Nonviolence 101 – Becoming a People of the “Third Way” (Part 1)

Nonviolence 101 – Becoming a People of the “Third Way” (Part 1) February 2, 2011

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.


Throughout my life, I have been part of a unique culture.  This is a group of people who can point to several common experiences and values.  Not only so, but there is a common story that unites us all.  This is a story of revival in the best sense of the word.  One that led to several phases of religious and social persecution, for many, even to the point of death.  My relatives, on both sides of the tree, can be traced back to this radical sect that chose to leave everything they had behind in order to search for a better way of life for their kin.  Rather than taking a stand in the face of injustice by clenching to the sword, they chose to find their security in the nonviolent way of Jesus.  When the persecution did not relent, many boarded ships headed toward the “new world.”  It was during the late nineteenth century that my great grandfather arrived in the United States as a young boy.

Three generations later, I was born to wonderful parents who both could trace their roots back to the narrative of peace in the face of persecution.  But, oddly enough, now about a century removed from arriving in America, the radical nature of my ancestors had begun to fade.  My people are still quite bonded by a common culture, but something is quite different.  I grew up with wonderful traditions, many of which centered on food and family.  Every holiday we had zwieback, which is possibly the greatest bread that strawberry jam ever had the pleasure of pairing with.  Often there would be other foods from the motherland such as bierocks and varenika.  In our churches, I still get forced into playing the name-game, where based on my last name, older folks can tell me all about my family history and how they are my fifth double cousin twice removed.  Our tradition is wonderful, but usually is experienced outside of the theological marks that originally set us apart.

The reality of my upbringing in this wonderful family of churches is that one key distinctive, which set us apart in the old land, is no longer part of our identity (at least as a whole).  Finding comfort in a home that allowed us to exercise our faith in freedom, led to a love for this country.  Over time, such a love led new generations into military service to defend the nation.  By the time that I was growing up, nonviolence became that silly, unpractical belief that was more likely to be the butt of a joke than a central teaching of Jesus for the church.  In a very real sense, I grew up as a Mennonite Brethren but not as an Anabaptist.

It was not until I was in my twenties that this seemingly outdated perspective on the discipleship way of Jesus began to draw me in.  After spending all my life with the assumptions of a Southern Baptist (no offense to my Baptist friends), by conviction I have embraced my Anabaptist roots.  In what follows is an exploration of the subject of nonviolence in the Bible, followed by some reflection on why many Christians dismiss it as folly.


To begin this journey into the theology of nonviolence, it will serve us well to distinguish between terminology that is often used synonymously. Pacifism is the term that is most often employed to discuss the historical view of the Anabaptists, at least in common circles.  The problem with this word is that it communicates the idea of inaction or withdrawal.  Pacifism is often distorted to mean passivism.  Another term that is used is nonresistance.  A surface reading of Matthew 5.39 states, “do not resist an evil person.”  Therefore, it is easy to see why nonresistance is a choice label.  Traditionally, the Mennonite Brethren have preferred this term, but the New Testament does not seem fully against resisting someone if justice is threatened.  For the next few posts, we will explore why I am uneasy with both of these common ways of describing Jesus’ teachings against violence.  In order to do so, it is time to explore the relevant biblical texts (well, in the next post that is).

What have been your experiences with the subject of violence, just war, and nonviolence?  I would love to hear your stories, even if you disagree with my perspective.

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  • I look forward to reading your upcoming posts on this topic. It's a subject that I have been contemplating lately after having read through the gospels again with a fresh perspective. The fact that my view, after reading the gospels again, has changed towards the death penalty has made me think more about what Christ would have our views be towards war and conflict.
    Looking forward to reading more 🙂

  • Thanks, Kurt, I await the next post with interest.

  • I, too, look forward to the next installment. I have increasingly become committed to the ethic and spiritual value of non-resistance and its relationship to non-violence. Might you be saying something in this regard? I am also intrigued by how you weave your personal story and your ecclesiology together. Peace and thanks.

  • Shari Nyles

    Thank you for taking the time to write about this subject. I especially look forward to your insights on why Jesus's way of peace/non-violence is dismissed by many Christians.

  • I sense a conviction behind this series that arises from a proud tradition stretching back to the Anabaptists. My experience is one of weakness and shame because the church taught me about a Jesus who renounced violence yet it did not teach me how to be as shrewd as a snake and innocent as a dove. May we be a people who make peace rather than merely believe in it – who stop fighting imaginary spiritual wars but engage real aggressors with true spiritual weapons.

    • Kurt


  • kimberly quinn

    I will just add my words of anticipation of this topic. Having reciently joined the Mennonite Bretheren denomination I have not yet had the opportunity to study this topic in depth.

    • Kurt

      Very cool. I will do my best to present their perspective.

  • Although I am not able to embrace non-violence as completely as the Anabaptist, I have great respect for their point of view and tradition. The Church needs to learn about non-violence from the Anabaptists. They add an important perspective/voice to our collective understanding. Often Christians give up on finding that third way and resort to violence instead of persevering through persecution. We need to know how to handle difficult situations better. The challenge is in being able to give ourselves grace when we fail without condoning our failure.

    I hope somewhere in this series you talk about the difference between being a victim and non-retaliation. While those who have been victims may find it very difficult to understand, I perceive important differences which change the balance of power to be in favor of those who are getting hurt.

  • Larry

    Nonviolence is a worthy goal. But there are many people who don't mind using violence and firearms to get what they want, and force others to accept them. Therefore we should be ready and able to defend ourselves, with firearms, if necessary.

