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A Call for Evangelical Nonviolence

by Ronald J. Sider

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 15, 1976, pp. 753-757. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


To discuss nonviolence in 1976 seems insane. We dare not cry peace, for there is no peace on earth today -- and there shouldnít be any. Our planet is lurching toward a nuclear Armageddon. The superpowers are armed with thousands of megaton weapons, each of which has a greater destructive power than all conventional explosives used since gunpowder was invented. Smaller nations rush to join the nuclear club. In 1973 the nations of the world spent $240 billion to train, equip and maintain their armies -- more than the total annual income of the poorest half of humankind. Allegedly to maintain a balance of power (and therefore "peace") but also certainly to preserve our affluent economy and our balance of payments, the U.S. sells tanks, supersonic fighters and missiles -- and now nuclear reactors too -- to both sides in the Middle East. The outcome can only be tragedy.

Perhaps realism and rational self-interest will prevail, and Moscow, Washington and Peking will manage to cling to détente. But that will not be peace. We hardly need the kind of unjust détente that the powerful rulers in the Kremlin and the Pentagon would ensure if they could.

I

What the world needs is not peace but revolution -- not violent revolution but fundamental change in economic relationships between the poor and the rich. According to the most conservative U.N. estimates, at least 460 million people are permanently hungry. A major cause of world hunger, of course, is unequal distribution, both within nations and among nations. The statistics are painfully familiar. Each American uses five times as much of the worldís food resources each year as the average person in India. Although we have only 5 or 6 per cent of the worldís people, we consume 33 per cent of its resources. Both directly through trade and economic policies and indirectly through support of unjust governments, Americans contribute to starvation.

As Jacques Ellul has insisted, unjust economic systems can be as violent as rampaging armies.

I maintain that all kinds of violence are the same the violence of the soldier who kills, the revolutionary who assassinates; it is true also of economic violence -- the violence of the privileged proprietor against his workers, of the "haves" against the "have-nots"; the violence done in international economic relations between our societies and those of the third world; the violence done through powerful corporations, which exploit the resources of a country that is unable to defend itself [Violence (Seabury, 1969), p.97].

And James Douglass concludes:

In the contemporary world of affluence and poverty, where manís major crime is murder by privilege, revolution against the established order is the criterion of a living faith. . . . Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me (Matthew 25:45). The murder of Christ continues. Great societies build on dying men [The Non-Violent Cross (Macmillan, 1968), p. 285].

If Western Christians observe how our unjust economic structures produce suffering and starvation, they cannot fail to hear a divine summons to revolution. But it must be a nonviolent revolution. Both pragmatic and theological considerations force one to that conclusion. Ellul among others has argued -- convincingly, I think -- that violence inevitably provokes more violence.

Nonviolent revolution is hardly a new vision. I would plead rather for a movement of evangelical nonviolence. I am persuaded that nothing short of a thoroughly biblical faith can provide the theoretical base and the staying power necessary to endure the discouragements and the agony of the impending struggle for justice.

A movement of evangelical nonviolence would immerse its direct action in prayer. Like Jesus, who agonized in prayer before facing the political and religious establishment of his day, it would pray for days and weeks for the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit before initiating a nonviolent campaign. It would make an evangelistic call for biblical repentance central to its approach. It would call upon politicians and businesspeople to repent of their involvement in the institutionalized sin of economic injustice. Finally, as a last resort, it would picket, boycott, obstruct and paralyze unjust political and economic structures.

I am aware that most American evangelicals have been less than enthusiastic about pacifism. But in 1974 at the second national workshop of Evangelicals for Social Action, one proposal that was endorsed as a valid way to implement the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern called for a movement of evangelical, nonviolent direct action. I am convinced that an evangelical commitment to biblical authority leads finally to nonviolence.

II

It is my contention that a biblical understanding of the cross leads necessarily to a nonviolent stance and, conversely, that only a fully biblical view of the cross and justification can provide an adequate foundation for nonviolence. As Dale Brown suggests, the "tendency to separate Godís love of His enemies from our love of [our] enemies is one of the heresies of the doctrine of the atonement" (Brethren and Pacifism [Brethren, 1970], p. 121).

