A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 9)

Herb Montgomery | October 4, 2019

red and white stop road sign

Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash


“Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.”


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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today. To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

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And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you. We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

Before we wrap up this series on self-affirming nonviolent resistance, I want to address a topic that often comes up when we speak of nonviolence. That topic is self-defense.

When Peter uses the sword in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells him “Put your sword back in its place, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Some Christians use this passage to say that if we take Jesus’ nonviolence seriously we also have to reject all self-defense. I do not agree. I interpret this story of Peter as pointedly rejecting the use of violence to accomplish the kind of human community (“the kingdom”) that Jesus envisioned. I do not interpret this passage as a rejection of marginalized people’s self-defense: rejecting their self-defense has produced harmful and even lethal fruit for victims of violence.

Jesus taught violated people ways to resist violation and to stand up and to affirm their selves when their humanity, their selves, were being denied (see Part 4). As we’ve discussed repeatedly in this series, Jesus did not teach his followers to be passive or submissive in the face of injustice, oppression, and violation.

There is a difference between using lethal force in self-defense and using non-lethal, yet violation-halting force. I do not mean to imply that just because something is nonlethal it is nonviolent. Yet some forms of self-defense follow Deming’s illustration of stopping the perpetrator while refusing to let go of their humanity and leaving open the possibility of transformation, of the perpetrator making better choices:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Revolution & Equilibrium, 1971, p. 224)

Self-defense, in and of itself, is not violence. Violation is violence. Oppression is violence. Injustice is violence. Protecting one’s privilege and power over others is violence. Self-defense or self-affirmation in the face of all of these things is not, in and of itself, violence. Although one can employ violence, one can also reject it.

There are countless examples that we have today of nonviolent forms of self-defense. But does nonviolent self-defense only apply to individuals or can nonviolent forms of self-defense be used globally? Just war theory is a violent form of self-defense on a global scale. Are there other options?

I want to bring up an event in history that is usually used to illustrate the limitations of nonviolence and accuse nonviolence advocates as naive. The question is usually phrased, “Would nonviolence have stopped Hitler in World War II?”

First, to say that America entered World War II to defend the Jewish people against Hitler’s holocaust romanticizes the history at best and reconstructs it at worst. The U.S. knew what Hitler was doing long before it entered the war and it still chose to remain on the sidelines. Not until the Japanese government attacked the United States’ interests in Pearl Harbor did the U.S. entered the war.

America could have ended Hitler’s holocaust without firing a single shot.

The following is from A People’s History of the United States:

“By 1941 Standard Oil of New Jersey [Exxon] was the largest oil company in the world, controlling 84 percent of the U.S. petroleum market. Its bank was Chase and its owners were the Rockefellers. J.D. Rockefeller had always argued that two things were essential to the oil industry’s survival: checking ‘ruinous competition’ and ‘cooperation.’ Given the success of his monopoly at making enormous profits for its investors while at the same time destroying any form of competition and keeping prices artificially high, it seems quite clear whose survival he was really talking about.

“After the Rockefellers, the next largest stockholder in Standard Oil was I.G. Farben, the giant German chemical company. This investment was part of a pattern of reciprocal investments between the U.S. and Germany during the Nazi years. During the Great Depression, Germany was viewed as a hot area in which to invest.”

The article continues:

“A brief aside is required here to explain what type of company I.G. Farben actually was. At the time, it was the world’s largest chemical company and through the talents of its scientists and engineers, it secured the vital self-sufficiency that was to enable Germany to maneuver in the world of power politics. From its laboratories and factories flowed the strategic raw materials that Germany’s own territory could not supply, the synthetics of oil, gasoline, rubber, nitrates, and fibers. In addition, I.G. produced vaccines and drugs such as Salvarsan, aspirin, Atabrine, and Novocain, along with sulfa drugs, as well as poison gases and rocket fuels. The depth of I.G. Farben’s connection to Nazi policy was finally realized at Auschwitz, the extermination center where four million people were destroyed in accordance with Hitler’s ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Drawn by the seemingly limitless supply of death camp labor [free labor by those in concentration/extermination camps], Farben built I.G. Auschwitz, a huge industrial complex designed to produce synthetic rubber and oil. This installation used as much electricity as the entire city of Berlin, and more than 25,000 camp inmates died during its construction. I.G. Farben eventually built its own concentration camp, known as Monowitz, which was closer to the site of the complex than Auschwitz was, in order to eliminate the need to march prisoners several miles to and from the plant every day.”

