The Violence of Non-violence

There is a common misconception that non-violence (and more particular forms of it, e.g. pacifism) is a passive, weak, morally neutral (or worse) ethical position.

I find this to be wrong headed; non-violence is not ever that, by default. Non-violence when fully considered always contains the possibility of so much more. Judith Butler has written,

“Non-violence is not a peaceful state, but a social and political struggle to make rage articulate and effective – the carefully crafted “fuck you.”

Non-violence should never be confused with passivity. It isn’t refusing to act, it is a qualitatively different kind of act. Non-violence is a protest against current conditions and values that so often deteriorate into violent and retributive circles. Non-violence breaks apart as/is structures and relationships, generating the promise of novelty as we see previously unseen options appear before us.

We might even say that non-violence is a violent act. Non-violence does not leave things unchanged. Non-violence generates rupture. Think of MLK or Gandhi or even Jesus – cultural values and political systems changed. Non-violence is not without risk, as it waves the option of capitulation to the values of the dominant social narrative. It refuses the dualisms and binaries that we experience so often, in favour of creativity and entertaining the multiplicity of options that we need only be willing to look for.

In Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf outlines beautifully just how the life and person of Jesus is defined by such non-violence, noting in one chapter how the cross acts as the ultimate protest against violence.

Hanging on the cross, Jesus provided the ultimate example of his command to replace the principle of retaliation with the principle of nonresistance… He broke the cycle of violence by absorbing it, taking it upon himself. He refused to be drawn into the automatism of revenge, but sought to overcome evil by doing good – even at the cost of his life… The crucified Messiah is not a concealed legitimation of the system of terror, but its radical critique.

Jesus’ teachings, such as: “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “if a man takes your shirt give him your coast as well,” “love your neighbour,” “whoever wants to be great must become a servant,” and so on are the basis of the non-violent identity of the Christian community. But they are also it’s protest. Its “fuck you,” if you will. Contextually, each of these teachings can only be understood within the narrative and its trajectory, that begins to culminate in the cross. And the cross is seen as where these teachings begin to gain meaning as critique, as subversion, as protest. The aim is for the world to change non-violently, for the powerful and wealthy to be named as guilty and overcome, through nonresistance and peaceableness.

Christians participate in a story of “social and political struggle,” and are faithful to a narrative, in word and deed, that if it is understood as imploring passivity, it is misunderstood. This is a story that speaks of a love with teeth, that goes to death because its weakness is its strength, its powerlessness is its power, its non-violence is its violence. For in all of this it is believed that God brought to nothing the powers that be and raised Jesus as Lord, and instigated a salvation that signals a rupture and renewal of the socio-political order, non-violently.