A few years ago, I read a groundbreaking book called Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. In this book, two political scientists named Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan look at 323 civil conflicts between 1900 and 2006. They examine which conflicts succeeded, which didn’t work, and why. Specifically, they analyze the differences between the nonviolent and the violent conflicts. Through their research, they conclude, “Between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” This means that if you practice nonviolence when resisting an unjust government, you have a 53 percent chance of success. When a group of people use violence to fight the government, they have a 26 percent chance of success.
Nonviolent campaigns have a better chance of getting government forces to defect. Nonviolent campaigns offer a higher probability that democracy will work. Nonviolence has been proven to win over the masses faster than violent revolution. Do you believe these statistics? While reading the book, I had my doubts. I had a hard time processing the authors’ conclusions. I didn’t grow up viewing the world this way. I grew up learning that the sword is a necessary and good tool for justice. All I had ever learned was that violence is necessary in the fight for justice. I asked myself, Why do I think this?
It is critical for us to explore the forces, stories, and cultural values that have kept the church away from Jesus’s radical teachings on nonviolence. The violence woven into US history and my own family story makes it hard for me to accept the truth that at the foundation of my very salvation, God used nonviolent resistance in the face of overwhelming force to set me on a discipleship path of nonviolent resistance. Let’s go on this journey together.
Stories Woven with Violence
I come from a long line of cowboys, blue-collar entrepreneurs, bookies, oilmen, and farmers. The Buck family fought in the Revolutionary War, for the Confederacy in the Civil War, in World War I, in World War II, and in the Korean War. My grandfather John Brake on my mom’s side worked on stealth bombers in the 1980s. My grandfather Wayne Buck joined the navy right out of high school. The military is a point of pride in our family. A rite of passage for a young Buck is owning and shooting a gun. From a young age, I had toy guns that I used to reenact shoot-outs with Native Americans, whom I learned to view as savages. When I was ten, my dad sat me down and told me that if anyone ever picked on me and wanted to fight, it was okay for me to punch them in the face to defend myself. I grew up reading Tom Clancy and reenacting D-Day while playing video games. I looked up to Thor, Batman, and Superman—who always solved the problem of evil through the clever and brutal use of violence. I watched Popeye defend his lady by growing muscles and beating up Bluto. I learned in school from Christian teachers that battlefields should be considered holy, set-apart, and sacred places. As a teenager, I watched from the back of my freshman math class as planes flew into the World Trade Center. I was shocked. I saw our church rally behind the fury of a Christian president who was bringing some type of justice to Iraq. Words like God, country, freedom, Bible, and violence were brought together as strange bedfellows to reassure us church folk that God was on our side. I remember being proud of President Bush. Proud of his faith. Proud he was from Texas like my family. Proud that he used his Christian influence to bring the wrath of God upon an axis of evil. I bought into the rhetoric. All this can be summed up by a culture of the sword. A culture that promotes the myth that violence is necessary for peace to exist. A culture drowning in the myth of redemptive violence.
In all my learning at church, it never occurred to me that Jesus rejected violence. While the cross was a regular feature of Sunday school classes and sanctuaries, it wasn’t an emblem for everyday living. Instead, the cross was merely a symbol of my personal salvation. It never occurred to me that violence was not the answer when it came to evil in the world. It never occurred to me that Jesus offers us a more radical path to changing the world. After all, violence was deeply embedded in my family story. Growing up as a white, patriotic cowboy kid from Texas, I had no imagination whatsoever for nonviolent solutions to conflict. My imagination, for better or worse, was filled with men using a sword, knife, flying bat star, gun, tank, atom bomb, fist, or army to overcome evil. This was somehow connected to my faith. Without anyone sitting me down to explain these things, the cumulative stories, habits, and cultural expressions amounted to a story woven with violence.
For many in the United States, violence has been forced upon them through unjust immigration policies, brutal police tactics, the school to prison pipeline, patronizing truces with Native Americans, Native American reeducation camps, the slave trade, burning crosses, Jim Crow laws, and redlining, just to name a few. While we consider ourselves an advanced Western society, the webbed legacies of violence are embedded in our structures and weigh heavy on our land. Violence weighs heavy especially on those on the margins of US society.
Beyond the societal and structural violence described above, violence touches almost everyone on a personal level. Have you been overly aggressive before? Have you ever shouted someone down? Have you ever bullied someone? Have you ever overreacted in rage? Have you ever fantasized about hurting someone? Have you ever cussed someone out? Have you ever stood by while someone was getting hurt and did nothing? Have you ever intimidated someone into submitting to your desires? Unfortunately, I need to answer yes to some of these questions. French West Indian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon notes that “everybody has violence on their minds and the question is not so much responding to violence with more violence but rather how to defuse the crisis.” How do we address the problem of violence with everyday activism?
If you struggle with violence, know that Jesus died a violent death to help you walk away from violence. Jesus shows us how to drop our sword to pick up our cross.
Perhaps you are a survivor or victim of ongoing brutality. Whether intimidation, bullying, emotional or physical abuse, ongoing cruelty, or something sexual in nature, violence is all around us. You and I don’t need to have a PhD in psychology or become a trauma counselor to know that the effects of violence destroy lives, break families, tear apart churches, and draw us away from Jesus. Yet, we can’t seem to get rid of cruelty or find the courage to stand up to those who commit violence. Violence is ever before us, always knocking and pushing itself into our lives. Violence is a corrosive and dehumanizing thread woven through our stories. The sword is forever before us, luring us to use violence to create peace.
While reading Luke 4:16–21, we must ask ourselves, Does violence fit into the work of Jubilee? Anyone taking the New Testament seriously will come to the conclusion that it does not.
In the beginning section of this article, we learned from the research that nonviolent resistance works better than violence to incite positive social change. We also know that violence is highly destructive in our personal lives and in our communities. While we have the knowledge that violence doesn’t work very well to create justice, oftentimes it doesn’t make a difference. Why do we often resort to violence? Why do we explain away Jesus’s teaching on nonviolence? It is because we live in violent times, are bathed in violent stories, watch violent movies, reenact violent wars, celebrate violent soldiers, endure violent family members, and are married to national narratives of violence. Yet, we know better! The wisdom buried deep within the recesses of the gospel and on the surface of the story is this: the tool God used to save the world is the same tool meant to be used in the fight for justice. If the sword represents violent action in the pursuit of justice, the cross has become the Christian symbol of nonviolent love. From Jesus, we learn that the cross is the method God uses to save us and also the model for Christian living.
Excerpt from J.W. Buck’s Everyday Activism: Following 7 Practices of Jesus to Create a Just World, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Published November 15, 2022, Used by permission.