Book review: ‘Nonviolent Action’

Nov 23, 2015 by

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Most people know, at least generally, what Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. did to effect change with nonviolence. But can you name four other times where nonviolence altered the course of a country’s politics? After reading Ronald J. Sider’s Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, you will be able to cite at least a dozen additional examples from the past century.

Nonviolent Action (2015)

Nonviolent Action (2015)

This well-documented book is not about the theory of nonviolence nor the biblical or ethical basis for nonviolence. It chronicles contemporary narratives of nonviolent actions.

Most of the chapters cover regime changes in Nicaragua, the Philippines, Liberia, Egypt, Poland and East Germany. The book culminates with the way Christian Peacemaker Teams, Peace Brigades International and Nonviolent Peaceforce all stand in the trajectory of change-based nonviolence yet emphasize the protection of people who are vulnerable to victimization.

Any new expression of nonviolence owes something to prior movements. And yet, each has a fresh, experimental dimension. The organizers never seem to know for sure if their efforts to mobilize people power will turn the tide or simply call down more repression. In this light, Sider makes a strong case that the recent growth of nonviolent action worldwide increasingly backs the thesis that nonvio-lence does work to bring about change.

“People power” was the phrase used in the mid-1980s when the Philippine people asserted their influence over the Ferdinand Marcos regime. After Catholic bishops announced the presidential election process to be fraudulent, a groundswell of peaceful actions led to the installation of Corazon Aquino. Notably, two top military leaders with 200 soldiers rebelled against Marcos, making themselves vulnerable to the government forces. Within two days they were surrounded — indeed, protected — by thousands of risk-taking civilians. The nonviolent tide could no longer be turned back.

Sider has always maintained that large-scale nonviolent actions should never only be promoted by pacifists. Those who espouse a just-war theory should be equal proponents. If war is truly a last resort, then it stands to reason that numerous nonviolent alternatives will be tried and exhausted before military means are employed.

Unfortunately, “we have never systematically trained thousands of our people to explore the full possibilities of nonviolence in a serious, sustained way,” writes Sider. “Both the pacifist and just-war traditions demand a massive commitment to nonviolent action.”

More than 30 years ago, non­violence scholar Gene Sharp noted that nonviolent movements still operated in an improvisational manner, lacking good leadership and strategic forethought. Sider concurs that little has improved since 1981 when Sharp presented his analysis, despite the growth of hundreds of peace-studies programs in universities. Faith-motivated peacekeeping organizations have led the way in sustainable nonviolent growth worldwide. But, he says, they number only in the hundreds.

Sider is calling Christians and non-Christians to mobilize peace-waging forces comparable to any nation’s military. I see this book as swinging full circle back to his prophetic speech at the 1984 Mennonite World Conference assembly in Strasbourg, France, which gave rise to Christian Peacemaker Teams.

“What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties?” he asked.

He was thinking big then, and he is thinking big now. It’s the scale of his vision that drives his main point: Christians have never fully tried this — yet.

Underlying this vision of large-scale peacemaking is a person’s willingness to die for the sake of others. This takes great courage.

One anecdote pertains to a large contingent in Gandhi’s “salt march” to the sea, which resulted in many being clubbed on the skull. These were Muslim Pathans from Badshah Khan’s nonviolent army of 80,000. Coming from Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, this group today makes up the core of the Taliban. When asked why the Pathans grasped nonviolence better than the Hindus, Gandhi simply said it was a matter of greater bravery.

Perhaps the operative word for Sider is exploration. He nudges us to explore options that have, as of yet, not been tried. To get us there he first appeals to our imaginations: “What would happen today if top Christian and Muslim leaders led a few thousand praying Christians and Muslims into Syria to stand between warring factions in Aleppo and Damascus and demand an end to the bloodshed?” Maybe it does come down to bravery.

Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant from Duluth, Minn.

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