The Power of Nonviolent Action
by Ronald J. Sider
Too often, power is understood only in terms of lethal coercion. Mao Zedong said that power is what comes from the barrel of a gun. Certainly power includes the ability to control people’s actions by the threat or use of lethal violence; however, the people also possess nonviolent collective power because they can choose to withdraw their support from rulers. Political scientist Karl Deutsch has pointed out that “the voluntary or habitual compliance of the mass of the population is the invisible but very real basis of the power of every government.”(1)
The potential choice by large numbers to withdraw that compliance represents enormous collective power. Consequently, without any arms at all, the people can exercise nonviolent power either by doing what they are not expected to do or by not doing what they are required to do.(2) Large numbers of people using nonviolent techniques possess enormous nonviolent collective power. But nonviolent action does not require large numbers to have power. Witness for Peace and Peace Brigades International have demonstrated that even small groups can exercise substantial power.
Nonviolent activists possess strong moral power. Praying, reconciling teams of Christian peacemakers risking their lives for others would share something of the moral power that Jesus exercised in the temple. He was able single-handedly to drive the crowds of angry, oppressive moneychangers out of the temple, not because he was stronger or his disciples were more numerous. It was because deep in their hearts they knew that he was right.
Nonviolent activists possess strong moral power.
International public opinion would also be influential. The daring of the teams of Christian peacemakers would sometimes make headline news around the world. Any group or nation that battered or killed prominent, internationally famous Christian leaders or even ordinary peacemakers would suffer substantial international disapproval.
A mandate also provides authority and therefore power. A mandate to intervene internationally, if issued by an organization such as the Organization of African States or the United Nations, could legitimize nonviolent teams of peacemakers. So too—at least to a certain, if lesser, degree—would an invitation by prominent Christian leaders and established churches, as well as recognized leaders of other religious groups.
Self-sacrificial love has innate power. It often weakens even vicious opponents—though not always, of course. People ready to suffer for others sometimes get crucified. But often, too, they evoke a more human, loving response, even from brutal foes.
The discipline, training, and coordination of an organized body with visible symbols of identity and cohesion are also powerful. Part of the power of a large group of police or soldiers lies in their uniforms, careful coordination, and ability to act quickly, decisively, and collectively. Highly trained and disciplined peacemaker teams would possess some of this same power.
Death will be tragically intertwined with any serious test of the effectiveness of nonviolent action. But that will not prove that the effort has failed…
Finally, there is the divine power of the Lord of history. What the Almighty will do if thousands of praying, loving Christians nonviolently face death in the search for peace and justice will remain shrouded in mystery—at least until we have the courage to try it. But what believer will doubt that there may be surprises ahead?
We do have to be honest and realistic. We never dare pretend that no one will get hurt. Tyrants and bullies callously torture and murder. Opponents will sometimes intimidate, threaten, wound, torture, and massacre even praying peacemakers. But we have always assumed that death by the thousands, indeed even millions, is necessary in war. Would it not be right for nonviolent teams of Christian peacemakers to be ready to risk death in the same way soldiers do? Certainly we must not seek death. Martyr complexes are wrong. But a readiness to lay down one’s life for others lies at the heart of the gospel.
Death will be tragically intertwined with any serious test of the effectiveness of nonviolent action. But that will not prove that the effort has failed; it will only underline the depth of human sin, and also the fact that Christians are willing to imitate the One they worship. Nor is that all. The death of courageous nonviolent activists will also lead to the birth of a more powerful belief in and practice of successful nonviolent movements for peace and justice.
Ronald J. Sider is founder and president emeritus of ESA. He is the author of many books, including Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos Press, 2015), from which this article is excerpted. The excerpt appears here by kind permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
- Karl W. Deutsch, The Analysis of International Relations (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978). See the discussion in the excellent book by Duane K. Friesen, Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1986), 147–49.
- Duane K. Friesen, Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1986), 148, summarizing Gene Sharp.