Is the Church called to non-violent protest?

sider book

I recently completed Ronald J. Sider’s latest book, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (BrazosPress, 2015). Here are my thoughts.

First, few people have as much authority to write on the subject of non-violent action as Ron Sider. He is more than an academic who has theorized about this (though he is no less than that). He is someone who has embodied his beliefs in the power of nonviolent action, and his account of his experiences in Nicaragua (pp. 47-48) testify to this. So, when Sider calls both pacifists and Just War proponents alike to put their lives on the line for the sake of peace, he does so with some authority.

This text is a moving account of how non-violent protests have brought ends to bloody conflicts and government corruption the world over. I found myself moved to near tears reading about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and, equally, of the way in which the women of Liberia played a key role in ending the civil war there through non-violent action. These stories need to be read and read again.

As someone who has at times been horrified by fellow Christians who sometimes seem all too eager for the US to engage in another war, I found these stories deeply challenging and am inclined to think that most evangelicals could benefit from reading this thorough account of how non-violent action has succeeded in place after place around the globe.

But I have a couple of criticisms of this book. My biggest criticism relates to the subtitle: “what Christian ethics demands but most Christians have never really done.” In this text, Sider makes a very good case that non-violent action often succeeds. But, oddly, he never makes the case that Christian ethics requires this. If Sider hopes to convince the evangelical community of the rightness of his argument, he will have to do more than stack up case studies. He will have to provide a biblical argument. Given the strong statement of his subtitle, it is surprising that he never actually does this in the book. As a result, one never comes to understand what Christianity uniquely contributes to non-violent action. Indeed, a few of his examples are of those who had no specifically Christian commitments at all. And so my question is, where does the uniquely redemptive message of Christianity fit into all this? Where precisely does the Prince of Peace fit into these efforts, as surely the church that is called to protest is equally called to proclaim. This needs to be clarified.

Finally, Carl F. H. Henry once said that the church is called to “a moment of protest.” Henry’s point was that in certain times of crisis the church must oppose governments when those governments have lost sight of their God-given roles in upholding justice. But Henry’s emphasis was that this was only to be momentary. Protest cannot become the central feature of the church’s life and practice. But some of the ways in which Sider seems to envision the church’s non-violent action seem to move in the opposite direction.

Sider declares at the outset that this book is not meant as a contribution to the ongoing debate over Just War Theory vs. Pacificism. Yet, I do think it shortsighted to not more fully address this very complex topic. What I mean is that at times Sider appears to give the impression that “if we would just give peace a chance,” it would work most if not all the time. But this seems very naïve. Yes, some nations were able to use non-violent protest (e.g. Finland) and refuse to deport their Jewish populations, but non-violence had no hope of pushing back the German Army that had taken over Europe. To do that it took a brutal, bloody, and yet necessary war—a war that, furthermore, likely saved thousands upon thousands of lives that would have otherwise been destroyed by Hitler’s aggressive and racist agenda. Sometimes, war is the most compassionate and humane option. The same could be said of the US Civil War. How many millions of African American lives were saved by ending slavery, through a very bloody, and yet, seemingly necessary war. My point here is just to say, that at times war is the best worst choice. Sometimes it is simply the only viable option.

Having said that, I also remain solidly convinced that the contemporary church (perhaps especially in America) needs to be reminded of the power of non-violence and also of the church’s biblical mandate to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). And this book does that very, very well. I highly recommend it.


2 thoughts on “Is the Church called to non-violent protest?

  1. A very good review of the book Jerry. I have enjoyed reading your blogs. Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Although I have read and agree with Ron Sider on much, I have not read this book. I need to read it. I had three thoughts as I read your review. They probably do not address the subject matter of the book but do touch on the issue of non-violence.

    The first regards the rising popularity of pacifism. Sider’s subtitle is intriguing, “What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried.” It is intriguing because most western pacifists have never “tried it” either. For most, pacifism is in word only and has never been tested. We thank God for this, but to say how someone else must respond to situations they have never experienced is presumptuous. I recently heard a professor confess to a classroom full of young students that if someone were to violently attack one’s spouse or children we ought to pray for God to grant the ability to not react in any violent manner to stop it. I considered this foolish and irresponsible, untested by the speaker and lacking any virtue. Who would not protect their spouse or children with their own life, or if necessary the life of the attacker? I have no respect for someone who wouldn’t. Emotional response, I know.

    The second has to do with soteriology. I know that Sider has written on this issue. I am concerned that non-violent theology has become so all encompassing that for many it has completely erased the theology of atonement with regard to Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross as a work of substutionary atonement is considered an ancient barbaric misunderstanding of the event. The death of Jesus is not a divine requirement. Rather, the cross was a demonic and “unfortunate violent event” that via the Resurrection God used to bring victory over evil and death. There was no “good” in Friday, only Sunday. It seems that in an attempt to create a “non-violent atonement,” it has become common to hold that Christus Victor theology is the *only* means of explaining the work of Christ. I understand the arguments against the view of substutionary atonement, and I might also reject it were it not for its Old Testament background. The New Testament themes of the cross are not monolithic. Christus Victor is certainly a very ancient and important theme of the Easter event but cannot nullify other themes like substutionary atonement, covenant, etc., in order to appease non-violent sensitivities.

    The final issue has to do with word definitions. I can go a very long way with Sider. Violence rarely produces anything good, and indeed, quite often produces more violence. It is to be avoided like the plague. And yet, in the end I am not a pacifist because I am convinced that pushed to its extreme (and the extreme definitely happens, this is not a “hypothetical”), a radical pacifism comes to the point where it simply empowers evil. A key to the issue is the problem with the idea that the opposite of “peace” is “violence.” In biblical terms the opposite of shalom is not violence, the opposite of shalom is evil. Moreover, violence cannot be equated with evil. Sometimes, and it must be rare, violence is needed to stop evil. This statement raises a million difficult questions, but in general terms, I believe it to be true nevertheless.

    • Well said friend! I couldn’t agree more. And interesting you should bring up theories of the atonement. Paula and I were just discussing that very thing a few days ago. I too find much to agree with Sider on, and this book is a very good read. But, as you noted, some clarifications on definitions is much needed. So good to hear from you Dwight!!

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