The Sermon on the Mount calls us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies in imitation of the heavenly Father who bestows the gifts of nature on friend and foe alike (Matt. 5:43-48). The most vivid expression of divine love for enemies is the crucified Jesus praying for his executioners: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In Romans 5 Paul indicates that we perceive the depth of divine love only when we see that the crucified Jesus died for his enemies. "But God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. . . . While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:8-10). Love for enemies is at the heart of Jesusí work of atonement.

As John Howard Yoder has pointed out, the New Testament repeatedly calls on Christians to imitate the way of suffering love revealed in the cross.

There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation [of Jesus] holds -- but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature. . . . This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility [The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972), p. 134].

In I Peter 2, Christian slaves of unjust masters are urged to imitate the way of the cross: "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . . When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten" (I Pet. 2:21-23). "Be imitators of God," Ephesians 5 says, "and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:1-2). The New Testament explicitly and repeatedly commands Christians to love their enemies in the nonviolent, self-sacrificing fashion of the crucified Jesus.

If evangelicals really believe that Jesus is Lord and that canonical Scripture is binding, then surely there is only one possibility. If Scripture calls us to love our enemies as Jesus loved his enemies at the cross, we must either accept the way of nonviolence or abandon our affirmation of scriptural authority. Since Jesus atoned for our sins by carrying love for enemy to the ultimate degree, a refusal to follow his example at this point not only involves a denial of scriptural authority; it also constitutes a questionable doctrine of the atonement. God chose to reconcile his enemies and accomplish the atonement by nonviolent, suffering love. If we reject the biblical imperative to follow Jesus at this point, we in effect express disbelief about the validity of Godís way of reconciling enemies. But to do that is to express disbelief about the atonement itself.

Another heresy of the atonement also relates to our topic of nonviolence: some pacifists seem inclined to reduce the doctrine of the atonement to a revelation of Godís method of dealing with evil. According to one writer in a collection of essays edited by the Quaker pacifist Rufus H. Jones, the cross is Christís witness to the weakness and folly of the sword. . . . Jesus is acknowledged as the Saviour precisely because He challenged and overthrew manís reliance upon military power (The Church, the Gospel and War [Harper, 1948], p. 5).

Certainly; as Leon Morris noted recently in Christianity Today, "no theory [of the atonement] is adequate. . . . We need the contributions of quite a few theories to express something of what the Cross meant to the men of the New Testament" (March 28, 1975, pp. 41-42). But to reduce the meaning of the cross either to a revelation of the validity of pacifism or to a powerful disclosure that God is love is simply unbiblical.

Whether or not modern theologians like it, the New Testament asserts not only that sinful persons are hostile to God but with equal clarity that the just Creator hates sin. Paul reminded the Romans that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness" (Rom. 1:18). For those who know the law, failure to obey it results in a curse. But Christ redeemed us from that curse by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:10-14). Jesusí blood is an expiation (Rom. 5:18) for sinners precisely because the one who knew no sin was made sin for us on the cross (II Cor. 5:21). A pacifism which belittles or ignores this aspect of the cross will not, for very sound reasons, find a welcome hearing among evangelical Christians.

This understanding of the atonement relates to biblical nonviolence in several ways. If it is true (a) that all people are sinners and (b) that sin is not just an annoying inconvenience to oneís neighbors but also a damnable outrage against our just God and (c) that God "desires all men to be saved" (I Tim. 2:4), then surely to kill anyone who is not a Christian is to rob that person of the opportunity to accept Christ as Savior. Moreover, while the way of violence dehumanizes and finally destroys the oppressor, nonviolent resistance affirms the oppressorís humanity and calls him to decision. Nonviolent resistance can he combined with an evangelistic call to repentance. Because one challenges the oppressor with a gentle firmness that underlines Godís love even for him, the evangelical practitioner of nonviolence can invite the oppressor to repent and change even while opposing his evil actions.

