Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just. ~ Pascal
This week I participated in another nonviolent direct action (NvDA) to highlight my government’s mistreatment of hundreds of asylum seekers under their jurisdiction. Along with several other Christian leaders, I chained myself to the gates of the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence and refused to leave when instructed to by Australian federal police. We were eventually cut free by Police Search & Rescue and arrested for trespass.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been arrested for such an action, and inevitably my decision to participate in it has attracted criticism from some Christians who believe it is wrong to disobey our political and legal authorities.
But nonviolent direct action is, in my opinion, an entirely Christian act.
NvDA refers to any method of protest, resistance, or intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things. Other names for it are people power, civil resistance, satyagraha, nonviolent resistance, pacifica militancia, positive action, and more.
When Christians undertake an NvDA we are rejecting the use of physical violence to fight injustice because we know that violence cannot be overcome by more violence.
As followers of the Prince of Peace we are resolved not only to preach about turning the other cheek, but to practice it. For us, nonviolence shouldn’t simply be a strategy for social change; it should be a way of life. This is reflected in Pax Christi’s Vow of Non-Violence:
“I vow to carry out in my life the love and example of Jesus… by accepting suffering rather than inflicting it; by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence; by persevering in nonviolence of tongue and heart; by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live; by actively resisting evil and working non-violently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.”
Of course, the purposes of NvDA are to influence public attitudes and policy and to challenge unjust social and political values. As Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most famous proponents of Christian NvDA, once said, “A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption.”
Reconciliation and redemption. Yes. But does it work?
As I stood for hours in the blazing sun, chained around the neck to the gates of a government building, I asked myself that question many times.
I watched the street fill up with police and press vans with satellite dishes extended from their roofs. Journalists interviewed us and photographed us and did live crosses back to their studios. The story made the evening news. We definitely got our message across.
But more meaningful to me personally was the number of people who saw the story unfolding on social media, or who lived nearby and came to see what the ruckus was about, and who wanted to shake our hands and thank us for our action. Several people brought us water. One person gave us homemade fruitcake. A former local politician, who lives around the corner, brought us cushions from her home to sit on, and stood by our side for press photographs.
Most moving was another local resident, a self-confessed non-religious Jew whose own family had been murdered during the Holocaust. Only her father and one other relative escaped the Nazis. She told us how the refusal of many nations to accept Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War informed her commitment to a generous immigration policy today. She expressed her support for our cause not just verbally, but in an extraordinary act of solidarity, stood alongside us and was arrested by the police with us.
For me, these shows of support by ordinary citizens, along with the thousands of expressions of affirmation on social media, fill me with hope and courage. We can’t give in to hopelessness or acquiescence, no matter how little effect we seem to be having. It is a sin to abandon hope. And it is a sin to use violence to exact social change. And yet hopelessness and violence are such tempting responses. I feel drawn to them often, even though I know they are not the way of Jesus. As Dr King once wrote,
The principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites – acquiescence and violence – while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both.
Cover photo is of one of the panels in Judith F. Baca’s 70 metre-long traveling mural installation, “The World Wall”.