These days, it’s relatively common for me to get myself in conversations about the ‘effectiveness’ of nonviolence. The discussion usually goes something like this:
Someone: “Look, I like the idea of nonviolence, but in the same kind of way that university students like the idea of Communism: it’s nice on paper, I guess, but it just doesn’t work in the real world.”
Me: “Right. So we’re talking about whether or not nonviolence can be an effective strategy, yeah?”
Someone: “Correct. It might be fine in certain situations, but it’s just not going to work in the face of full-blown evil.”
Me: “Leaving off for a moment a couple of points that could be challenged from what you’ve just said, you might be surprised to learn that nonviolent movements have, historically, proven to be more ‘successful’ than violent ones.”
Someone: “Right. So what you’re saying is that you’re going to fly over to Iraq to have a cup of tea and biscuits and ‘discuss’ options with I.S.? Good luck with that! With the reality of I.S., or Boko Haram—or Hitler and the Nazis—we’re dealing with pure evil. That kind of evil cannot be reasoned with, and it won’t be stopped by everyone sitting around singing Kumbaya! There’s only one language that these monsters understand, and it’s one that’s communicated through the barrel of a gun.”
…and so on and so forth.
Now, there are a number of intertwined issues in this discussion. There’s the dehumanisation of the enemy (using terms like ‘monsters’, ‘savages’, ‘pure evil’, and the like), which, of course, is a very helpful way of assuaging guilt. The thought of ‘exterminating brutes’ is much easier to accept than killing fellow human beings, and it’s why the official vocabulary of war is so full of euphemism. There is also, of course, the core issue of effectiveness (in terms of clear ‘results’), which has been shown a number of times to, quite clearly, favour nonviolent movements (despite common belief, and in all sorts of contexts—including overthrowing violent dictators.
But I think there’s actually a more foundational issue which needs to be clarified:
There seems to be a common belief that violence can be defeated by violence—violence of a different kind, perhaps (if you want to make that argument), but violence nonetheless (…the ongoing popularity of the myth of redemptive violence is here ‘Exhibit A’). Once it has reached the point where there is ‘no other option’, so the argument goes, violence is required in order to overcome the evil that is being (perhaps reluctantly) opposed, and to restore equilibrium.
The problem with this is that violence never defeats violence. Ever.
It can pause it, I guess, or suppress it (for a time), or deflect it or squish and squash or bend it, but violence can never fully ‘defeat’ violence.
Violence, rather, begets further violence—often in new and innovative forms, to be sure, but reliably nonetheless.
Violence, it seems to me, has a kind of energy to it, which ricochets its way through the pages of history. Energy, as the saying goes, never really dies, it simply changes its form. In the same way, the energy of violence is not defeated by further violence, but is simply changed and channeled into new forms.
The violence of I.S. doesn’t spring forth out of nowhere, but from the fertile ground of previous violence. Such is the case for Boko Haram, and Joseph Kony, and Hitler, and on and on it goes. (Perhaps it’s a touch too controversial, but I think this also explains the incredible violence that is alive and well in the U.S., but I’ll leave that for another discussion.)
The cacophony of violence in our world bounces off the blades of swords and the barrels of guns, echoing into perpetuity.
This, of course, is rather depressing.
There is, to my mind, only one antidote, and it’s best illustrated in the torturous death of a poor Jewish rabbi on a Roman cross.
Jesus of Nazareth, hanging on the cross, absorbed the energy of violence into himself. Rather than responding in kind—rather than calling his disciples to violent revolt—he drew the violence of Empire into his own body, and transformed it by the only force in the universe powerful enough to do so: grace. Instead of words of wrath, forgiveness flowed from his lips, and thus violence was robbed of its power. (Of course, the Christian story also insists that, through the resurrection of Jesus, death itself—that thing which gives violence its very power—was overcome in full.)
And this, then, is the reason why nonviolence is not just more ‘successful’ than violence, but in fact is the only truly successful response.
Meeting violence with violence can only ever deflect the energy of violence. Transforming violence through grace and love allows for the vibrations of violence to be wholly absorbed.
I am not for a moment saying that this is easy. In fact, it remains a truly extraordinary act (and one that I’m not sure I can fully appreciate, given that my life has been relatively free from violence).
It is also fact, however, that it remains the only way to truly defeat violence.
Perhaps it’s worthwhile to conclude with the words of Dr King:
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies. Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you…?
Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love for even our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; the is the practical realist…
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.