There are, generally speaking, three distinct understandings of war. The first is pacifism, which holds that war is never right and a nation is never right to go to war, even in self-defense. The second is just war, which argues war is a last resort, but that there are conditions under which war is justified. The third is crusade, which finds war is acceptable for ideological reasons regardless of other considerations.
Ronald Sider is a pacifist. Unlike earlier voices in his tradition, however, Sider has gone from proclaiming pacifism as normative for Christians alone (as earlier anabaptistic pacifists did) to claiming pacifism in a universal norm. While this book is about more than rationale for war, it is still no surprise that Sider ends up claiming nonviolent action is the expected response of all Christians in all situations. I disagree with the breadth of Sider’s conclusion, but there is much to learn from Sider’s perspective nonetheless.
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, Sider recounts some of the instances in history of nonviolence apparently achieving its tactical goals. He includes Gandhi’s resistance to the British Empire, Martin Luther King, Jr., resistance to guerrillas in Nicaragua, and the overthrow of Marco is the Philippines. Each of these highlights a place where non-violence was the primary form of action used against a political threat, with a positive result.
Part II recounts the use of nonviolence on a grander political scale with the overthrow of the Soviet Empire in both Poland and East Germany. The third part covers more recent resistance movements, including the impact some Liberian women had through prayer and protest, the nonviolent tactics used in some portions of the Arab Spring, and the recent growth of peacemaker teams, which are equipped and trained for nonviolent interference in political situations.
Part IV moves from description to prescription as Sider calls for a renewed dedication and investment in nonviolent action, including training volunteers who are willing to die to nonviolently resist in conflict areas.
Nonviolent Action will convince only those who are already inclined to believe that Christian Ethics really demands such methods which have never really been tried. First, the bulk of the book is designed to show places that nonviolent action has been tried in response to oppression and aggression. Second, Sider makes no defense for his premise that nonviolence is the only course of action for Christian ethics. Instead he argues that nonviolence is better than violence, so we need to be nonviolent. Even sympathetic readers that dislike violence should demand more careful support for a position.
Beyond the flaws in the argument, there is an unacknowledged limit of the scope considered in the context surrounding the nonviolent movements. In other words, Sider describes situations in which nonviolent action was taken and positive results achieved, then he asserts nonviolence was the ultimate cause of success. This may be the case, but Sider’s analysis is not sufficient to justify his conclusions. The fall of the communist regimes in East Germany and Poland may have been expedited by nonviolent resistance, but the communist capitulation may have had nearly as much to do with the underlying economic weakness of socialism causing a collapse. Similarly, Sider does not consider that the nonviolent resistances of Gandhi and King may have been made possible because a world with a conscience and a will to fight stood by to watch the proceedings. In other words, nonviolence may have worked in some cases because there was an external threat of violence if things got out of hand.
Those criticisms are significant, but they do not undermine the overall value of the volume. Sider’s larger point is that nonviolent action should be the first effort and be more robustly invested in. Seeing the long term impact on combat veterans makes looking for alternative solutions when possible a more appealing alternative. Additionally, the recent events in Ferguson might have been more helpful and less polarizing had the protestors taken a stronger stance toward nonviolence. Sider’s expectation that nonviolence will really work in all situations is unrealistic, but his description of the success in some circumstances warrants further, more detailed evaluation.
A second strength is that Sider is advocating for action. The flaw in some pacifistic argument is the ostrich-like hope that if violence is ignored it will eventually go away. In some descriptions of the position, the pacifist approach boils down to a non-interventionist strategy, which has had significantly negative results historically. Instead, Sider recognizes the evil in the world and calls for action to end conflict through nonviolent resistance, even to the point of losing life. There is something worth consideration in Sider’s case.
This is basically a popular level book with some sociological research to support it. The conclusion outpaces the argumentation at several points, but this is still a thought provoking text. It has some significant weaknesses, but the strengths are sufficient to make it worth reading. Nonviolent Action is unlikely to become a classic text on the subject, but it makes a contribution to an important conversation in turbulent times.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.