What we must not gloss over about this history is:

“This [I.G. Farben] was the company enthusiastically embraced by Standard Oil [Exxon] as well as other major American corporations like Du Pont and General Motors. I do not, however, state that Standard Oil [Exxon] collaborated with the Nazis simply because I.G. Farben was its second largest shareholder. In fact, without the explicit help of Standard Oil, the Nazi air force would never have gotten off the ground in the first place. The planes that made up the Luftwaffe needed tetraethyl lead gasoline in order to fly. At the time, only Standard Oil, Du Pont, and General Motors had the ability to produce this vital substance. In 1938, Walter C. Teagle, then president of Standard Oil, helped Hermann Schmitz of I.G. Farben to acquire 500 tons of tetraethyl lead from Ethyl, a British Standard subsidiary. A year later, Schmitz returned to London and obtained an additional 15 million dollars worth of tetraethyl lead which was to be turned into aviation gasoline back in Germany.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the most damming pieces of the article follows:

‘After the war began in Europe, the English became angry about U.S. shipments of strategic materials to Nazi Germany. Standard Oil immediately changed the registration of their entire fleet to Panamanian to avoid British search or seizure. These ships continued to carry oil to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where they refueled and siphoned oil to German tankers for shipment to Hamburg.” (Emphasis added.)

Finally:

“This deception was exposed on March 31, 1941 when the U.S. State Department issued a detailed report on refueling stations in Mexico and Central and South America that were suspected of furnishing oil to Italian and German merchant vessels. The report listed Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of California among those fueling enemy ships, but there is no record of any action being taken as a result of this discovery. Similar deals between Standard Oil and the Japanese government for the purchase of tetraethyl lead have also been uncovered, but no direct action was ever taken against Standard Oil for its dealings with America’s enemies. A brief side note, however, is that on April 17, l945 the Chase National Bank was placed on trial in federal court on charges of having violated the Trading With the Enemy Act by converting German marks into U.S. dollars. Because many countries refused to accept German currency during the war, the Nazis used foreign banks like Chase National to change the currency into money that would be accepted, and thus allowed them to purchase much need materials to prolong the war. The closer one looks, the more ties one finds between American business and Nazi Germany, many of which remained strong well into and beyond the war.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, had U.S. corporations valued people over profit, especially people who were being exterminated over war profiteering, Hitler would never have had the resources (gasoline, oil, rubber, nitrates, and fibers) needed for the war and holocaust of Jewish and other marginalized people (see Ford and GM Scrutinized for Alleged Nazi Collaboration):

“Although [Henry] Ford later renounced his antisemitic writings, he remained an admirer of Nazi Germany and sought to keep America out of the coming war. In July 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, he accepted the highest medal that Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. The following month, a senior executive for General Motors, James Mooney, received a similar medal for his ‘distinguished service to the Reich.’” German trucks driven by the Nazis were manufactured by the Ford Motor Company and by Opel [GM] which also built German war planes.”

This entanglement lasted until America declared war on Germany in December 1941, and when contact with the German subsidiaries of these companies became illegal.

All companies involved denounce their activities with the Nazis, today. But closing their free labor camps and blocking the Nazi’s extermination of Jews and others could have brought Hitler’s efforts to its knees without a shot ever being fired.

We will never know.

