Defining nonviolence

The Capture of Christ, an oil painting by Grégoire Guérard from around 1512
Let’s enter this topic by way of a story.

I’m sitting at my friend’s shop eating a snack when we hear a fight break out. I turn to see a young teenager being held back by a crowd. He is trying to get into trouble with an adult man who I can’t quite see. The boy is pulled back to our area, while the man remains behind the crowd some thirty feet away.

I go back to eating my subsi-poori when suddenly someone pushes through the crowd up to us, reaches over my lap to the shopkeeper’s stove, and snatches an industrial-sized steel ladle out of boiling oil.

It takes me 0.2 seconds to realize that he’s about to try to nail the kid with that thing. Judging that this would be bad, I spring up and pin his arms in the air over his head, knocking the ladle out of his hands in the process.

The man continues to berate the kid, but doesn’t work too hard to get out of my grasp. I’m able to let go when more men come to take him away.1

Was this an act of violence on my part or a nonviolent intervention?

Nonviolence is a controversial topic. When I speak of a consistent ethic of nonviolence, I find that everyone has a different idea of what that means. There is no universally accepted definition for “violence” or “nonviolence.”

Here I hope to lay out what these terms mean for me.

My desire to practice nonviolence is rooted in obedience to the ethic of Jesus. So how I practice nonviolence is dictated by how I believe Jesus would wish me to act. That means I must act with love and non-judgment of the person no matter who I am dealing with or what they are doing.

First, let’s talk about love

The simplest summary of Jesus’s ethical teachings is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”2 Jesus calls it one of the two greatest commandments and gives “love your neighbor” as part of the answer to questions on how to enter into eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven. James calls love for neighbor the “royal law according to the Scripture.” Paul calls it “the fulfilling of the law” and states that all commandments are summed up in this one. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is repeated seven times in the New Testament.

Of course, if you want to follow Jesus’s command to love your neighbor, the question becomes, “What is love?”3 As the answer to that question could go on a long time, for now I’ll just highlight three verses.

#1. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”4 If you are ever in doubt as to whether something is loving or not, this is a good test.

#2. “Love your enemies.”5 If you ever doubt who love should be extended to, this statement should clear that up.

#3. “No man has greater love than this, that he laid down his life for his friends.”6 The ultimate sign of love is self-sacrifice for others, for your enemies as well as your friends.7

So my first test of whether an action qualifies as nonviolent is, “Can I honestly say this is a loving thing I am doing? Have I put aside my desire for self-preservation, put aside my categories like ‘enemies’, and chosen to do what I would want done to me if I were in the same situation?”

Killing is out. No one in their right mind wants to be murdered, and no one can violently kill another and claim they did it out of love for that person. (If you have any doubt regarding a particular situation, just imagine that it is your daughter, and ask yourself whether you would pull the trigger and shoot her “because” you loved her or “despite” your love for her.) I would say that not only intentional killing but anything likely to potentially kill the person, anything that disregards their life, is similarly out.

Attempting to injure someone out of anger or vengeance or fear is out. In fact, any action taken out of anger or vengeance or fear is misguided, as those are all contrary to love.

Is using force out? I don’t believe so. If your child was about to run into traffic, would you be willing to tackle them to stop them from being killed, even if the tackle hurt? Could that be out of love? If your friend was going to jump off a cliff, would it be loving to wrestle him back, and would you want someone to pull you back in such a situation? I think you would.

Love can call for the use of force. But that does not justify every use of force. It only justifies those uses of force which are done in honest, agape love for another person, the kind of love which you would like to be used towards you in a similar situation, a love free from anger, judgment, or vengeance. That love will never involve killing, will only in the most extreme circumstances involve injury of any kind. In fact, more often than not a loving action is better off without force as well – only in rare circumstances does force become necessary.

So the first test of nonviolence is the love test. If the action is not loving, then it is not the ideal nonviolence we are commanded towards by Christ.

The second test is non-judgment

Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”8

James states, “There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?”9

Paul preaches that even as well as we know ourselves, it is not our right to “pronounce judgment before the time,” for judgment is God’s prerogative to be pronounced in His time.10

And in the context of loving your neighbor, James states, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”11

“Judge” isn’t easy to define either. As I argued in the essay on the death penalty, we can assume that “do not judge” at the least precludes us from judging another as worthy of death.

