“What would you do if…?”
I’m constantly faced with questions in this vain. “Suppose a crazed gunman went after your family and you had the chance to kill him. What would you do?” I generally prefer not to answer such questions at all, as I consider them pointless and, in most cases, posed for no other reason than to build up a strawman argument against the precepts of nonviolence. Despite endless clarification of my own standpoint, I seem to come up against torrents of people whose minds seem to be set either on the use of justified violence or else standing by in complete and utter passiveness. In their minds, then, the person of nonviolence is one who opts for the latter.
What absolute tripe.
How on earth has the problem of violence been dichotomised into these two very restrictive outcomes? It makes no sense to pose a hypothetical situation with a myriad of variables and then expect someone to deliver an answer at all, let alone one narrowed down to a preposterous dichotomy of “either kill or be killed.”
Moreover, these hypotheticals assume that, when the going truly gets tough, the Gospel must necessarily give way to practicality. The problem with that assumption is that it places human instinct above and beyond the call of the Kingdom, as if to say “Well I think these are awesome commandments, and I am prepared to follow them, but only insofar as I am practically able.” Such thinking, in my view, would go against Jesus’ own teaching. He who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever made light of the fact that trusting in the Gospel would very probably lead to social outcasting, torture, and even death. Within scripture is the confounding ethic of radical submission; the idea that evil can be overcome by doing absolutely none in return.
Christians are not called to be warriors, they are called to be instruments of peace, whatever the cost might be. It is because of this, that the cost of discipleship is often said to be very great.
Does any of that mean, though, that the Christian stands by while people around them are being oppressed and victimised? Certainly not. I have two points here:
1.) The child of God has always been commissioned with the task of doing everything possible to love both the oppressed and the oppressor, to protect the victim and rebuke the villain. In doing so, they are striving not to resort to the same tactics of evil that the oppressor would use, but are seeking instead to overcome that evil by doing good.
2.) Nonviolence does not, in any way, preclude the use of physical force. To allow evil to flourish with no resistance at all would be foolish indeed, but Christ commands us not to resist evil with evil itself, He never commands that we should let evil go completely unresisted.
On this subject, Adin Ballou has much more eloquent words than I:
“Learn to discriminate between physical force and injurious force. Physical force is good or evil, beneficial or injurious, according to the right or wrong use made of it. Cain killed Abel by physical force. Paul’s friends let him down over the wall of a city by physical force, and thereby saved his life. In Abel’s case, physical force was injurious force. In Paul’s case, it was beneficent force. The mother bears about her tender infant in her arms, and the humane man rescues a drowning person by physical force. No one can have any objection to physical force beneficently used. Christians can, may and ought to use physical force in many ways, but never injurious force, whether physical or moral. Take care, then, and never say Non-Resistance disallows physical force.”