Jesus and Nonviolence - intro and chapter one

For the next six weeks,  I'm going to work through Walter Wink's book, "Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way."  I hope you will join me.

I'm really excited to go through this book with you and hopefully clear up some misunderstandings about what nonviolence is and isn't, and also, to begin to fire our imaginations for the possibility of living out some of Christ's more difficult teachings.

I hope this will be a positive discussion, one that we approach with our minds open to exploring ideas we might never have considered before, even if we find ultimately that we don't agree with those ideas.  Everyone is welcome to join the discussion; ask questions; give examples and viewpoints, share their questions.  

I do hope that we can elevate the discussion beyond the usual:  "What would you do about Hitler?" or "Would you stop someone from killing your grandmother/child/neighbor?"  I know these are the first questions people want to ask, but focusing on these extreme situations effectively shuts down all discussion about nonviolence as a lifestyle and practice.   To be honest, I have no idea what I'd personally do about Hitler.  I hope I would be as brave as the ten Boom family.  Perhaps I would find myself, like Bonhoeffer seems to have done, deciding that violence was the only alternative in that situation.  I don't know.   And I don't know what I'd do exactly if someone were threatening a loved one.  Does anyone?  (I know I'd defend them, certainly.**)  

We are all of us prone to violence, anger and retaliation given the right circumstances.  That is why it is so important to expand our imaginations for nonviolence, to practice it in the every day and train ourselves to respond in a way that is not natural for us.   We do this all the time in other areas of our life and discipleship: practicing gentle speech so that it becomes our natural way of speaking; practicing truth-telling so we are not prone to lies; practicing thankfulness so we don't become discontent grumblers.  This is the natural way our faith becomes action.

So, let's look at chapter one and see if we can start this conversation.  Again, please remember that the point of this study is to explore the ideas of nonviolence.  No one needs to defend violent action - we all know how that looks, feels, plays out in the real world; we are all experts in that.  I hope I will be able to answer comments and questions in a timely manner.  Thank you for your patience.

~  Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way - chapter one:

Wink begins by illustrating a number of successful nonviolent conflicts throughout history, including in the Philippines and Poland.  (The book was written in 2003, since then we have seen other nonviolent uprisings, such as Egypt.)

In 1989-90 alone, fourteen nations underwent nonviolent revolutions...If we total all the nonviolent movements of the twentieth century, the figure comes to 3.4 billion people, and again, most were successful.  And yet there are people who still insist that nonviolence doesn't work! (p2)

Wink posits these go largely unreported in our history books because we are "preoccupied" with "power politics and wars."

One of the problems with championing nonviolence, he says, is that 

The term itself is negative.  It sounds like a not-doing, the putting of all one's energy into avoiding something bad rather than throwing  one's total being into doing something good. (p3)

Other problems include (p3):


  • our interpretation of scriptures such as Romans 13:1-7 as being ordered "to obey the government whatever it does";
  • "turn the other cheek" as a divine order to slaves and servants to submit without retaliation;
  • "love of enemies" "twisted to render the oppressed compliant from the very heart, forgiving every injustice with no thought of changing the system."


These are troubling misconceptions and it is no wonder that most of us feel repelled by this understanding of nonviolence.  As Wink says,

Nonviolence meant, in the context of this perverse inversion of the gospel, passivity.  And the fact that "pacifism" and "passivism" sound so alike only made confusion worse. (p3)

He goes on to say that there are many people who simply want an absence of conflict, but that is far from Jesus' third way.  "Reconciliation" is a term that has also been misused.  

When church leaders preach reconciliation without having unequivocally committed themselves to struggle on the side of the oppressed for justice, they are caught straddling a pseudo-neutrality made of nothing but thin air.  Neutrality in a situation of oppression always supports the status quo.  Reduction of conflict by means of a phony "peace" is not a Christian goal.  Justice is the goal, and that may require an acceleration of conflict as a necessary stage in forcing those in power to bring about genuine change. (p5)

Is all violence the same?  No, says Wink:

Likewise, blanket denunciations of violence by the churches place the counter-violence of the oppressed on the same level as the violence of the system that has driven the oppressed to such desperation. (p5)

And finally, in a refreshingly honest section, he says some pacifists seem more concerned with their own righteousness than with the suffering of others. He quotes committed pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

To maintain one's innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler's death, would be irresponsible action.  To refuse to engage oneself in the demands of necessita, would be the selfish act of one who cared for his own innocence, who cared for his own guiltlessness, more than he cared for his guilty brothers. (p6)

Wink is demonstrating to us that far from being passive, nonviolence is a position of active concern for the oppressed and vulnerable of the world.

The issue is not, "What must I do in order to secure my salvation?" but rather, "What does God require of me in response to the needs of others?"  It is not, "How can I be virtuous?" But, "How can I participate in the struggle of the oppressed for a more just world?"  Otherwise our nonviolence is premised on self-justifying attempts to establish our own purity in the eyes of God, others and ourselves, and that is nothing less than a satanic temptation to die with clean hands and a dirty heart." (p6)

Finally, Wink leaves us with these questions to ponder.  Feel free to address them in the comments or just use them privately to examine your own thinking:

1. What objections do you have to nonviolence?

2. Do you think you could be nonviolent, if not consistently, then during a specific demonstration or vigil?

3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?



** See here for some of Gandhi's thoughts on defending innocents.  To understand these quotes in context, see here.