Nonviolence is a vague doctrine for most of us. Is it absolute? What about self-defense? What about the need to protect one’s neighbor from violence? And then there is the question of eating habits. Can nonviolence be practiced without vegetarianism? See what I mean? The questions make the teaching so vague that it can disappear in a sea of exceptions. Is this idea simply an ideal to which we strive? If so, does it fall into the category of “nice but impractical.” I want to put together some thoughts on this subject especially as it relates to nonviolence and resisting evil.
We Don’t Celebrate Nonviolence
“For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze on their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth.” (Revelation 11:9-10)
When President Obama announced the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, fans in baseball stadiums chanted “USA! USA!” and celebrated. Was it right to celebrate the death of such a person? One would understandably feel relief. I was appalled by the celebration.
I felt the same way about the execution of Timothy McVeigh who destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. If death is the appropriate punishment, I asked, then it is unjust because he killed 168 people. He can’t be executed 168 times. Nor would his suffering be equitable. There is something seriously wrong with this idea of justice.
Should the death of someone who caused other people so much suffering be considered just? I think so. Who is qualified to bring about that person’s death? More importantly, who is entitled to have the celebration afterward? Nonviolence allows us to ask these questions about justice.
Salvation By Violence
Americans understand our nation was born of violence. European settlement on this continent was violent. A few exceptions of nonviolent action to settle do not change this. The United States rebelled against its motherland and a Christian king. Within a hundred years time, war was waged within it over slavery. Should violence (slavery) be met by violence to liberate? Or is violence the heart of all things good and bad?
Good guys and bad guys use the same methods in the movies. The difference is the goal of the bad guy is to cause harm to innocent people. Whereas the goal of the good guy is to defend them. Walter Wink talked about “the myth of redemptive violence.” The story says the only way to stop evil is to do so violently. Consider the idea of “a good guy with a gun” stopping “a bad guy with a gun” from a church massacre.
I have watched churches drift into this mindset. It appears that more than the nonviolent gospel of Christ the church needs armed guards on Sunday mornings. I was told about one man on a bus trip to a fundamentalist “Men’s Retreat” learning he was the only person on the bus without a gun. He joked he was as protected as the President. I suppose you could say he had herd immunity. He was involved with people who had a herd mentality.
I was in a heated exchange with a person who claimed he would burn a copy of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church if the church did not become more welcoming. “Be careful of the spirit you exhibit,” I told him. “He who would burn books will also burn people.” With those words I ended our public discussion. However, I have participated in others where men wished to carry firearms to beat back the bad people when they show up. In other words, these are people who wish to be violent heroes.
Why would anyone aspire to be that? Because such a person is honored among what they perceive to be their peers. Their “group” includes a list of people they admire for violent actions. This group includes Jesus. I was asked by a friend who is not a Christian but advocates nonviolent resistance about Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the Temple. Another Christian man had made this point about Jesus “using violence for good.” I answered that Jesus action was not lethal nor had the potential to kill any of the “money changers”
The synoptic gospels tell that story at the beginning of Holy Week. Towards the end of the same week, Jesus tells Peter to “put away” his sword and heals one of those sent to arrest him. The response often given was that Peter’s action would have been ethically correct any other time than right before Jesus passion. The death of Jesus was God’s will. Peter was working against it. Such reasoning puts Judas in the place of doing the Divine Will.
Nonviolence Scares People
New ways of thinking and being scare us. The ways of the world do not even work in this world. America is the only nation in the world to use nuclear weapons in anger. Our defense budget is impossibly large. We fight never ending wars. We should know better than that. Nonviolence may scare us. But weapons do not give people real peace of mind. if they did we would not act as though we need so many. Too many younger leftists in America sound like right-wing militia people. Fighting for fighting’s sake appears to be preferred against a deliberately strategized nonviolent movement.
Worse yet, are the church people. Easter overcomes the violence of the world and the death it causes. The early church did not resort to violence to make converts. They did not burn temples to traditional deities. They did not use violence t punish Roman leaders or their neighbors during persecutions. Why? As John the revelator says, it is the way the world treats the righteous. The righteous cannot use these ways to overcome the world. “Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. (Revelation 13:9-10) In short, the ways of the world are the ways of the beast.
Recognizing these truths, we should rejoice that there is a better way. A way that is greater than personal choices. The nonviolent path is not easy to walk. Ask the difficult questions. There are answers. Jesus not only tells us how to resist the world. He tells us how to overcome it.