One of the most common objections to nonviolence is the famous "what if" question:
"What if intruders broke into your house with the intent of raping your wife and killing your children?"
The question is usually framed so that you only have two options: You can either kill them or do nothing. If you think about it, this is not really a question at all. It is a statement of exasperation. The person who asks this is really saying "Surely there is some point where you would draw the line, isn't there? Wouldn't you at least defend your children or your wife?" It is because of this moral exasperation that this question is often quickly followed by the "what about Hitler?" question, again expressing moral exasperation, essentially saying, "Okay, but what if the person was evil incarnate like Hitler? Wouldn't it at least be justified to kill them?"
Let's consider the dynamics behind these questions and what's going on emotionally for the person asking them: The concern of the person asking these questions is the safety and well-being of themselves and their loved ones. In their mind, the only possible way to deal with such threats is either to kill or to do nothing. They think therefore that people who advocate nonviolence are advocating for tolerating abuse and violence. They think it is about not caring for your own welfare or the welfare of those you love. This drive to preserve our own life and the lives of our kids is one of the most basic and primal instincts we have. So it is understandable that the person asking such questions is feeling desperate and triggered.
What would a nonviolent response look like?
I think where our response needs to begin is by disarming the one asking the question -- that is, it needs to begin by affirming them in this deep human need, assuring them that we also want to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The question is: What is the best way to do this?
Here I find it is helpful to compare the above what-if questions with the question of divorce. Would it be justified to get a divorce if your spouse was unfaithful? Yes, it would be justifiable. Heck, even Jesus said that, right?
But would a professional marriage counselor automatically recommend divorce? Surprisingly, no. Instead they would work with the couple, giving them the tools and skills to heal their negative interactions (including betrayal) so they can break out of the cycle of hurting and getting hurt they are both caught in. The fact is, unfaithfulness is very common in marriages, but it does not always need to end in divorce. If a couple can learn to work through the crisis, they can come out on the other end with a marriage that is even stronger than before.
Now, this does not mean that divorce is off the table in the mind of a marriage counselor. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Their goal is to help people to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. In the same way we could also say that it would be justified to shoot an intruder. Our laws see this as an act of self-defense, as justifiable homicide. It is justifiable, but is it the best solution? Is it the best way to keep safe? Do the police recommend for example pulling a gun on burglars as the best way to keep yourself and your family safe? No, they do not. Not because they are pacifists, but simply because it is not the best way to get out of such a situation. It often makes you less safe in fact.
What they do recommend is having a plan of action. This is very different from what I often hear my fellow pacifists recommending, which to have no plan at all and to instead hope the Holy Spirit will inspire us with some creative solution on the spot. This sounds good in theory, but the reality is, when we are in a dangerous, high-stress situation, our adrenaline rushing, our brain's limbic system in alarm mode, this is when creative thought it just about the last thing we are capable of. That's why we need a plan beforehand when we can think calmly, creatively, and prayerfully.
So consider this: Perhaps instead of asking "is it justifiable?" we should instead ask "What can we do to reduce harm and violence?" Instead of asking "is divorce justifiable?" a better question is "what can we do make marriages better?" In the same way, instead of saying "is it justifiable to shoot an intruder?" or asking the question of "just war" and when it is justifiable as a nation to retaliate, the real question we should be asking together is "how can we reduce violence in our society and in our world?"
The point is not to legalistically forbid divorce or to forbid self-defense. Rather the goal is to educate ourselves of better ways to deal with conflict, better ways to keep ourselves safe. I think we can all agree that violence is not desirable. So what we need to learn are other effective ways to deal with conflict and to reduce violence and harm.
Here we need to listen to the wisdom of people who are working in the many areas that this touches. After all, home invasion is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a multitude of issues that we need to address: international conflict, the problem of crime and our broken prison system, domestic violence, bullying in schools, date rape on campuses, and on and on.
In each of these, and many others, there are experts we can look to, people who have specialized in these areas who can offer practical ways of dealing with these many situations, working to reduce harm and keep us all safe. Just as a couple in crisis needs the help of a marriage counselor, we need to listen to the wisdom of these experts and specialists so we can move beyond what is "justifiable" and instead seek to do what is good.
In the end, this is something we all need to own and contribute to. Just as in a marriage, the couple is the one that needs to do the real work, and the therapist can only act as a guide and mediator, so too here we all need to be working to find ways to reduce violence in our world. So rather than thinking of how we can justify doing bad things (again no one wants to get a divorce or to take a life), we need to work together to find better ways to deal with the problem of violence--we need to ask how we can practically reduce violence, rather than justifying it.
Now it's your turn: So with that in mind, let me pass the conversation to you: What are some ways you have learned to deal with issues of safety and violence? Have you had the opportunity to learn from experts in these areas through books, seminars, or other education? What are some of the skills or strategies you have learned?