Three Notes on Non-violence


Last Christmas, Reed began a series on Theophiliacs about Non-violence.  It’s a really good series; you should read it if you haven’t done so.  This is one of those issues that haunts me.  It wakes me up in the middle of the night.  I brood over it.  The question of whether or not a Christian should use violence will not leave me alone.  So, here a few further ideas concerning Christian non-violence that have been rolling around in my head recently.  Maybe if I write them down I’ll sleep better tonight.   

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder

Note #1: I recently had the opportunity to stay at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Centennial, CO.  One morning, I was waiting for the rest of my group to wake up and get ready to go (I was on a church trip with teenagers), and so I decided to avail myself of the church library.  One of the books I picked up that morning (I had to wait for a long time) was John Howard Yoder’s What Would You Do?  In this book, the esteemed Anabaptist theologian explores the “big” question that pacifists and advocates of non-violence are asked by those who wish to confound, confront, or shame them.  There are variations, but the basic question is this: “What if someone was trying to attack your _______ (insert wife, sister, mother, child, etc., etc.,), would you just let your loved one be killed or would you do something violent to stop the attacker.  Yoder notes that the question is designed to elicit an emotional rather than a rational response.  He exposes the presuppositions that the questioner almost always has when asking the question, namely that there could only be one possible outcome (a bad one)  if the person to whom question is posed would refuse to act violently.  Yoder then systematically lists all the outcomes, and weighs their probability of their being negative or positive.  Here they are:

1. Tragedy: Your loved one is killed, while you watch.  This, as far as the questioner is concerned is the only outcome available to those who reject violence.  But, in actuality, there are far more likely outcomes, especially since not acting violently rarely means not acting at all. 

2. Martyrdom:  2a:Your loved one is martyred for the sake of the peaceful Gospel of Christ and meets his/her reward on the Last Day.  2b: You are martyred by non-violently coming between the assailant and your loved one, and you receive your reward on the Last Day.

3. Another way out: 3a: A natural way out.  The police come, the assailant changes his mind, trips, drops his weapon, or one of a million other possibilities happen providing a nonviolent solution to the conflict without the loss of your loved one’s life.  3b: A providential way out, Yoder chides his violence-believing fellow Christians for their lack of faith in the possibility of God intervening in a situation, especially when the Christian involved in committed to being faithful to the peaceful Gospel of Jesus. 

4. Attempted killing of the assailant: 4a: Successful: There is loss of life, legal trouble, guilt, retaliation,  etc., etc.  4b: Unsuccessful: There is a high probability that the average person will be unsuccessful in an attempt to violently intervene in this sort of situation. Unsuccessful attempts of violent intervention almost always lead to an escalation of violence, more unnecessary loss of life is almost always certain. 

When weighed, especially from a Christian perspective, the possible positive outcomes from acting non-violently (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) far outweigh the possible negative outcomes of  acting non-violently (1)., and the likelihood of something positive happening from non-violent action (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) is much greater than the likelihood of good things coming from violence (4a, if you can count any loss of life as a “good thing”). 

This all reminds me of Pascal’s Wager, anyway, it’s an interesting book. 


Note #2: I have begun to wonder if Christians interested in acting non-violently can learn something from Buddhism.  I have questions.  If I understand things correctly (and there’s a fair chance I don’t) one of the ethical tenants held by some Buddhists is to “do no harm.”  Is this the same as doing no violence?  It’s a tricky question.  Can you, for instance, spank your child (a seemingly violent act), but do no harm to the child (if it theoretically teaches him a lesson and makes him a better person, yadda, yadda, yadda)?   A Buddhist monk developed the martial art of Aikido as a way to defend oneself without doing harm to the attacker.  Is this type of self-defense permissible to a non-violent Christian?  It’s not exactly “turning the other cheek,” is it?  I’d be interested in hearing other’s opinions on this, especially those who know more about Buddhism than I. 


