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

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

ThoreauUpdate:  A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong.  I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword  to my copy of On Civil Disobedience.  I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars.  Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think  they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.

Happy Birthday, Thoreau.  Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA,  Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class.  He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.

Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.

Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs,  but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.]  He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend  an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine.  Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience.  In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience.  By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil.  One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws.  Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.

Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists.  Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways.  Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience.  So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.]  These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major  motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale.  He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.

We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness.  We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.

We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.

Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.

UPDATE:   It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas  K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy,  Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway.  Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten.  Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]

To help the Thoreau revival, check out the Thoreau Society.  A DVD expounding Thoreau’s basic values and principles is available and is known as Life With Principle.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, consumerism, convictions, heroes, nonviolence, philosophy, politics, taxes | 6 Comments

Philosophers for Peace

Coming soon:  A series in which I profile major philosophers whose work has impacted struggles for peace and justice.  Pacifists and those whose work has contributed to the development of nonviolence theory will be given special attention.  As a Christian, I naturally focus most on Christian philosophers, but other persons of faith and non-religious thinkers will not be ignored or ruled out.

July 9, 2009 Posted by | ethics, nonviolence, pacifism, peace, philosophy | 2 Comments

Good Friday

“Good” Friday–It seems an odd name for the day Jesus was crucified by the Romans (in collusion with the temple elites of Jerusalem).  The English name is probably a corruption of “God’s Friday” the way that “Good-Bye” is a corruption of “God be with Ye.”

Baptists and other Free Church traditions often do not observe Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with services.  This, as I heard a Catholic theologian wisely observe, leads to the common Protestant sin of “raising Jesus too soon.”  Skipping from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of resurrection on Easter Sunday leads to a triumphalist theology–what Martin Luther referred to as a “theology of glory” rather than a “theology of the cross.” 

But I think the problem is worse than that.  Reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s popular The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus Final Days in Jerusalem I have come to think that churches should have services all through Holy Week: Palm Sunday,  “Confrontation Monday” (focusing on the so-called “Cleansing” clash with the Temple System), “Teaching Tuesday” & “Teaching Wednesday,” Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.  This puts the cross and resurrection back in context.

Crucifixion was not the Romans’ normal method of execution. It was reserved for rebellious slaves and for insurrectionists against Roman rule.  (See Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross.) When Pilate places the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head, he is not confirming his belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah from the line of David, but is accusing him of attempting to usurp Rome’s rule.  Most English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “thieves,” but the ordinary Greek  word for “thief” was kleptos.  The word the Gospels use to describe the other two crucified that day is lestes which can mean a robber, but is more often used to mean “rebel,” or “revolutionary.” Today, we would say that Jesus was crucified between two terrorists.  The released man not crucified is identified as “Barabbas,” but this is not a personal name. It is Aramaic, “Bar abbas,” “Son of the Father.” “Barabbas” was probably a zealot making a messianic claim.  Pilate’s sign over Jesus’  head is his accusation that Jesus is also a terrorist.

Of course, Pilate misunderstands the nature of Jesus’ movement. The Jesus way is nonviolent and Jesus does not intend to simply replace one ruler with another (except God).  But Pilate does understand that Jesus and his movement is a threat to Rome and to all oppressive, imperial rule.  Christianity would be a threat to America, too, if it had not “tamed” and domesticated the churches.

By skipping from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, we don’t avoid the cross for a theology of glory as with the pattern of moving from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.  But it does de-politicize the cross and make Jesus a passive victim of God. God does use the crucifixion for our salvation. (See J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement; S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice:  A Theology of the Cross. ) But there were also human motivations in Jesus’ death.  We miss that–we miss  the way that Jesus’ message enraged the political powers.  After all, at Caesarea Philippi Jesus warned his disciples that his crucifixion could lead to theirs as well. We disciples are to take up our crosses–that means to live in Jesus’ nonviolent way even knowing that this may mean our persecution and deaths by the powers.

