A month ago I reviewed a book by a humanitarian-turned-Navy-SEAL. I included a poignant part of his conclusion:
The world, I believe, is not constructed so that it presents us with perfect choices. I’d joined the military, in part, because I saw that to protect the innocent, we have to be willing to fight.
I can’t say that after reading and reflecting on the book I’m anywhere closer to leaving the humanitarian world to join the military in order to defend the oppressed, but as I wrote, I really appreciate and respect the intellectual process he articulated as well as the discipline he demonstrated as he sought to use force to protect the vulnerable.
Here, now, is a review of a book strikingly different yet strangely similar. It’s different in the sense that the author espouses nonviolence, rather than military intervention. It’s similar in that both authors are nuanced and take into consideration the complexity of the real world in which we make our difficult, at times agonizing, decisions about right and wrong and good and evil.
This second book is Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink. He’s a fairly well known mainline Christian professor, author and speaker who coined the phrase ”the myth of redemptive violence,” which has been expanded upon in books by influential Christian pacifists like Shane Claiborne, Greg Boyd and others. On the pro-war/anti-war continuum, Wink leans strongly anti. But he’s not a pacifist. The way of Jesus, according to Wink, simply doesn’t fit neatly into our natural, polarizing categories. He writes:
There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: flight or fight.
“Militant nonviolence” is an interesting — and rather provocative — choice of words. What he articulates in the book might be better understood as “creative” or “active” nonviolence. All too often, he writes, Christians claim to favor nonviolence but what they really mean is that they favor an absence of conflict. Withdrawing from conflict or claiming neutrality in cases of oppression or abuse, however, doesn’t serve the oppressed and abused. It enables the perpetrator to further oppress and do injury. At the same time,
Violence simply is not radical enough, since it generally changes only the rulers but not the rules. What use is a revolution that fails to address the fundamental problem: the existence of domination in all its forms, and the myth of redemptive violence that perpetuates it?
Wink doesn’t rule out violence altogether, though. Instead, he writes,
[E]ven if I am committed to nonviolence, I may find myself in a situation where I am not able to find a creative, third way, and must choose between the lesser of two violences, two guilts. Even then, however, it is not a question of justifying the violence. I simply must, as Bonhoeffer did, take on myself the guilt and cast myself on the mercy of God. But in a situation of extreme oppression, it is far better that we act violently than let our fear of sin and guilt paralyze us into no act at all. I cannot even be sure that my nonviolent acts are just, or right, or willed by God.
It’s this humility and honesty that I love most about Wink’s book, and though the Navy SEAL I referenced earlier wasn’t necessarily writing as a Christian, he demonstrated these often-rare traits as well. I really like Wink’s conclusion, and I think he’s right that the Third Way is the better way:
Many people have not aspired to Jesus’ Third Way because it has been presented to them as absolute pacifism, a life-commitment to nonviolence in principle, with no exceptions. They are neither sure that they can hold fast to its principles in every situation nor sure that they have the saintliness to overcome their own inner violence. Perhaps a more traditional Christian approach would make more sense. We know that nonviolence is the New Testament pattern. We can commit ourselves to following Jesus’ way as best we can. We know we are weak and will probably fail. But we also know that God loves and forgives us and sets us back on our feet after every failure and defeat.