Bishop Paul Jones

Bishop Paul Jones

Note #3: Episcopalians (in true Episcopalian form) do not necessarily agree on, or have a consistent stance on the issue of Christian non-violence.  An example of this is in the curriculum for the Sunday School class that I’m teaching.  One of the units is on non-violence.  A lot of time is spent in this unit examining what Scripture says, and after coming down firmly on the side of non-violence, it uses the examples of Martin Luther King and Gandhi to explore how non-violence can be put into practice.  The very next unit,  is about self-defence.  In this unit, students are encouraged to kick at the shins and groin, and elbow the face and neck of any one who even remotely looks like they could possibly be capable of rape or kidnapping.  Not surprisingly, disagreement on this issue in the Episcopal church has been going on for a long damn time.  One of the bright examples of Christian non-violence in the Episcopal church has made his way onto the Church Calendar, however.  This coming Friday is the day we remember the Blessed Paul Jones, bishop of Utah 1914-1918.  Here’s a good article about him, but I’ll give you the short version: he was very outspoken about how WWI (and all wars for that matter) was “unchristian” and was consequently forced to resign his bishopric.  He was an amazing man with an amazing witness to the peaceful Gospel of Christ; you ought to read up on him or at least give him and especially his cause a thought this Friday; you can rest assured I’ll be thinking about it.

Merciful God, who sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in this and every land witnesses, who, after the example of your servant Paul Jones, will stand firm in proclaiming th Gospel of the Prince of Peace, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  AMEN.



  1. This is a perfect lead in to the non-violence post I was gearing up to do. Great ideas all. I especially agree with Yoder as will become obvious. People just don’t ‘really’ trust God these days and the lack of trust in eschatology is apparent in those who feel that violent action preserves justice or ‘defends the defenseless.’

    – What is the Buddhist motivation behind “do no harm?”


  2. I appreciate your post, James. I believe your first note based on Yoder’s comments is right for most situations that the majority of Christians face in our interaction with others.

    However, a creed of total non-violence for all Christians begins to break down when we have Christian police officers and Christians in the military.

    I also wonder how well this might work for the Christians that are intermingled among the jihadists in Lebanon, Iraq, and other middle east countries. It might work well for them, or it might not. I am curious.


    1. Roger,

      I appreciate the practical questions you bring to the discussion. I know that we all know Christian police officers and soldiers. I also know that there is a lot of what the police and soldiers do that is honorable and praiseworthy, even within the Christian context. However, I don’t think the practical question you pose necessitates that there is something “breaking down” in Yoder’s (and others’) argument. Perhaps it is just a clear indication that Christians should not pursue careers in law enforcement or the military (I would also, personally, have a hard time pursuing a career in entertainment, politics, etc because of this kind of application of biblical principles).


      N.T. Wright gives a wonderful treatment of how we use “evil” as an excuse to either over or under-react in certain personal and national situations. He identifies that the “use force to defend the defenseless” argument is actually a thinly veiled overreaction to evil. Check it out here – “Evil and the Justice of God”



  3. Alright, everyone is saying things I was going to say in my post and is making me seem less than original. I call on Reed to testify that I was going to entitle my post “The Myth of the Defenseless” before you shared this new information Shawn.


  4. I think often about violence in terms of physicality. I think it should be said, violence has verbal and other non-physical elements to it. In our current political climate I think this plays out rather clearly. Words denoting violent action, words conveying violent intent or communication that leads to the dehumanizing of people is just as large a part of this issue.


  5. If this is so Dan then where does a line get drawn? What is ‘hate’ of ‘violent’ speech and what is vehement disagreement? I agree to a very small degree with what you are saying but I fear that any denouncement could be perceived of as violent from a purely subjective point of view.


  6. Actually, scratch that Dan. I was thinking of the sort of laws being proposed to curtail public speech, but we’re talking about Christian non-violence and so I agree: We should not threaten violence nor dehumanize in our speech.


