Beyond the experience of duality

Non Violence

The Ideal of Non-Violence

Bede Griffiths

It is obvious that the coming of the hydrogen bomb must radically affect the Christian attitude towards war.  Until now it has been a matter of debate whether it is legitimate for a Christian to refuse to fight, but now the question must be whether it is legitimate for him to fight at all.  Even in the last war it was difficult to find a moral justification for the ‘area-bombing’ of Germany, and still more for the use of the atom bomb on Japan. But now the means of destruction have become so indiscriminate and their affects so far out of proportion to any conceivable ‘just’ end, that the whole concept of a ‘just war’ seems to be imperilled.

This, however, is a matter for moral theologians and ultimately for the Church herself to decide.  But there is another aspect of the problem which should be of more serious concern to the individual Christian.  Moral theologians tend to be concerned with finding how far it is possible to go in any particular direction without actually committing sin.  But the Gospel of Christ is not at all concerned merely with the avoidance of sin: that, on the contrary in what in terms of the Gospel comes under the ‘law’.  It is concerned to show the ideal of life which Christ sets before His disciples.  In the Sermon on the Mount we have the Christian ideal set before us in the most absolute terms, and this is the very essence of the Gospel.  It is not just a counsel of perfection given to a few chosen disciples; it is the call of the Gospel itself, addressed to all men and communing them to a new way of life.

At first sight these words strike us as an overwhelming paradox; they seem to go contrary to all normal human values.   ‘Blessed are you poor…Blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep…Blessed are you when men hate you and cast you off and revile you, when they reject you as something evil for the Son of Man’s sake…’  These are words which it is difficult even now for us to accept.  Is it not the whole philanthropic and humanitarian work of the world aimed at relieving poverty, hunger, misery, oppression, and here it seems these very things are praised?  It is the same in regard to property, to marriage, to courts of law;  Christ seems to call on his disciples to renounce all civil institutions.  ‘Unless a man will renounce his father and his mother and his wife and his children and everything he has, he cannot be my disciple.’

There is a deliberate force of paradox in these words which warns us not to take them too literally, but at the same time they are meant to present a challenge to all our worldly values.  Christ does not deny the value of civil institutions, of property and marriage and law courts; nor does he deny the need to relive the poor and the hungry and the afflicted.  But he wishes to assert that all natural institutions and all human values are of no account in comparison with the kingdom of God.  A Christian may accept what this world has to offer; he may marry and possess property and defend himself at law, but he must be prepared to sacrifice all these things at any moment.  We cannot exaggerate the radical renunciation which the Gospel involves; we can never properly belong to this world again.

It is in this light surely that we must read the words about non-resistance to evil, which strike us still more with the sense of paradox.  ‘But I tell you that you should not offer resistance to injury; if a man strikes you on the one cheek, turn the other cheek also towards him;  if he is ready to go to law with you over your coat , let him have your cloak with it; if he compels you to attend him on a mile’s journey, go two miles with him of your own accord…’  Christ does not here deny the right to self defence; he acknowledges this right, but he calls upon his disciples to renounce this right.  It is not a command; like the call to renounce marriage and property it is a ‘counsel’.  But it is a ‘counsel’ which is offered to all; it is part of the universal challenge of the gospel.

This call, therefore, to resist evil is embedded in the very heart of the gospel.  Like the call to renounce marriage and property it is a part of the challenge of Christianity.  This is the conception which we need to recover in our present situation.  It is not a question whether it is ‘legitimate’ to fight in a war, but whether the world has not reached a point where we may be called upon to renounce this very ‘right’.  At least we have surely reached the point where we must face this question seriously.  We can no longer simply accept war as part of a normal life.  It has become something so vast, so inhuman, and so destructive that it challenges us to ask whether there is not a way out, a way which is indicated in the gospel itself.

