“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last week, we started a short series on Christian non-violence with an exploration of the idea that violence, even retributive violence, is inherently unjust.
The quote above, by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Where do We Go From Here?, sums up that idea very nicely. Violence only begets more violence, and if we want to move away from a culture of violence, we have to be willing to seek a better way.
But while I think most Christians would generally agree with that statement, it’s surprisingly difficult to find Christians who are as committed to non-violence as Dr. King was.
For most of us, non-violence is a wonderful ideal, but ultimately impractical in the sinful and violent world that we live in. This ideology is known as “moral realism” and is articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr, in his 1940 essay “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist”.
Niebuhr believed that as long as Christians live in a world where evil is present, pacifism was hopelessly impractical, and even damaging to a fallen world. In his view, refusing to engage in violence against evil only allows the evil continue its atrocities. Refusing to do battle on behalf of innocent people only allows injustice to continue. For Niebuhr, christian pacifism was misguided and harmful, because it perpetuated evil in the world.
And to an extent, I can see his point.
Non-violence seems impractical. We live in a society that is built on violence. The United States of America was birthed out of a violent conflict, and we’ve been stuck in it ever since. In the 230 years that the United States of America has been a country, we’ve only been at peace 21 of those years. That’s less than 10% of the time.
But just because that’s where our society has been, that doesn’t mean that’s where it ought to be. Violence may seem necessary, and Christian non-violence impractical, but perhaps that’s because we have never really given non-violence a chance. Perhaps, as Christians, we might be surprised at what God would be able to do through us if we would commit to Christian non-violence in the way we interact with our enemies.
And of course, it’s not true that nobody has ever given non-violence a chance. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He believed that race relations could be improved and justice could be secured for people of color if Black Americans would love their White oppressors and stand up for justice in a way that did not bring violence on their oppressors.
And when we look back on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it is precisely the example of Dr. King that we recognize as the most significant player in taking steps towards equality and liberation (though there are still many steps to go). It was Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance that was such a key player in advancing the rights of Black Americans in a culture dominated by injustice. It was Dr. King’s commitment to be the recipient of violence without ever becoming the actor that propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward.
Which is completely backwards from the way the world tends to work. But it shouldn’t be at all surprising to a people who follow a Crucified God.
The dominant narrative in Scripture is of a God who acts on behalf of a people who cannot act for themselves. But it seems like the dominant narrative of Christianity in our culture today is a people who act for themselves because they do not believe that their God will act for them.
The need for Followers of Jesus to engage in acts of violence to accomplish justice reveals a reliance on self rather than a reliance on a God who promises to make all things new. A commitment to Christian nonviolence requires a deep and abiding faith that God will be who God promises to be, even if we take no action on God’s behalf.
But, of course God calls us to seek justice. Which means we cannot be a people of inaction. But if God calls us to seek justice, why would God need us to stoop in the injustice of violence in order bring that justice about?
If we truly believe that God wants us to seek justice, we cannot compromise for the injustice of violence, even if that injustice seems to be immediately beneficial.
Ultimately, “moral realism” is just a form of pessimism that belies a lack of faith. Do we really not believe that God is capable of turning impractical nonviolence into justice? If so, why do we profess the resurrection of a nonviolent Christ? After all, is there anything less practical than overcoming death by being crucified? And yet that’s precisely the method that Christ used to reconcile and redeem the whole world.
The Gospel rests on the belief that God is making all things new. And violence is incapable of making anything new. Violence is a destructive master, but God is a creative and restorative one.
So non-violence may seem impractical. We may look around the world and see its brokenness, and see no alternative to just war and necessary violence. But I would submit that we see no alternative because we’ve never really sought an alternative. Non-violence only seems impractical if we do not believe that God is capable of using non-violence to render justice in the world.
If followers of Jesus would commit to non-violence, maybe we would be surprised at God’s ability to transform the world. Perhaps we could solve conflicts creatively, rather than destructively. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to settle for a broken world, but could begin to experience a restored one.