The Imperative of Nonviolence (an excerpt from Nonviolent Action by Ronald J. Sider)

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (February 2015) by Ronald J. Sider.

What good would it do for three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber dinghy to paddle into the path of a Pakistani steamship? For a tiny fishing boat with unarmed, praying Americans aboard to sail toward an American battleship threatening Nicaragua? For an eighty-year-old woman in a wheelchair to stop in front of advancing Filipino tanks? Or for nonviolent protesters to defy the Communist rulers of the Soviet Empire?

Soviet Communism collapsed. The tanks stopped, and a nonviolent revolution succeeded. The American battleship left, and the threat of invasion faded. And the US shipment of arms to Pakistan stopped.

Those are just a few of the many dramatic successes of nonviolent confrontation in the last several decades. Everyone, of course, knows how Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution defeated the British Empire and how Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful civil rights crusade changed American history. There have been scores upon scores of instances of nonviolent victories over dictatorship and oppression in the past one hundred years. In fact, Dr. Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of nonviolence today, has said that the twentieth century saw a remarkable expansion of the substitution of nonviolent struggle for violence. More recent scholarship has not only confirmed Sharp’s comment but also shown that nonviolent revolutions against injustice and dictatorship are actually more successful than violent campaigns.

Surely these facts suggest a crucial area of urgent exploration in the twenty-first century. The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history. No one who lived through or studies that vicious century needs to be reminded of the horror of war and violence. A violent sword killed more than two hundred million people in the twentieth century alone. One scholar estimates that eighty-six million people died in wars fought between 1900 and 1989. That means two thousand five hundred people every day, one hundred people every hour, for ninety years. Genocide and mass murder by governments killed approximately one hundred twenty million more.

The mushroom cloud reminds us of greater agony yet to come unless we find alternative ways to resolve international conflict. A method that destroys more than two hundred million people in one century and threatens to wipe out far more is hardly a model of success. For all of us, from the ordinary layperson to the most highly placed military general, it is obvious that the search for peaceful alternatives is a practical necessity.

It is also a moral demand. Christians in the Just War tradition (a majority since the fourth century) have always argued that killing must be a last resort. All realistic alternatives must be tried before one resorts to war. After a century in which Gandhi, King, and a host of others demonstrated that nonviolent action works, how can Christians in the Just War tradition claim that the violence they justify is truly a last resort until they have invested billions and trained tens of thousands of people in a powerful, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives?

Pacifists have long claimed that there is an alternative to violence. How can their words have integrity unless they are ready to risk death in a massive nonviolent confrontation with the bullies and tyrants who swagger through human history?

In short, the concrete victories of modern nonviolent campaigns, the spiraling dangers of lethal weapons, and the moral demands of Christian faith bring into focus a clear imperative. It is time for the Christian church—indeed, all people of faith—to explore, in a more sustained and sophisticated way than ever before in human history, what can be done nonviolently.


©2015 by Ronald J. Sider. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.