19 June 2015

Nonviolent Action

A review of Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015.

This little volume by Ron Sider consists mainly of a series of studies of examples of non-violent direct action (NVDA). The text is divided into four parts: ‘Proving it Works’ explores early developments in NVDA, the contributions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and the role of NVDA in the recent history of Nicaragua and the Philippines. Part 2 focuses more closely on the part NVDA played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Part 3 examines ‘Recent Victories’, including Liberia and the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The concluding part is a call to action, which proposes that the clear successes of NVDA warrant its use as a moral alternative to war.

The book amounts to an extended pragmatic argument for NVDA based on a carefully selected series of cases. Since it is a relatively short book, a high degree of selectivity is necessary. But that very selectivity is also a weakness, particularly in view of the fact that all the examples he examines were successful. What about occasions when NVDA has failed (e.g. in China, Burma, or Bahrain)?

Sider’s selectivity seems to extend to his definition of NVDA. He seems to focus exclusively on mass protests against what modern liberal-minded Americans would regard as oppressive regimes. What about strikes, boycotts, and pickets? What about the Sanctuary Movement? What about prophetic/symbolic protests against nuclear weapons? What about the Occupy Movement? He avoids examples of NVDA directed against Western government policies, big business, the military-industrial complex, and those who threaten the environment. In other words, he avoids anything that might offend large sections of his potential readership.

Who is the book addressing? In the final section, Sider seems to direct his remarks at two main constituencies. On the one hand, he wants to wake up Western Christian pacifists who are too passive (complacent?) in their pacifism and who underestimate their capacity to bring about real change by taking appropriate (non-violent) action. On the other hand, he uses his collection of successful cases of NVDA as a stick with which to beat Western Christian advocates of just war theory. I felt this criticism was unfair since just war theory is about placing moral limits on the way a government wages war rather than being a defence of the use of violence per se.

In conclusion, this is a useful introductory study of major successful twentieth-century examples of NVDA. However, it fails to offer anything but a pragmatic justification for the use of NVDA. The reader will search in vain for any theoretical theological or philosophical underpinning. Sider fails to recognize when or why NVDA might fail. It would be very instructive to compare/contrast the political/cultural contexts of successful and unsuccessful cases. More generally, he fails to draw any practical lessons from the cases studied. Are there common factors that might be woven into a strategy for the successful deployment of NVDA? So while the book might be helpful to newcomers to the concept of non-violent action, it will be of very limited use to scholars or practitioners.