III

I would also contend that only a biblical understanding that Jesus of Nazareth is now the risen Lord provides an adequate authority and an unshakable hope for a nonviolent movement.

Most Christians agree that Jesusí approach to violent persons was to suffer rather than to inflict suffering, to endure the cross rather than to use the dagger. His words are clear:

You have heard that it was said, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also . . . I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you [Matt. 5:38-44].

But Christians find ways to avoid the implications of such passages. Dispensationalists say that the Sermon on the Mount is meant only for the millennium; Lutherans argue that it applies only in personal relationships; Niebuhrians place it on a pedestal of irrelevance by honoring it as an impossible ideal.

Most evangelicals probably agree with Reinhold Niebuhr that in a world infested with well-armed Hitlers, Stalins and colonialists, persons and nations that follow the way of the cross get wiped out. So one must sadly and repentantly fight wars for the sake of peace.

One way to respond to this argument is to return to the New Testament concept of what Jesusí resurrection implied. When Jesus came preaching the Good News of the kingdom of heaven, he naturally aroused the messianic hope that the New Age of peace and justice was at hand, when the dead would be resurrected and the Spirit poured out. He went about Palestine announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, already beginning wherever people became his followers, forsook the values of Satanís kingdom, and started living the values of a very different kingdom. The early church also believed and taught that the New Age had begun. Jesusí resurrection and the gift of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23; Heb. 6:5-6) were seen as its first fruits. For the early church, Jesusí resurrection was tangible evidence that the New Age had invaded the Old Eon. They knew, of course, that the kingdom would come in its fullness only at Christís return when he would dethrone the principalities and powers and destroy death itself (I Cor. 15:20-24). But the resurrection was a visible sign that it made sense to begin living according to the standards of the New Age which had proleptically invaded the Old Age.

The life style of Christians ought to demonstrate their belief that the New Age has begun. Christians do not claim that we should wait to live by the kingdomís standards on lying, theft or adultery until non-Christians stop lying, stealing and fornicating. Nor should the church delay implementing Jesusí nonviolent method of overcoming evil with good until the Caesars and Hitlers disappear.

The resurrection stands as Godís tangible sign that implementing Jesusí nonviolent ethics now is not a foolish imitation of a visionary fanatic but rather a sane submission to the One who is Lord of heaven and earth. That the resurrection was the decisive clue to Jesusí identity is clear in every strand of early Christian literature. Before the resurrection, the disciples called him Master and Rabbi; afterward they said, "My Lord and my God." From Acts it is clear that it was the resurrection that led the disciples to confess Jesus as Lord (Acts 2:32-36; 5:30-31).

In Philippians 2, Paul writes: "God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:9-10 cf. Isa. 45:23). By applying these words to Jesus, Paul fills the confession "Jesus Christ is Lord" with the most lofty meaning imaginable. If that is who Jesus of Nazareth is, then surely one simply obeys. If the one who called his followers to love their enemies is the Lord of the universe, then surely any attempt to circumvent or ignore his teaching should be unthinkable.

IV

Jesusí resurrection anchors our hope. That nonviolent movements often disintegrate in despair when they experience the full force of organized injustice and systemic evil is clear. A new movement of evangelical nonviolence must anticipate the same temptation. We will not begin with an unbiblical view of progress or a humanistic view of the goodness of persons. We do not naïvely expect that a winning smile and a short homily will tame the Hitlers and the white supremicists of this age. There will be suffering. But the certainty that our Lord Jesus experienced all the evil and agony that the fallen principalities and powers could inflict and nevertheless conquered them in his resurrection will steady our commitment.

If the One who advocated nonviolent love and suffering as the true way to overcome our enemies had been destroyed by evil at the cross, if he had remained in death, then we would have to conclude that death and failure are the final word for those who live nonviolently. But he is risen! The resurrection stands as a powerful sign that the nonviolent way will ultimately prevail.

