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Responding Peacefully to Violence

They were humiliated and mistreated, and they couldn’t take it anymore. So they took a stand. They went into extensive training for the fight. They knew it would be hard and long. They had to be mentally, spiritually, and physically prepared. When the day of confrontation arrived, every hour of training was worth it. Although they were shouted at, pushed, spat upon, and beaten, they did not fight back with angry words or fists, but with love. They won, peacefully.

If you’ve seen photos of the 1960’s civil rights movement sit-ins or marches, it’s clear to see who won morally, and at what cost. Although they were violently mistreated, the participants protested peacefully to follow Jesus. “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth...Seized and condemned, he was taken away” (Isaiah 53:7, 8) — just like the civil rights activists. Their patient, persistent protests led to the desegregation of restaurants, buses, and schools. This year I commemorated the 50th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Atlanta, Georgia, where I had the honour of meeting Rev. King’s sister, nephew, and daughter, who continue to work for racial justice. The path to peace is long and hard, but worth it.


"Noviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Our peace series in Liguorian magazine, which began with Lighting the Way to Interfaith Peace in January, followed by Our Role in God's Peace Plan in April, continued this summer with one of the most difficult acts of peace — responding to violence with love. Many peacebuilders have demonstrated this with costly sacrifice, including the courageous men, women and youth who resisted racial violence during the US civil rights movement. Across the Atlantic, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a housewife whose sister's children died in the Troubles in Ireland, responded to their senseless deaths forcefully, yet peacefully, by mobilising over 500,000 people to proclaim that dialogue, not violence, was the path to peace. The Peace People movement is still going strong.

As long as violence continues, so must our persistence in pursuing peaceful responses. Violence shook my own city, Toronto, this summer, where present-day peacebuilders continue to call for peace (see Finding Peace After Tragedy and Empathy and acceptance bring peace to shooting victim Danielle Kane).  While it is difficult, only a peaceful response to violence can birth true and lasting peace.


Only a peaceful response to violence can birth true and lasting peace.


When we respond to violence peacefully, we diffuse rather than escalate it. Countering psychological violence with inner peace nurtures resilience that helps protect us from being harmed. Countering verbal violence with calm responses de-escalates arguments, lessening the risk they will erupt into physical altercations. Countering physical violence with non-violent resistance removes fuel from the fire and paves the way for reconciliation. But how can we do so effectively?

Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (Matthew 5:38-42).

These three illustrations demonstrate how radically non-violent and generous Jesus calls us to be, but I have to admit, the image of being a doormat disturbed me. Were we just to acquiesce to violence, or were there circumstances in which defending human rights merited, or even called for, confrontation (Psalm 82:3-4)? What about Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables (Matthew 21:12-13)? What about Jesus’ scathing verbal judgments on the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:29-39)? Something didn’t add up.

The late theologian Walter Wink recovered the historical significance of this passage through textual analysis and re-enacting the scenes. The Greek word antistenai, translated "resistance," more accurately means armed resistance. Therefore Jesus was not saying, "Do not resist evil," but "do not resist evil with violence." Jesus wasn't promoting passivity that let unjust oppressors off the hook; on the contrary, Jesus was recommending brilliant strategies of nonviolent resistance for systemic change. I highly recommend reading the details of how in Wink's Beyond Just War and Pacificsm: Jesus' Nonviolent Way.

Mairead Maguire, who has been waging peace in Ireland since the 1970's, believes it's time for Christians to renounce the "just war" theory for a new theology of nonviolence and peace. Leaders like Maguire, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mohandas Gandhi have proven that pacifist resistance is potent and effective. But is Maguire right in saying it's time to renounce war? In my opinion, yes, because "just war" just doesn't work. Two-thirds of those killed in the last 500 years were European Christians killing each other, both proclaiming God was on their side. Furthermore, violent uprisings are much less successful at leading to democracy than nonviolent protests, while causing countless deaths. And since the purpose of a just war is establishing justice, how can we justify striving for it violently? If we invested as much in peace as we do in war — trillions of dollars, armies of peace builders, a virtuous industry supplying the needs of the people we were defending — there would be no need for war.


If we invested as much in peace as we do in war — trillions of dollars, armies of peace builders, a virtuous industry supplying the needs of the people we were defending — there would be no need for war.


Reflection Questions

  • Before the 4th century, Christians who joined the army were excommunicated from the church. After the 4th century, Roman soldiers had to be Christians. Is pacifism or militarism the true teaching of Christ?
  • Do holy texts condone violence by the state or individuals? If so, with what conditions and constraints?

  • Is it possible to usher in a peaceful government through violence? Why or why not?

  • Are you brave enough to stand up for justice in the face of violence unarmed? If you received training and stood with others, could you find the courage?


Learn more

  • Read my full article, reposted below (with thanks to



Published in Liguori magazine July-August 2018. © Liguori Publications, 2018. Please visit to learn more and subscribe.

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