After a peaceful demo in Bristol against the Police Bill currently under consideration was hijacked by people who attacked the Police violently causing injury and damage to property, a left-wing activist, who had not participated in the violence, defended the perpetrators on the grounds of ” all they have suffered.” Perhaps he can tell with certainty that the people who were violent are the same people who have suffered; I know, from being in other demos, that this identity cannot be assumed, and that there are often present people who want violence for their own purposes. But even if we assume that the violence arose out of suffering imposed by the state and the Police, does the suffering justify the violence?
The people of Myanmar have suffered for many years from the reluctance of its army to submit to democratic rule. Now again, the army has carried out a coup, dismissing the democratically elected government and its leader. Day after day, in spite of beatings, gassings and fatal shootings, the people of Myanmar have gathered peacefully in the streets, to indicate their refusal to accept a military government. They have been disciplined, determined and civilised, in obvious contrast to the army which has bullied and killed unarmed civilians. They have suffered more, far more than anyone in Bristol but they have refused to be violent.
The protesting people of Belarus have shown similar wisdom and discipline in their protests against Mr Lukashenko, their unelected ruler.
On the other hand the non-violent Christians in Syria have been decimated by killings and threats of further violence. Their peaceful responses have led to nothing that can be called good in worldly terms. Nor did Jesus’ peaceful opposition to the religious establishment and to the Romans. In worldly terms his mission was a failure. Perhaps non- violence is not so helpful, and the use of violent opposition, as in Bristol, may be justified?
Justification depends on moral judgements, which may vary, but I have always been amazed at the non-violence of the poor in the UK. They put up not only with the deprivations of capitalism, but also with the betrayals of those who purport to stand for their cause, and the oily lies of those in power. Why have they been so patient? Perhaps because, like me, they have a deep aversion to violence and a suspicion that its results may not be beneficial.
Back in the 17th century, in a poem about Cromwell, the poet Andrew Marvell saw clearly that even very successful violence might not lead to a successful peace, summing up his doubts in a concluding couplet:
The same arts that did gain
A power, must it maintain
He foresaw no end to violence.
Jesus’ teaching against violence is usually seen as an absolute ethical principle, leading to sacrificial behaviour which can only be rewarded in heaven, rather than as a piece of practical wisdom. Jesus suggests that it is divine wisdom, but surely that doesn’t make it impractical? Let’s look at what he said:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Yes, here is an absolute command, but it is backed up first by a series of very practical examples, concluding with the “golden rule” which makes a practical connection between how we treat others and how we hope to be treated. Then there is an argument which criticises a merely quid pro quo sort of morality. Finally there is an encouragement to imitate God. Clearly this teaching is neither an unattainable ideal nor a model for martyrs only. It is meant to stop the replication of violence, and the lazy acceptance of imitative behaviour.
It is unapologetically radical. Gandhi, who read the passage in the light of his philosophy of satyagraha, soul-force, said that this was not for cowards; if you lacked the courage to fight, you would not be able to oppose without violence. But he too, meant the teaching to be practical and indeed, like Jesus, practised it himself. Martin Luther King applied the teaching to his campaign for civil rights, and managed to infuse huge crowds of protesters with his vision and discipline. It is true that King, Gandhi and Jesus were all killed violently, but many have judged that they were not defeated.
Critics however, have suggested that non-violent opposition only works where the oppressive person of regime has some kind of conscience; and that utterly unscrupulous people will simply ride roughshod over it, killing and destroying, as Nazis did to non-violent Jews or Stalin’s thugs to millions of non-violent citizens. The wisdom of Jesus has to engage with the wisdom of those who argue that non-violence may sometimes make it easy for bullies and tyrants. It may be right to have soldiers to defend (but only to defend!) countries from attack, and police to defend (but only to defend!) citizens from violence, but in a violent humanity, it may be all-important to stop any violence at all.
Why have I never been violent? Because I have had a sheltered life; I have seldom been attacked and I have always been able to gain an adequate living. That means I have, in comparison with many, been lucky. So it’s certainly not for me to judge those who have protected themselves or their loved ones by violence. But my small experience of dealing with threat has only bolstered my conviction that Jesus’ way of doing good to enemies may be a wisdom that works and can be learned.