One of the commenters to my post on “Dying for One’s Country?” asks about the U.S. Revolutionary War and several ask about fighting Hitler. This is always asked as if pacifists have never considered these questions before–as if Jesus never considered them, etc. One could answer in several ways. I considered writing a sarcastic series of conversations between Jesus and Christians in which, in every era, they explain to the “naive Jesus” that the Sermon on the Mount is impractical because the Romans, Barbarians, Huns, Franks, Saracens, British, Yankees, Germans, Communists, terrorists, etc.–THIS enemy just cannot be dealt with in any other way than retaliatory violence. But if we believe that, we believe Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about and our whole faith is a lie.
But let’s try a different approach: Let us assume for the moment that some things are worth dying for–some penultimate values and not just the ultimate value of the gospel–martyrdom for the faith is not the only reason to die rather than submit. Let us further assume that some evils must be resisted even if we die in the resistance. It does not therefore follow that we must resist VIOLENTLY. Nonviolent resistance, even nonviolent revolutions in the face of tyrannical regimes have happened more often than we remember.
1) If Christians are not to kill, what about the U.S. revolution? Wouldn’t we still be British subjects? This could be answered several ways: A. Yes, some would say, and that wouldn’t be so bad. B. Look at Canada and the other nations of the Commonwealth–they gained independence without bloody revolutions. C. There are those who point out that the American colonialists initially resisted the British nonviolently and won–the war came later and largely because the colonialists did not realize that their earlier tactics were working. See Walter Conser, et al., Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775 (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishing, 1986);
2) What about the U.S. Civil War? Slavery was abolished throughout the British empire without war. War was not the only answer to the evil of slavery–and, indeed, slavery was only one of the reasons for the war.
3) Here is a partial list of successful nonviolent revolutions:
- The Russian Revolution of 1907–before the violent Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. A series of nationwide strikes brought the Czar’s government to its knees without the firing of a shot. This was one of the models for Gandhi’s earliest experiments in nonviolence.
- Gandhi’s initial nonviolent campaigns on behalf of Indians in South Africa, 1913-1919.
- Following WWI, the French invaded Germany to enforce war reparations payments in the midst of Depression. A nationwide strike and complete nonviolent resistance was successful–the French marched out without ever getting what they came for and with no loss of life. This led to a slight modification of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
- 1930s through 1948, Gandhi leads India to independence from Britain through a series of nonviolent campaigns.
- During WWII there were several successful nonviolent campaigns against the Nazis–including nonviolent defenses of Jews from the Holocaust. There was the “White Rose” movement, for instance, in which German women married to Jewish men used Gandhian methods to rescue their husbands from the Gestapo. Denmark, led by its Christian king, nonviolently resisted the deportation of Danish Jews to the death camps–and lost only a handful of Jews to the Holocaust. The Bulgarians, who initially welcomed the Nazis, absolutely refused to go along with the deportations. Led by the Orthodox Patriarch of Bulgaria, Bulgarian Christians threatened to throw themselves en masse in front of the trains rather than allow the deportation of the Jews. The Nazis backed down. In Vichy France, the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, led by the Reformed pastor Andre Trocme, gave shelter to around 500 Jews–though the Nazis seemed to know they were hiding them. In fact, the Holocaust was most successful in those places (e.g., Poland, Russia) where the anti-Semitism of the populace led to widespread cooperation with the Nazis. Whatever else the Allied Forces did in their war against the Axis powers, they did NOT stop the Holocaust. In fact, the Allies refused to divert planes to blow up the railroads to the camps, despite repeated pleas by those who knew what was happening. Also, the U.S. turned away ships of refugee Jews in the years before U.S. entry into the War.
- 1944: Nonviolent revolutions in both Guatemala and El Salvador, but soon reversed. For more on the histories of nonviolent struggle, including successful nonviolent revolutions, throughout Latin America, see Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, ed. Philip McManus and Gerald Schlabach (New Society Publishers, 1991).
- The U.S. Civil Rights movement, c. 1955-1968.