And the resurrection? Ah, but that must await a few days.  Yet as we contemplate the cross, we should know that not just Rome or her puppets in the Jewish “leadership” of the Temple system, but all of us are to blame.  (This is where Rene’ Girard’s views on mimetic desire are so helpful.  See Rene’ Girard, The Scapegoat.  Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. ) As the old hymn asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes, we were all there.

By taking on the violence of the Powers and all of us without a violent response, Jesus ends the violence and the sin described in the scapegoating system.  This voluntary sacrifice ends sacrifice–ends the myth of religiously sanctioned violence and offers us all a saving alternative.  In that way, maybe this day of darkness really can be called “Good.”

April 10, 2009 Posted by | atonement, Christian calendar, nonviolence, theology | 3 Comments

Bibliographies on Christian Peacemaking I: Biblical Studies

In light of recent discussions, I should also work on getting bibliographies on abortion, the death penalty, and related matters.  But this is a good starting point for examining Scripture and peacemaking.  Future installments will cover theological works, church history, philosophical arguments, and contemporary applications.

I hope biblio-bloggers will give me additional entries, along with reasons why they would make good additions.  MLW-W.

Alison, James.  Raising Abel:  The Recovery of Eschatological Imagination.  Crossroad, 1996.

Allison, Dale C.  The Sermon on the Mount:  Inspiring the Moral Imagination.  Crossroad, 1999.

Bauman, Clarence.  The Sermon on the Mount:  The Modern Quest for Its Meaning.  Mercer University Press, 1985.

Beck, Robert.  Nonviolent Story:  Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark. Orbis, 1996.

Borg, Markus.  Jesus, A New Vision:  Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship.  Harper & Row, 1988.  (This is the best of Borg’s books on Jesus.)

Bredin,  Mark.  Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace:  A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation.  Paternoster, 2003.

Brown, Dale W. Biblical Pacifism.  2nd Ed.  Evangel, 2003.  (This 2nd ed. is a MUCH better book and incorporates Stassen’s just peacemaking theory and his 14 Triads interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.)

Brueggemann, Walter.  Peace. Chalice Press, 2001.  New, revised edition of Living Toward a Vision:  Biblical Reflections on Shalom.  United Church Press, 1976.  (Brueggemann is one of the most amazing living scholars of the First Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. )

Carter, Warren.  Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading.  Orbis, 2000.

Cassidy, Richard J.  Jesus, Politics, and Society:  A Study  of Luke’s Gospel.  Orbis, 1978.

__________.  John’s Gospel in New Perspective:  Christology and the Realities of Roman Power.  Orbis, 1992.

__________. Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles.  Orbis, 1987.

Collins, Adela Yarbro.  Crisis and Catharsis:  The Power of the Apocalypse.  Fortress, 1994.

Crosby, Michael.  Spirituality of the Beatitudes:  Matthew’s Challenge for First World Christians.  Orbis, 1981.

Ferguson, John.  The Politics of Love:  The New Testament and Nonviolent Revolution.  Attic, n.d.

Ford, J. Massynberde.  My Enemy is My Guest:  Jesus and Violence in Luke.  Orbis, 1984.

Grimsrud, Ted and Loren L. Johns, eds., Peace and Justice Shall Embrace:  Power and Theopolitics in the Bible.  Herald, 1999.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert.  The Gospel and the Sacred:  Poetics of Violence in Mark.  Fortress, 1994.

Hays, Richard B.  The Moral Vision of the New Testament. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. (This is an excellent work on New Testament ethics by a very fine biblical scholar. I have disagreed with his conclusions on “homosexuality,” but his arguments and conclusions on “the use of violence in defense of justice” is excellent.)

Hengel, Martin. Victory Over Violence:  Jesus and the Revolutionists.  Fortress, 1973.

Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.  Fortress, 2003.

_________.  Jesus and the Spiral of Violence:  Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine.  Harper & Row, 1987.

