood favorite of mine was The Last Unicorn. The animation is old, classic early 80′s Ranken-Bass, but it is a beautiful story and movie. In the end it is not the hero’s sword that defeats the Red Bull, but the Unicorns love and courage.

  • Hilary

    Other relatively non-violent stories on my shelves . . . Anne McCaffery, the Dragonriders of Pern. I’d start reading them in the chronological order they were written, and I haven’t read any of the new stuff her son has come out with. The world of the Dragonriders, Pern, is complex socially but there is relatively little violence, like sword swinging, gun pumping, army’s clashing, death and glory body count violence. It’s science fiction, not fantasy even with the dragons. Very complex and well developed, strongly feminist as well.

    For some TOTALLY AMAIZING young adult fantasy, TAMORA PIERCE. Feminist, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic amoung her human cultures, particularly in her Circle of Magic series the magical children have to figure out ways of protecting their home, themselves and others that are not typical ‘blast your enemies’ violent magic. And when there is violence, there is also realistic consequences. People, she is better the JK Rowling, and I say this as a true Harry Potter fan, all 7 books, all 7 audio books, all 8 movies, and more at home. But this is high fantasy so if magic, Gods and Goddesses, girls who have magic cats and cut their hair to pretend to boys to be knights but still get their periods, is a problem for you, get over it and read these books anyway. There is medival type violence in the Tortall books, but courage and loyalty are more important.

  • Hilary

    Other non-violent movies . . . Whale Rider, about a small modern Maori village in New Zealand. A young girl loves her traditions and her grandfather, even though her grandfather is traditional to the point of prefering boys for leadership. No violence, nobody dies to reconsile the two. The Dark Crystal, by Jim Henson. Yeah, Jim Henson. There is violence, the garthim are scary, some Pod people get rounded up for slavery, the Skeksis are very cruel, but Jen and Kira save their world with loyalty and self-sacrifice to repare an ancient act of distruction. They don’t kill anybody, and it is the most amaizing live action puppetry.

    Hey, I actually have a Christian family movie! The Secret of Roan Inish – an Irish girl goes to live with her grandparents, after the whole family left the island they had lived on. But when that happened, her baby brother was lost in his floating cradle to the sea. She has to find her brother and bring him back to the family, and learns about her family history including Irish mythology. Fair warning, some little boy nudity but no sexuality. The music by the Chieftens is beautiful, and her grandmother actually prays to Christ in the movie. No violence other then her grandfather telling of his grandfather getting in a fist fight. This is a really beautiful family story.

  • Hilary

    I just thought of one more great cultural epic about the power of non-violence in a violent world: M*A*S*H. I’ve got the whole 11 season Martini’s and Medicine set. Yeah, there’s some sexism, slapstick, Klinger cross dresses through half of it, Hawkeye Pierce isn’t that respectful or sober all the time, but he never kills anybody, he hates war, and will go to any length to save life. A lot of episodes humanize the enemy, and show some of the consiquences of war, death, orphans, destroyed families, the damage on bodies and minds . . . this does not glorify violence as a solution to world problems. And it has one of the best TV Christians, Father Mulcahy!

    I think I have geeked myself out enough, I have to stop procrastinating and wash dishes, but I’ll think of a few more stories for tomorrow.

  • Hilary

    If nobodies mentioned it yet, The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo has the chance to kill Gollum/Smeagol, and every reason to after he threatened to eat Bilbo. But that moment of pity for the wretched creature stayed his hand, and that the first thing he did with the One Ring was NOT kill out of pity saved him from the worst of the Ring’s power. In LOTR both Frodo and Sam have the opportunity to kill Smeagol, and don’t, and for their actions the Ring is finally destroyed. Also, all the great leaders of Middle-Earth have a shot at taking the Ring for themselves, Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel, Faramir, and they all resist the temptation for ultimate power. JRR Tolkien was a devoute Catholic, this is well known to be Christian Liturature.

  • Hilary

    I’ve thought of another fantasy story about a boy growing up, and not killing the man who betrayed his parents to death, protected by his mother’s love and self-sacrifice when she would not stand aside to protect her life over her sons – and her love protects her son even beyond her death.

    Harry Potter.

    This is an incredably Christian story, even though the only time God is mentioned at all is in the 6th book when Harry slaps himself on the forehead and says “God I’ve been so stupid!” But in the 3rd book he has Sirius at the wandpoint when he believed that Sirius betrayed his parents to death and doesn’t kill him. Then when he learns that it was Peter Pettigrew instead, he still stops Lupin and Sirius from killing him. I could go on, and on, and on with examples from each book, and I’m sure you could find them online in fanfic forums. But in the last book he finds his parents graves, and there’s a quote from Matthew on them, “Where your heart is there your treasure is also.” In the final confrontation with Voldemort, he walks to his death when he thinks that is the only way to save everybody he loves. If you’re looking for a hero who protects his enemies, helps out other students in direct competition with him, finds redemption in sacrificial love, plays fair under life and death situations, and finally ends his battle with evil by disarming rather then killing, here you go. It’s only one of the biggest social phenominan in the past 15 years.

  • Hilary

    I’ve just done 8 posts, and I can still think of one more story to include. Doesn’t anybody else have some good fantasy/sci-fi on their shelves?

    I hope somebody gets something out of these stories, books and movies I’m recommending for creative non-violence.

    Anybody reading this, or am I just posting out into empty space?

  • Micheal McEvoy

    The Moravian (Unitas Fratrum) Missionary David Zeisberger and the Christian Munsee. The Gnadenhutten massacre, also known as the Moravian massacre, was the killing on March 8, 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, of 96 Christian Lenape (Delaware) by colonial American militia from Pennsylvania. The militia attacked Lenape at the Moravian missionary village of Gnadenhütten, Ohio.
    Also the book “The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History ” by James Junke and Carol Hunter

  • Dave

    Ragan, I think what you’re hitting on here is so important, and for those of us coming out of mainstream Christianity, the vacuum is poisonous. Without examples of strong (non-violent) heroes, the gap has been filled with heroes crafted by a culture dominated by violence. I’m not from an anabaptist background, but my understanding is that some of those communities spend much time celebrating the martyrs of their tradition, which helps give flesh and bone to their practices of peace. We need more, better, heroes.

    A few movies we’ve watched as a family celebrating heroes who don’t kill; “Ghandi”, “Hotel Rwanda”, “Schindler’s List”, and “The Conscientious Objector”

  • Kendall

    Check out the book – Martyrs Mirror : Of The Defenseless Christians Mennonite Peace Convictions . “The author’s gigantic work, the record of Christian faith and endurance from the first century to the Anabaptist persecutions in the sixteenth century. Here are stories of non-violent men and women who died for their belief. Written in 1659 by a Dutch Mennonite to strengthen the faith of his fellow believers and tranlated into German in 1748 through 1749 at the time of the French and Indian War for the same reason. In 1886 it was translated into English. A challenge to many generations”.