Occupy Nonviolence: Not Flesh and Blood

Amid the recent police violence in Oakland and the sure temptation of some protestors to resort to violence, I wrote this little reflection inviting all Occupiers to a renewed commitment to nonviolence.

There is a verse in the Bible that says, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers of this dark world.”  It is a reminder that there are people behind oppressive structures — people who laugh and cry and bleed just like everyone else –- and those people are not the enemies, but the systems are.

I was reminded of this when I went into Bank of America on Move Your Money Day, and transferred my money to the non-profit credit union here in Philadelphia.  As I went into the bank, I saw the smiling faces of Bank of America tellers who have become friends over the past decade.  When I told them I was closing my account, one of the women asked jokingly, “You don’t like us anymore?”  At first my heart sunk, but then I said, “No way, I love the heck out of all of you.  I just don’t like the values of the bank you work for.”  To my surprise, they all smiled.  In fact they may not like the values of the bank they work for either.  Even though I’ll be leaving Bank of America, I’m hoping to stay in touch with my friends there.  I may even take them some coffees next week, which I’ll charge on my new credit union debit card.

It is always tempting to demonize people and humanize corporations.  It’s easy to forget that we are up against something bigger than flesh and blood people.  And it’s particularly easy to forget that people are not the enemy when people are shooting pepper spray in your face.

Read & Watch: Shane asks – Is There Such Thing as a Good CEO?

But as a Christian, I have a strange model for interacting with violence – the cross.  During his state-sanctioned execution, Jesus looked into the faces of those about to kill him and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”  The enemy-love exemplified by Jesus on the cross is so counter-cultural that the bible says that it is “foolishness” to the wisdom of the world.  It makes no sense to the logic of “smart” bombs nor the sort of justice that says “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, shock and awe for a September 11th”.  But what Jesus did on the cross was expose injustice – he made a spectacle of it as he endured some of the ugliest stuff people can do to each other.  And he triumphed over violence with nonviolent love.  Some theologians have called it: revolutionary subordination.

Jesus shows us that it is possible to overcame evil without mirroring it… to resist oppressors without emulating them, to neutralize enemies without destroying them.

Jesus (and MLK and Gandhi and others) abhorred passivity and violence – but they also knew they were fighting a something bigger than people.

Over and over throughout history, folks have discovered this power of nonviolence.    Martin Luther King insisted that the best way to expose injustice was to suffer nonviolently, so that we “make injustice so uncomfortable that it has to be dealt with.”  Nonviolence unmasks injustice in a way violent resistance cannot.  There’s something in us that can’t stand to see an unarmed, peaceful person beat up. Something in us winces, stands with the underdog.  The universe bends towards justice.

Think of the Civil Rights movement – the dogs, the water hoses spraying people, the jails, the beatings, lynchings, insults.  And yet in the face of all those ugly things, Dr. King said: ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and threaten our children and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’ ”

Like Jesus, Dr. King knew that his battle was not against people, but against the principalities and powers that colonized people’s imaginations.  He wanted to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressors.

Brave New Films

Read – Shane’s latest on an Exorcism of Wall Street

How will history remember the Occupy movement?

I am convinced its future will be determined by its humility and nonviolent commitment, even in the face of violence and ugliness from the other side… especially in the face of such violence.

And the other side can be brutal.  Just take a look at this priest who was attacked by police at a nonviolent protest.

When most people see nonviolent protestors like this priest beaten up by police, it conjures up similar feelings to those of the Civil Rights movement.  It exposes injustice and puts the system on display.

The Occupy movement succeeded in getting the world to notice the 99%, and they did that largely by dedicated sacrifice – sleeping out night after night in rain, cold, snow, going to jail, getting tear-gassed and ridiculed — and responding with nonviolence.

It will not just be arguments that win the hearts and minds of people to the movement, but it will be sacrificial love like that characterized Jesus and Dr. King… and much of the Occupy movement to date.

What caught the world’s attention was the sacrificial commitment of hundreds all over the world on behalf of the 99%.  What will keep the world’s attention is a renewed desire to expose injustice without mirroring it.  I am hopeful.  After all, nonviolent movements have a good track record for changing the world.

The only way to maintain that sort of nonviolence is to constantly remember that the battle is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers.  That is a true revolution – when we can insist that the disparity between the 1% and the 99% is the greatest moral failure of our age while also insisting that every person, 100% matter – and that no one is beyond redemption… let’s set both the occupied and the occupiers free.

Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way.  He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.

