by Emma Paradis
March 10, 2020
There are not many prominent figures whose message is so aggressively stifled and twisted as Jesus Christ. Would you list him alongside anti-capitalist, anti-cis-hetero-patriarchy revolutionaries? Would you count him as an enemy of the state, disturber of the peace, an “extremist for love”? If not, then the organizations and individuals who try so hard to distort Jesus’s message have succeeded, for he was nothing if not a radical. Indeed, so radical that someone who commits heart and soul to the Christian faith must acquire the tools of nonviolence and the practices of direct action and noncompliance. By no means is religion a prerequisite for the philosophy and application of nonviolence — but some of the best and brightest activists have also been Christians who uniquely embodied their God’s message and mission in the world. The lives of some of these people can be used as evidence for the fact that someone who genuinely comes to grips with the Christian faith will come to realize the importance of nonviolence and the “sacrificial spirit.”
Perhaps the most readily accessible example of this type of person is, of course, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Both a minister and activist, King’s life and work was saturated with his faith, citing his beliefs as a wellspring of motivation for his activism. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, King is speaking directly to his fellow clergymen, imploring them to take action for civil rights. He is also showing clearly how Christian faith must coexist with nonviolent philosophy, as when he says, “The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
This is — in eloquent King fashion — an expression of displeasure with the Church, essentially a declaration that it is failing in what it ought to be. “Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformist.” The social neglect of which he speaks is assuredly the hesitation or outright refusal of much of the Church to join in the Civil Rights movement — and from here the conclusion must be drawn that the Church must engage in the activism work of King and his allies. In short, King himself argues — though circumspectly in this letter — that Christianity and the nonviolent struggle for justice must be intertwined. The duty of a Christian is to engage in this type of work given our sin-torn world, and to refuse this duty is to ‘blemish and scar’ the body of Christ.
Jesuit and antiwar activist John Dear shares the opinion that Christianity and the individual it formed around are both radical and nonviolent, and that Christians who fully embody the message of Jesus must definitionally commit themselves to peacefully struggle for justice. He discusses this in an interview with The Sun. “[Jesus] was confrontational, daring, even revolutionary. The challenge to Christians is to continue the story. […] But it’s hard, and we don’t want to do it…”. Dear, with over seventy-five arrests to his name, ‘walks the walk’ as well as ‘talks the talk’ — his actions as a priest and as a citizen embody his beliefs. He is thus a reputable source to speak on both nonviolent direct action and on theology, and he expresses that Christianity and nonviolence are irreversibly intertwined with no greater clarity than when he says, “Alas, most Christians support war and killing. We have a long way to go if we are to return to the Gospel of Jesus.”
Just like King, Dear indicates that the majority of ostensible followers of Christ are in fact failing in their God-given duty, which is the nonviolent struggle for peace and justice. Both of these activists therefore demonstrate the fact that this theology and this philosophy are bound together, and the follower of the first must become an adherent of the second. And to follow these joint ideologies must become the priority of the follower’s life — civil disobedience is so called for its defiance to governmental authority, and for a person of faith, that defiance becomes mandatory.
Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who championed causes for the poor, is another example of someone who shows this inevitable connection between Christian faith and justice-based activism. “In our disobedience we were trying to obey God rather than men, trying to follow a higher obedience.” If obeying God looks like resisting injustice, how can the argument possibly be made that the duty of a Christian is anything but the nonviolent work of these activists?
This is a fallen, violent world we live in. Injustice and suffering is everywhere; it always has been and perhaps always will be. In such a climate, what is the duty of someone who calls themselves a Christian? The answer, upon examination, seems clear. There is one philosophy to which those who commit to their faith in the truest sense flock, and it is nonviolence, that ideal which binds Martin Luther King Jr., John Dear, Dorothy Day, and all their comrades in the fight for justice.
Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd, Nonviolence in America: a Documentary History. (Orbis Books, 2018 revised edition).
John Malkin and John Dear, “What Jesus Would Do,” The Sun, June 2009, pp. 4–11.