Why discuss non-violence? Why is this important, or even relevant, for an evangelical mission working among the poor?
Three key reasons:
1. Because Jesus had a lot to say on the issue and hasn’t often been heard.
2. Because this is a crucial issue in a world presently being torn apart by violence (whether it be religious, ethnic, tribal, nationalistic or random and mindless). This is a burning issue. This is a prophetic issue and the church better have something useful and healing to say about it.
3. Because it’s the poor who nearly always suffer the most from violence. More violence occurs in slums and ghettos than in leafy middle class suburbs. Victims of violence are much more likely to be the poor than the well off. In any given state-sponsored war, it is the poor who are much more likely to be conscripted (the rich and powerful more easily find a way out) or to ‘volunteer’ (due to lack of other economic options, and because they are far easier to mobilize through propaganda).
Historically, there have been three Christian responses to the question of whether State sponsored violence is Biblical or not:
1. The majority of Christian churches (since Constantine and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire from 325 AD onwards) have embraced the ‘just war’ ethic, which advocates that a State, Government or even Church (such as a State Catholic Church or a State Reformed Church) has the right to wage war so long as that war meets certain moral preconditions (e.g. there is just cause, carried out by just authority, with just intention, fought by just means, as only as a last resort). This is based on a certain interpretation of Romans 13:1-7, while of course appealing to Old Testament precedents.
2. The minority of Christian churches (but as far as we can ascertain, all prior to Constantine) have instead embraced non-violence, a refusal to wage war or take up arms under any circumstances. This practice is based on a plain reading of the teachings of Jesus (especially Matthew 5:1-11 and 5:38-48, and on most of Paul’s teaching, especially Romans 12:9-21).
3. The third option, which the majority of Christians probably muddle into, is to have no conscious position at all, but simply to react to each issue as it comes up. This is clearly the worst of the three positions: it’s a refusal to ‘love God with all our mind’ or to think seriously how we can apply the teachings and Lordship of Christ to every aspect of our lives. In this case, we just get swept along with whatever our culture or Government tells us to do at the time.
Of the above options, Servants has chosen to unambiguously hold the second position. We want to be as completely faithful to the teachings of Jesus – as we understand them – as we possibly can. We want to be as completely under the Lordship of Christ as we can. We see this as what it means to be truly ‘evangelical Christians’. Therefore our statement of principles and practices mentions several times our commitment to justice, but also our refusal to employ violence. Moreover, the teachings of Jesus go further than simply asking us to refrain from violence, but to be actively involved in positive peace-making and ministries of reconciliation (Matthew 5:9; 2 Corinthians 5:18). God’s shalom is not merely an absence of conflict, but a place of reconciled and healed relationships. The Kingdom of God in which we are fellow-workers (Colossians 4:11) is a Kingdom of justice, righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17-18).
It is fair to ask if there might not be a possible contradiction between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of peace. If we are committed to bringing about justice for the poor and oppressed, won’t there be times violence is necessary to overthrow a tyrant or evil doer? There have certainly been cases where this has seemed true (with Adolf Hitler for example). But even so, we believe that the life and teachings of Jesus point us in a different direction, to what Martin Luther King and others have called non violent resistance or ‘non-violent direct action’. This is a commitment to ‘fight’ for justice – and if need be die in that cause, but by always using non-violent means (as exemplified by King, by Gandhi, and by Maoridom’s own Te Whiti of Parihaka).
A Complex Problem
Having said all this, we don’t want to suggest that this is a simple issue with easy answers. The German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sought to live out the teachings of Jesus with all his heart. After exhausting every other means of opposing Hitler’s rule and working for the rescue of Jewish people, he finally threw his hand in with a plot to assassinate the fascist dictator (the plot failed, and Bonhoeffer and many other leaders were executed as a result). The point to note here is that Bonhoeffer believed he had tried and exhausted every other option, and that he was now willing to sacrifice his own life in a bid to end Hitler’s murderous rampage.
Yes, this is a complex issue. But for us in Servants, we have decided that we have no other option but to surrender ourselves to the teachings of Jesus as best we can understand them, and to try and live them out in a way that offers hope and healing in the midst of a lost, broken and violent world.
[Kristin Jack is the Asia Coordinator of Servants and lives amongst the urban poor in Cambodia with his family]