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About the Author

Shane Claiborne

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His most recent book, Executing Grace was released in June.View all posts by Shane Claiborne →

  • Matt

    Claiborne just makes me laugh. I have two points.

    1) Note to leftists. If you want people to take your viewpoint seriously, don’t use the Occupy Movement as an example of what you stand for. That’s bad PR. No one wants that crowd anywhere near them. That’s just a helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood conservative.

    2) Claiborne is big on this nonviolence hogwash. Cool. Whatever, that’s his thing. But is it just me or is the only thing he has done is talk. I know, I know, he went to Iraq in 2003 and pulled a Jane Fonda on everyone, but I want him to tell me what nonviolence as public policy looks like. He constantly criticizes the U.S. for military spending and interventionist foreign policy and apparantly doesn’t appreciate my country’s impressive ability to dominate the modern battlefield, so clearly he isn’t talking about nonviolence in a personal setting. He is talking public policy. But he stops there. Or he may say something like, “Look at MLK or Ghandi.” Or maybe, “just follow the Third Way.”

    Here is my open challenge to anyone on this site. Please provide me an example of public policy where nonviolence philosophy is the cornerstone to America’s reaction to September 11th. There are conditions though. The principle of justice and the reality of national security and the welfare of the American people have to be considered. (I mean real justice too, not this redistribuiton business people here call “justice.”)

    Until then I’ll just be happy that Shane Claiborne isn’t responsible for the protection of liberty or the dignity of man. I’ll let him talk all he wants while someone else kills for his right to do so.  

    • “Please provide me an example of public policy where nonviolence philosophy is the cornerstone to America’s reaction to September 11th. There are conditions though. The principle of justice and the reality of national security and the welfare of the American people have to be considered.”

      1) By establishing conditions, you imply a refusal of any answer than that which you have pre-determined as the “correct” one.

      2) What do YOU mean by “real justice?” What is fake justice?

      For Christians (given that this is a Christian website, I am assuming you are Christian), peace is the mode of existence we are to currently live because it is the mode of existence that we understand ourselves having been created for. Without peace (as in: no war, no violence, no fear, etc) there can be no justice.

      So, to answer your challenge: there can be no “public policy” of nonviolence. This is because nonviolence is a way of being, not a policy.

      If nonviolence is hogwash, then why did Jesus command us to love our neighbors as ourselves (would you shoot yourself? Bomb yourself?)? Why did He teach us to turn the other cheek? Why did He tell us to give to the person who steals from us more than they took?

      Being a Christian is not about being an American. Or any other nationality. It’s about being citizens of God’s Kingdom. It’s about living into an identity that this Kingdom trumps all other “kingdoms” because only God’s Kingdom offers a vision of true peace. Worldly powers offer peace only insofar as that “peace” equates to a quieting of violence by threatening violence–a Cold War of sorts (and as anyone who lived through the Cold War will tell you, that was no peace).

      Only Jesus offers us an opportunity to deal with the very evil things in our hearts, putting them to death, and rising to new life.

      Our only triumph is that Jesus triumphed, our only victory is in Jesus’ cross. His is the only death that gives us anything. 

      Go ahead and celebrate the fact that people kill other people so that one nation can think itself better than another. But don’t ever assume that that has anything to do with Jesus Christ and the Church He established or the Kingdom He is bringing.

      • Matt

        I agree with the vast majority of your comment. Thanks for your input. But nowhere in there was a policy suggestion. Its more of the same. “Nonviolence is a way of being,” stuff like that. And yes, nonviolence is hogwash. I know people on this site disagree with this one, but it is very possible to love your enemy and love your neighbor while at the same time pursuing justice. In many cases, the pursuit of said justice entails engaging the enemies of freedom and human decency with extreme prejudice. I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t pray for and witness to the lost of the world, even if they happen to be our national enemies, they absolutely should. But “loving” your enemies doesn’t mean that when thousands of your countrymen are killed you just sit by and let it happen with no consequence.

        Our world is fallen. We can all agree on that. And Claiborne is right, there is a very real spiritual war that is being waged every single day between the forces of righteousness and evil. But evil doesn’t just exist in the spiritual realm. It exists in the physical world too. And sometimes, physical evil needs to be countered with physical good. I’m not saying that the War on Terror is a holy war or anything like that, but we were, and still are, engaged with forces of extreme evil.

        Do you advocate allowing that evil to go unchecked?

