exploring violence & peace: an interview with nonviolence trainer simon moyle (part 2)
Welcome to Part 2 of this interview with nonviolence trainer Simon Moyle. If you haven’t already it might be worth reading Part 1.
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People often cite Hitler as an example of a historical case where violence was necessary to end greater suffering. Is this true; was violence necessary to stop a person like Hitler? Could there have been another way?
Hitler is too convenient a scapegoat I reckon. Now certainly, Hitler had some truly horrific ideas and did some terrible things. But Hitler was just one person. Average height, average weight, normal intelligence (some would say abnormal, but you know what I mean, he wasn’t a supergenius). How is it that one man carries the weight for an entire regime, and the evil it unleashed?
Well partly because we like to have a simple scapegoat, because once we begin to unravel the myth of Hitler as the solely responsible evil agent it asks some uncomfortable questions about ourselves. Because let’s face it, Hitler alone could not have been a murderous regime, started a war and killed six million Jews. He needed a whole bunch of people to help him. He also needed a whole bunch of people to stand passively by and do nothing to resist him.
But we have to understand the conditions which produced Hitler, which allowed him to be put into the position of Chancellor. And to do that we need to go back to World War 1 and the Treaty of Versailles and the way the Allies used it to crush Germany into the ground. It was the humiliation and privation the German people were made to suffer that allowed Hitler to rise to power. Most of the West saw that as a great triumph – but in retrospect, it was a massive mistake.
So when we ask “what about Hitler?” we’re really asking, “what about the whole Third Reich?” or “What about all of the Axis countries?” We’re talking about millions of Germans, Italians, Japanese, and others, many of whom supported the regimes by manufacturing food or munitions, or sat passively by while their countries perpetuated terrible evils. Which means when we’re talking about contemporary evil, we have to not just ask, “What about Ahmedinejad?” or “What about Obama?” but “what about me?” That is, what am I doing about the contemporary evils around me that I’m currently silent or passive about and thereby allowing to continue? This is the question we don’t really want to ask, because it’s much easier to ask abstract hypotheticals about Hitler.
The irony, of course, is that those who advocate war as a response to Hitler do so on the pretense of saving life, ignoring the fact that war is designed for one thing only; to end life and destroy property. If it’s saving life you’re after, you’re going to want another strategy – one which doesn’t perpetuate the cycle of deadly violence, but interrupts and transforms it.
So what we’re talking about here is not no response to Hitler but a nonviolent one. And that could have taken many forms, including the ones that Gene Sharp outlines in his taxonomy of 198 methods of nonviolent action.
When nonviolent resistance was used against the Nazis, it was often effective, and this without preparation, training or coordination.
Check out the stories of Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement, Franz Jäegerstätter, André and Magda Trocmé, the countries of Bulgaria, Norway and Denmark, all of whom engaged in nonviolent resistance to Nazism, albeit with mixed results (mostly positive). And no doubt there are many more instances of nonviolent resistance to Nazism which aren’t documented.
But the question I’m much more interested in is what are we doing about contemporary evils? What is the best thing to do right now?
At the other extreme to the Hitler scenario, people often ask how you could be nonviolent if a person came into your home intending to do harm to you or your family (abuse, murder, rape etc.). How could a person possibly act nonviolently in such a situation?
This is a hypothetical scenario that people ask about a lot. Unfortunately it’s a scenario which has so little detail or basis in reality that it functions as a blank canvas onto which people project their worst nightmares, even though their worst nightmares have no likelihood of coming true. When we’re thinking in that zone, we’re reacting totally out of fear rather than reason. So it’s a scenario which I like to walk through with people, to put faces feelings and flesh and onto it, to reduce that fear and think it through a little more rationally.
Firstly, who is this person who has come into your home? Certainly in the overwhelming majority of cases (up around 90%), people are not attacked by random strangers but by people they know. What this demonstrates is that usually there is a history and a reason behind why they’re attacking you – while it’s not justifiable that they do so, at least you a) have a sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing, b) an opportunity to treat your friends, family, etc. in ways that will reduce this possibility and c) have enough relationship with them to reason with them or call on their compassion. This increases the importance of nonviolence in your everyday relationships, in order to prevent conflicts escalating in this way. Either way, it’s not the random, sudden, anonymous threat the scenario envisages.
If it is the far less likely scenario of a random stranger, one possibility is that someone has invaded your home looking to steal things, and you or your family disturb them. In which case, the person is likely on edge, ready for such an eventuality and therefore a confrontation, but with no desire to have one. Giving them an opportunity to leave is far less likely to result in harm to anyone.