- Several of the revolutions for independence in African nations in the 1950s and 1960s were nonviolent, although others were bloody.
- 1968–The Prague Spring, was a brief nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia from hardline Communism to “Socialism with a human face.” It was later crushed by the USSR.
- 1974-The Carnation Revolution in Portugal wass completely bloodless.
- 1977-1979, although the “Islamic Republic” that replaced it, ruled by the Ayatollahs, was quite violent and repressive and remains that way, the student-led revolution in Iran against the Shah was nonviolent. The violent capture of the U.S. embassy and the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini came AFTER the Shah was successfully deposed nonviolently.
- 1986, the dictator Marcos in the Philippines is overthrown by nonviolent “People Power” despite Marcos’ support by the U.S. government of Ronald Reagan. See Paul S. Mercado and Francisco S. Tatad, People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986: An Eyewitness to History (Reuter Foundation, 1986).
- 1981-1989, the Solidarity movement in Poland leads to the end of Communist rule–despite setbacks and martial law.
- 1989–The fall of the Berlin Wall. The “Revolution of the Candles” in Eastern Germany, led by Christians, leads to the overthrow of the communist government without one death.
- 1987-1989, nonviolent singing revolutions across several Baltic states, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
- 1989: Nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia. Known as the Velvet Revolution.
- 1989: Nonviolent revolution in Bulgaria.
- 1991: After a coup by Communist hardliners overthrows Gorbachev in the USSR, Russian president Boris Yeltsin (no pacifist, he!) leads a nonviolent counter-coup–and the peaceful break-up of the USSR. For more on the nonviolent revolutions that brought down Communism throughout Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, see Barbara von der Heydt, Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution that Shattered Communism (Eerdmans. 1993).
- 2000–The Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic survived the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and NATO attacks in the ’90s. He was ruthless and brutal. No one can argue (as is often wrongly argued about Gandhi’s struggle in India against the British) that he was a “civilized” and “gentle” dictator who did not know how to use overwhelming violence to crush civil resistance. Here was certainly a “Hitler on a small scale.” Yet what finally brought down Milosevic was a nonviolent revolution in 2000 led by the student movement Otpor, who studied Gene Sharp’s 3 volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action as a guide to strategies and tactics. So this was literally a textbook nonviolent revolution. See the film, Bringing Down a Dictator, narrated by Martin Sheen.
- 2003, in the Republic of Georgia, after a rigged election by Eduard Shevardnadze, the Rose Revolution deposed him. New elections were held in 2004 and Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president. Christians were heavily involved in this nonviolent revolution.
- 2004, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine.
- 2005, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon leads to the end of decades of Syrian occupation and the election of a new and independent government. (Unfortunately, the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the use of Lebanon by U.S. and Iranian forces for proxy contests have undermined this fragile democracy and threaten to plunge Lebanon into civil war.)
More could be added. There have also been many instances, successful and unsuccessful, of nonviolent intervention in armed conflicts by unarmed third parties. This part of nonviolent direct action is the least developed, although several organizations are working on it on small scales.
I am not claiming that organized nonviolent action always “works,” especially not without loss of life on the part of the nonviolent resisters. However, in war one side always loses and sometimes the war is so devastating that both sides lose. So, violence has a very poor track record in the defense of such values as justice, freedom, etc. At the very least, the claim that is often made to pacifists such as myself that often the only choices available are violent action or do nothing apathy is proven false. One can try other options, including organized nonviolent direct action. If we spent the resources preparing for such actions that we do preparing for violent military and/or police actions, how many more nonviolent solutions might be possible?
Further References: There is an excellent documentary film that should be shown and discussed in churches and homes, etc. A Force More Powerful: Nonviolence in the 20th C. It is available at the link in English, Arabic, Farsi, French, Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish. There is a companion book by the same title. See also the film about the nonviolent overthrow of Serbia’s Milosevic, Bringing Down a Dictator. Available in English, Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish.
Other important volumes on nonviolent action are found here. These are only a taste of the literature available, too.
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