How should Christians respond to injustice and evil? Is it acceptable to use violence? How do you define violence, anyway? The debate over how to answer these and other questions has gone on for a very long time, with Just War theory holding the upper hand over pacifism since about the fourth century.
Ron Sider’s contribution to this conversation has a provocative title: Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. However, it cannot really be characterized as a contribution to the debate over whether Christians may justifiably use violence. And that is a good thing, since this debate usually spirals into dueling hypothetical situations that are ultimately unhelpful for giving guidance on how to live in the concrete situations of life.
Rather, Sider challenges both Just War theorists and pacifists to explore the possibilities of nonviolent action. If Just War theorists argue that killing must be a last resort, he says, “after a century in which Gandhi, King, and a host of others demonstrated that nonviolent action works, how can Christians in the Just War tradition claim that the violence they justify is truly a last resort until they have invested billions and trained tens of thousands of people in a powerful, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives?” (xiv) To pacifists he says that they should not just be anti-war, but pursue peace in ways that require risk and sacrifice: “How can their words have integrity unless they are ready to risk death in a massive nonviolent confrontation with the bullies and tyrants who swagger through human history?” (xiv)
Sider spends the bulk of the book giving historical example after historical example of successful nonviolent campaigns, whether they were led by Christians or non-Christians: the aforementioned Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as well as the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. In multiplying these examples, Sider is essentially saying that if so many nonviolent campaigns have worked with a relatively small amount of committed practitioners, just think what could be accomplished if people were trained on a global scale to embrace nonviolent means of effecting change. In light of this history, Sider says, we need more study centers, training centers, and organizations for nonviolent peacekeeping.
In all, this is a thought-provoking, challenging, and even inspiring contribution to contemporary Christian ethics. It is not likely that Sider will convince Just War theorists to change their thinking on war, but that is not his aim. Rather, his aim is to convince everyone, both pacifists and Just War theorists, that nonviolent action can work (and often better than violence) when it is backed with commitment and training.
Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.