Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Nonviolent Revolutions

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.

June 24, 2008 - Posted by | nonviolence, peacemaking


  1. “White Rose” was not the protest of German women married to Jewish men. That was the Rosenstrasse Protest in Berlin.

    “White Rose” resistance consisted of about 180 (all told) students, professors, academics, and others who primarily became known for the anti-Hitler leaflets they published in which they called for passive resistance. They gave specific examples of things people could do to thwart the German war machine.

    However, White Rose ‘members’ (it was a very loose organization) were not pacifists. They regularly debated the desirability of assassinating Hitler. The topics you bring up were the very ones that consumed them. Could they in all good conscience murder a mass murderer? They never found an answer that satisfied them.

    Should be noted that their main financial supporter – Eugen Grimminger of Stuttgart – was Buddhist, married to a Jewish woman. He categorically fought the notion of violence as part of their resistance work and later was disappointed to find out they had even considered an assassination attempt.

    For more about the real story of the White Rose, in contrast with the half-truths and fictions perpetrated by White Rose filmography and Inge Scholl literature, please check out our Web site. It will give you a better feel for their debate over how best to combat the unspeakable horrors of their day.

    Best regards,
    Ruth Hanna Sachs
    Center for White Rose Studies
    Lehi, Utah USA

    Comment by Ruth Hanna Sachs | June 25, 2008

  2. this is silly. To suggest that Milosovic (to take one particular aggregious example) was removed through peaceful “textbook” nonviolent revolution ignores the simple historical facts. Milosovic was weakened and his removal was precipitated because–to put it bluntly–Bill Clinton bombed the living daylights out of Serbia in 1999 for about 3 months. To suggest that he was removed “nonviolently” is simply crazy. Milosovic was not removed through the “nonviolent” resistence of thousands of Ghandi following peaceniks. He was brought down by US and NATO airstrikes and the liberation of Kosovo by US and NATO militaries. You gotta do better than that, dude.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 25, 2008

  3. Dan, what about the litany of other examples he provides? You poke a hole in one and suddenly the whole package is out the window? Come now.

    Comment by Halden | June 25, 2008

  4. Well, Halden. One only has so much time to spend dispensing with such silliness. Besides, the point is NOT that sometimes nonviolent direct action will result in an improved and more just political situation. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t And sometimes using military force will and sometimes it won’t. But W-W’s claim is that even if the use of military force WILL result in a more just political result, it is a “betrayal of Christ’ nevertheless.

    Here’s an example for ya. Remember when Bill Clinton went to Africa and apolgized for American and European failure to act to prevent genocide in Rawanda. Remember that? With only a minimal commitment of military forces America could have prevented the genocide of 800,000 people. That’s another way of saying that if a military force was willing to kill a few of those intent on genocide, it could have been prevented.

    W-W believes that Clinton was wrong. it would have been a “betrayal of Christ” to send lethally armed soldiers into Rawanda to prevent genocide. His pacifism is absolute. It allows no exceptions. And that means if the choice is between genocide of hundreds of thousands and a the use of military force to prevent such genocide, then he will always prefer to allow the genocide. Some people think this reflects great moral courage. I think it is perverse.

    In any case, W-W’s rather perverse position is why he has to bend over backward to persuade us that “nonviolent alternatives” would work just as well. Why not try a few Ghandi tactics in Rawanda, he would say. Yeah, sure. If believe that, then you’ll believe anything.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 25, 2008

  5. Dan, Milosovic was deposed through protests following the 2000 election. He was later tried in Hague for war crimes. The actions of Bill Clinton and NATO did not remove him from power, he resigned.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 25, 2008

  6. Dan,

    You must have missed the bit where MW-W wrote about preparing for non-violent action. If some troops could have stopped the genocide of Rwanda, why couldn’t 10,000 nonviolent resistors? It’s shown through historical records that nonviolent resistance could have done just that.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 25, 2008

  7. Wonderful post! I’ve posted an excerpt here.

    Comment by Mike L. | June 25, 2008

  8. “If some troops could have stopped the genocide of Rwanda, why couldn’t 10,000 nonviolent resistors?” Is this a serious question or is it a joke? Its like asking, “if the US and British air forces stopped Hitler from invading England, why couldn’t 10,000 unarmed Quakers.” Why, because the SOBs wouldn’t think twice about slaughtering you sorry ass. And “historical records” demonstrate this. Really?