_________, ed., Paul and Empire:  Religion and Power iin Roman Imperial Society. Trinity, 1997.

Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyther.  Unveiling Empire:  Revelation Then and Now.  Orbis, 2003.

Lapide, Pinchas.  The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action?  Orbis, 1992.  (Lapide was a German Orthodox Rabbi who was also heavily involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue. )

Lassere, Jean.  War and the Gospel.  Trans. Oliver Coburn. Herald Press, 1962.

Lind, Millard C.  Yahweh is a Warrior.  Herald, 1980.  (Lind is a Mennonite OT scholar.  This is the best way I have seen in dealing with the “Holy War” texts in the OT, especially in Joshua and Judges.)

Macgregor, G. H. C.  The New Testament Basis of Pacifism. Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1954.  (Macgregor, a NT scholar in the Church of Scotland, kept his commitment to pacifism even as the UK was bombed during WWII.)

McSorley, Richard, S.J., New Testament Basis for Peacemaking.  Herald, 1985.

Myers, Ched.  Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Orbis,  1988.

Rensberger, David.  Johannine Faith and Liberating Community.  Westminster, 1988.

Schuessler Fiorenza, Elizabeth.  The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment.  Fortress, 1985.

Schwager, Raymond.  Must There Be Scapegoats?  Violence and Redemption in the Bible.  Harper & Row, 1987.

Sider, Ronald J.  Christ and Violence.  Herald, 1979.  (This is an excellent argument that does not require any background in biblical studies.)

Swartley,  Willard M.  Covenant of Peace:  The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics.  Eerdmans, 2006.  (Swartley, a Mennonite NT scholar and former Dean of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, here gives his magnum opus.  It was well worth the wait.)

__________, ed.  The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament.  W/JKP, 1992.  (A fantastic collection of essays by a wide variety of scholars.)

___________, ed. Violence Renounced:  Rene’ Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking.  Cascadia, 2000.  (Rene Girard, a literary theorist and anthropologist, studied the connections between violence, religion, sacrifice, and literature.  His conclusions converted him to Christianity as the only religion which unmasks the way that religion justifies violence.  His work is fairly technical and jargon loaded. But he has been very influential in biblical studies and theology–though not uncritically so.)

Wengst, Klaus.  Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ.  Fortress, 1987.

Williams, James G.  The Bible, Violence,  and the Sacred:  Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence.  Harper, 1991.  (An excellent Girardian argument.)

Wink, Walter.  Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.  Fortress, 1992.

_________.  When the Powers Fall:  Reconciliation in the Healing of the Nations.  Fortress, 1998.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God.  Fortress, 1996.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus.  Rev. Ed. Eerdmans, 1994.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible, books, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 4 Comments

Two Types of Christian Pacifism

“Pacifism” can  be defined at minimum as the view that war, even defensive war, is always wrong–or that participation in war is wrong.  Another minimal definition is that deliberately taking human life is always morally wrong. 

Minimal definitions only get one so far, of course.  Pacifists come in many different varieties.  Faith-based pacifists may be minimally defined as those who believe their religious faith forbids them to kill human beings, especially in war.  Christian pacifists are minimally those who believe that their Christian faith forbids them to kill in any war.  From there on, the differences abound:  many Christian pacifists would also be against abortion (minimally believing that Christians themselves should never obtain or facilitate abortions; maximally, attempting to outlaw all abortions), but some Christians, while always considering abortion a moral tragedy, would sometimes see them as morally permissable. (I have been on both sides of that debate and am currently “reluctantly pro-choice” for reasons I need a different blog post to delineate.) Many Christian pacifists are also against the death penalty, but some would only see Christian participation in that as sinful.  Some Christian pacifists are vegetarians, but most are not (whereas Buddhist or Hindu pacifists ARE vegetarians).  Many Christian pacifists are against the use of physical punishment in child rearing, but others are not.