At present it must be admitted that the command ‘Resist not him that is evil’, has become almost a dead letter in the Church.  We are so sure that it does not take away from us the right to self-defence and from that we go on to accept a whole system of defence with modern weapons of war till the gospel counsel ceases to have any meaning.  In the same way we know that we have the right to marriage and property and so we put all our energies into building up a world based on these two institutions which grows more and more complex every day, until we almost forget the meaning of the words, ‘Unless a man renounce his father and his mother and wife and children and all that he has, he cannot be my disciple’.  This then is the fearful paradox that Christianity, which is based on poverty and non-violence, has come to be identified in the eyes of so many people, with capitalism and war.

How has this come about?  In the early Church there is no doubt that the sense of urgency of the gospel was overwhelming.  The first act recorded of the Church after Pentecost was that ‘all the faithful held together and shared all that they had, selling their possessions and their means of livelihood, so as to distribute to all as each had need.’  It is true that we hear no more of this experiment in common living and presumably the need of private ownership soon re-asserted itself, but the gesture is significant.  It shows the original impulse of the Church in regard to private property, and it was destined to endure and to take permanent form in the Church in the religious orders which make the renunciation of private ownership the basis of their way of life.

In the same way we know that in the early Church, that is in the Church of the first three centuries, the command now to resist evil was taken very literally.  The Christians believed that they belonged to a new age, an age in which non-violence was now the law.  So they boasted, ‘We do not draw the sword against any nation, and we no longer learn to fight because we have become, thanks to Jesus, sons of peace’ (Origen).  Military service was not forbidden, but it was not encouraged.  It was not considered worthy of a Christian  His duty was not to fight but to pray, and it was thus that he could best serve his country.  This was, of course, the attitude of a small community of Christians, in the midst of a great empire, in which the regular army could be trusted to defend the country.  The Peace of Constantine would change all that, and yet it retains its significance for us still.

But the non-violence of the early church was carried further than this; it was carried to the point of death.  The goal of life in the early church was found in martyrdom; this was the consummation of the Christian ideal.  This is what gives its peculiar character to the early church.  The Christians of those days were not afraid to marry and to possess property and to carry on business of all sorts, but they were made to realise that all these things might be taken away from them at any moment.  They lived under the constant threat of martyrdom.  And this was recognised not as something to be feared but as something to be desired.  It was in this way that the Christian could best follow his master.  It was not by fighting but by suffering and death he would overcome the world and establish the kingdom of God.

It is impossible to exaggerate the strength of this gospel of non-violence in the early church.  It was by this that the Roman Empire was overcome.  The whole power of Rome was organised to crush this religion; yet it had to admit defeat and Christianity itself became the religion of the Empire.  But this very victory brought with it a change.  From this time the ideal of non-violence seemed to loose its power in the church.  Gradually the ideal of the ‘martial’ virtues, first of the Romans, then of the Gothic peoples, was substituted, and the ideal of Christian chivalry was formed.  There is no doubt that this ideal had its own beauty, but it belonged to a very limited period of history and was open to grave abuse.  It was not an intrinsically Christian ideal but an attempt to ‘baptise’ pagan virtues.  The result has been disastrous; it has simply been the triumph of paganism.  The Christian nations have become distinguished above all others for their violence and brutality, and the very ideal of non-violence seems to have faded from men’s minds.

There have of course been honourable exceptions like the Quakers, who have preserved the ideal of non-violence down to the present time.  But if we could see the force of non-violence in the modern world we have rather to turn to India and to Mahatma Ghandi.  It was he who, partly through the influence of the gospel and partly through that of ancient Indian thought, recovered the ideal of non-violence for the modern world  The ideal is basic in Indian religion and, one might say, in the Indian character.  The Indian has always understood the true strength of character which lies in non-resistance, and it is this which makes an immediate appeal to him in the gospel.  On the other hand he is all the more shocked to find how little place it has in the life and thought of so many Christians.  But it was the genius of Mahatma Gandhi which enabled him to discover in non-violence a means of political and social action which was found to be no less effective against the British Empire than the early Christian action against the Roman Empire.

