Nonviolent Action and the Revolution of the Cross

On January 21, 2017, immediately following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, over 500,000 people participated in the Women’s March on Washington to “send a bold message…that women’s rights are human rights.”[1] Millions of others participated around the globe. On January 29, following Trump’s immigration executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, thousands gathered at airports all around the nation to protest.[2] On February 19, hundreds of people gathered in Boston’s Copley Square to rally for science and climate research—a precursor for a much larger national March for Science on April 22.[3]

Protests in America have started to spring up more frequently and have drawn larger numbers than have been seen in decades. In fact, in line with this trend of “questioning institutions”, MIT has recently announced a $250,000 award to further encourage “extraordinary civil, non-violent disobedience for the benefit of society.”[4] But why is this all happening? Yes, it is indicative of a widely held sentiment of dissatisfaction around the nation. But it also reveals a deeper belief… that on some level, millions of people around the world feel that nonviolent action actually works—that the peaceful use of methods such as protests, civil disobedience, and noncooperation are effective in creating change.

The Power of Nonviolent Action

Deep down, people believe that there is power in collectively making their voices heard… and it’s not just the view of the protestors. In a fascinating talk at the MIT Media Lab, Jamil Raqib, Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution, mentions that in 2015, the Russian Senate named her organization—a group of five people advancing the study and strategic use of nonviolent protest—one of the 12 most dangerous organizations in the world.[5] Where do people get this notion that non-violent protest is so effective? In the face of an administration that can seem flippant about the concerns of its dissenters, what is it that drives activists to march in the streets of Washington or stand in the Boston Commons on a cold winter day? I believe an essential part of the answer can be found deeply rooted in our human nature and our innate penchant for storytelling. Looking at historical figureheads of nonviolent action such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., this article will explore the rationale behind nonviolent protest and the success it has drawn in the past. The article will then consider a less commonly studied figure in the context of nonviolent action—the person of Jesus Christ—and draw insight on the themes of nonviolent action pervasive throughout his life and death. Ultimately, I hope to show that the allure of historical nonviolent movements is not just intellectual or emotional—but spiritual as well. The reason we find these stories so compelling transcends the power they hold in and of themselves. Rather it extends from the fact that they are reflections of an overarching narrative of Christianity—a story of the universe itself that unfolds in our everyday lives.

Nonviolent Action Throughout History

A large part of people’s belief in the power of nonviolent action stems from its historical legacy and its pivotal contributions to the legendary social and political movements led by the likes of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. Indeed, it is the tradition of such movements that today’s protesters look to and follow.

Gandhi worked to construct his own theory of satyagraha that was key to his response against the British Empire in India. Translated directly as “Truth Force,” satyagraha is a way of life rooted in “a determined but nonviolent resistance to evil.”[6] According to Gandhi, satyagraha is a difficult virtue, requiring prolonged training of the individual soul such that “a perfect passive resister has to be almost, if not entirely, a perfect man.” However, satyagraha goes even farther and is distinct from passive resistance, in that it is an “intensely active state”; it is motivated by love, not hatred, to “change men’s hearts”; and it demands respect of the adversary. Finally, the true satyagrahi “must be prepared to lose all, not merely their personal liberty, not merely their possessions, land, cash, etc. but also the liberty and possessions of their families, and they must be ready cheerfully to face bullets, bayonets, or even slow death by torture.”[7]

Our next figure, Mandela, led the resistance against apartheid in South Africa and became the leading voice of a peaceful transition to a nonracial democratic state. Mandela’s thoughts on nonviolent action can be found in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Unlike Gandhi, Mandela was not morally opposed to violent action, but rather chose nonviolent action as a more effective political tool. In 1961, after dabbling with noncompliance, Mandela actually convinced the African National Congress to form a military organization that embraced sabotage as a form of activism—a group he was put in charge of and for which he was eventually convicted of terrorism. However, what Mandela is more frequently remembered for is his commitment to a peaceful transition to the end of apartheid upon his release from prison in 1990. While in his early years, Mandela “was angry at the white man, not at racism”, he notes that in prison, his “anger toward whites decreased, but [his] anger for the system grew”. In his own words, “I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another”. In the proceeding negotiations, Mandela fought against the National Party’s fanning of race hatred and “saw [his] mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence.” It is this advocating for nonviolence that the world remembers him for, awarding Mandela the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for the countless lives saved by the peaceful transition from apartheid that he helped make possible.

Our third figure, Martin Luther King Jr., is perhaps the most familiar face of nonviolent action in America. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King addresses white clergymen who criticized his leadership of nonviolent protest in Alabama and justifies his actions from prison. He breaks down the nonviolent campaign into four basic steps: (1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) Negotiation; (3) Self-purification; and (4) Direct action. King argues that there are just and unjust laws, and that unjust laws can be morally disobeyed. However, he also emphasizes that the law must be broken “openly, lovingly…and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” and true to his words, King and his followers courageously faced the consequences of imprisonment, vicious dog attacks, and water blasting from law enforcement. Finally, King discusses the role of nonviolent action not in creating tension, but in “[bringing] to the surface the hidden tension that is already there”, thus exposing it to “the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion” needed for it to be cured.

Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution of the Cross

Along with Gandhi, Mandela, and King, this article will group in a less studied figure in the context of nonviolent action—the person of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that Jesus does not just belong in the group, but that he is the ultimate example—the underlying thread of nonviolent action itself. Predating the others by nearly two millennia, Jesus’ nonviolent act was coming to earth with the express purpose of being crucified for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins, thus overthrowing a spiritual kingdom of evil that has entrapped mankind since our earliest origins.[8]

As Gandhi states, “the perfect passive resister has to be almost, if not entirely, a perfect man,” and as the only completely righteous human to walk the earth, Jesus was indeed the perfect man.[9] Further, in line with satyagraha, his actions were done out of love rather than hate in order to change men’s hearts.[10] Like Mandela in his later years, Jesus never hated the people who persecuted him, but rather the system of sin they were living in, and he fought for the freedom of his people (in this case, humanity).[11] And finally, like MLK, Jesus came to disrupt the unjust laws of the kingdom of the earth.[12] By peacefully, yet powerfully asserting his rights as Lord, Jesus provoked the anger and violence of the Jewish and Roman establishment, knowing well the consequences of his actions and willingly accepting the penalty of crucifixion.[13]

And yet, while Jesus appears to embody the ideals that Gandhi, Mandela, and King strive for as nonviolent activists, he goes even further, taking these ideals to extremes that no man could even fathom. His cause wasn’t limited to India, South Africa, or the United States… it wasn’t even limited to a global scale. In restoring the universe, the consequences of Jesus’s life and death span the heavens and the earth, the physical and the spiritual. His cause wasn’t limited to a decade, a century, or even a millennium… it spans all eternity. And unlike the others, Jesus did not stand to gain anything from his cause but acted entirely selflessly. He wasn’t an Indian living under British rule, a colored person living under apartheid, or an African American subjected to Jim Crow laws. Instead, having rights and ownership to everything in the universe, Jesus gave up his comfort as Lord and King to come to the earth as a poor son of a carpenter, born in a feeding trough, knowing well beforehand that he would be sent to a torturous death on the cross. In the end, Christ was not just another successful activist— he was the paradigm of nonviolent action itself. While Gandhi has been called the “Mahatma”, Mandela referred to as a saint, and King treated with reverence from Americans of all backgrounds, the powerful example of Jesus Christ has changed the course of history on an entirely different scale: his actions have rightfully caused people to recognize him as God himself.

The Powerful Narrative of Nonviolent Action

It is undeniable that there is something truly powerful and compelling about the narrative of nonviolent action. When we read about Gandhi and his followers being beaten down in the Great Salt March, or Mandela being imprisoned for his actions, or King and his followers brutally attacked by police dogs, our human nature cries out with indignity and demands that justice be served. On the other hand, when we see their determination to get back on their feet, their resilience as they accept undeserved punishment, and their steadfast tenacity in the face of adversity, something stirs within us. A trust in the greater good, a sense of pride, an air of reverence. And when they finally succeed, we celebrate with them and for them, knowing that at the end of the day, justice prevailed.

To the increased number of protesters we are observing today, these stories are a reason to hope. It does not matter to them whether or not the majority favors their actions. After all, neither did the majority who lived during the time of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. To today’s activists, there is a sense of inner pride, a faith in the process of their actions, and a gut feeling that one day, they too will be included on the right side of history. In short, they have bought into the historical narrative of nonviolent action and have decided to become the characters themselves.

Without judging the validity of all of today’s activist movements, this article points to the powerful narrative of nonviolence and demonstrates that the story is not unique to recent centuries, but is deeply ingrained in the story of the gospel. In the same way that our hearts are struck by the stories of Gandhi, Mandela, and King, we feel similar evocation of emotion upon picturing the imagery of Jesus walking down the Via Dolorosa to his own death, flogged and beaten to the point of collapse. And while we celebrate India’s liberation from British rule, colored South Africans’ liberation from apartheid, and African American liberation from segregation, how much greater is the joy that comes from humanity’s liberation from sin?

From a Christian worldview, we are characters in the narrative of a God-given universe, and our human penchant for stories stems from the fact that we find an innate connection to the greater cosmic story that we are all part of. In this sense, the story of the gospel lives in each one of us and we find harmony with the recurrence of its powerful themes throughout history. As humans made in the image of God, our hearts yearn for the same justice for which our creator yearns. And with Jesus being the archetype of non-violent activism, we cannot help but be moved by the similar stories of Gandhi, Mandela, and King. But at the same time, let us be more than moved. Let us take principled action. Whether you are out protesting in the streets or writing to your representatives from the comfort of your home— let us always keep in mind the example of Christ and seek to meet the standard set by him in reflecting the all-important story of the gospel in our daily lives.

 

 

1 Women’s March on Washington: Mission & Vision. (Online: https://www.womensmarch.com/mission/)
2 James Doubek. NPR. “Photos: Thousands Protest At Airports Nationwide Against Trump’s Immigration Order.” 01/29/17.
3 Jan Ransom and Cristela Guerra. Boston Globe. “Hundreds Gather in Copley to ‘stand up for science’.” 02/19/17.
4 Drew Bent. The Tech. “Behind the Media Lab’s $250,000 Disobedience Award.” 03/16/2017.
5 The full talk is available at: https://www.media.mit.edu/video/talks
6 Encyclopædia Britannica. “Satyagraha.” Last updated 01/19/15.
7 Nirmal Jumar Bose: Selections From Gandhi. 1948.
8 Ephesians 6:12
9 1 Peter 2:22
10 Romans 5:8
11 Luke 23:34; Galatians 5:1
12 Ephesians 2:2; 1:21
13 Matthew 26:36-56

 

Matthew Chun is a junior studying Mechanical Engineering and Management Science. Despite having a rebellious side, he prefers nonviolent methods and tries to keep any violent tendencies contained to his involvement on MIT’s wrestling team.

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