    • Kurt

      Larry, I respect your opinion but would ask you to show me that in the New Testament. Its not there.

      • Eric

        Luke 22:35-38 – Not necessarily a command to defend yourself, but something to think about.

        The allowance for self-defense comes from Leviticus… which I believe is a look at how the Lord wanted to set his people apart. It is was given directly from G-d to his people… and even then, self-defense had its limitations. It has to be “striking an intruder in the dark and he dies” and in the daylight a killing of an intruder would make the defender guilty. Leviticus also covers military service where men could opt out if they did not want to serve. I am not stating this as someone who follows the Old Testament law as it was intended, I’m stating this to show that G-d delivered these rules to His people.

        If I am supposed to die for my faith (and it could happen when I have to travel to some nations that persecute Christians), I am ready for it. If someone breaks into the house, the gun is the last resort, but it still is one.

        • Eric… you make some keen observations and have some decent balance in your approach. However, in Matthew 5 Jesus makes clear “you have heard it said… but I say to you, do not resist an evil person with violent force.” 5.38

          I think that the Levitical allowance for self defense no longer stands because Jesus showed us a better way.

        • How we humans evolved—or how God created our bodies, if you prefer—gives lie to misguided Mennonite theology about pacifism.

          Make a fist, and note how your hands are a perfect fit “to better punch the living daylights out of competitors.”[1] In clarification, Paleolithic (pre-agricultural) Non-State society was not war-like[2] because they had few possessions, including agricultural land, over which to fight;[3] however, ethnological studies show primitive violence was mostly in regard to men competing for/protecting women.

          If another male attacks your woman, you—if you have any hint of humanity in your bones—will protect her, automatically, according to the way you evolved/God made you.

          A Mennonite professor at a Mennonite college discovered this reality the hard way, and was only able to comprehend the lesson for a few fleeting moments before his tragic death, when he finally acted to protect his woman, albeit with a fatal strategy and appalling results stemming from his neglect to understand how God/evolution had made his body to work.

          Yes, Jesus taught non-violence, but he did it in a context of (a) rejecting family life in general and, in particular, not having a woman—not surprising for a Greek Cynic street-preacher of the day,[4] and (b) rejecting participation in a normal economy and vociferously eschewing any accumulation of wealth, even a pillow on which to lay his head.

          In short, to be as non-violent as Jesus—without being a hypocrite and ignoring the rest of his teachings—one must live like Daniel Suelo,[5] the only man I know in America who lives exactly like Jesus taught, moneyless and without family, and have nothing another man would want to take.

          Yes, we family men in today’s economy can reduce violence by reducing inequality and living simply. I’m all for that, and the Mennonite “Living More With Less” tome is in my small, simple house, and well-worn.

          However, if one has a woman and possesses pillows and barns and TVs and more, something more than zero violence is required.

          So I’m with you, Eric, when you say “the gun is the last resort, but it still is one.”

          I’d rather have the correct tool in that gravest extreme to do the very necessary job that the Mennonite professor did set out to do—in accordance with how God made him—and increase my chances of successfully completing that task alive, for the sake of my family.
          1. Human Hands Evolved for Fighting, Study Suggests. (2012) LiveScience.
          2. Is it natural for humans to make war? New study of tribal societies reveals conflict is an alien concept (2013) The Independent (UK)
          3. “The emergence of systematic warfare, fortifications, and weapons of destruction follows the path of agriculture.” ~Violent Origins. (1987) Stanford University Press.
          4.The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Dr. James Tabor, University of North Carolina.

    • > people who don’t mind using violence

      Including Mennonites themselves (via delegation.)

      “Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to a tradition that
      rejects or, at most, passively abides state power, they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state…” ~Mennonite Takeover? (2010) The American Spectator

      “…the new political fervor that some, tongue-in-cheek, are calling ‘Mennonite mania.'” ~A New Faith in Politics (2008) Chicago Tribune

      Let me tell you the reaction of a progressive, Sojourner magazine-reading Mennonite church group when I broached the inherent coercion and violence of the State: “we’ll pray for you,” which is to say in pacifist-aggressive language, GTFO you goddam rightwingnut.

      I was “othered.”

      Which is the same reaction that happened a few years earlier in an evangelical, Fox News-watching Mennonite church when I broached the inherently coercive nature of the Hell fable: “we’ll pray for you,” which is to say in pacifist-aggressive language, GTFO you goddam libruhl.

      Othered again.

      But at least I now have the unique distinction of being all things to all people. 😉

      The Mennonite church will not tolerate a fellow addressing the subject of violence outside their feeble pacifism masquerade.

  • Carlos

    Kurt, I find your writing on Christian non-violence compelling. On a cognitive level (belief, confession, theology I can say yes and yes). But when I am honest about what is in my heart when I feel threatened, outraged (especially at social, political and interpersonal oppression) and frustrated – it is not a pretty picture. I’m at a loss how to change this. How do I move my belief from my cognitive agreement to an embodied and emotional non-violence? I’m just kinda crap at the love your enemies thing –

    • @5a6efffa95e280643902c542d7dd2e46:disqus … that head to the actions… thats a hard transition.  One thing I’ve been thinking about is how the “violence within” affects how we would react to “violence without.”  In other words, I am asking the Spirit to cleanse my heart of hatred and violence of any kind so that I might act upon my convictions if the time ever called for such.  The more I know Jesus the less I’ll be tempted to draw the sword.  But yes… this is hard stuff!!!!!  Keep seeking the kingdom friend!  Perhaps you’d enjoy an article that relates to your question in a direct way “I’m Done With Living Like a Christian”