        Now, this is where the good news of salvation comes in. Jesus didn’t come into the world and ride in on a white horse and kick the Romans out. He didn’t run for political office. Jesus’ objective on Earth was a little bigger than any of our worldly issues. He came for the redemption of man’s indiviudal soul. I am a Christian. I have received God’s grace and I am bound to love my enemy and to love my neighbor. But my country, the United States of America is not bound to scripture that governs the actions and mindsets of Individuals. (Keep reading here, don’t let me lose you, and don’t misquote me.) I pray that our leaders are Christians and that they too adhere to principles of the Christian faith and that those principles would shine from them. The gift of salvation is given to individuals so that individuals should have the gift of eternal life. The United States Governmnet cannot receive salvation. If Claiborne says that corporations are not individuals, then why does he insists that Governments are individuals? I get it, that a lot of people here don’t like Romans 13, but it says what it says. Justice is a task given to governments. The power of the sword is given to governments.

        We who are in the Christian faith still physically exist in a fallen world. Violence will always be there and evil will always be there. Jesus never says “do not use violence.” Jesus is about justice. (The irony is that we as individuals are spared the justice we truly deserve.)

        Last point: I’m still waiting on a policy suggestion.

        Also, Ghandi and MLK are actually examples of nonviolence failing. MLK’s nonviolent movement did little to change facts on the ground in the south. White Republicans from the north though passed the legislation that granted equal rights. Ghandi was actually viewed as an asset for the British colonials. As long as he didn’t fight the occupation, the Brits could stay there forever. Post WWII economics and finances are what kicked the Brits out of India. Just saying.

        • Drew


          I would mediate more on scripture; I noticed both of your posts make no reference to scripture and are littered with your own personal beliefs.

          “But “loving” your enemies doesn’t mean that when thousands of your
          countrymen are killed you just sit by and let it happen with no

          This is “eye for an eye” and exactly what Jesus spoke against.  Just because we are attacked does not mean we attack.  It is not even our responsibility to bring those to justice, since that is the work of God.  Rather, we have a responsibility to prevent future attacks.  This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, not just through whole-scale invasion of other nations, especially ones that have never attacked us (Iraq).

          “Jesus never said “do not use violence.””  This is a false teaching that has the spirit of the antichrist in.  Did Jesus say “do not use violence in any situation?”  No.  Did Jesus give multiple examples of not using violence?  Yes.  John 18:10-11, Matthew 5:38-48.  Let me ask you a question – when does Jesus say to kill your enemies?  I’m not finding that verse.

          MLK is an example of nonviolence failing, but then you say that governmental legislation was responsible… isn’t that a non-violent approach as well?

          • Doug

            “It is not even our responsibility to bring those to justice, since that is the work of God.  Rather, we have a responsibility to prevent future attacks.”

            How does that gel with the Nuremberg War Crime Trials Drew? I think it was our responsibility to hunt down Nazi war criminals post war and bring them to justice for deterrrent value alone.

            I totally agree we have a responsibility to prevent future attacks – that is why I believe in pre-emptive war not just reactive war. Perhaps that is a seperate issue.
            best wishes Doug.

          • Drew

            I can’t say where you and Matt are coming from.

            However, in general, I see a contingent of conservatives that get titillated by war and violence.  I remember having a conservative college roommate whoop and holler when we invaded Iraq and nonstop just watch war coverage and talk about how cool “shock and awe” was.  One of Ron White’s best received jokes is to brag about how cool it is that Texas “has an express lane” for executions.  (I’m a Ron White fan, but not of this joke).

            Ultimately, justice is up to God and God alone.  We are called to be non-violent; heck, among Christians, we are not even supposed to file lawsuits against each other!  You never once see violence in the New Testament (with the exception of Revelation I suppose) come from Christians, with the exception of the cutting off of the ear of the guard, and Jesus rebuked that disciple.

            I do believe in just war, protecting life with violent force only when absolutely necessary, and the death penalty in situations where it is not possible to keep the person alive without a risk to safety.  However, I think it should be with a heavy heart and as a last resort, nothing that we get titillation or joy out of.

          • Doug

            HI Drew, appreciate your reply, Im with you on paras 1 and 3, maybe diverse in implications of lattter part of 2nd paragraph. Agree more than disagree. Doug

    • Ben Kaiser

      I’m just gonna leave this here. 

      If we will not allow Jesus to call into question our common sense convictions, then it is common sense and not Jesus that is our “Lord. – Gregory Boyd

      • Drew

        You mean we can’t enter into discussion about Christianity and only use your own personal and political beliefs and never once mention the Bible?  Dang : )

    • Anonymous

      What are we gonna trust, violence or nonviolence?

      Which does Jesus support right now?

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