The exultant New Testament view that Jesus triumphed over the principalities and powers in the resurrection offers a sure foundation for enduring hope. In Ephesians 1 we read that God "raised him [Jesus] from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named . . .; he has put all things under his feet" (Eph. 1:20-22). In I Corinthians 15, it is clear that it was the fact of Jesusí resurrection that enabled Paul to declare confidently that the risen Lord will, at his coming, complete the victory over every rule and authority and power (I Cor.15:24).

Because of Jesusí resurrection and the resulting assurance of our Lordís final victory, it is a mistake to relate effectiveness and faithfulness in terms of either/or. Sometimes, in the short run, it may seem that they are incompatible and that we must choose one or the other. But the resurrection is our Lordís reminder that his followers must not be misled by the short-term view. Even in terms of relatively short periods of time, of course, nonviolence has often proved amazingly effective. But the resurrection assures us that in the long run the way of the nonviolent cross is also the way of the resurrected Sovereign of the universe.

Precisely at this point, a question forces itself upon us: Will any understanding of the resurrection be an adequate foundation for our hope? In his powerful book The Non-Violent Cross James Douglass makes a great deal of the resurrection, but for him the resurrection is only a symbol of oppressed peopleís awakening to the power of nonviolence: "Man becomes God when Love and Truth enter into man, not by manís power but by raising him to Power, so that revolution in love is revealed finally as the Power of resurrection" (pp. 23-24).

Such a view is both unbiblical and inadequate. If by Jesusí resurrection we mean merely the birth of nonviolent convictions or the inner assurance of the early Christians that they should continue to follow the way of the Nazarene, then our hope is based on nothing more than our own subjectivity. As Paul argued in I Corinthians 15, if Jesus of Nazareth has not been raised from the tomb, then Christian faith is useless.

The fact of the resurrection assures us that the way of nonviolent love will ultimately prevail. Our nonviolent campaigns can be joyful celebrations of his coming victory at the same time that we experience the cross of police brutality, prison and death. We know that at his coming the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and the nonviolent One shall reign forever.

V

Finally, there remains one pressing objection: Is not an appeal for an activist movement of direct, albeit nonviolent, confrontation with evil social structures fundamentally incompatible with Jesusí call for nonresistance? Did not Jesus urge us to turn the other cheek rather than picket, to refuse to "resist one who is evil" rather than boycott unjust companies? And surely a call for evangelical nonviolence contradicts Paulís command in Romans 13 to submit to the powers that be!

It seems to me that Jesusí own actions show that a quietist interpretation of his command not to resist one who is evil (Matt. 5:39) is mistaken. Jesusí cleansing of the temple provides the clearest evidence. Jesus engaged in aggressive resistance against evil when he marched into the temple, drove the animals out with a whip, overturned the money tables of the businessmen and denounced their defiling of the temple. If Matthew 5 means that all forms of resistance are forbidden, then Jesus contradicted his own teaching. Jesus certainly did not kill and probably did not whip the moneychangers, but he clearly resisted their evil in a dramatic act of civil disobedience.

Nor was Jesus passive in his vigorous attack on the Pharisees. Denouncing them as blind guides, fools, hypocrites and a brood of vipers, he uttered harsh public words condemning them for their many errors, including their preoccupation with tithing on small matters and their neglect of more important things such as justice and mercy (Matt. 23).

In John 18:19-24, we see how Jesus responded to the soldier who unjustly struck him on the cheek. The text does not say that Jesus submitted meekly to this injustice. He protested! Jesus replied: "If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" That Jesus respected the authorities at his trial is clear. But apparently his way of nonviolent love was not at all incompatible with protesting police brutality or engaging in civil disobedience in a nonviolent fashion. When we interpret Matthew 5:39 in light of Jesusí own perfect example and actions confronting evil persons, we see that the quiet interpretation is a distortion.