Likewise,  the type of theology and spirituality which undergirds Christian pacifism come in great variety:  Franciscan pacifism is different from Benedictine or Catholic Worker pacifism, but they all bear far more resemblance to each  other than either would to Amish or Mennonite pacifism.  Anabaptist style pacifism undergirds Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Amish and others (and,  itself, has variations within it), but this is different from Quaker pacifism.  And so it goes.

In Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder outlined the strengths and weaknesses of about 20 different types of religious pacifism without claiming that his taxonomy was exhaustive.  But while sometimes it is useful to multiply categories in order to see the great variety, sometimes it is helpful to boil things down to a couple of choices so that one can see broad similarities.  This is one thing that Catholic theological ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill does in her book, Love Your Enemies:  Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. (By the way,  this is a must read.)

Cahill notes that not only do  Christian just war theorists read the New Testament differently than do Christian pacifists,  but that Christian pacifists fall broadly into two types which also read the New Testament differently.  One kind of Christian pacifism Cahill calls the pacifism of obedience and the other as the pacifism of compassion. 

Cahill’s “obedience pacifists” include people like Tertullian, Menno Simons, John Howard Yoder.  They are nonviolent out of obedience to the commands of Jesus as they see them.  Their discipleship is one of following.  Their defenses of nonviolence focus on the authority of Jesus (or the Risen Christ) and they read the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ platform for his followers.  By contrast, Cahill’s “compassion pacifists” include people like St. Francis of Assissi, Dorothy Day, and (in his pacifist phase) H. Richard Niebuhr.  Their focus of discipleship is on “works of compassion and mercy” to the poor and outcasts.  They reject war and violence out of a prior spirituality that is about serving and vocation, rather than by rules about when, if ever, to use violence.

One must be clear that these are broad tendencies, not pure types. After all, Dorothy Day, for all her mercy and compassion thought  in terms of authority and obedience (and could be a tyrant in running the Worker Houses of Hospitality).  Nor would anyone who knew John Yoder want to suggest that he lacked compassion and mercy or that his view of the NT was in any way legalistic.  Still, these different orientations are helpful to note.

Some other “obedience pacifists” include Alexander Campbell, a majority of first generation Pentecostals, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, Culbert Rutenber, Richard Overton, Conrad Grebel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in his “pacifist days),etc.  Some other “compassion pacifists” would include Muriel Lester, Walter Rauschenbusch, George Fox,  Mother Teresa of Calcultta, Jean Vanier.

But where would one put Stanley Hauerwas?  He eschews rules for virtues, but clearly has an obedience-style structure.  So, the typology has its  limits even if it is helpful in broad terms.

March 31, 2009 Posted by | discipleship, love of enemies, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 8 Comments

The Folly of the Cross

One of the nice things about the community of theology blogs is that one doesn’t have to do everything oneself.  I have written often on Christian nonviolence, but I have not, on this blog, ever tried to lay out a consistent case for the position.  Fortunately, an excellent case is made by D.C. Cramer on his blog, Cramer Comments.

Here is a link to most of his series, “The Folly of the Cross: On  Christian Pacifism.”  Note that he covers topics that often come up as objections, including the question of policing and that of (violent) defense of family against attackers.  He promises more to come, including chapters on the question of pacifism and the Old Testament, family members in the military, the Nazis and more.  I hope he includes a chapter on nonviolent responses to terrorism. (If not, I will have to do  so myself, I guess.  Fortunately, far more has been written on this recently than when I became a pacifist in the ’80s.)  Given his conservative evangelical background, I suspect that Cramer and I disagree  on several things (Christian pacifism comes in many varieties), but I like what he has written here and recommend it to you,  Gentle Readers,  whether you share my pacifist convictions or are one of my critics on this matter.

March 30, 2009 Posted by | blogs, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism | 4 Comments

Third Annual Christian Peace Witness for Iraq

Wednesday, 28 April 2009, 7 p.m. at the Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C.  Make plans now to attend the third annual event of ecumenical worship and activism by Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.  Originally formed to bring church pressure on Congress and then-President Bush to end the Iraq War, CPW is now focusing on keeping pressure on Congress and President Obama to speed up the end of the U.S. Occupation and to bring ALL the U.S. troops home.

