Saturday, December 01, 2012
I just finished writing a new article on realistic nonviolence that will hopefully be published soon (more details on that later). Because this is such a huge topic, I was not able to cover everything in that feature article. So I thought it would be good to discuss these topics here on this blog over a series of posts.
Nonviolence is a huge topic. It can refer to everything from international conflict to how we raise our kids. There are different theories of nonviolence too, and different disciplines that address it. So what I hope to do over the next several blog posts is give a broad understanding of how these all fit together.
Most importantly though, what I really want to present is a way of understanding nonviolence that is realistic. It is often lamented that the vast majority of Christians do not follow Jesus' most radical and unique teaching to love our enemies.
I would like to propose that a major reason that this is the case is because people do not understand how to do this. More specifically, they think that it would be wrong and hurtful to do this. They think it would involve allowing themselves or those they love to be hurt, and so they reject it--not because they are immoral, but because they are moral.
Take for example the classic "what if" questions that people pose to pacifists: "What if Hitler broke into your house and was threatening your wife? Would you shoot him or do nothing?"
Now there are many things that are frustrating about questions like this. A pretty obvious one is that Hitler is dead, so I don't think he will be breaking into anyone's house. Also, why is it always the woman who is the victim, and the man who needs to save her? The biggest problem with this kind of question though is that it presents us with a no-win situation. It is intended to back you into a corner.
I think the best answer to this is to hear the question behind the question. When a person asks this, especially in an extreme form like this, what they are really saying is, "Okay I get that violence is generally undesirable, but surely you must admit that there are some situations where it is unavoidable! Surely you would not want us to stand by while someone we love is in need!"
This is a legitimate concern. So I'd like to clarify some important points that will hopefully set the stage for our future conversation, addressing some common misconceptions:
Love of enemies should not mean that we neglect self-love. On the contrary, it means that we widen the scope of who we love. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus expands that love to include enemies too. The opposite of selfishness is therefore not self-neglect. The polarity is between self-focus and a relational focus which includes a healthy self-love. I am a part of we.
Any proposal of nonviolence therefore needs to present a practical alternative which addresses the needs of those involved -- in particular to protect and care for victims of violence. In other words, it is not enough to simply reject violence, but then offer no alternative solutions. We need to be shown a better alternative that is livable and realistic.
That involves moving beyond slogans and platitudes towards practical application. What does nonviolence look like when it is applied to real life situations? How does it address the very real problems we encounter in our world?
We'll explore all of that over the next several posts, beginning with how to apply nonviolence in our own personal lives. Right now what I want to stress is that when I am advocating for nonviolence I am not suggesting that we should do nothing to stop people from hurting others. I am not suggesting that we should not defend and protect ourselves.
On the contrary, the goal is to end suffering and violence, not to passively tolerate it. The core idea of nonviolence is that it prevents a better and more effective way of practically addressing conflict and ending harm in our lives and world.
So to those who pose the "What if" questions, I hope that you would recognize that we share the same moral commitments to defend and protect victims and to stop violence, and that realization would allow us to get past the polarized positions that we so often find just-war advocates and pacifists getting themselves into where each side digs in their heels, growing more and more extreme.
Behind those "what if" questions is a deeper reaction of fear. Those who ask this are voicing a perceived fear that we want to remove their ability to defend themselves and their loved ones from peril. That self-protective fear (which is a normal reaction to danger) can throw us into panic where we are not listening, not thinking. When that happens, the conversation is over. The way for us all to break out of that is to acknowledge the legitimate fear, to empathize with it. To let the other understand that they are heard.
Those of us who advocate for nonviolence will often respond defensively to these kinds of questions, responding with arguments and justifications. While the one asking the question is really saying "Surely you would not want me to stand by while someone I love is being hurt!" What we hear is "Surely there are some times where you would be unfaithful to Jesus!" and so like Peter we answer back "Never!" Part of the problem is that, while the question of how we should respond in dangerous situations is a legitimate one, it is often presented in the form of an argumentative trap that is not designed to open up a real conversation, but is rather intended to end it by creating a Sophie's choice situation.
It's not a question at all, it's a statement of exasperation. So what we need to do is respond to that before we can get to any kind of practical application. As long as we are both reacting emotionally, both feeling backed-up against the wall, we will not be able to get anywhere because the listening part of our brains gets shut off in this defense mode. The way to break through that is not arguing and debating, but by showing empathy. In other words, the way to break past those polarizing "what if" questions is to apply the principle of nonviolence to it rather than getting sucked into it. Once we recognize that we are all trying to get to the same place, then (and only then) can we begin to work out how to practically stop violence and hurt rather than perpetuating it.
There are real answers to those "what if" questions. We do need to know what to do when we find ourselves confronted with these situations. We need to present viable and practical alternatives if we want to be taken seriously on the world stage. But we can only learn this in an atmosphere of trust. So if you trust Jesus, I would encourage you to come and taste and see that Jesus' way of enemy love is good.
A great thing about a blog is that it allows for an interactive conversation. So I hope you'll leave your comments below. What keeps you from practicing nonviolence and enemy love? Have you been taught that following Jesus entails self-denial or that pacifism means not defending yourself or others from hurt?
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