Christianity—Motivating Violence & Non-violence?

The Centre for Public Christianity‘s latest Life & Faith episode seems particularly pertinent to recent events so I transcribed the first half here and the rest below.


Simon: Maria Stefan [is] an expert in nonviolent civil resistance from the US Institute of Peace. I caught up with her, and also her colleague, Susan Hayward, while in Washington DC filming for CPX’s forthcoming documentary on how the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. We filmed a segment on Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, just down the road at the Lincoln Memorial, and then headed over to talk to Maria and Susan together. They’re good friends and bounced off each other as we quizzed them on their respective areas of expertise.

Source: A History of Non-violence

Susan Hayward: I don’t think that people who are driven by their faith, or who are religious, are particularly better at peace than anybody else, but I do think they bring particular skills, or experiences, or techniques to their peacebuilding that might set them apart and make them more effective in particular situations.

Simon: Susan Hayward is an interfaith activist and a just peacebuilder. What she’s saying here is interesting because in our culture we’re more likely to connect religion with violence rather than peace, and there are reasons for this.

Susan: Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war. And we can see that throughout the history of any religious tradition. I work a lot with the Buddhist community, and there’s similar examples as other traditions in Buddhist history, and what is contemporary life, of Buddhism being drawn on to support violence. But Christianity in particular I think has a long and difficult history of Christian ideas and Christian communities mobilizing in support of war. Scott Appleby sometimes refers to what’s called the “ambivalence of the sacred”—this idea that religion motivates these deep impulses and these deep motivations that can lead people to extraordinary acts and that sometimes that deep impulse can drive people to violence but, just as much, that same impulse can drive people to very selfless and courageous acts of peace.

Part of what makes faith and religion such a powerful motivator and support for peace, is also what makes it a powerful motivator and support for violence and for war.

Natasha: When it comes to peacebuilding, religious faith can offer something unique and potentially transformative.

Susan: Those who come to the work of peacebuilding with a religious motivation and a religious understanding of peace, may be bringing a sense of peace that goes beyond the technical. And it goes beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish. Or they may be able to bring particular rituals, particular values, particular practices to their peacebuilding work that can trigger some of the deep reservoirs of people’s being and that can trigger kinds of personal transformations that can be very powerful, and it can then lead to social or institutional transformations.

peace that goes … beyond purely the absence of violence—encompassing the idea of Shalom or Salaam—that is also about human dignity, that is about justice, that is about creating environments in which humans can flourish.

Natasha: Haywood says that because religious communities have had to deal with conflict and have been working for peace in different contexts for millennia, they have this wealth of resources, this history of developing ways to respond to injustice, of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding.

Susan: In the Christian tradition many people draw from the rich history of the Christian Just War theory. So beginning with Augustine in the 3rd century, up to Aquinas, to people like de las Casas in South America (who is arguing against the conquistadors), to Martin Luther King, and others in the modern era. There has also, in the contemporary era, been this movement called “Just Peace”, which has sought—particularly by Christian theologians and activists—to recognize what kinds of practices can help build up sustainable peace, so that situations of injustice can be best addressed non-violently. So you can have environments in which people’s human needs are met, so that international organizations are strong enough to be able to resist the pull to war by various countries, as a means to try to mitigate the war.

Simon: Of course, in the Christian tradition the example of Jesus Christ as a peacemaker is what many peacebuilding movements and practices are built on.

Susan: The teaching of Jesus and the practice of Jesus, and the ways in which Jesus was very consistent in arguing against violence throughout his ministry. And also the ways in which Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization, as issues that should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.

Jesus recognized issues of political injustice, economic injustice, social marginalization … [that] should compel Christians to create an environment that can be one of sustainable peace—one of Shalom—in which all people live with human dignity.

I think it can be a really powerful rhetorical exercise to ask people in situations of violence, and to ask Christians in particular, to think of the model of Jesus and how Jesus acted—what his ministry looked like and what he said as a part of his ministry—and then to apply that to their current situation, in order to make the case against violence and to hold them to that moral standard.

Now the challenge is that in Christian history people have often—especially as soon as the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and they had political power—they’ve always been able to make the case that violence is legitimate in order to achieve a legitimate goal, in order to achieve peace sometimes. So here’s where I think the arguments of nonviolent resistance can be most powerful because if you can say back to them but has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking? Or are their nonviolent ways in which you can address this injustice and try to achieve peace that might be just as effective in reaching that goal but also allowing us to continue to act as Jesus called us to act as nonviolent resistors in the process?

has violence ever helped us to really achieve the peace that we’re seeking?

Simon: But it’s not always straightforward.

Susan: There are times in Christian history where people of good faith have determined that an act of violence was necessary because the situation was so egregious. So an example here would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the midst of World War Two where in Germany he, along with other members of the confessing Church, organized and designed an initiative to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Saying that this was a legitimate targeted use of force in order to address an injustice. Ultimately he failed in that attempt and it’s contested by Christians on whether at the end of the day that use of violence was legitimate from a Christian perspective, on what Jesus would say in response to that. But certainly as a person of morality and a person of faith you can understand that impulse.

Natasha: Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict. And one of the best examples of this is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice tribunal that was set up in 1994 in post-apartheid South Africa. It was a court like set up that allowed victims to give statements about their experiences of gross human rights violations and also allowed perpetrators of violence to give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.

Where religion really does some of its best work, according to Hayward, is in the aftermath of a violent conflict

Susan: The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian, a very religious, notion. It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption, which are very Christian concepts. And moreover, the needs—in terms of bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal and experienced a great deal of loss—are things that spiritual resources, spiritual ideas and processes, can lend a lot to. The very notion of a transitional justice and a reconciliation process that is based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness and of reconciliation, are based in part on Christian ideas of what’s required in the aftermath of violence, or in the aftermath of conflict, or in the aftermath of some sort of a brokenness or wrong. And because both sides of the conflict there were primarily Christian, and were deeply religious, there was a shared narrative and a shared theological frame that could be used to bring people together and to drive this movement. And so what Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders were able to bring in terms of theological language and framework and spiritual rhetoric and spiritual practices—including song, including prayer—in the midst of the truth and reconciliation process was incredibly transformative and powerful and relevant for that context in which both sides of the conflict were Christian.

The very idea of reconciliation is a very Christian … It’s about transformation and it’s a redemption … bringing communities together, of healing individuals and communities who have suffered a great deal … based on ideas of confession, or of testimony, and of forgiveness

Simon: If you want to learn more about the history of non-violence Maria Stephan has written a book with Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works. The interviews with Maria Stephan and Susan Hayward will be featured in our documentary coming out later this year, For the Love of God: How the Church is better and worse than you ever imagined. You can visit our documentary website for more information and to sign up for our newsletter. If you liked this discussion, please do let us know, leave a rating and review on iTunes, just type “Life and Faith” in the search box to find us, and it helps other people find our podcast too.

One thought on “Christianity—Motivating Violence & Non-violence?

  1. Pingback: Non-violence—Twice As Effective As Violence? – Reforming Hell

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