During apartheid in South Africa the authorities tried many times to demolish a certain small shanty town. One morning when most of the men had left, the army arrived with bulldozers and told the inhabitants they had 5 minutes to leave before the town was flattened. The women however, sensing that the army were mainly youths, did something unexpected. They formed a line before the bulldozers, removed their clothes and refused to move. The fledgling army boys fled in terror!
After the First World War in the southern United States the Klu Klux Klan re-emerged. In a climate of fear and suspicion it was easy for them to terrorise, lynch and burn former black slaves. In the end the KKK was defeated, but not by weapons or even arguments. They were defeated by ridicule. Their organisation was infiltrated and over several years their structures and plans, their secret signs and code-words were documented. Simultaneously a radio journalist began broadcasting the KKK's activities to millions of American adults. Even the producers of Superman got involved depicting the KKK as a new enemy, and broadcasting KKK code-words to millions of children. Most Americans found this hilarious. The KKK’s attendance fell as they became a national joke.
What do stories like this have in common?
Society tells us there are two responses to violence: Fight or Flight. But there is a third way. Jesus introduced it in his often misunderstood dialogue on turning the other cheek, giving your assailant your coat as well as your shirt, and walking two miles when a Roman soldier ordered you to walk one. It's called militant nonviolence.
These examples are not Jesus saying 'be a doormat, let people to abuse you'. As theologian Walter Wink explains, a Roman soldier could ask a native citizen to carry his pack 1 mile. But it was a significant misdemeanor to make a citizen carry it further. A Roman solider could get into disciplinary bother (as well as being made to look slightly ridiculous) if his superior officer discovered he had compelled a civilian to carry his pack more than a mile.
So Jesus says 'insist on carrying it 2 miles – make trouble!' This is militant nonviolence and the people of his day understood these examples. He taught that our response to evil in this world does not have to be fight or flight. There is a third way. Militant nonviolence:
- Is subversive, yet it takes the moral high ground
- Forces one’s opponent into a situation for which they are unprepared
- Finds the creative alternative to violence – often using ridicule or humour
Yes, but we want to bomb Syria don’t we?
After an incident such as Paris - yes we do. I do. A part of me wants to see 'somebody pay'. If somebody somewhere gets bombed we will feel better, right? But this is an emotive response. We must be clear that bombing Syria (and the French, Russians and Americans have already bombed it) doesn’t solve the problem and plays into the very plans of ISIS. We will inevitably kill innocent Muslims and we will become increasingly suspicious of Muslim refugees and communities in our midst. It then becomes easy (and even truthful) for ISIS to portray coalition bombing as a holy war against all Muslims. And it doesn’t even hurt ISIS - we already know they are happy to die for their cause and there are more to take their place.
This is a war of intelligence. ISIS play it well. Vive la propagande!
What could militant nonviolence look like with ISIS?
Firstly, yes we should pursue individuals suspected of terrorist acts where we can. But after that this is a sophisticated war of minds, and minds are changed by making then deeply uncomfortable. Some suggestions:
- Match and surpass their propaganda war – ISIS videos are well made, widely available and compelling. We need to portray the reality of ISIS. Websites, messaging apps and social media are at the heart of ISIS. Damage can be inflicted here. My former company had a product to stress-test websites – and it sometimes involved knocking them out - 'denial of service'. If TalkTalk and Ashley Madison can be hacked…?
- It is said that ISIS have revenues of $2m per day from oil – can’t we disrupt that?
- Positively welcome refugees – most are Muslims, their desire to live in the West is embarrassing to ISIS. Encourage Muslim neighbours and colleagues to socialise with non Muslims – the opposite to segregation. Demonstrations of unity undermine ISIS.
- And let’s stop calling them Islamic State, which offends most Muslims, and call them something more appropriate.
We started with an imaginary letter from ISIS. But there is a real letter. An appallingly beautiful letter, and a compelling example of militant nonviolence. It’s from victim Antoine Leiris and it's titled 'I will not give you the gift of hating you'.
In a world that sees limited possibilities, Christians are called to think differently.