The religious roots and political power of nonviolence

Though the church has moved away from it at times, nonviolence has its roots in religion and must be embraced if we are to survive on this planet.
(Unsplash/Neal E. Johnson)

In his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was murdered, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The choice we face is no longer violence or nonviolence; the choice we face is nonviolence or nonexistence.” The truth of this statement becomes more obvious every day. If we are to prosper and perhaps even survive on this planet, we must embrace nonviolence when we fight to defend and promote the things that are precious to us and in which we believe. 

Faith communities are called to lead the way toward the embrace of nonviolence in this struggle, because nonviolence is a form of love and love is central in the teaching of most major faith communities. God’s Hesed, translated as tender mercy or love, is a major theme throughout Jewish scriptures. The Buddha insisted that no one can attain the “wisdom” of enlightenment unless he or she feels “compassion” for all sentient beings. Every chapter of the Qur’an but one begins, “In the name of God, the Benevolent, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” No religious leader emphasized love more absolutely than Jesus. The whole New Testament bears witness to this. “Faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love,” Paul writes in I Corinthians. The author of the First Letter of John actually equates God and love. “God is Love,” he writes not once, but twice. 

The authorities soon realized that they had to destroy Jesus if they wanted to preserve the social order.

For Jesus, love is not confined to the realm of personal relationships. It is an energy that binds us together in what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. At the heart of Jesus’ whole life and ministry is his announcement that the Reign of God is breaking into the world; that it is, in fact, already among us. Jesus’ teachings and actions portray and proleptically realize the Kingdom here and now. His welcoming the marginalized, his meal fellowship with prostitutes and tax collectors, his egalitarian interactions with women incarnate the universality of God’s love and the solidarity of life in God’s kingdom. 

Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of the Reign of God was a lethal threat to the religious and political leaders and the social order over which they presided. They accused him of drunkenness and gluttony and called him a friend of prostitutes and sinners, which indeed he was. In fact, he told the priests and lawyer, “Prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” The authorities soon realized that they had to destroy Jesus if they wanted to preserve the social order.

What is most relevant for any consideration of nonviolence from the point of view of Christian faith is not the authorities’ hostility toward Jesus but Jesus’ response to it. Jesus never backed down or even moderated his message or behavior. Sometimes he even escalated it. But he unequivocally rejected violence as a means of defending himself or advancing his cause and required his followers to do the same. “Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword,” he told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus’ nonviolence is evident everywhere in the Gospels, but he expresses it very directly and clearly in the Sermon on the Mount in these words: 

“You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return … and you will be children of the Most High, who makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be merciful as God is merciful.”

Jesus bases his teaching about loving the enemy on God. God, Jesus believes, governs the world through love. His followers are to imitate God.

Jesus’ embrace of and teaching about nonviolence was well known and emphasized in the church during the first 300 years. Biblical scholar William Klassen writes that these words about loving the enemy were the most frequently quoted of all Jesus’ sayings in the early church. In the first three centuries of our era, all the most respected and influential leaders of the Church taught that nonviolence and love of enemy was expected of  followers of Jesus.

Athenagoras, a philosopher and Christian teacher in Athens, in his defense of Christianity to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius around 177 A.D., wrote that Christians cannot bear to see a person being killed even if killed justly. He went on to write, “We, thinking that to watch a person being killed is practically equivalent to taking life, refuse to attend the gladiatorial displays.” Origen of Alexandria, the most brilliant and influential church teacher of the third century, wrote around 220 A.D. that God “did not deem it becoming to his own divine legislation to allow the killing of any person whatever.” Commenting on the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” Lactantius, a Christian leader and advisor to the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century,  wrote, “In this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a human being, whom God has wished to be a sacrosanct creature.” These teachers and leaders of the early church referred to the Sermon on the Mount as the basis of their teaching.  

After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, the churches awareness of Jesus’ nonviolent teaching and life gradually faded, but never completely disappeared, and from time to time came to the fore again. The life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi is a particularly dramatic example of this. One incident especially demonstrates St. Francis’ devotion to nonviolence. In 1299, while the fourth Crusade was raging in Egypt, St. Francis journeyed there with several Franciscan brothers. He and Br. Illuminatus left the Crusaders camp and walked unarmed into to the camp of Sultan Malik al Kamil. Thinking him an emissary from the Crusaders’ camp, Turkish soldier took him to the Sultan, who received him graciously. Francis remained in the Sultan’s camp for several days and conversed with the Sultan about Jesus and peace. The Sultan is reported to have said, “If all Christians were like you, I would become one.” 