Or, let’s look at it another way. If your opponent is stronger, larger, and more prepared than you, what could possibly be gained by forcing a violent confrontation? Your best option is not to contest them in the areas they are strongest, but to reduce their reason for attacking you or your family. At the very least, your best option is to be smarter, more creative, more human, not try to outdo them with violence.
So the remaining alternative is a scenario where a totally deranged person who you don’t know who for no apparent reason has targeted you AND your family to harm or kill you, and is physically weaker and less prepared than you for a confrontation. This is such a farfetched scenario that I’m mystified as to why people even spend energy thinking about it. But let’s explore the options anyway.
Let’s assume the person is armed (because if they’re unarmed, there’s much better chance of you escaping unharmed). In this scenario, the person has a weapon and is ready to use it. Posing a threat to them in any way (such as reaching for a weapon) is not likely to end well for anyone.
So what can you do that’s nonviolent? Well, the options are endless (that’s the beauty of the creativity that opens up once we start thinking about it!). One friend of mine (Angie O’Gorman) asked an intruder for the time. This led to a conversation which humanised the other person to her, and vice versa (you can read a play of what happened here).
So I think the question we need to be asking isn’t, “Is it ever OK to be violent?” Rather the question is, “Am I going to be equipped with the right tools that will be most likely to keep me safe?” And the majority of people have only one tool in their toolbox, and it’s the one that is least likely to keep them safe.
All this talk about nonviolence is good and all, but for Christians the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, seems to portray God as rather violent. Such divine violence has been attacked, even ridiculed, by contemporary atheists who label Christianity as a violent and undesirable religion.
How do you deal with the Old Testament accounts of YHWH seemingly acting violently? How do you reconcile these accounts with the Gospels’ image of Jesus as peaceful and nonviolent?
This is where broad brushstrokes are not very helpful; you really need to do a proper, detailed exegesis of particular texts. Yes, the OT has been used to justify all sorts of horrific things.
Yet Gandhi insisted (and I agree) that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in history – and the only people who don’t know it are Christians. If Jesus is the image of God, the embodiment of God, as his followers insist that he is, then we need to look at all claims about God in that light, including biblical claims.
I do think the Bible is more of a conversation – or even an argument – than an encyclopedia. That’s what makes it a living word, and is far more exciting and challenging than taking every word literally (as if that were possible or even desirable through our 21st Century Western lenses). So part of that ‘argument’ is the question of what God is like, a question which is at least partially settled by the Incarnation.
At the centre of it all stands the cross – what God does with our sin and shame and violence and domination. And it turns out he doesn’t destroy us, or punish us, or even hate us – he takes it all on himself, and exposes it for the sham that it is. More than that, he dies forgiving. But that’s not even the end! Christ’s victory is completed in resurrection – God’s triumph over our death-dealing and domination, not by greater violence or greater domination, but by love, life and vulnerability being stronger than the worst we can do. That’s pretty good news!
Of course, as people who call themselves Christians we haven’t done a very good job of following Christ – more often mirroring the world with a religious veneer. I think with the end of Christendom we stand a better chance of posing the kind of radical alternative to which God is constantly calling us, because we’re finally re-learning to separate what is Christ-like from the dominant culture.
You talk about how Christians should follow Christ in living out a radical alternative to the dominant culture. That raises an important question – can a Christian serve in the armed forces?
The question to me is, “Can I be unChristlike and be a Christian?” The answer, of course is yes and no – yes because of course none of us are entirely like Christ. But presumably if we’re committed to becoming like Christ we’re working by God’s grace to change that, so the answer is ‘no’ if we’re going to willfully persist in refusing to be like Christ, to love like Christ. Why would you want to call yourself a Christian if you’re going to ignore what Christ was like, what he said and did? This is the guy who defines discipleship by a cross, by the willingness to take suffering upon oneself rather than to defend oneself with violence (a choice vindicated in resurrection). Whose last message to the church before his death was, “Put down your sword.” Whose central teaching was the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest teaching on nonviolence in history. Who after defining discipleship as taking up our cross (rather than our sword/gun/Hellfire missile), says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake or the sake of the Kingdom will gain it.” Can you love your enemies while killing them or threatening their life?
The word ‘Christian’ isn’t an abstract identity. It’s a discipleship process, a lived out practice, an orientation in the world, based on a very concrete person in Jesus Christ. I ask my brothers and sisters keep me accountable to being Christlike in the same ways when I fall short.
Look out for the third and final instalment of this interview on Friday.
Posted on January 25, 2012, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Q&R and tagged Armed Forces, Hitler, Jesus, Nonviolence, Old Testament, Peace, Simon Moyle, TEAR Australia, Violence, War. Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.