Does nonviolence work?
I had someone drop in our office today to ask about the Mennonites – who are they and what do they believe in? We had a good conversation and we talked quite a bit about the Mennonites practice of nonviolence and peacemaking. A question that was raised, more implicitly than explicitly was “does nonviolence work?”
My immediate response was: “Not always, perhaps not even in many situations, afterall, it did not really work for Jesus either – his way of nonviolence led him to the cross and death.”
Why then practice nonviolence in our violent world, if it does not bear sufficient results?
There are a few reasons that I give, but there is one that is foundational to why we are called to live missionally in nonviolent ways.
In following Jesus, we are called to live our lives as his disciples – living out the life of Jesus in the world. In that Jesus lived and ministered in ways which advocated and promoted nonviolence, we are only disciples of Jesus as we practice a way of life similar to that of Jesus.
Our discipleship is also expressed through giving witness. Jesus did not merely say in Matthew 28 that we are to teach Jesus’ teaching in making disciples, but to “teach them to obey all that I have taught you.” Discipleship and witness have to do with obeying Jesus and his teachings – not just acknowledging them. In giving witness to Jesus and living out Jesus’ way of being human in the world, the practice of nonviolence has less to do with how well it works to how well it demonstrates a different reality, a different way of being human in the world – even when the practice of nonviolence is seemingly unsuccessful as it results in the death of those practicing nonviolence.
Giving witness to nonviolence is to give witness to the different reality of God’s reign – it is about seeing all humanity reconciled to God, be they those whom we befriend or those who are our enemies. We are called to practice nonviolence and peacemaking, to be involved in reconciliation and forgiveness, because in partnering with Jesus in God’s mission we are about making visible a very different way of being human in a violent world.
We practice nonviolence because we are giving witness to a different reality – but more than that – we practice nonviolence and peacemaking because we are living out a different reality. By the power of the Spirit of God, we are enabled and empowered to demonstrate a radically new way of being human in the world – and rather than warring against other human beings, we are seeking to bring about healing, forgiveness and reconciliation – which at times requires us to get in the way of violence – which is what Jesus did on the cross (taking the oppressive and repressive violence of the principalities and powers of the world set against humanity upon himself).
This demonstration effectively shapes us to be a community of Christ in the world, a community which is a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s present and coming reign (see Missional Matters Vol 1: 3,4,5 for more on this). And though giving witness to nonviolence seems powerless in a violent world, when it does “work” it brings about radical transformation bringing peace in the midst of war, healing in the midst of destruction, wholeness in the midst of brokenness. We give witness to nonviolence because the practice of nonviolence is to give witness to the presence of God in the world who is at work re-creating humanity and creation into a new humanity and a new world through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Day after day we hear of the violence in the world, violence that never ceases – all violence does is breed more violence. What will peacemaking through nonviolence breed in the world? Let’s try and see!
May the peace of God be with you!