>Limits of Nonviolent Action

I posted a film on Facebook–The Singing Revolution–and a thoughtful friend wrote back with a question.

Thank you for all these great recommendations…very valuable…quick question…do you think non-violence can work in all situations? Could it work in North Korea for example or could it have worked for the native American Indians when most white people thought the only good Indian was a dead indian, etc.? It think it’s proven to be extremely valuable in many situations..but in all? There are certain episodes in history where it seems that conflict was necessary (remembering that there was some kind of war in history and David and Israel fought others quite a few times), but I haven’t been able to study this in depth as maybe you have…what’s your view on this? What would determine when it’s appropriate if there are some cases where confict is necessary or how do you explain some cases in history where it seems to have resulted in good (such as South Korea) if you think non-violence can work in all cases?

Here is my lengthy response (with minor changes, but paragraphs appear as divided on FB):

Great questions deserving more than the space allowed in a Facebook comment.

First, can nonviolence always “work”? This is a question John Howard Yoder wrestled with in an era after Gandhi but before the amazing changes in the 80s and 90s (see Politics of Jesus, esp ch. 12). He was actually dealing with pacifism as critiqued by Niebuhr as irresponsible (kind of), but much of the thought also relates to nonviolence. Yoder more or less said that we must do the right thing regardless of whether or not it “works,” and that in the long run only the right thing will actually work, that violence holds within it the seeds of continued violence and that the way of Jesus is the only thing that ultimately stops the cycle of violence. Walter Wink and others have taken that further and done more with the “myth of redemptive violence.” So pacifism and nonviolent action (I don’t mean to equate the two) may get us killed, but so will violence, and the ends are inherent in the means, meaning violence can work in the short-term, but not in the long-term picture.

Also, we might want to rephrase the question by adding a phrase: Does nonviolence work “better than violence”? On one level, war can only work 50% of the time since someone always loses, and really, both sides lose so much that the 50% stat is really just silly. So we can’t say violence and war always work. On a deeper level, nonviolent action is useful for a specific type of issue that is beyond what wars have normally been fought for (pride, expansion of empire, greed, etc.). Nonviolence isn’t very helpful for achieving those ends because they are the goals of the powerful, while nonviolence is generally the tool of the powerless. King stressed that nonviolence was practical not just right; a violent campaign for civil rights would only further divide the country and would lead to a blood bath. It is in this realm of “revolution” that the article “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” is so relevant. It demonstrates that nonviolence has historically been more “effective” than violence in revolutions–achieving justice, bringing down dictators, etc. Both violence and nonviolence can sometimes “work” in the short-term, but nonviolence works more often and with fewer casualties.

This isn’t to argue that the powerful can’t learn something from nonviolence. They can and should. Empires that only use violent methods for imposing their will cannot last very long–it is too costly economically and socially. Along these lines, even though most Mennonites are pacifists, many support the 3D initiative that attempts to get the empire to rely less on Defense and more on Diplomacy and Development. It’s even in the empire’s best interest not to rely on “defense” funding to achieve its goals in the world. Diplomacy and Development aren’t normally conceived of as nonviolence as explored by Gandhi, King, and the many subsequent activists, but there is some overlap in both thought and methodology. http://3dsecurity.org/

I suspect that at least part of your question relates to the “responsibility to protect” or R2P. This is the most recent expression of just war theory, where the “just cause” is protection of humanity and human rights. Google R2P, or see Wikipedia or this timeline — http://r2pcoalition.org/content/view/22/48/. Compare with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_War#Jus_ad_bellum.

This is a complex question, again deserving more space than this venue allows (or I have time or ability to adequately address). Many authors have considered it historically, philosophically and theologically, and I am in no way able to represent them properly, but I’ll say a few things. First, Christians disagree. Second, one’s conclusions are greatly affected by which portion of scripture one places emphasis on. Does a person look to Jesus (or Paul) or Abraham as an example–i.e., favoring a “literal-ish” reading of love your enemy (or Paul=overcome evil with good), or a “literal-ish” acceptance of Abraham rescuing the captives. [Which is normative for Christians today?] Third, some Christians have somewhat stepped aside of this raging bull since most of us won’t encounter the just war/pacifism debate in real life, and they have instead focused on “just peacemaking.” That is, what can I do to build peace regardless of what I think about soldiers killing? Whether or not killing is ok in some instances, I’m going to spend my life showing a better third way by building peace and justice. Glen Stassen has helped formulate this side, though he does not mean to diminish the importance of the jw/p debate.


The most common R2P question to pacifists (again, not the nonviolent direct action issue), is “What about Hitler?” I’ve seen some Quakers write, “Don’t look down on us because we wouldn’t fight when you ignored our advice that the Versaille Treaty wasn’t right. Don’t ask us to solve your 1940s problem with violence when you ignored our wisdom during the 2 previous decades.” Others point to the mostly nonviolent resistance of Denmark as another way to “fight” the empire (see http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/). Christians have other responses, sometimes including martyrdom (I will die for truth, not kill for it). This book is on my reading list (so many to read) — http://www.amazon.com/What-about-Hitler-Wrestling-Nonviolence/dp/1587430657. Similarly, some Christians are willing to die to promote peace and justice, but they do it in peace groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams instead of in the military (see http://cpt.org/).

I might summarize my thoughts this way (could change 🙂 ). And this is about pragmatic (rather than theological) nonviolence — Both nonviolence and violence often fail at stopping the oppressor from intruding (see expansion of Germany against military in each European country), but nonviolence is a useful tool in getting the oppressor to leave (e.g., Egypt vs. Libya; complicated example, I know).

And both violent and nonviolent revolutions have a hard time building something different in place of the old, but nonviolence seems to better prepare for new ways than using violence (Animal Farm). About specific instances: How much more would the world be on the side of the Palestinians if some factions weren’t killing Israelis. I believe nonviolence would be a powerful tool for them (explored a bit in http://www.justvision.org/encounterpoint). As the UN contemplates unilaterally declaring Palestine a country, would it already have happened if Gandhi rather than Arafat had been the leader? Obviously, no one can know, but I wonder about it. Or you mention American Indians or First Nations. Clearly, violence didn’t achieve the desired goals, whether it was King Philip’s War or the era more broadly. Guns, germs and steel were too much. I don’t blame them for fighting, absolutely not. But given our current place in history, we are able to see that other approaches could not have faired any worse for them. South Korea… there have been 3 Korean families studying here over the past couple years trying to learn how they can work for peace on the peninsula–in the church and in the broader society. One just switched from the peace program to the MDiv so he can be better prepared to work in NKorea as a missionary, believing it will open one of these days (Economist had a financial view on that a few months ago — http://www.economist.com/node/17800091?story_id=17800091&CFID=162211706&CFTOKEN=13487895). I don’t know what “should” or “could” have been done in 1945 or 1950 or… now, but it does seem (this is contested to be sure) that the Sunshine Policy was bringing about better changes than the current approach. Two Korean classmates disagree with each other on this (one affirms, one denies), but it’s my perspective.

To clarify, I see the Sunshine Policy fitting more in Diplomacy and Development of the 3D paradigm, rather than pure Gandhian nonviolence.

What would it look like if North Koreans could wrestle with Sharp’s book like Egyptians did. How could the 198 nonviolent methods work there?

Only somewhat related, you might appreciate this conversation with John Dear — http://www.jesusradicals.com/iconocast-episode-20-fr-john-dear-s-j/.


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