    But hey, go ahead. Nobody will stop you. Start with W-W. Pack up. Leave your family or take them with you. Head off to Afghanastan, or Mosul, Iraq. Head to the tribal areas of Pakistan and preach nonviolent resistance. Go ahead. give it a go. And after they screw with you, take you captive, slit your friends throat like a goat, just don’t ask the US military to bail your silly ass out like they did with the kooky Christian peacemaker teams in Iraq.

    At some point you got to take seriously the power of evil in the world. People who think 10,000 peaceniks could have stopped the genocide in Rawanda are simply not living on the same planet as the rest of us.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 25, 2008

  9. To Dan Hollander,
    Actually, you have your facts completely wrong regarding the Balkans in the ’90s. I was involved in an aborted attempt at a nonviolent airlift of goods and medicines into Sarajevo during the Yugoslavian civil war, so I kept very abreast of things. Clinton and NATO did NOT bomb or do anything else during the Yugoslav Civil War–not even to stop genocide and/or rape camps.

    The Clinton/NATO attacks came later–during Serbia’s attacks on Kosovo/a. What is often forgotten, including, it seems, by you, is that there was already a nonviolent Kosovo/a movement that could have been supported. Instead, NATO chose to use military violence in support of the KLA. This hardened the Serbian support behind Milosevic and probably DELAYED his ouster from power by 2-3 years. And it cost numerous lives.

    As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion–but not his or her own facts.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 26, 2008

  10. Thanks, Ms. Sachs for the historical correction. I will edit the post and give you credit.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 26, 2008

  11. Michael–This is simply wrong. First, in 1995 NATO troops were stationed in Bosnia. In fact, armed Dutch troops–with Blue helmets–were in Screbrenica, a NATO SAFEHAVEN.
    They were there to protect Bosnian Muslims from being attacked by the Serbs. They surrendered when attacked and the Muslims were slaughtered.

    Later in the year, the Croats began a major offensive (allied in part with the Bosnians) attacking the Serbs. The military offensive was a stunning success. It was a stunning success because it was supported by NATO–mainly UNITED STATES AIR FORCE–AIR POWER. The led the the Dayton accords. This is simple history, and I find it amazing that you don’t know it.

    Serbia was later attacked by Bill Clinton in 1999. It was justified in part to prevent them from killing Albanian muslims in Kosovo.

    You need to work on your basic history.

    Comment by Roger Pace | June 27, 2008

  12. Dan gives the classic example of appealing to the emotions of the person instead of to the commands of Christ.

    Evil exists in the world. That’s known. Nobody argues against that. But you are arguing that nonviolent resistance can’t possibly work even though MW-W has given a whole list of cases where it did work.

    Why would it be a joke to suggest a large non-violent peace force could have stopped the Rwanda genocide action? It’s very likely it could have worked based on the historical records of nonviolent action that accomplished much of the same.

    But this is all besides the point. The Church is not in this world to fight wars for earthly kingdoms. We’re not here to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Christ have us a commission of reconciliation and the command to not resist evil with violence.

    I trust the Lord, Creator of the universe, is just and right and his commands are the right ones to follow regardless of the situation no matter how hypothetical it is. If God says to not lie, I will not lie, regardless of the situation. If God says to not resist with violence, I will not be violent, regardless of the situation.

    And the promise is that all things will “work together for the good of those who love Him.”

    Engaging the world with pagan, sinful warfare is opposed to the Gospel which does not conform to the ways of the world, which does not fight.

    It’s in the Bible, look it up.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 27, 2008

  13. Roger, you’re right about these facts. But this doesn’t make Michael wrong. The fact is UN/NATO/USA did not stop the genocide, as Michael said.

    And the whole armed conflict didn’t depose Milosevic, it was the election in 2000 that did him in.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 27, 2008

  14. Steven,
    You are right that the church does not exist to engage in combat nor even in nonviolent movements. I think Christians have the OPTION of being involved in the latter. The former are forbidden to us by Jesus.

    The “election of 2000” did not BY ITSELF do in Milosevic. He refused to acknowledge it and leave power. It was the election PLUS the nonviolent revolution led by Otpor to enforce the election results. And that election was delayed by the NATO actions in Kosovo/a. Milosevic was losing influence, but Serbians rallied to him when NATO forces attacked–it was very predictable.

    Roger’s “basic history” conflates what happened in the break up of Yugoslavia and what later happened in the UN peacekeeping and, still later, in the Kosovo/a conflict. He treats all this as the same “war” and thus says that Clinton and NATO forced out Milosevic. Not true. In fact, the Dayton Peace Accords left Milosevic in power.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2008

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