Last week I wrote about Jesus’ recommendations to “turn the other cheek,” “give him your cloak as well,” and “go the extra mile” as exactly not recommendations for passivity, but rather as judo – preserving one’s dignity when demeaned by somebody more powerful. Since Jesus’ recommendation of nonviolent response to oppression is so widely misunderstood (and ignored in favor of violence), I want to say more about it.
First, note that the point is not to “win”: it is twofold: to maintain one’s own dignity, and to offer the adversary (note: not, “enemy”) the possibility of awareness and conversion. (The civil-rights movement in our country in the 1960s is an example of this.) It guards against hatred for the adversary, because we become what we hate.
Second, note there’s no possibility of writing a playbook for tactics, because the situation is ever-changing and judo requires observing carefully what’s possible in the moment. (To return to last week’s examples, if Jesus’ audience were to start doing what he recommended it’s not hard to imagine that within a week there would be new laws against nudity in court and against offering to carry a pack when told to put it down. The situations in which oppression happen are fluid, and they demand attention and imagination as well as courage to confront.)
So Jesus wasn’t recommending some approaches to oppression that could simply be memorized and then tried. He wanted his hearers to expand their imagination beyond the usual alternatives of simply accepting that there was nothing they could do (and so internalizing their second-class status), or on the other hand fighting back violently (which would be tactically stupid, since they’d lose and be crushed). He wanted to offer a third possibility: Love your enemy and try to convert him by using his own imbalance against him. That required a shrewd assessment of the adversary’s situation; it can’t be a formula.
One of the objections to nonviolent resistance that’s commonly brought up is the WWII counter-example: How would one defeat Hitler without violence? It’s a fair question, and it touches on why our church has never enforced pacifism as obligatory in a fallen world. But advocates of nonviolent resistance argue that we’ve been developing theories and tools for warfighting for centuries, and have neglected to study nonviolent methods – so naturally the latter are undeveloped. There might be possibilities we haven’t yet uncovered. Also, they note that civilian nonviolent resistance is a largely-untapped possibility: the training of the whole population to resist, subvert, and generally deny any advantage to a potential adversary or invader. (Google “social defence” for more references.) Today we fight because we can’t imagine not fighting in a way that’s effective.
And, of course, nonviolent resistance to violence takes tremendous courage. (Gandhi said he could make a nonviolent resister out of a violent person, but not out of a coward.) As I was writing this I read of the death of Fr. Charles Liteky, a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army who volunteered for two tours in Vietnam. After the war he turned against the use of violence and was twice imprisoned in the U.S. for his participation in antiwar demonstrations against our policies in Central America. He also returned something he had received during Vietnam for what the Army described this way: “In a magnificent display of courage and leadership, Chaplain Liteky began moving upright through the enemy fire, administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded…. despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Chaplain Liteky had personally carried over 20 men to the landing zone for evacuation during the savage fighting.” That quote is from the citation for what he returned in the name of nonviolent resistance to evil: his Congressional Medal of Honor. Until next week, peace