Maritain, in his Man and the State, has written of the importance of Ghandi’s example in words which deserve to be quoted.  ‘In my opinion Ghandi’s theory and technique could be related to and clarified by the Thomist notion that the principal act of the virtue of fortitude is not attack but endurance; to bear, to suffer with constancy.  One has then to recognise there are two different orders of means of warfare (taken in the widest sense of the word), as there are two kinds of fortitude and courage, the courage that attacks and the courage that endures the force of coercion or aggression, the force that inflicts suffering on others, and the force that endures suffering inflicted on oneself.  There you have two different keyboards, that stretch along the two sides of our human nature, opposing evil through attack and coercion, a way that leads at the last extremity if need be to the shedding of the blood of others, and opposing evil through suffering and enduring, a way which in the last extremity leads to the sacrifice of one’s own life.  To the second keyboard belongs the means of spiritual warfare.’

This is surely a suggestion of great value to us today.  We need to recover this ideal of ‘spiritual warfare’ of a form of non-violent resistance, which is specifically Christian and at the same time is the highest form of courage or fortitude that can be found.  It is, certainly, no easy form of virtue.  As Gandhi himself always insisted, it demands complete self conquest before it can become effective.  In other words, it is essentially a call to sanctity.  It cannot be practiced without training and leadership.  Ghandi spent all his life trying to train his people for this, and in the end he had to admit himself defeated.  Yet it is something to which many people feel themselves drawn.  It seems to be the only way of giving oneself wholeheartedly to a cause without seeing it reined by the use of unworthy means.  Maritain has also spoken of the need of a new type of sanctity today.  May it not be that we have here the means of such a new type of sanctity?

It is not, of course, a virtue which can be practiced in isolation.  It has to be closely related to the other virtues which constitute the Christian idea, especially to poverty, chastity and obedience.  In fact, it is among the religious orders that one would like to see this ideal take the deepest root, so that it is seen habitually as an essential element of Christian perfection.  But it should not be confined to the religious orders.  It needs to be embodied in social and political life and become and force of inspiration there.  Perhaps Dorothy Day and her companions on the Catholic Worker can give some idea how it can be realised in this way, especially in close association with poverty and the care of the poor.

Communism, it is generally recognised, cannot be finally overcome by force.  Ultimately, it can only be overcome by a spiritual force greater than its own.  It has often been said that Mahatma Gandhi was fortunate in having the British to deal with, since they could always be trusted to observe a certain code of honour, however ruthless they might be on occasion.  But would his methods have been of any use against Communism?  In the same way, the early Christians were able to overcome the Roman Empire, but again the Romans, although they were far more ruthless than the British, had not the Communist’s absolute ruthlessness and determination to eliminate all religion.  Can a technique of passive resistance be found which can not only endure all that the Communists can inflict but also convert them?

It may be said that Communism represents the spirit of absolute violence.  Violence belongs to its very essence; it arises from the nature of its creed.  Materialism is of its nature a kind of violence to the spirit of man.  It is an attempt to subject everything, and above all the human person, to the law of matter, and the law of matter is the law of violence.  It seeks to impose itself on every form of spiritual life; it seeks finally to subject everything to the power of this world.

Non-violence on the other hand, is essentially an affirmation of the law of the spirit.  Gandhi described it is as the ‘power of truth’ and the ‘power of love’.  It is the power of truth because it is the recognition of the spiritual ground of all reality and the determined effort to bring everything, that is, all matter, into subjugation to this spiritual law.  It is the power of love because it is the recognition of the spiritual character in every man and the inviolable respect which this demands.

Gandhi saw clearly that one must be absolutely uncompromising in one’s attachment to non-violence.  You can counter the absolute spirit of violence in Communism only by a no less absolute spirit of non-violence.  Once you allow any compromise to enter in, however legitimate, it may be from another point of view, the whole strength of resistance is lost.  One must be committed to the principle of non-violence utterly and completely to the point of death.  The secret of the power of non-violence was revealed in the death of Christ.  There was then revealed a love which was capable of bearing every insult and torture and, finally, death, without the least resistance, and which thereby raised up a new power of life capable of transforming the world.  The secret of this power still remains within the Church; it is her secret, her hidden life.  It is in our power to learn this secret and to show forth this life upon which the Church and the world depend.

This article first appeared in June 1957 in The Commonweal, an American Catholic journal