Non-violence—Twice As Effective As Violence?

The Centre for Public Christianity‘s latest Life & Faith episode seems particularly pertinent to recent events so I’ve transcribed the first half below (second half here).


Simon Smart: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Actually, the passage in the Bible where this saying comes from goes a little further than that, “life for life, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This principle of retaliation—that a person who has injured someone else should be penalized in a similar way, to a similar degree—is the basis for many codes of justice around the world. Now it might sound harsh. It was originally meant as a way of containing violence—not letting it escalate into feuds that would go on and on, and back and forth.

Jesus, though, suggested a radically different approach. From his teachings we now have sayings like, “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile”. But he wasn’t advocating a passive response to a wrong. Rather it was an active response, it just refused to repay like-for-like.

Natasha Moore: The tradition of non-violence, of civil disobedience, stretches a long way back and turns up in some unexpected places. In fact, the first recorded instance we have of a person protesting an injustice, using nonviolent methods, turns up in a play written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, called “Antigone”.

Here’s how it goes: the title character, Antigone, refuses to obey an edict from the king— who is a ruthless authoritarian and who also happens to be her uncle. The edict forbids her, or anyone for that matter, from burying her brother, Polyneices, who has been killed in battle.

Maria Stephan: Antigone so believed in the morality of burying her brother that she disobeyed the law and buried her brother. And she faced death but that act of disobedience was the first recorded case where an individual challenged an unjust law.

Natasha: That’s Dr. Maria J Stephan, an expert in civil resistance movements. She’s just completed a major study into whether nonviolent resistance actually works (we’ll get to that in a bit) and she’s a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

Why Civil Resistance Works
Source: Why Civil Resistance Works

From Antigone, let’s fast forward to the 19th century, and you have Henry David Thoreau (an American poet and philosopher) who refused to pay taxes in protest against slavery and the US war in Mexico.

Maria: Thoreau was arrested and he was put into jail and he later wrote his famous essay on civil disobedience and the main thesis of the essay on civil disobedience is that it is the moral duty of every citizen to disobey immoral and unjust laws.

Natasha: Then, a century or so later, Mahatma Gandhi reads Thoreau in India and is fascinated by this idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.

Maria: He took Thoreau’s idea of individual civil disobedience and applied it on a mass level. So Mahatma Gandhi was the first one to develop an actual methodology of mass civil resistance and non-cooperation, which he used very, very effectively to challenge the British colonial regime, from about nineteen sixteen to nineteen forty seven.

Natasha: An example of this was the nineteen thirty “Salt March”. Gandhi and a handful of followers embarked on a 387 kilometre trek across western India, picking up fellow activists along the way. They were protesting the fact that the British had essentially banned Indians from making their own salt.

Maria: So Mahatma Gandhi by then had tens of thousands of followers. [He] arrived at Dande Beach, picked up water, which evaporated to make salt, and by doing that he was engaging in mass defiance against the laws of the British colonial regime. Indians saw what he had done and there were shock waves sent across the subcontinent, that this mass civil disobedience was possible and it was powerful.

Natasha: Then there’s the leader of the great civil rights movement of our time, Martin Luther King Jr, who considered himself a student of Gandhi and Thoreau, and Jesus.

Maria: Martin Luther King was able to apply the Christian notion of love and connect it to the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance in a very powerful way. The idea that you can resist evil without violence, first and foremost. The idea that you can resist a system but still love individuals and treat them with respect and honor. The idea that evil must be resisted, it should never be normalized. The idea that mass nonviolent action can be a force for powerful change, is a set of principles and a message that I think will endure the test of time.

you can resist a system but still love individuals

Simon: These ideas are enduring and extremely powerful, and we’ll pick up on the connection between religion and peacebuilding a little later, but first there’s a couple of niggling questions that often come up in discussions around the concept of non-violence. For example, does it actually work or is it just a nice idea? How does it stack up against violent action? A few years ago, these were the questions that Maria Stefan and fellow political scientist, Erica Chenoweth, were grappling with.

Maria: We decided to study a basic fundamental question: Which form of resistance, violent or nonviolent, has been more effective historically against the most formidable of opponents? Because we had been hearing often, “Oh, non-violence can work in democracies or against benign opponents but against the tough brutal dictators it doesn’t stand a chance!” or “Violence must be more effective than nonviolent action in these particular environments.” So we fundamentally tested that proposition.

Simon: This study involved gathering data on 330 campaigns between 1900 and 2006—some violent, some nonviolent—and these were campaigns against formidable opponents, like an authoritarian regime or foreign military occupiers.

Maria: We came up with the very surprising finding, to many, that the nonviolent campaigns had been twice as effective as their violent counterparts in challenging these formidable opponents. So the nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns, which was a shocking, counter-intuitive finding for many people.

nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time for the violent campaigns

Simon: Success in this study meant achieving their objectives—that the authoritarian regime was removed or foreign military occupiers withdrew as a result of the campaign.