  7. Nice post. Often, we frame the discussion of non-violence in terms of non-violence/violence, as though these are our two options. Here, I think MLK Jr. is helpful, when he frames this debate, instead, in terms of non-violence/non-existence. In terms of practical examples of non-violence lived out in Christianity, I think we would do well to refer to the great liberation theologians.

    I look forward to keeping a closer eye on the site guys. Great posts.


  8. I have 4 thoughts I want to add to this thread:

    1. Stephen seemed to have been a non-violent Christian according to Acts 7:54-60. Paul seemed to have been a non-violent Christian according to Acts 14:19-22. They were both stoned until their attackers thought they were dead. Paul got up and walked away, Stephen went to heaven.

    2. Matthew 21:12-14 (NIV)12 Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” 14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.

    3. I believe a case can be made for defending the helpless, but not ourselves. It seems unChristian to walk past someone that is being beaten to death and simply say, “God bless you.” You may assess the situation and know that intervening in a non-violent manner is going to get both of you killed. It seems that there are very limited situations where violence is appropriate. Self-defense often comes off as pride or as the sin of selfishness. However, defending the helpless is not so grieving to me.

    4. Sometimes the worst scenarios do happen. I was personally in a situation in Odessa, TX a few years ago where someone came at me with a knife. At first, I ran away. However, as I was running away, it seemed he was going to attack my mother with that knife. That was when I came back to fight. I only punched him once, but it was enough to knock him out and the knife fell out of his hand. I jumped on top of him while he was unconscious, and I considered breaking his neck. However, my mother was screaming at me not to kill him, so I just took the knife and we waited for him to wake up. I had preferred to run away rather than defend myself, but I felt no guilt for defending my mother. I am sure that I would have felt guilty for killing him after my mother was no longer in danger, but I don’t feel guilty about punching him.


  9. I realize that the 4 thoughts I added are disjointed and somewhat contradictory. I added them to state that the question of non-violence does not seem have a simple answer. I believe non-violence should be the norm for all Christians, but it seems to me that there may be exceptions to the norm.


  10. Roger,

    My post is going to be about this very thing. I look forward to our interactions. Keep in mind my writing style and try not to interpret it as saying you did “the wrong thing” by defending your mother.


  11. Roger,

    Those are all 4 great thoughts. The episode of Jesus in the temple is an interesting one. His acitons were destructive, and in that sense they were violent, but I believe (and Scripture is silent) that he “caused no harm” in a physical sense to anyone during that episode. So an important question in all is, from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching, what is violence? I really appreciate the story of you defending your mother, it highlights the difficulty of making this into a black and white issue. Thanks!


    Sorry, I really didn’t mean to steal your thunder. It seems our hive mind in not yet developed to the point where the right hand knows what the left is doing, so to speak.


  12. Joshua,

    Thanks for visiting the site! Maybe you could be more specific about which great liberation theologians to consult on the matter. The only one that comes to mind specifically is Oscar Romero, and I know he was not exactly a theologian as much as a Witness to the power of weakness and non-violence. Who else?


  13. James,

    About Archbishop Romero, you are right, he is not an academic theologian; however, in some right he was, and his lack in academic training only came from being called back to be bishop while he was working on his doctorate – in theology. As far as liberation theologians to consult on this matter, I think one could begin to read any books by Gustavo Gutierrez (of course), Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Jose Comblin, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, or Ignacio Ellacuria. I recognize that I am only listing Latin American liberation theologians, but that is primarily because I find them to be the best of the bunch. Also, it is important in reading them not to look in the table of contents or the index for words like non-violence or pacifism, but to read the text and the way that these theologians work with violence contextually and theologically.



  14. Tony,
    No need to apologize ahead of time… 🙂 I understand that there will be differences of opinion. Someone with better ideas and more creativity could have surely taken care of the problem without using violence. The problem was, that was the only alternative I could think of at the time and the only answer I have been able to think of since the incident. I was always amazed when watching McGyver on TV how the writers came up with solutions that I never considered. The same is true in life. For me, at the time, it seemed necessary based on my limited train of thought and the need for action.


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