Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Brazos Press, 2015)

[1] There are few authors who can get away with quoting themselves in an epigraph. The prolific and popular evangelical leader Ron Sider, who does just that in Nonviolent Action, is perhaps one of them. Sider’s influence and rich experiences as a Witness for Peace volunteer and early proponent of organized, collective nonviolent activism lend to his text a personal tone that conveys passion and credibility. To this, Sider brings his skill of thought-provoking analysis to craft an interesting argument within an easily readable book.

[2] Sider’s basic claim is that the efficacy of nonviolent action, as demonstrated in examples from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century, places a demand on Christians to explore nonviolence as a reasonable and effective alternative to violence in socio-political conflict. He also argues that nonviolent actors must transition from idiosyncratic to systematic use of nonviolent action. “Now is the time,” he writes, “ to move from frequently spontaneous, ill-prepared nonviolent skirmishes to a serious and sustained global exploration of the full power of nonviolent alternatives” (167-8). The argument is articulated in the final two chapters of the book, comprising Part IV. The first ten chapters (Parts I-III) each provide an example of nonviolent action in practice, demonstrating its strengths and shortcomings.

[3] These earlier chapters will seem familiar to most readers. Sider’s descriptions don’t add much “new” to the stories. If the book fills a void in the literature, it is not in the uniqueness of Sider’s examples but rather their accessibility. While Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict (St. Martin’s, 2000) devotes more attention to a wider range of examples, Sider’s book is not as intimidating for the lay reader, dedicating no more than twenty pages to each instance of nonviolent action. Compare this to the thirty to fifty pages of each chapter in Ackerman and Duvall’s work, and one can easily see the advantage of Nonviolent Action for study groups.

[4] Part I treats the two familiar examples of the satyagraha movement in India and the Civil Rights Movement in the US, along with nonviolent action in Nicaragua and the Philippines. Sider’s analysis is generally well-balanced. As he writes of India, “It is not accurate to say that Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance decisively defeated the British and won immediate national independence” (25). However, he notes, the nonviolent campaign did “change the people of India in so fundamental a way that independence became inevitable” (25). How this happened is a bit unclear in Sider’s treatment. He seems to suggest that Indians no longer simply tolerated British rule, therefore, satyagraha made colonialism too costly for the empire. So, it was successful to some extent, even if not completely perfect.

[5] This balance continues throughout the following chapters, in which Sider notes the success each movement experienced, honestly describes the shortcomings, and reflects briefly on some of the outright failures. Most of the time, this is helpful in giving a realistic picture of nonviolent action’s potential. At other times, it is surprising that the shortcomings of nonviolent action do not seem to impact his thesis more significantly. For example, in his analysis of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Chapter 10, Sider notes that the CPT in Hebron did little to change the cycle of violence in the region. His conclusion is that there simply needs to be more CPT volunteers, that the problem was a lack of people. A similar conclusion seems operative in his analysis of the African American Civil Rights Movement as it moved to the North. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sider argues, was unsuccessful in his campaign in Chicago largely because “Chicago’s black community refused to unite around King’s efforts” (43). This, of course, misses King’s own assessment of the depth and complexity of racism in the American North and the obstacles this created to social change.

[6] Parts II and III of the book treat the following movements: Solidarity in Poland, the overthrow of East German Communism in the 1980s, women’s struggle against violence in Liberia, the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, and peacemaker teams in the developing world. The historical summary of each movement is clear, well-written, and as mentioned above, well-balanced. There are several themes that stand out in each of the parts. First, it is clear the important role the Church has played in these movements. From creating safe space for meetings in Poland to monitoring elections in the Philippines, Christian churches have been an integral part of most of the movements discussed by Sider. Labor unions, too, have been key in organizing participants and driving some of the key issues. (This, of course, raises the question of which entities will take their place as organized labor continues to encounter legislative restrictions.) Second, whether through traditional channels like television and print or newer outlets like Facebook and Twitter, the role of media cannot be overstated. Sider’s book could easily have been a treatise on the importance of visibility in nonviolent movements with a few subtle textual changes. Without the media, it is questionable whether any of his examples would have enjoyed the success they did.

[7] All of this serves as evidence for Sider’s prescriptive chapters in Part IV. This is where the author takes an unexpected turn. Thus far, the evidence Sider has offered – the success of nonviolent campaigns over a 90-year period – has been pragmatic. The individual chapters have each demonstrated the extent to which nonviolence has proven successful in a variety of contexts. In Chapter 11, though, Sider turns from the case he has made so far – nonviolence can be successful – to a deontological argument, namely that Christians ought to engage in nonviolence. He has moved from an argument about efficacy to an argument about duty that his evidence doesn’t fully support.

[8] In part, Sider makes this turn in order to bolster a secondary claim he makes in the book, namely that nonviolent action can meet the needs of both just-war Christians and pacifist Christians. On the just war side, Sider makes the common error of confusing the criteria of just war theory by claiming that “just-war Christians [must] implement their own rule that war must be a last resort” (158). As James Turner Johnson has pointed out, though, “last resort” is not one of the “deontological” criteria of just war theory. Rather, it is a prudential consideration – still important, but not binding in the same way as the deontological criteria of right authority, just cause, and right intention. What is particularly odd, given Sider’s first ten chapters, is that he does not focus instead on the other prudential criterion of “reasonable chance of success,” a criterion that would appear to be more fitting for the evidence he presents. As it stands, Sider’s argument is an interesting one, but it is disconnected in some ways from the evidence he provides.

[9] That said, the book still presents compelling examples of the potential nonviolent action holds for both conflict resolution and social change, and Sider’s descriptive chapters are easily accessible to a broad audience that may otherwise be reluctant to use a book like Ackerman and Duvall’s 560-page tome. The thesis is not presented as well as it could be, but that may be because Sider is trying to do too much with the evidence at his disposal. Thus, the weakness is neither in his argument (which, admittedly, is very brief) nor in his evidence, but in the tenuous ties that connect them. For lay readers in study groups, this may not be a hindrance, and the book may be of value in starting conversations. For academic readers, though, Sider’s text may not be as compelling as some of the other resources available in the field.

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.