exploring violence & peace: an interview with nonviolence trainer simon moyle (part 1)
On life.remixed I have written often on issues of peace and violence from a theological and biblical perspective. The result has been a robust ongoing conversation as life.remixed readers have wrestled with articulating Christian responses to war and violence.
This has raised a variety of questions, some of which I have received many, many times throughout the life of this blog. To help respond to some of these questions I recently sought out a friend and nonviolence trainer, Simon Moyle.
Simon is an ordained Baptist Minister in Melbourne, nonviolence trainer with Pace e Bene Australia, husband, and father of three children. He is an antiwar activist and writer. You can read some of his work at New Matilda, Eureka Street, ABC Religion, The Drum and Waging Nonviolence.
This is the first of what will be a three part interview. Enjoy!
Simon, you are a peace activist who has been especially active in resisting Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan. How did you get involved in peace activism?
I did my theological training in the early to mid 2000s. Having grown up in a well-off church in Melbourne’s bible belt, but always found something lacking in the Christianity I was taught, stuff that just didn’t add up, I was finally able to ask all the questions I wanted to ask and find some answers. One of the primary discoveries in this was looking at Christ through the lens of nonviolence. It was like the story of Jesus, which was previously blurry, suddenly came into focus.
So as my head sorted that stuff out, following Jesus suddenly became real, urgent and exciting rather than a rather dreary, restrictive, optional extra to ‘salvation’. To make a long story short I ended up getting involved because my head told me that this is what discipleship looks like; challenging the powers of death as Jesus did, through the power of love, and so participating in his story or “fitting our life into Jesus’ life” as Daniel Berrigan describes discipleship.
Even having discovered nonviolence I confess the last thing I wanted to do was peace work – it was too clichéd, and “world peace” is the quintessential unrealistic dream, associated with naïve, ditzy beauty queens. So I started out with Make Poverty History and Fair Trade, but soon realised that at the root of all of these problems – poverty, climate change, etc. – was domination. And the primary, visible, extreme form of domination is war. And if the antidote to domination is nonviolence, then I realised I’d better start teaching it. And once I started teaching it I realised I’d have no credibility unless I started doing it.
I remember after my first act of civil disobedience against war, I wrote to Fr. John Dear (who is a good friend, priest, and long time nonviolence activist) and explained how exciting and liberating it had been. His response was, “So you see! The gospel is true.” Those seven words summed up the whole experience for me, and still do.
So I must say, I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘peace activist’, at least when it implies something separate to discipleship and to the gospel. Insofar as we who follow Jesus are all agents of reconciliation and ambassadors of God’s love, I don’t think we can be anything else.
You say we cannot be anything but people of peace when we follow Jesus, but so many Christians support war and violence. I wonder if this is partly due to a lack of education, since it is often assumed by people that there are only two responses to violence, namely more violence or pacifism – fight or flight.
When people hear the term “nonviolence” they tend to associate it with pacifism. What is nonviolence? Is it the same as pacifism?
Nonviolence is neither passivity nor merely the absence of violence, but action which is nonviolent. In fact, if someone allows violence or oppression to go unchallenged, they are not being nonviolent. I would go so far as to say that violence is not the opposite of nonviolence, passivity is. Even Gandhi said it is better to be violent in the face of oppression than to be passive (but always added that he had never seen a situation where nonviolence would not yield results superior to that of violence), because passivity is born of fear, and nonviolence is about love which overcomes fear.
Nonviolence is love in flesh and bone, what Christ calls “complete love” – for God, self, the cosmos, neighbour and enemy – everything!
Gandhi called nonviolence satyagraha – a word meaning holding/grasping truth. Nonviolence requires embodying your truth to such an extent that you live it out rather than forcing it on others. If I want to convince someone of my truth, then forcing them by threat of violence to think like I do is counterproductive. Being willing to suffer for one’s truth demonstrates a strength of conviction that makes something more likely to be true than a truth which depends on causing others to suffer. The dynamics of violence are fairly simple; you make the other person suffer more than they are prepared to so that they back down (or vice versa). It doesn’t win them over, they’re unlikely to agree with you as a result, they’ve just conformed to your behaviour out of a desire to avoid suffering.
Nonviolence is not about defeating your opponent (creating a win-lose scenario) but winning your opponent over (creating a win-win). Of course, that requires an openness to your opponent’s truth as well – because perhaps it’s you that’s wrong, and you’ll never find that out if you’ve killed your opponent.
Nonviolence insists that the means are the ends in seed form – that, as Gandhi put it, “the means are to the ends as a seed is to a tree.” In the same way that if you plant an acorn you get an oak tree, if you want to create a world that is safe for all and in which we handle our differences with forthrightness and grace, then we have to act in ways consistent with that.
Nonviolence requires enormous training, discipline and strength, because it means acting in ways which don’t depend on the actions of our opponent. In this way, we refuse to mirror what we oppose, and begin to create the kind of world we want to see.
Many Christians support the theory of Just War, arguing that in some circumstances violence is necessary to end worse violence. What are your thoughts on Just War? Do you think warfare or violence is ever justified?
