Realistic Nonviolence #1: Addressing the What-if Questions

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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At 11:14 PM, Blogger CP3 said...

Very excited about diving into the idea of nonviolence deeper! I have definitely been sucked into the trap of "what if" questions by a friend of mine who is a right wing Conservative that has strong opinions about foreign policy and the right to bear arms.

At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Regarding foreign policy I think we can all agree that violence is undesirable. So Walter Wink has suggested that instead of making the argument between pacifist saying we can't use violence on one side and just-war advocates saying we can on the other, what we really need to all be doing as asking what we can concretely do to reduce violence. When that is the question, it becomes pretty difficult to argue that the answer is to respond with violence. Coercion perhaps, violence no.

At 4:10 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

While reading your reply, I had the the thought that the same principle can be applied to the abortion debate ... asking what can we concretely do to reduce the number of abortions/unwanted pregnancies.

At 4:24 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

I'm sure this has been asked before, but can you give some examples from our everyday lives who we would consider an "enemy." For me, I work in an office at a large University where most of my almost everyday interactions are with those within this university community; I shop locally, and so have weekly interactions with those who operate these small businesses; I am single, but still have daily interactions with family via phone, email, etc., and then there's my landlord who I rent from ....
Who is MY "enemy?"

At 8:06 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Great insight! Glen Stassen makes a similar argument.

To your question, I'd say your "enemy" would be anyone who you are in conflict with -- ranging from a little slight up to full blown hostility. Therefore all of those people you mention could potentially fit the bill since we often come in conflict with those closest to us.

At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, I am interested to see where you go with this. I don't know if you have seen it yet, but the book I put together with Tripp York called A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence might be of interest to you as you continue to work through this.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Justin,

Glad to connect with you! I was really excited about "A Faith Not Worth Fighting For" and got a copy right away. Good stuff! I see that you are also a fellow Asbury alum (I went there before I transferred to the GTU which was closer to home, but I really felt at home at Asbury)

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, glad to hear you picked up a copy of the book. I would love to hear your thoughts on it if you ever have the time. I didn't know you went to Asbury. I have enjoyed my time here. Keep up the good work you are doing brother!

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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!'"

Where does Jesus say you cannot protect your family?

1.) "If someone SLAPS you on the left check, turn to him the right also" relates only to your own self, not your family, and further, obviously relates only to insults. He is not saying you cannot defend yourself against a real attack. Note he says "slaps" not "beats with a baseball bat."

2.) When it comes to sexual assault you have a duty to prevent it. To simply allow yourself to be raped under the guise of "non-violence" is to consent to fornication. If you don't protect yourself from rape (I mean at least try with all your might to prevent it, even if you still fail due to lack of strength) then you are a fornicator.

At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Furthermore, in Jesus' time, martial arts like we know today which allow one to repel an attacker with minimal force either didn't exist, or didn't exist in Palestine and Rome but only in Asia. Today, where we all have ready access to such techniques one can repel an attacker without permanently harming them. This makes absolutist non-violence preachers obsolete.

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


In many ways, the thoughts that I'm hashing out throughout this series could be seen as my contribution to that larger conversation. So I'm glad you're here and hope you'll stick around. It would be great to kick around these ideas together.

At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do want to caution you that it is important that this blog be a safe space for people. While I assume you did not intent to, your comment regarding rape could easily be read as quite hurtful (blaming the victim).

I've decided not to delete your comment and give you the benefit of the doubt, but I an going to ask that you be more sensitive in the future. Thanks in advance for respecting that, and the feelings of others here.

At 8:03 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

If you want to practice Love and nonviolence than Christianity is the last religion you should choose. Taoism in its ancient form in the Tao Te Ching would be the way to go. from what I see on your site you already are basically following a blended version of Taoism and Christianity.

People like to quote certain passages of Jesus... but he also made some quite violent statements and parables and has a very violent agenda for the future of the majority of mankind. At least according to what later people wrote about what he said.

The violence of Christianity and Judaism is one of the main reasons I left the fundamentalist side of the faith in search of a better understanding of reality and spiritual life.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

not sure where else to put this..

I quote you on your into to your paper on hell that became the book.

""we will explore some alternate ways to understand the cross, endeavoring to recover the radical life-giving witness of the early church and scriptures. ""

There is a very simple answer to this and it is clearly reflected in the actual history of the early church. They believed that Jesus was going to return in the first century, and that belief prevailed for a while.

If you believe that Jesus is going to return at any moment and destroy the existing world in wrath and mass genocide followed up by you being put in charge of what's left... Well that is a pretty powerful witness. The message of the early church had nothing at all to do with love and everything to do with blind terror during a very superstitious time.

Just looking at the different resurrection accounts in the bible shows what the whole tale is built on. The resurrection accounts are completely fanciful and don't even remotely agree with each other except in the most vague concept.

I appreciate the desire for a non violent gospel and a non violent view of the spiritual life. My problem is that is simply has no place in the judeo/Christian world view at all. No actual genuine love, no true peace, no thing of true value will be found there. The entire thing is tainted.. more than tainted by the hyper violence and overarching negativity of the lead character Yahweh. If you are a truly loving and yes Holy God who has infinite knowledge, wisdom, time and power then surely you can come up with a better plan that does not make you look like a deranged 4 year old playing with army men.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Unknown, you've left several comments now, and I appreciate that you've been through a hurtful experience with fundamentalism. I share your concerns with violence, and affirm that asking questions and challenging hurtful things is good. That's all very positive.

However what you are doing here is not good. Here you are on a blog that promotes thinking and asking questions, nonviolence, grace... and specifically a post about nonviolence, and you are trying your darnedest to invalidate it.

You are attacking people who really should be your allies, and in the process you are doing the very things that hurt you in the first place: you are being extremist and intolerant and judgmental.

The position you are taking is that the fundamentalists have got it right, and us progressive Christians who are focused on social justice and compassion have got it wrong. We have it wrong that fundies are right. I have news for you: fundamentalists are wrong. They misrepresent Jesus.

Again, I think we have a lot in common, but I'm going to lay it out for you: What you are doing is not cool. So pull it together and conduct yourself with respect and empathy or you'll find yourself banned from posting.

At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, I appreciate your passion for making the world a better, more peaceful place. One thing I'm passionate about is clearly understanding God's will. It is not enough to obey God's will. We must obey God's will God's *way.*

For example, when God commanded Joshua to destroy Jericho and its inhabitants, he also clearly dictated the manner in which his army was to march around the walls.

If I were to force people to convert to christianity by pointing a gun at their heads, I would be outside God's will, God's way. (and contrary to it.) however if you tried to bring peace to this world with non violence, you would be outside God's will, God's way.

The peace the Christ brings follows his destruction of evil doers. The good news of the Gospel is that he's also provided a way to escape the coming wrath. For more about this, checkout my article called "Jesus: The Ultimate Pacifist."

At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'm sorry but that just makes zero sense. The way of Jesus is modeled on Jesus, not on Joshua or anyone else from the OT. The OT is a lesser revelation that the NT calls "obsolete" now that Christ has been revealed.

The way of Christ is God's way and that is the way of nonviolence. Bringing peace via nonviolence is God's way. The peace Christ brings is about the restoration of evil doers. That's the whole point of the gospel. I really couldn't disagree with you more.


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