Lastly in this treatment of self-defense, I want to address home invasion. I want to disclose that I have had my own home broken into, and I understand this violation firsthand.

I also know that we live in a system that creates winners and losers, and sometimes losers become desperate in their attempts to survive. We must understand when someone is stealing “a loaf of bread just to be able to eat.” I’m reminded of Hugo’s Les Miserables where a priest responds to Val Jean’s theft of the silver by giving him the additional silver candlesticks.

We must learn to distinguish between those in a more marginalized social location defending their right to live, to survive, and those from a more centered social location defending their privilege, power, and property over others who are subjugated. One is self-defense. The other is not self-defense but continued oppression.

Are we really defending ourselves? Or are we simply defending our privilege or “standing our ground?” Self-defense does not have to violate the principle of self-affirming, nonviolent, resistance, but defending one’s privilege against a more egalitarian world is itself an act of violence.

I want to be clear. Anyone who violates another person should be stopped, regardless of social location. We must learn to mercifully and justly hold their humanity too.

Next week will be our final installment of this series.

HeartGroup Application

  1. List some forms of nonviolent self-defense other than those found in Matthew 5 of cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusing to play by one’s oppressor’s rules. Use google to help you. Discuss what you found with your group.
  2. How can self-defense be the opposite of violence?
  3. Discuss how you can apply these principles in your own life as we work together toward a safer, compassionate, and just world.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 5)

By Herb Montgomery | August 30, 2019

close-up photography of gold-colored and black sword
Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

“We must be much more scandalized by the institutional violence that leads to violent rebellion than the violence of those who stand up to institutional violence. They are not the same. One is primary and the source or cause of all the other.”


Renewed Heart Ministries Logo with text: Working for a world of love and justice

I want to pause for a moment again this week and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

I’ve been teaching Christian nonviolence for quite some time now and the number one objection I get from American Christians is based on a passage in Luke’s version of the Jesus story:

“He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’” (Luke 22:36)

The objection goes something like “See? See? Jesus was right here telling them to buy swords! See?” 

It’s undeniable that Jesus was admonishing his disciples to buy swords, and we must also ask why. Did Jesus want them to use these swords to bring about the social vision of the Kingdom? Or did he want them to use these swords to defend his social vision of the reign of God from the status quo? We don’t have to read too far to get a clear answer: it’s in the very next sentence. All we need is to keep reading.

“‘It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’ The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That’s enough!’ he replied.” (Luke 22:37-38)

Let’s look at this story one step at a time. The word here translated as “transgressors” is the Greek word anomos. It means “lawless.” Jesus was more than simply a focal point of religious controversy. To be deemed worthy of being crucified, Jesus had to be seen as an insurrectionist, an armed rebel. Jesus’ crucifixion was political, not religious. Mark, believed to be the earliest gospel, states, “They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.” (Mark 15:27)

The Greek word translated as rebel in that verse is leistes. It means insurrectionist. Jesus will be numbered with the insurrectionists, the “transgressors” of the Pax Romana. 

Jesus will be perceived as a political threat to the Pax Romana or “Peace of Rome,” a “lawless” one, a political enemy, and an upstart Messiah. 

In Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, his early followers were also characterized this way:

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

For Luke, Jesus and his band of disciples need to be caught with swords in their possession. The mixture of the claim that this could be the Messiah who might lead the people to freedom from oppressive Roman rule and the claim that Jesus’ disciples were “gathering” or stockpiling swords would light the Roman fuse that would lead to the crucifixion. 

I reject the interpretation that Jesus’ counsel to buy swords was about Jesus wanting his disciples to wield them in the next part of the story. Two swords for twelve men wouldn’t be enough for each of them to use, yet Jesus states two would be enough for them to be “numbered with the transgressors.” Further, when Peter does pick up and wield one of these two swords later in the story, he provokes one of the strongest rebukes Jesus gave in all the gospels.

“Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives . . . While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me.” (Luke 22:35-53, cf. Matthew 26:51-54; John 18:10-11)

There is much in this passage. For our purposes here I want to focus on Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for actually welding one of the very swords Jesus said was “enough.” 

Jesus rebukes the disciple who used the sword to cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Peter was likely aiming for the servant’s head, but the servant leaned sideways to escape the swing and the sword glanced off the side of his head, taking off his ear. Jesus rebukes the disciple with the phrase: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Jesus is teaching his followers that his goals cannot be accomplished by violence. 

It would be well to remember the words of others who belong to communities facing institutional violence. 

“Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, p. 112)

Rome sought peace through the threat of violence, specifically crucifixion. Jesus’ social vision was instead about establishing societal peace and distributive justice through self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. It was a societal goal where the means matched the end.

Some will object, “But Jesus was supposed to die, so this rebuke doesn’t apply to us does it? His death was for a specified purpose, so doesn’t that mean that his words about this had a specified meaning?”

Before Rome embraced Christianity, changing its social location, Christians did not interpret Jesus’ words to Peter as having an isolated, specialized application. Tertullian, for example, wrote, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, thenceforth disarmed every soldier.” (in Of Idolatry, ch .19)

Jesus is giving a universal principle that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Here in the United States, we have the largest military presence in the world and spend more on our military than all of the next ten countries with large militaries combined. At home, our attitudes and choices toward violence also mean that we have the highest rates of gun violence and gun related deaths in the world, as well.

As we saw in Part 4 of this series, Jesus’ cross was not something he embraced instead of us, but something we are called to join him in as long as we interpret taking up one’s cross in self-affirming nonviolence and not patient, passive endurance of suffering. We are called to join Jesus in the choice to resist and stand up against oppression even if threatened with a cross for doing so. 

What we see in Luke’s gospel is that, within context, Jesus’ call for his disciples to “go buy a sword” should not be interpreted as Jesus intending them to use the swords they bought. To take from Jesus’ words that he transitioned from nonviolence to being okay with his disciples wielding swords has borne very destructive fruit for the Christian tradition. Christianity’s bloody history teaches us that we must question a Christian acceptance of violence. And we must work to repair the damage that violent forms of Christianity have done to marginalized communities.

Lastly, I want to offer one word of caution about this story. One could argue that Peter was using the sword in self-defense and therefore Jesus is against self-defense. I do not equate self-defense with the institutional violence that causes marginalized communities to have to defend themselves. We must, though, learn how to distinguish between the self-defense of the oppressed and the use of violence by those privileged and empowered to use violence to maintain and protect their privilege and power. These are two very different things. I do not interpret this story as being against the self defense of the weaker against those who are stronger. I interpret it as being against taking up violence as a form of revolution. Jesus was a revolutionary, yet his revolution was, for the sake of his own, Jewish people’s survival in the face of Roman retaliation, a nonviolent, self-affirming, resistant revolution. Jesus’ revolution could not be accomplished by violence.

Yet, we must be much more scandalized by the institutional violence that leads to violent rebellion than the violence of those who stand up to institutional violence. They are not the same. One is primary and the source or cause of all the other. 

I close with two statements I believe profoundly speak to this caution:

The first is from Jon Sobrino:

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

The second is from Oscar Romero:

“I will not tire of declaring that if we truly want an effective end to the violence, we must eliminate the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the fundamental cause, from which the rest flows naturally.” (Homily on September 23, 1979.)

There is much to consider this week.

HeartGroup Application

1. Can you give examples of nonlethal forms of personal self defense or stopping another from doing harm? Have you seen these forms used with success?  Share stories.

2. Can you give any historical examples of where nonlethal forms of resistance around the globe were used to bring about both societal reformation or even revolutionary change?

3. Both lethal and nonlethal forms of resistance have their success and failures. Discuss the difference between when violent forms of resistance fail and when nonviolent forms of resistance fail.  Is there a difference in the extent to which they not only succeed, but even when they fail? Discuss as a group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.