The 7 p.m. worship and witness follows events at National City Church earlier in the day:  an Opening Convocation at 1:30-2:30 p.m. and nonviolence training at 2:30 p.m.  Then, on Thursday 29 April 2009  at 9 a.m. there will be a witness and nonviolent action at the Capitol. 

For the Wednesday night event, featured speakers include:

  • Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo, retired professor of sociology at Eastern University in Philadelphia, Associate Pastor, Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia (a mostly African-American congregation, though Campolo is white), noted author and evangelist, founder and President of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education; gadfly, social critic, progressive evangelical social activist.
  • Rev. Lennox Yearwood,  Jr., Minister, community activist, President of Hip Hop Caucus, and U.S. Air Force Reservist.
  • Sr. Dianna Ortiz, Catholic nun (and Louisville native), former missionary to Guatemala, U.S. born torture survivor in Guatemala (Sr. Ortiz was tortured during Guatemala’s military dictatorship during the ’80s.  Though she was blindfolded, she insists her torturers were supervised by an American who was identified as a CIA agent.), Founder of Torture Abolition and Survivors’ Support Coalition International. (I met Sr. Ortiz in the late ’80s shortly after she was released and returned to the U.S. She worked then with Kentucky Interfaith Taskforce on Latin America and the Caribbean [KITLAC].)
  • Elizabeth McAlister, former nun, peace activist and co-founder of Jonah House, an intentional Christian Community.
  • Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Catholic priest, biblical scholar, poet, and peace activist.

Worship that evening will be followed by a processional to the White House.

At the website of Christian Peace Witness for Iraq one can also find their Open Letter to President Obama and suggestions for holding similar events around the country if one cannot travel to D.C. for this event.

February 14, 2009 Posted by | Iraq, nonviolence, peacemaking | 2 Comments

Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence#1 “Mrs. Overton”

This is a new series that will eventually become a booklet.  I began writing these essays in 2004 when working for Every Church a Peace Church.  Women have been the backbone of most movements for peace, justice, and human rights–but usually they have not been as visible to historians.  As one example of this notice that out of over 100 years of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (since 1901) only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel–despite the huge leadership of women in creating the modern peace movement that led Alfred  Nobel to create the prize!  So, I will lead off these “random chapters” by profiling several women peacemakers before profiling any male leaders. 

This blog is dedicated to Richard Overton, General Baptist leader of the 17th C. Levellers. So I begin with the story of his life partner. Ironically, Mrs. Overton’s name is lost to us!  But her story is not –even though it needs to be more widely known.


We know little about “Mrs. Overton.” We do not know when or where she was born or to whom.  We do not know when she met and married Richard Overton.  Was she with him in his youth when he travelled from England to Germany and witnessed the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War? (Was this the origin of the Overtons’ deep conviction that wars over religion were evil incarnate?  Was it the origin of Richard’s defense of liberty of conscience?  Of conscientious objection to war? Of his convictions about nonviolence?) Was she with Richard when he left Germany and moved to Amsterdam in 1615 to join John Smyth’s “se-Baptist” congregation just after it merged with  the Amsterdam Waterlander Mennonites? Or did Richard only meet his life partner after he returned to England (sometime between 1615 and 1642) ? Was she already a member of the General Baptist congregation that Richard joined? (For the first 50 years of their existence the English General Baptists were in frequent communication with the Amsterdam Mennonites. The two groups considered themselves “of like faith and order” and exchanged members without either group requiring rebaptism of the other.  Mennonite-style pacifism was widespread, though not universal, among General Baptists at this time.)   We simply do not know.

