The Difficulty of Being Nonviolent in a Violent World

As I shared here, I will be posting a few of my papers and reflections from this first half of my first semester at Phillips Theological Seminary. This piece was written for a discussion board in my Vocation Matters class; our topic was violence and pacifism, and the ethics of each. The book I reference here (and in quite a few of the pieces I’ll share) is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which really is a masterful work.

The idea of pacifism is one I have struggled with for a while. One of the early formative voices in my Christian journey was Shane Claiborne, and especially his book “Jesus for President.” For so long, based on readings there, and contemplation of Scripture, I have taken a hard pacifist stance. I think Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek” was sincere and fairly unambiguous.

However, despite being pretty set on this in theory, I have still struggled with the practicality of it internally. How does pacifism work in real life? What if someone is attacking my family? What is someone is attacking me? What if our nation is actively under attack? What if a violent act is the only way to prevent an atrocity? When does the act of pacifism in effect become violent in its inaction? All these questions trouble me.

But I have managed to come to some conclusions on the topic. For instance, personally, I believe nonviolence and a pacifist stance is one of my callings in the world. I am inspired by the actions of Gandhi and King and Mandela and others who have stood against violence with nonviolence, and thus proved the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of violence. I believe widespread acts of nonviolence can change the world for the better. I think it important to stand against the use of violence by the state, in whatever form that takes. I identify with John Ames II here, in his role as a pacifist pastor. As a representative of Jesus and the Church, I believe I have a duty to stand for radical nonviolence in a violent world, holding on to my ardent belief that it can change things, one small act at a time.

I also understand that, if I was a national leader, I would have a specific obligation to protect those who have entrusted me with that leadership. Sometimes, that means the use of violence. Ideally, that violence should be tempered with ideas such as Just War theory. Personally, I think it would be an act of violence to stand aside as someone is under attack, especially my own family. I have an obligation to protect my children, even if that means using violence. While I can’t imagine ever owning a gun, I think some sort of weapon or tool that could deliver proportional violence in the act of defense would be advisable. Here, I see the position of John Ames I, who felt that nonviolence in the face of such a violent thing as slavery was in fact violence. To not act was ethically wrong, even if the acts taken were undesirable in other contexts. The difficult part becomes not being caught up in that violence after it is no longer necessary, which Ames I seems to have become for a time.

Ultimately, I have realized something that was quite useful to me: we are imperfect people in an imperfect world. Bad things can and will happen. Sometimes, there is no good option, and no perfect response. Sometimes, the best thing that can be done is also something that would considered “Wrong” or “unethical.” That is the nature of the world. That’s why I think the role of secular leader and church leader are both crucial, to counterbalance one another, in the hope of creating a better, more peaceful world.

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One thought on “The Difficulty of Being Nonviolent in a Violent World

  1. I have adopted the stance of non-violence, laying aside the notion of pacifism. Let me explain. I think pacifism is understood to be completely passive in the face of violence, whether it is directed at oneself or another. I believe that is morally questionable. To me, non-violence means that we do not use violence as a tool to dominate in any way/shape/form, but a non-violent person will not stand by and allow any violence to be perpetrated on another, even if it means that we resort to violence to defend the victim. Such things are not estoteric thought-experiments; they happen every day. Police are called into domestic violence situations when a drunken husband is beating the tar out of his family with a baseball bat. Try Intervention tactics first, strong-arm if that doesn’t work, but for Pete’s sake, save the family. That, imo, is Christian. What are the parameters? Well, that’s the daily struggle of it all, isn’t it. 🙂

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