Testing the Possibilities of Nonviolence
A Feature Review of
Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried
Reviewed by Tyler Campbell
Ronald Sider has worn many hats since publishing his bestselling book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger in 1977. He has contributed to organizations such as Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, as well as the Social Action Commission of the National Association of Evangelicals. He is also the founder and President of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), and Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary. Sider’s passion for combining the worlds of theology and social justice has provided the framework for the majority of his writings throughout his career. His most recent book, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, focuses on the Christian call to nonviolence by showcasing successful nonviolent campaigns. By tying his argument not only to the biblical call of Jesus, but to successful pacifist movements, Sider has written a book that will be useful in both the academy and the church.
Sider begins his project with a concise overview of nonviolent movements throughout history, peaking in the 20th century with biographical accounts of two fathers of pacifism, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through the story of Gandhi; Sider begins a theme that runs throughout the book. That a willingness to subject ones self to great suffering is essential for anyone interested in social change through nonviolence. The author’s summary of history through a biographical lens allows the reader to appreciate that a figure such as Gandhi is not merely significant due to the immediate political change he caused in India. But rather his lasting importance remains in the countless nonviolent practitioners he inspired. Gandhi hoped of King’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s “that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world” (41). Here we see one of Sider’s true literary gifts of subtly highlighting the influence nonviolent movements had on one another.
The book’s focus then shifts from individual leaders of nonviolence to prominent nonviolent groups, helping the reader to understand that nonviolent resistance often shapes itself into nonviolent revolution. Telling stories of the volunteer group Witness for Peace (WFP), which Sider himself volunteered for in 1985, who helped deter guerilla attacks in Nicaragua through innovative and creative means. Sider also writes of the “people power” movement that overthrew Ferdinand Marco’s oppressive regime in the Philippines in 1986 by amalgamating the division of wealthy and poor citizens into what came to be called a “classless revolution” (86). Through these accounts the reader is able to see the longevity nonviolence requires of its practitioners in order to achieve true political change. Sider reminds us that just because a war is halted or an oppressive leader is removed, economic and social justice is not instantly accomplished. Before moving onto more contemporary examples of nonviolent change, Sider describes the role that nonviolence played in the toppling of the Soviet Empire. It is in this section where the reader experiences the church uniting in solidarity by offering up shelter, protestors, and prayer for the cause of social change.
This peaceful presence of the church remains a part of the modern story of nonviolence that is brought forth in the final section of the book. Here, Sider tells the story of a group of courageous women in Liberia who united together to form the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). The prayerful combination of Muslim and Christian women provides a beautiful example of what can be accomplished through interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Through the story of WIPNET we not only see an ecumenical example of strong females overthrowing tyrannical leadership, but also the abounding love and forgiveness present as the group welcomes former soldiers back into the community helping them find jobs and homes. This sense of community also exists in the recent revolutions involving the Arab Spring, which used social media to organize large-scale protests in Tunisia and Egypt. The use of modern technology allowed these revolutionary protests to begin as a movement of the people, without any specific individual leadership. Sider uses the duration of these protests and the amount of people involved to show how the use of violence in protests remains a tempting alternative. Ultimately attesting that the successful movements of the Arab Spring accomplished the first free elections in the history of Tunisia and Egypt by remaining largely nonviolent (153).
Sider’s latest work is not a book to be read quickly. Rather, the reader is best served by engaging each story slowly and letting the lessons it contains sink in over time. One of the true gifts this book features is a robust bibliography that encourages future exploration on this exciting topic. Present here are not only additional stories of successful nonviolent action, but also useful current statistics from scholars such as Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth, and Maria J. Stephan. The fruits of their labor are intelligently deployed by Sider to prove that even without many resources, there is no denying the success nonviolent approaches have had in the last 100 years. Sider uses the proof of these successes to question why our society has never systematically put resources to exploring nonviolent action in any sustained or serious way.
This book exists as more than the standard call to Christian pacifism that has become a common theme in Christian literature for decades. Instead, Sider works to challenge both sides of the argument by writing, “to have any integrity, both the pacifist and Just War traditions demand a massive commitment to nonviolent action” (180). For Sider, the only way that just-war criterion can be considered as a last resort is if Christians commit themselves to a sophisticated and sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolence. Through this lens he also issues a challenge to pacifists. If pacifists are truly confident in their alternative to war, they must be willing to exhibit the same sort of courage and integrity in their cause that our society demands from those involved in violent action. This challenge also extends to governments to make similar financial commitments to exploring nonviolent solutions as they do military training and developing instruments of violence. Although Sider’s aim is not necessarily to contributing new ideas to nonviolent theology, this compilation of stories is filled with accessible, engaging, and useful insights that will work to inspire readers of any background.