In a talk to ambassadors to the Holy See shortly before his trip to Abu Dhabi and Morocco in 2019, Pope Francis referred to this peacemaking mission of St. Francis. He said, “These (upcoming) visits represent two important opportunities to advance … mutual understanding between the followers of (Christianity and Islam) in this year of the 800th anniversary of the historic meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan Malik al Kamil.” 

Jesus’ teaching and practice of nonviolence has been coming to fore again in Catholic and mainline protestant churches in recent times. In the Catholic Church this renewed awareness of Gospel nonviolence began in the 1960s with the papacy of John XXIII and has reached a  new level under Pope Francis. But Jesus’ radical nonviolence was rediscovered even earlier by people less directly or not at all connected to the church. In 1894 Leo Tolstoy, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, wrote the book “The Kingdom of God is Within.” Tolstoy argued that Jesus’ injunction against the use of violence even in the face of evil must be taken literally. Gandhi, a devote Hindu, was inspired by Tolstoy’s book, and began corresponding with him in the last years of the author’s life. But the Sermon on the Mount itself, which he read daily, was Gandhi’s chief inspiration for what he called “My experiments with Truth.”

The greatest misconception about conflict is that violence is always the ultimate form of power.

In his autobiography, subtitled “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” Gandhi explains that the purpose of these “experiments” was to develop an effective way of fighting for Truth based on Jesus’ teaching of love for the enemy and to develop nonlethal but powerful weapons with which to fight. Gandhi’s disciples all over the world like Martin Luther King, Jr. continued these experiments through the 20th century and into the 21st with remarkable success.

“In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,100,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, ” wrote New Testament scholar Walter Wink, commenting on this success in his book “The Powers that Be.” “If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa, India…) the figure reaches 3,337,400,00, a staggering 64 percent of humanity. All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.”

Writers Peter Akerman and Jack Duvall, in their book “A Force More Powerful” — which was the basis of the PBS television documentary of the same name — write:

At the end of the last century, the world’s airwaves and bookstores were full of material that looked back at what was called the most destructive hundred years in history. In reel after reel, and on page after page, we were shown the carnage, the awful cost, it was said, of defeating evil. But told only that way, the history of the century’s conflicts would reinforce a terrible fallacy: that only violence can overcome violence, that the struggles with the highest stakes have to be settled by force of arms. Yet if that were true, how was it possible that in the same century, rulers and oppressors having every conceivable advantage in violent force were pushed aside on every continent by people who did not resort to violence?

The greatest misconception about conflict is that violence is always the ultimate form of power, that no other method of advancing a just cause or defeating injustice can surpass it. But Russians, Indians, Poles, Danes … African Americans, Chileans, South Africans, and many others have proven that one side’s choices in a conflict are not foreclosed by the other side’s use of violence, that other, nonviolent measures can be a force more powerful. If the great sacrifices of lives and honor exacted by the last century is requited in the next one hundred years, it will be because that truth becomes more fully understood.

These quotes provide historical evidence for the effectiveness of nonviolence as a way of fighting for justice and human rights. More recently this evidence has been supported by academic research. Dr. Erica Chenoweth (Professor at Harvard Kennedy School) and Dr. Maria Stephan (Director of Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute for Peace) examined 323 social change campaigns from 1900 to 2006. The goal of their research was to create the first study to try to answer in a systematic, empirical way whether nonviolent or violent resistance methods are better at producing short- and long-term political change. 

In their book they set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice. Their findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. They also found that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent. 

The centrality of nonviolence in the life and teaching Jesus and the early church and its continuing, though less dominant, influence throughout church history — as well as the amazing accomplishments of nonviolence in the 20th and 21st centuries — confront the church with a serious question. At a time when ecological and political violence threatens the planet and all its living creatures, do we continue to ignore this gospel tradition or insist that it is relevant only in the personal and not the public realm? Or do we embrace it and incorporate it as a major emphasis in our teaching, preaching and evangelism as the early church did? Might our Christian witness be bold enough to support, participate and even at times initiate nonviolent action on behalf of justice and love even if it disrupts business as usual and puts us at personal or institutional risk? These are questions for the leaders and people of the church to consider as we reflect on what it means for us as Christians and as faith communities to follow Jesus today.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.