What we do know is this:  Mrs. Overton apparently shared her husband’s faith convictions, including his commitments to liberty of conscience and pacifism.  In 1647, Overton, as leader of the Levellers (a Christian-motivated political movement for political and economic equality at the time of the English Civil War), was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for printing pamphlets without submitting them to the censor for approval.  He was dragged to jail clutching a copy of the Magna Carta to his breast. (Remember that the 13th C. Magna Carta was the first English document that limited the rights of monarchs in English common law.  It began the tradition of limited government with checks and balances–though initially limited to the aristocracy–a tradition that would lead inevitably to democratic rule.) On 10 February 1647,  in The Commoner’s Complaint, which he wrote from prison, Overton described not only his arrest, but the even more dramatic arrest of his wife that followed.

Mrs. Overton demonstrated her own commitment to human rights (a term coined by Richard), rooted, like his, in her deep Christian faith, by continuing to print and publish his pamphlets after his arrest when  it would have been safer to lay low.  So, the authorities came to arrest her as well. Mrs. Overton’s conscience would not allow her to cooperate with the arresting authorities.  So, she practiced nonviolent resistance, going limp, and refusing to walk to jail.  The arresting marshall threatened to drag her by the axle of a cart.  She replied that he must “do as it seemed good to him for she was resolved on her course.” (Overton, The Commoner’s Complaint.) Her husband, Richard, describes the scene with great sarcasm and ridicule of the arresting authorities.  Contemporary feminists might complain that he reinforces the view of women as “the weaker sex,” but he uses these prejudices subversively to undermine the authority of the arresting marshall and all governments that would so treat their citizens. 

The marshall, says Richard, “strutted in fury, as if he would have forthwith levied whole armies and droves of porters and cartmen to advance this poor little innocent woman and her tender babe” to Bridewell prison.  The marshall orders his deputies to drag her from the room, but they refuse.  When the marshall is defeated, the authorities have to draft soldiers from the wars from the frontlines to come and arrest Mrs. Overton.  She goes limp and they drag her “babe at the breast” according to Overton, down the road while she denounces them to the crowd and they jeer the soldiers and throw rotten fruit at them!

In prison, the Overtons have to be smuggled food by friends. They began by being concerned with the rights of conscience for religious minorities and political rights–but in prison they meet the poor and their concept of human rights broadens to include economic rights.

Neither Mrs. Overton nor the Levellers were successful in the short run.  But her witness lives on.  Whenever any nonviolent witness for truth practices nonviolent resistance, they expose the injustice of the Powers and Authorities.  And the Thrones and Kingdoms tremble.  The walls begin to shake.

For all the Mrs. Overtons, named and unnamed, I pray, O Lord, knowing that Your Spirit works through them to topple injustice and sow the seeds of your justice,  your peace, your Rule.  Amen.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | anabaptists, Baptists, church history, discipleship, heroes, human rights., nonviolence | Comments Off on Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence#1 “Mrs. Overton”

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 | 14 Comments

Dying for One’s Country?

With the U.S. celebration of Independence Day (4 July 1776) just around the corner, I note that Australian Ben Myers has posted the following quote by Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

I have some sypathy for this view, but I find KILLING for one’s country far more problematic for Christians. And, usually, in America, when we urge someone to be willing to die for his or her country, we actually mean “be willing to KILL and/or BE KILLED for your country” (as long as that country is the U.S.A. or an “ally of the moment.”).

I said this in the comments on Ben’s site:

For Christians, “dying for one’s country” is, indeed, problematic–though my reasons for saying so are far more anabaptist than MacIntyre’s. However, FAR more problematic is the ideology of being willing to KILL for one’s country.

People who die for their country in nonviolent revolution or nonviolent defense against invasion or nonviolent defense of a nation-state’s stated values (e.g., democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.) against erosions and usurpations of the same are all morally admirable. Depending on the context, there may even be good, gospel-based, reasons for Christians to be willing to die in these kind of contexts–in some senses to die for their country.

However, there is zero justification for Christians to be willing to kill other human beings (persons made in God’s image; persons for whom Christ died) “in defense of their country” or anything else. To kill is to betray the gospel.


June 22, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism, theology | 28 Comments