Maria: A lot of people were skeptical, dubious—how is it possible that the nonviolent resistance was more effective? Others were like, well, of course, it’s got to be that case, it’s got to be that way. So there have been varying reactions. At least this research provided solid evidence that you can do it non-violently and win.

Natasha: There are a few reasons why this result seemed counterintuitive. For one it feels unnatural. When a person or a group of people are oppressed and mistreated, it feels like the normal response would be to fight back.

Maria: I mean the natural instinct is to respond to violence with violence. When I’m talking with activists from difficult, repressive environments around the world, I completely empathize with them and understand why they want to respond in kind. It’s a natural instinct, it’s often therapeutic but it’s not strategic and if you want to be victorious and you want to win as a resistor, you have to do what your challenger, your opponent, does not want you to do. And authorities and regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence in a return, and it delegitimises the movement.

regimes often want protesters to use violence because it justifies their own violence

Natasha: Then there are people, like the philosopher Nietzsche, who think non-violence is weak. He describes the idea of turning the other cheek as illogical and pathetic.

Maria: Illogical and pathetic, maybe, but pretty darn effective too, I would say. The stereotype, or the connotation, is that nonviolent action means pacifism but in fact, nonviolent resistance is an active form of struggle that just involves different weapons. But I think what needs to be understood is where the power of this method of struggle comes from. And the power of nonviolent resistance is grounded in people, in the consent of people, so when large numbers of people refuse to obey, refuse to cooperate with evil systems or institutions that are unjust, this translates into significant social, political, economic pressure being applied against the opponent. So I would say it’s anything but passive, it’s anything but weak, and it’s anything but ineffective.

Natasha: Also the goal of nonviolent resistance, in and of itself, is counterintuitive because it is about challenging injustice but it’s also about engaging your enemy and trying to get them to effectively, switch teams.

Maria: Your goal is not to kill, harm, or humiliate the opponent. Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side, which is very different, of course, from armed struggle or insurgency. So you recognize the humanity in the other and you want to bring them on board to fight what is an unjust system.

Your goal is to win over the opponent to your side

Simon: But that isn’t to say that nonviolent resistance always works.

Maria: So the key ingredient of successful civil resistance is mass and diverse participation. So, for example, we found in the study that the average nonviolent campaign in our data set attracted 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign, and the greater the number of people, and the greater the diversity of participants, the more likely the campaigns were to succeed. So when campaigns are not able to attract mass participation, when there’s significant disunity—so when there’s no unity around goals, leaders, and tactics—that’s usually going to be a sign that a movement won’t succeed. If the campaign or movement is unable to maintain nonviolent discipline when faced with violence, that usually is a sign that it will not succeed. So nonviolent discipline—the ability to maintain a nonviolent posture when provoked or when violence is used against you—is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance. And you can bolster nonviolent discipline through training, through preparation, through anticipation of the violence that’s coming, and knowing how to respond and what to do and what not to do.

nonviolent discipline is one of the, if not the, most important ingredients of successful nonviolent resistance

Simon: So take the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s in the US, this was a hugely significant nonviolent campaign. First, they had mass participation.

Maria: It was a campaign that was led by black leadership, that involved the churches, that involved white allies, and that involved a significant number of amazing nonviolent campaigns and tactics. So the Montgomery bus boycott was a classic example of African-Americans refusing to ride the bus and pay the fees to the driver, which caused a significant economic effect on the owners of the bus system. The lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. So it was a very methodical, strategic movement of movements that brought lots of different people, groups, organizations, sectors of society together and achieved remarkable gains and ended the system of apartheid in this country.

Simon: And there was also that commitment to non-violence, even in the face of violent opposition. Take for example, the Selma March where protesters faced off against police wielding water cannons, hoses and batons.

Maria: People often ask, how did you maintain nonviolent discipline in this moment? A lot of that can be explained by, yes, the spiritual resources, the commitment to non-violence, which was articulated by leaders like King and others, and the participants had been trained in how to maintain nonviolent discipline in these difficult situations. So in the basements of churches there were trainings and how to do civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, and how not to respond to violence with violence when provoked. And so these combinations of the spiritual and the practical strategic really came to bear in the in the Selma March.

Natasha: From all of the data and analysis there was a picture of human nature and human society that emerged for Dr. Stephan.

Maria: I think what it tells you is that humans—when faced with the most formidable obstacles, oppression, injustices—are capable of finding courage and taking action to resist and that they can be effective using nonviolent means. And it also suggests that people have different motivations, some people are very inspired by religious conviction and that can be a powerful mooring for their activism and for their use of non-violent action. And that it’s possible again to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other. And so it’s possible to organize, it’s possible to use nonviolent means, it’s possible to win over opponents even in the most difficult of circumstances. And it’s possible, most importantly, even when it seems impossible to be effective using nonviolent resistance.

it’s possible to resist unjust structures and institutions without exhibiting anger, hatred, or non-acceptance of the other

One thought on “Non-violence—Twice As Effective As Violence?

  1. Pingback: Christianity—Motivating Violence & Non-violence? – Reforming Hell

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