Saturday, 2 July 2016
The "What if" question everyone has about nonviolent resistance.
Whenever the topic of nonviolence is mentioned in a conversation there is a question that without fail will always come up, the wording may vary but it will always be something along the lines of, “But what if someone had to break into your house and threaten your family?” It is a natural question to ask because everybody wants to keep their loved ones safe from potential harm and while I imagine that there are thousands of people out there better qualified to answer this question than I am I will nevertheless try to answer it first by using a simple illustration and then by looking at an example from the life of Jesus as well.
Imagine for a moment that there was a man who had two children, he loved both of them dearly despite their flaws and shortcomings. Imagine that one night the two kids got in to a fight and one pulled a gun out on the other. What would the father do? Would violence against the aggressor be his only option or might he try something else? No doubt he would first try to calm the situation down hoping that no one would end up getting hurt. His concern would be for not only the son whose life was in immediate danger but also for the son whose life was in danger of forever being ruined were he to pull the trigger. There might even be some physical restraint exercised in the ordeal but certainly the priority would be that no harm would come to either son. If the trigger were to be pulled the father might even resort to stepping in front of the bullet himself, giving his life to save another.
The big difference between the initial question that I asked and the story that I set up is that I made it personal by making the aggressor part of the family. No longer was the perpetrator faceless but we gave him an identity and value in the fathers eyes. Doesn’t our Father in heaven value all people in a similar manner? As humans we simply cannot know every person on earth so intimately and affectionately, we all have our favorites that we would do anything for, the people whom we have close bonds with. But God is not limited in the ways that we are, He knows each one of us by name. God saw us while we were still being formed in the womb; He can look at all mankind and say that He desires that none would perish.
There is a portion of scripture that comes to mind when I think about this scenario. It causes me to believe that God is like the father in the story I told, it is recorded in Romans 5:6-11:-
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for someone who is especially good. But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.
While I was thinking about the classic, “what if someone broke into my house” argument I also realized that a similar scenario had indeed taken place in Jesus’ own life, leaving us with no doubt as to how a Christ follower should react in the face of violence. The story does not take place in a home but in a garden on the night of His arrest and the family He was with was not His flesh and blood relatives but the ones He Himself considered to be His real family (Mark 3:33-34).
Looking at the various accounts as they are recorded in the gospels we pick up quite a few details from this event. We know that it was night time and that Judas arrived on the scene with a large contingent of Roman soldiers and temple guards (John 18:3) who were heavily armed (Matthew 26:55). One of men with Jesus, identified as Peter in John’s account, goes into survival mode, takes out a sword and cuts a man’s ear off (John 18:10). Peter’s reaction was really the response that the question this article was written about would justify. Except that Jesus rebukes him for his action and despite the danger that He himself was in, we see something remarkable take place. Jesus’ response reveals that He was concerned with the well being of all parties involved. We see it as He heals the wounded man’s ear (Luke 22:51) and also in Him telling the soldiers that He was the one they wanted and to let His disciples go (John 18:8).
Jesus’ response reveals to us at least three things. Number 1, there is always an alternative to violence, even if it means laying down your own life for another. Number 2, the heart of God was for the well being of all parties involved. In the same way that He wanted to protect His disciples, He didn’t want to harm even those who sought to kill Him. Then lastly number 3, we do not overcome evil by doing evil but we conquer it by doing good. Romans 13:20-21 says, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Burning coals in scripture has a cleansing connotation (Isaiah 6:6-7), meaning that you do not conquer your enemy by becoming like him and destroying him but you overcome evil by showing him the love of God and making him like you.
This is nice theology in theory but one cannot say how they would react in the heat of a moment if they found themselves in a dangerous situation. I do however believe that nonviolence and enemy love can be learned as we learn to follow Christ. I used to drive around with a knife in my car and anytime I stopped at a specific traffic light where smash and grabs were common (both my wife and father-in-law have been robbed there), I would take the knife out thinking that I would not hesitate to thrust it into the arm of anyone who would break my window. After my initial encounters with Anabaptist literature and a more honest look at the Sermon on the Mount I ended up taking the knife out of my car and started praying for these people instead. For me it was a start, it wasn’t so much an embracing of pacifism but a deliberate action to renounce violence and start intentionally seeking the well being of others, even those who would harm us.
I don’t know how I would react if something had to actually happen one day, I hope that I never have to learn the answer to it either. I am pretty certain though of how Christ would want me to respond. It's not the easy way, it's certainly not the popular way but it is the way of Jesus modeled for us on the cross.
PS – I stumbled upon the website linked below last week, it seems to be a great resource for learning about nonviolence, if you want to learn more about nonviolence and if it actually works, check it out.