Deliberations and Resources on Radical Christianity

“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.”

4 responses

  1. Brilliant quote.

    November 21, 2007 at 5:17 am

  2. Pip

    Hi Adam. I find this one really tricky. It is a very annoying question but I think this situation and similar does come up in reality, and I really do want to know what a christian should do! Was having a conversation in Spiders (somehow) with two people- one Christian and one not, about whether war could ever be justified. One used the need to fight against Nazism and the taking-over of Europe as an example that violent resistance could be justified, i.e. the UK’s role in the second world war. And being somewhat ignorant, I found that very convincing. Would love to know what you think about that!

    December 2, 2007 at 2:01 am

  3. I don’t think you’re ignorant at all, Pip. It’s a difficult question and in modern churches the debate isn’t addressed nearly as much as it should be, especially since I’ve seen quite a few debates about just war arise even amongst rigid Evangelicals.

    My concern is that World War 2 is often brought up in these debates with its obvious exception as a foregone conclusion, when I don’t see that such an argument is fair, not because it isn’t valid, but because the example had such a desperate impact that one is taken to be un-compassionate in disagreeing with violent action in this instance. Surely, the argument goes, violence was necessary to take down Hitler and halt the spread of a diabolical regime?

    The problem lies not in disagreement about motive. I would hope that all Christians agree about evil being stopped. The disagreement lies in our methods of bringing said evil to an end. In the case of WW2 specifically, desperation forced the hand of the Allied nations into military action, which at the time would have been seen by the majority as the only logical course to take. However, could we have seen a similar outcome if enough Christians and conscientious sympathisers committed themselves to combating the Nazis by nonviolent resistance? There were certainly movements of this type of resistance going on, but unfortunately not widespread enough as to be what might be considered “effective.” Mahatma Gandhi once stated that he believed Hitler could be defeated by nonviolent resistance, but it would need many people willing to lay down their lives for it. However, how would this be any different from what was already going on at the time?

    Ultimately, the call to nonviolence shouldn’t be answered primarily due to anything regarding its “effectiveness” or practicality. Its call is answered because, in the framework of the Gospel, it is demanded. Ideas of practicality are indeed logical and sensible issues, but they are the world’s ideas of what those ideals would constitute. Christ calls us instead to love our enemies, to not resist the evildoer with the evil he wields, and to overcome all kinds of evil by doing good. I would say that if a Christian were permitted to use fatal violence as a means to resolve a situation, then the Gospel has lost the element which makes it so radical, so subversive, and so challenging. It would be very easy to place faith in an ideal and then simply live with the same mindset as any other person, but what if that ideal calls us to a different way of living?

    What it comes down to, is that we are called to conform ourselves to the image of Christ. He Himself was prepared to lay down His life as “a ransom for many,” and did not call upon violence as a means to achieve the Father’s will but rather called upon the radical use of submission. The great paradox here is that Christ became victorious through what many would have considered defeat, and therein lies the Christ-like reasoning behind nonviolence; That, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, and in death conquered evil. As an example to us, then, that in loving our enemies and being prepared to lay down our lives, we too share in building the Kingdom and striving with God to end all evil. Not by violence, as the world would, as Caesar would, but by the deeply mysterious spiritual ethic of submission and humility.

    December 2, 2007 at 10:10 am

  4. sean

    we’ve been working on this very question on our blog!

    here is a great response by David Bercot.

    grace & peace

    December 24, 2007 at 5:47 am

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