Nor do I think the widespread quietistic interpretation of Romans 13 among evangelicals is valid. There has been a solid Reformed tradition which has explicitly argued that Romans 13 does not preclude resistance against unjust rulers. No less person than John Knox argued that when rulers act unjustly and fail to punish sin and protect virtue, they lose their divine authority and must be resisted and overthrown. Let us grant that since government is ordained of God, all governments -- even very unjust ones -- possess a significant degree of authority although God hates their injustices and will eventually destroy them. Even bad governments can prevent chaos and preserve order. Hence the Christian respects and submits to their authority.

But only to a point. When Paul tells us to give honor where honor is due, one hears echoes of Jesusí advice to give to Caesar what is Caesarís and to God what is Godís. And Paul and the early church regularly defied the government when it demanded that they abandon their loyalty to Jesus and his kingdom. Since Christians owe absolute loyalty only to the kingdom, we dare offer only very limited, conditional loyalty to governments. Whenever governments call on us to act contrary to the demands and values of the kingdom, we must respectfully decline.

VII

Evangelicals have regularly approved and applied this principle of conditional obedience in the case of preaching and personal ethics. If governments forbid public worship or preaching, or command lying or adultery, it is, as Peter said, better to obey God than man. But evangelicals have not extended this principle to social ethics. Is there any way to justify this selective application?

I think not, Perhaps if one made the unbiblical assumption that evangelism is primary and social action is secondary, one could argue that one should resist the governing authorities in order to preach the gospel but not to work for social justice. Perhaps if one adopted the recent evangelical heresy that orthodoxy is more important than orthopraxis, one might be able to argue the case. But surely those who emphasize right doctrine more than faithful practice ignore both a major part of the evangelical tradition and the Bible. One of the major concern of John Wesley in the Evangelical Awakening was to correct an empty creedalism largely unconcerned with living the Christian life. I John says bluntly that any claim to know and love God which divorced from loving the hungry neighbor is a hypocritical lie (I John 3:15-18; 4:7-12).

The converse, of course, is also true. Orthodoxy is as important as orthopraxis. I John, which emphasizes the importance of concrete love for neighbor, also insists that he who does not confess that Jesus the Messiah is the incarnate Son of God is the antichrist (I John 2:22-25; 4:1-3, 15-16).

Loyalty to the kingdom then may compel one to resist governments for the sake of both evangelistic proclamation and social justice. Of course Christians will continue to respect even the most unjust governments as they develop nonviolent campaigns to witness to injustice and press for radical change. They will at times refuse to cooperate with unjust structures, but they will not try to avoid the consequent penalties.

One major focus of such a movement should be an attempt to change the exploitive economic relationship between the rich and the poor nations. As Jacques Ellul argues, "Unless Christians fulfill their prophetic role, unless they become the advocates and defenders of the truly poor . . . then infallibly violence will suddenly break out." The present food crisis is the tip of the iceberg of economic exploitation. Unless the West can somehow be persuaded to reduce drastically its affluent life style and thereby to lessen its economic exploitation of the poor countries, it is unlikely that wars can be avoided. When tens of millions of Indians begin starving, Indiaís government will be sorely tempted to try nuclear blackmail. And we will fight to defend our affluence.

I dream of a movement of evangelical, nonviolent direct action that will dare to pray and picket, evangelize and blockade until Americans can no longer ignore the way our affluence is built on poverty and starvation abroad. I dream of a movement that will agonize in prayer for weeks as Jesus did in the garden before beginning a direct action campaign against multinational corporations engaged in injustice abroad. I dream of biblical Christians who will initiate the campaign with a loving call to repentance from the sin of economic injustice. We will believe that God may even choose to convert those who head unjust multinational corporations. But we dare not stop with verbal communication. Civil disobedience infused with prayer, evangelistic proclamation and a profound respect for law and government will be necessary. I dream of a movement of biblical Christians who even as they are carted off to jail will express Christlike tenderness to policemen, who even as they are sentenced will explain Jesusí way of love and justice to incredulous judges, who will even dare to risk their own lives in order to release the captives and free the oppressed. By word and sign we must witness to the principalities and powers in the affluent countries that unjust economic structures are an abomination to the Lord of the universe. Only a movement of evangelical nonviolence is adequate for that task.


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