G. K. Chesterton famously said that the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, but instead been found difficult and left untried. If you read most proponents of Christian nonviolence, you’ll find that they generally feel the same way about pacifism.
This is why Ron Sider’s latest book is so helpful. In Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, Sider, a Mennonite ethicist who teaches at Palmer Theological Seminary, demonstrates that nonviolence has been far more effective than most people realize.
This approach to the issues of just war and nonviolence is beneficial for multiple reasons. By building this book around stories of small nonviolent campaigns around the globe, Sider glides past a more direct confrontation with the classic questions that divide just war proponents from supporters of Christian nonviolence. This frees him to focus instead on the ways these two traditions overlap, which are actually far more numerous than one might think given the high-pitched tone that often characterizes the debate.
The key to appreciating this book is understanding these similarities. Even just war theory, after all, treats violence as a last resort, permissible only when all nonviolent possibilities have been exhausted. Sider is less concerned with making the case for nonviolence against just war than in demonstrating the true breadth of possibilities for promoting peace in God’s world. Because of this helpful approach, even readers who dissent from the author’s pacifism can find much to appreciate.
The World Was Transformed
The particular strength of the book—and of Christian nonviolence more generally—is that it forces believers to recognize that Christianity measures political actions by a richer set of standards than the outcomes they aim to achieve. We’re supposed to support policies consistent with (or at least not antithetical to) certain core teachings: that all human beings are made in God’s image, that sin was vanquished at the cross, and that the Resurrection has inaugurated a new moral order. Political behaviors, then, cannot be judged purely by whether or not they eliminate an enemy leader, secure free elections, or achieve any other positive outcome. For Christians, political choices must always be judged by how they comport with the moral law of God, which means using distinctly Christian reasoning to reckon with both corporate entities like the nation-state and the individual leaders that dictate national policy.
Of course, there is nothing in just war theory that prevents its supporters from recognizing those facts. But the danger of putting elaborate attention on the criteria for just war is a tendency to forget that Christianity has long taught its followers to, at the very least, exhaust all other possibilities before resorting to violence.
The point, then, is not that we must necessarily dismiss war or political violence as intrinsically bad, although Sider himself would. Rather, it’s that Christian theology reminds us that when God willingly endured the full weight of sin and, in so doing, robbed it of its destructive force, the world was transformed. This act invites believers—pacifists and non-pacifists alike—to reimagine our methods of promoting peace and justice in light of the Cross and the Resurrection. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, famously said that every person in our day-to-day life will one day become someone so awful that we can’t bear to look, or so splendid that we’ll be tempted to bow in worship. The stakes of political decision-making are high because our decisions—on war and peace, on justice and reconciliation—affect the lives and destinies of immortal souls. When Christians forget these facts and adopt positions purely on partisan or nationalistic grounds, we do violence to the gospel and true harm to countless individuals. Sider’s book is therefore a bracing reminder that in politics and national conflict, we wrestle not with mere mortals but with future demons or angels.
To understand why this is so essential, we need only look to the deplorable polling numbers showing that evangelicals are depressingly likely to support the use of torture on war prisoners, including the CIA’s horrifying abuses during the Bush administration. Our bedrock belief that human beings are made in God’s image ought to make torture absolutely unacceptable, regardless of potential benefits. Yet far too often evangelicals have been willing to grant its legitimacy, not through theological reasoning or careful study of Scripture, but through naked pragmatism—the belief that torture, if it saves lives, does greater good than harm. I can’t think of a more frightening example of the shrunken political imagination that prevails in some quarters of American evangelical life.
Books like Sider’s call us back from this dangerous abyss. They remind us that even a nation’s wickedest enemies are not simply disembodied villains, but human beings made in God’s image and endowed with the capacity to know right from wrong.
Effectiveness Isn't Everything
That said, Nonviolent Action would benefit from greater theoretical reflection. As it stands, it’s basically a short history of nonviolent campaigns in the 20th and 21st centuries combined with a kind of field manual on contemporary nonviolent movements. Unfortunately, this gives the book a decidedly pragmatic tone and a seeming focus on questions of effectiveness above questions of virtue or justice. Sider’s reasoning is likely two-fold: First, focusing on real-world situations rather than theoretical discussions of political justice makes it easier for just war supporters to read the book profitably. Second, nonviolence actually has a pretty good track record, and many people simply don’t realize how impressive it’s been.
And yet, appeals to the effectiveness of nonviolence are tricky. After all, they bring Sider uncomfortably close to the most egregious abusers of the just war tradition, who focus on outcomes rather than justice itself. A further concern is that arguing chiefly in terms of effectiveness practically invites the famed hypotheticals that typically come up during these conversations: Is nonviolence always the best means of achieving peace and justice? From the standpoint of public morality, that's not the most important question, but it's one that Sider's approach encourages.
These are common problems with utilitarian reasoning. But they must be noted given the book’s attempt to use effectiveness as a primary argument for nonviolence. Sider’s history of successful nonviolent campaigns is quite useful, but I wish he had bookended these case studies with more theoretical reflections on the moral case for nonviolence. To be sure, there are discussions of that point, but they are often embedded within more functional arguments about effectiveness.
These concerns aside, Nonviolent Action is a welcome addition to discussions of just war and nonviolence, particularly for how it opens our imaginations to the moral and spiritual dimensions of decisions on war and peace. Sider forces us to recognize the imago dei in our enemies. No matter you theological tradition, this is an essential discipline to cultivate.
Jake Meador is an editor at Fare Forward.
See also: Ron Sider's Top 5 books on nonviolence.
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