A study of the ethic of Jesus suggests that “do not judge” also means that we cannot judge one person as worth more than another.12 In the Christian worldview, there are not “good guys” and “bad guys”, only a heap of sinners together seeking a redemption we know we do not deserve. If our actions result from us picking who the “bad guy” is as opposed to the “good guy” and then judging that bad guy as worthy of violence and death, I believe that our actions have stepped outside of Jesus’s ethic.

Finally, “do not judge” means that we are not the ones to pick what vengeance someone deserves.13 That is God’s to decide, vengeance is in God’s hands. If we justify our actions by saying that they “deserved” it, then we are stepping into unjustified violence.

However, it is clear in the New Testament that we can still judge individual acts as wrong. Thus an appropriate nonviolent intervention moves away from “how do I stop this evil person?” and instead asks “how do I stop this evil act?” When we see something bad happening, when we see someone in danger, it is right and holy to try to do something to stop it, to save potential victims from danger. But our intention must always be to stop the act, not to hurt or judge a particular person, and the action we take to stop that act must be loving to all involved.


So let’s go back to the angry guy with the red-hot ladle.

Was it loving to use physical force to stop him? I believe it was loving to that boy, who avoids being hurt. I believe it was also loving to the man, who is prevented from hurting the boy, something he would later regret. As long as I wasn’t trying to hurt the man or acting out of anger, then a careful but forceful action to prevent further violence can indeed be the most loving thing for all involved.

Was it non-judgmental? I believe it was. I don’t know who started the fight or who was at fault. I stopped the man not because he was bad, but because he was the one that happened to be swinging the ladle at the moment. I stopped the action, the attack with the ladle, rather than focusing my response on the man’s personhood.

For me, those are the keys to nonviolent intervention. Love and non-judgment.

At this point someone might object and say, “But is that really nonviolence?” And honestly, the colloquial use of “nonviolence” is so varied that I don’t care what this ethic called in the end. I am doing my best to be obedient to the ethic of Jesus, and getting the ethic right is far more important than getting the name right. If someone wants to come up for a different name, I will happily oblige.

Do you have another definition for nonviolence, or any helpful adjustments to mine?


[1] Playing the incident back in my head 1200 times, as is my custom, I’ve wondered whether the man may well have wanted me to stop him in such a manner. Rushing up to the precipice of a violent act only to be “stopped” by the crowd seems to be a common pastime in our neighborhood. Perhaps they just want to prove that they really would have done it if you hadn’t managed to stop them. Not that I can really act on that assumption, as it may well result in me watching another boy get knocked unconscious.

[2] Mark 12:31; see also Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8

[3] “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more”

[4] Luke 6:31; see also Matthew 7:12

[5] Matthew 5:44; also Luke 6:27

[6] John 15:12-13 and others

[7] Romans 5:8-10

[8] Matthew 7:1-5/Luke 6:37-42; see also James 5:9

[9] James 4:11-12; see also Romans 2:1-11, 14:10-19

[10] 1 Corinthians 4:4-5

[11] James 2:13

[12] A study of this point would be extensive, but should probably start with Philippians 2:3, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and then continue on through Romans chapters 1-3 and the understanding that we are faulty through sin and cannot judge others as worse than ourselves, and then look at Jesus’s frequent uplifting of the marginalized, diseased, “sinners”, and such, rooted in the fundamental understanding of all persons as having been created in God’s image and retaining their standing as children of God.

[13] Romans 12:14-21, with Isaiah 55:6-9 in mind

3 thoughts on “Defining nonviolence

  1. ostomacadel

    I think this is an excellent way to understand non violence in personal and practical terms. I totally agree that careful (loving and non-judgemental) use of force can be appropriate as a non-violent response.
    It has led me on to two lines of thought and questions …
    1. What about wider societal and political issues – might any form of force be useful and non-violent? Eg trade embargo. It seems that the power imbalance within the society would likely mean that the people who suffer most are the civilians, the poor, etc.
    2. What about those of us who aren’t so physically well-suited to using force? What are other tools and tricks for non-violent responses? I really like the idea of creative distraction tactics, doing something unexpected, that catches the person off guard, and changes the tone of what’s going on.


  2. I aim to please. Did you catch the one I didn’t footnote?

    My mind works as such that if I hear any phrase that has been part of any song, the ensuring lines of the song immediately appear. I temporarily considered infusing the entire post with such but then forgot.


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