Communities of nonviolence

Oct 17, 2017 by

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Nonviolence is the decision to live without committing homicidal violence.

It is comparable to the familiar choices to live without committing rape, or slavery or robbery. The decision to live without killing other people does not seem, on the one hand, to be very radical, but on the other, it is very radical indeed.

Our human selves

We are all familiar with communities which have a covenant between members, spoken or unspoken, to not kill each other. Families, schools and universities, and corporations of all kinds are committed to nonviolence in their social practice. They count on the powerful nonviolent instincts of 99+ percent of all people, whose default position upon waking and facing the day is to preserve, not destroy, the lives of all the people whom they meet that day. All of this we pretty much take for granted — not very radical.

But for some reason, or maybe no reason at all, this basic human decency toward one another breaks down when we bring kings and presidents into the picture. We take it for granted that “heads of state” can decide that their citizens should set upon each other in total savagery, killing without restraint or remorse (the latter, however, being quite impossible, as veterans know). And for anyone to refuse to do this killing is viewed as radical indeed, treasonous and offensive in the extreme. Nonviolence, so universally affirmed on the local level, is dismissed as radical and repugnant on the global level where millions, not one or a few, lives hang in the balance.

For the future of humanity, we need to condemn war as surely as we have condemned rape, slavery and theft.

We have only to consult human nature, and for those open to it, God, to see that a practical alternative to war (and all homicidal violence) is available. It is a matter of choice — which of our impulses to follow — and of helping one another make the choice for life in face of so much energy and wealth in our culture committed to the ways of death.

There is within humans the capacity to live without committing rape, slavery and theft. And as families, schools and corporate organizations show, humans have the capacity to live without homicidal violence. If it is argued that only because law is added to human capacity do humans refrain from rape, slavery and theft, it follows that to deal with war we will have to add law to restrain it. But the basic point remains (as those who have studied it carefully will tell you) that law alone will not prevent any human behavior which is not generally within both the ability and the will of humans themselves to perform. And the converse is true, that whatever is within human ability to do can be outlawed by the choice of a community, group or society to do so.

Nonviolent communities

We need, therefore, voluntary communities where nonviolence is embraced and taught as surely as simple living is taught. There are alternatives to predatory capitalism and endless war. It is time to grow up, mature and accept our responsibility to let others live as we wish them to let us live.

In the past 2000 years, a succession of communities called churches have lived lives of active nonviolence, embracing forgiveness, courage and love as human powers to turn enemies into friends and enlarge the circle of compassionate humanity. In the past several hundred years, the “peace churches” (Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren) have taken Jesus’ message of the kingdom/sovereignty of God as their paradigm of communal life, embracing active nonviolence and refusing the inducements and enforcements of hierarchy and empire, slavery and racism. Today an increasing number of churches follow the example of leaders like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh (Hanh, of course, not a Christian) in taking the teachings of Jesus seriously — generosity, forgiveness and love of enemies.

People who choose to join such communities are embracing the connectedness of all of humanity, applying the nonviolent commitments of family, school and workplace to neighborhood, nation and world. They see all homicide as fratricide, all war as civil war, all killing as within the family and ultimately as suicidal as it is homicidal. People join such communities to find nurture for the impulses which they feel toward welcoming and forgiving others as they wish to be welcomed and forgiven themselves.

There is a streak of humility in what they do, because they have to acknowledge as well their persisting impulses toward fear and rejection of others, and their need for the wisdom and voices of peers who share their vision of humanity as a large family rather than a population of predators. They have to be honest about the fact that humans are vastly shaped by the cultures in which they live, so they choose a culture whose posture is toward living rather than killing, life rather than death. By joining a peace community they acknowledge the impact of ideologies, TV, media and peers to shape them into something other than what, at the deepest level, they wish to be — they choose, in effect, the influences which will shape their lives, rather than leaving it to chance and dumb luck.

The God factor

We have looked at humans and what they have and need to aim their lives toward nonviolence rather than homicidal violence and ultimately war.

If we look toward God, as most Americans claim to do in one way or another, we find either help or discouragement toward living a nonviolent life, depending on our view of God. Is God violent or nonviolent? Which makes our view of God rather decisive, right? So we conclude our look at the nonviolent community with a look at God.

Rob Bell has written a book titled What We Talk About When We Talk About God. God, of course, is a big subject. But any effort to talk about everything — time, space, human consciousness, past history and future prospects — is big, and if you don’t name all of that with a word like God, you are still left with a big subject.

God, then, says Rob Bell, is the everything which has produced us and our consciousness, and further, God is with, for and ahead of us.

Bell self-identifies as a Christian, but honesty compels us to say that that is no more definitive than if he called himself religious or itinerant. He writes the book to position himself as a Christian with a particular view of God, which he says is shaped by the life and teachings of Jesus. And from Jesus he comes out with a definition of God as with, for and ahead of us.

My brief summary of his argument here will show that his view of God is in opposition to that held by much or most of American Christianity, and hence, a view of God supportive of a nonviolent alternative to empire as the way to run the world.

First, God as “with” us arises from the notion of incarnation itself — that Jesus as “the son of man,” or “the human one,” shows in human flesh what the true character of God is. And the teaching of Jesus was not only that God dwelled in him, but that God is resident in every human being. God, therefore, is not far from us, but is within us. Hence, the “search” for God is not a process of looking somewhere else for God, but of seeing God within, both ourselves and others. And if God is in others, killing others would never be a good idea or an acceptable practice.

Second, God “for” us picks up Jesus’ teaching that God is like the father of the “prodigal” son, always seeking and welcoming us. God is not a threatening, punishing God, holding the prospect of “hell” over us, but rather the always forgiving one. Jesus’ teaching that we should forgive one another endlessly (70 x 7) grew out of his view that God forgives that way. In evolutionary terms, this “for” comes through in the tilt of the universe toward life — whatever else may be said of the evolutionary process, it produced, in the end, us, as well as everything else. That is not a small thing to be taken for granted, right?

Third, God “ahead” of us projects into our evolutionary future something good — an extrapolation from what evolution/time has produced so far. This is more obviously relevant to the species, less so to the individual — I would say that some reticence about predicting our individual future is appropriate. But the fundamental point is that God is future-oriented, and we should be the same. The universe is not static, stuck in the past or sameness, but is moving toward something. Likewise, human experience, history and culture — going somewhere, and we are engaged in creating that which is to come.

In conclusion, a nonviolent definition of power to effect change rests in largely untapped human capacities, is nurtured in communities committed to active nonviolence, and reflects the mind of God properly understood — it agrees with the long-term tilt of the universe.

John K. Stoner is a member of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church. He is co-author of If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible. This post first appeared at bible-and-empire.net.


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  • Greg Murray

    Someone recently asked me if I could imagine Jesus in a military uniform pointing a gun at someone. My answer was an unequivocal no. It gets a little tougher when discussing the right or duty even to defend oneself or family from criminal aggression or allowing someone else i.e. law enforcement to do it. I don’t have any easy answers, but would appreciate others thoughts.