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Nonviolence Works

Thursday, August 22, 2019


Nonviolence Works
Thursday, August 22, 2019

How is it that many Christians have managed to avoid what Jesus actually taught? We’ve evaded major parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): the Beatitudes, Jesus’ warning about idolizing “mammon,” his clear directive and example of nonviolence, and his command to love our enemies. I never see the Beatitudes on courthouse lawns. Perhaps we think his teaching is nice in theory but impractical in real life. Perhaps we do not believe nonviolence can actually effect real change.

A few years ago, people from around the world came together in Rome to discuss the Catholic commitment to peace. Marie Dennis writes: “One person after another shared how violence in his or her own experience, failed, and how nonviolence overcame violence.” [1] As we saw yesterday, Pope Francis is helping reclaim Jesus’ teachings on peace. Dennis continues:

He is saying that nonviolence is effective in the real world of politics—in fact superior to and more effective than violence. The world never gets to peace through violence and war but only begets more violence and war. . . .

[One] active peacemaker the pope points to is Leymah Gbowee, the [2011] Nobel prize winner from Liberia. . . . She organized pray-ins and nonviolent protests that resulted in high-level peace talks to end the second civil war in Liberia. . . . The contributions of such women as Gbowee in Liberia and Marguerite Barankitse in Burundi are showing the way to the eventual cessation of violence and the dawning of peace. . . . [2]

In their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan write about the effectiveness of nonviolence, drawing from examples in Iran, Palestine, the Philippines, and Burma. Based on in-depth research, they observe that nonviolent resistance is “nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” [3] Nonviolent campaigns have greater participation, loyalty, resilience, innovation, and civic impact than violent ones. [4] While surprising, there’s plenty of evidence that the very thing we consider foolish confounds the wise and that the powerless confound the powerful (see 1 Corinthians 1:27).

One reason for our failure to understand Jesus’ clear teaching on nonviolence lies in the fact that the Gospel has primarily been expounded by a small elite group of educated European and North American men. The bias of white males is typically power and control. From this perspective nonviolence and love of enemies makes no sense whatsoever.

Because we Christians haven’t taken Jesus’ teaching and example seriously, much of the world refuses to take us seriously. “Christians love to talk of a new life,” critics say, “but the record shows that you are afraid to live in a new way—a way that is responsible, caring, and nonviolent. Even the common ‘pro-life movement’ is much more pro-birth than about caring for all life—black and brown lives, refugees, the poor, the sick, immigrants, LGBTQIA people, the environment.” In fact, many “pro-lifers” I know are the first in line to oppose any gun regulation.

I’m grateful that Christianity is finally becoming much more universal in its teaching, more effective in its action, and just more honest about Jesus.

[1] Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence, ed. Marie Dennis (Orbis Books: 2018), 230-231. This book includes many of the papers prepared for the conference “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” in Rome (April 2016). All the papers are available at

[2] Ibid., 231-232, 237.

[3] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press: 2011), 7. Learn more at

[4] See ibid., 10.

Image credit: The Sleeping Gypsy (detail), by Henri Rousseau, 1897, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Nonviolence is the universal ethic at the heart of creation. —Catholic Nonviolence Initiative
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