Most Christians who support the theory of Just War don’t actually know what the theory is, they merely cite it as justification for waging any war with which they personally agree, or at the very least think there must be circumstances where war is justified, and as a result say they believe in Just War Theory. Just War theory is actually quite specific and strict. There hasn’t been a war that conforms to the theory in living memory, yet it is continually evoked as justification for them.
There are three aspects to the Just War theory – one which describes conditions for beginning a war (Jus ad bellum), another is the rules for how that war should be conducted (Jus in bello), and finally conditions for ending a war (Just post bellum). For example, Jus Ad Bellum requires that there be Just Cause – that is, it cannot be used simply as punishment, but can only be used to rectify a wrong. That’s a very nuanced position, and certainly one that is rarely even contemplated let alone carried out.
Just War was a theory written at a time when you had armies which marched out to meet one another on a battlefield. Armies were easily distinguishable from civilians, and the weapons mostly involved hand to hand combat. That’s why you get the principle of ‘distinction’ in the Just War theory, which requires acts of war to only be directed towards enemy combatants. Such warmaking is impossible in practice today, given the types of weapons and warfare we employ. Wars are not conducted on battlefields anymore, they’re conducted in cities and towns, farms and villages, with weapons which are indiscriminate in their nature, which leave unexploded ordinance and pollution for up to thousands of years into the future.
Basically the Just War theory is the best friend of warmakers because it’s dragged out to raise questions in people’s minds and then abandoned as soon as war begins (or sooner). And by the time war begins, national fervour simply doesn’t allow serious questioning of the kind that could possibly stop it.
That’s why you get the World Council of Churches at their Ecumenical Peace Convocation last year declaring Just War Theory to be “obsolete” and calling for Just Peace theory to be implemented by the church.
If there were any structures set up to police or even evaluate wars according to the Just War theory (let alone the political will), then it might have some credibility. As it is – completely toothless – it’s worse than useless. What would it take to actually see to it that the strictures were applied, and there were sanctions when it was violated? What would it look like, for example, if the Catholic Church applied this theory in practice, and actually declared a war to be unjust? Would Catholic soldiers then have to conscientiously object? If people want to be serious about the Just War theory, that’s the kind of work that needs to be done.
Having said all that, I don’t think you can get to Just War theory from Jesus. But I’m sure I’ll have an opportunity to talk about that later.
Modern history classes at school are focused on major wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. We seem to assume that major movements in history are almost always dominated by violence.
Can you tell us about major social change that occurred in recent centuries in which nonviolence was adopted?
As Walter Wink observed, “In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations … If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (Korea, the Philippines, South Africa … the independence movement in India …), the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.” And this was before the Serbian movement that ousted Milosevic in 2000, the Colour Revolutions across Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, and the Arab Spring last year.
And they’re just the mass movements. That’s before you get into the millions of individual stories. Gandhi used to say that the reason people still exist on the earth is because everyday millions of people use nonviolence, without knowing it or naming it that way – people forgive, or are gracious, or stand up for themselves or others. If we really operated on an eye for an eye we’d all have killed one another by now.
But we often don’t recognise or remember these stories because of the way we’re socialised to value violence and domination over love and forgiveness. Our imagination is shaped not just by history books but by the films and television shows we watch, the games we play. Most of them reinforce the myth of redemptive violence – that it is violence which saves us, which makes us secure. Hence the need to tell the stories of nonviolence, which are often less spectacular, but give us the kind of world in which it is worth living.
How do you respond to those who might suggest that nonviolence is too idealistic and that force or violence is at least sometimes necessary?
Actually, the evidence suggests the opposite. It’s not nonviolence which is too idealistic, but violence. Over ten years ago, we invaded Afghanistan, bent on inflicting whatever violence would achieve our political aims there; yet it has been almost a total failure despite several strategy changes. It is much the same in Iraq. Our blind faith in violence to achieve stated objectives is total.
The events of 2011 alone should have been reason to shake our faith in violence. While the nonviolent movements of the Arab Spring were largely effective, the West was in its tenth year of the quagmire in Afghanistan and made a total mess of Libya.
Of course, if nonviolence “doesn’t work” (in the sense that it doesn’t achieve the aims we set out for it to achieve within a given timeframe) it’s not the strategy that is blamed, but nonviolence as a method. And usually we give it a much shorter timeframe to achieve the objectives than we would give violent tactics (if we give it a chance at all). On the other hand when violence “doesn’t work” we don’t tend to blame violence as a method, we blame the strategy employed, and simply seek out a different violent strategy. That’s a double standard that should make the kind of blind faith I’m talking about a bit more visible.
The same double standard is applied to loss of life. If people employing nonviolence are killed by the opponent, it is seen as evidence of its failure. But if people are killed in violent action, that is seen as a necessary sacrifice.
A recent study of the last century found that major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns, and that the nonviolent campaigns resulted in much less loss of life and vastly more democratic outcomes. So who are the idealists really?
That’s not to say that nonviolence always “works”. But then neither does violence. As Joan Baez often says, “Nonviolence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence.”
Posted on January 23, 2012, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Q&R and tagged Afghanistan, Just War, Nonviolence, Pacifism, Peace, Simon Moyle, TEAR Australia, Violence, War. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.