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Reviewed by:
  • Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried by Ronald J. Sider
  • Leon Kehl
Ronald J. Sider. Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. Grand Rapids, mi: Brazos, 2015. Pp. 208. Paper us$21.00. isbn 978-1-5874-3366-5.

Ronald Sider’s book provides a page-turning whirlwind tour of nonviolent actions to resolve war and conflict, from biblical times to the modern day. Although a pacifist, Sider has written a book that invites both fellow pacifists and the majority of Christians who subscribe to a just war doctrine to consider how nonviolent action can often yield dramatic results with far less loss of life than violent revolution and war.

Sider tells familiar stories, such as those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, but provides some keen insights and personal accounts to bring a fresh eye to these and other events. Some of the stories are less well known, or at least the nonviolent aspect is not widely discussed. For example, Sider briefly tells the story of how in Denmark, Finland, and Bulgaria widespread civil disobedience against the Nazi regime saved almost all of the Jews in those countries.

The book is divided into four sections, the first providing a history of nonviolent resistance, beginning with the Jews in 26 ce. They were able to force Pontius Pilate to remove military standards from Jerusalem through civil disobedience, by saying they would rather be killed than transgress their religious laws. This section then moves rapidly through a number of other examples, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and revolutions in Central America and the Philippines. While they are familiar to most readers, Sider manages to personalize the events and highlight nonviolent activities that are often overlooked by mainstream media. In this section we also read of Sider’s own willingness to risk his life accompanying the Witness for Peace organization in Nicaragua in areas under attack by American-funded Contras.

The second section deals with the defeat of the Soviet Empire where, again, Sider highlights how aspects of nonviolent revolution within the empire ultimately caused its collapse. Often this history gets simplified—for instance, when claims are made that the West won the Cold War by outspending and outcompeting the Soviet Union—but, as Sider highlights, the history is more complex than that. People in Eastern Europe often had to overcome brutal and ruthless dictators and they did so without resorting to violence. [End Page 160]

The third section of the book focuses on recent examples of nonviolent resistance, including the amazing story of Liberia, where women, including Nobel Peace Prize–winner Leymah Gbowee, managed to bring an end to lawless violence and a dictatorship through faith and dogged nonviolent persistence.

Sider ends the book with a compelling challenge, that we should investigate the possibilities of nonviolent action with the same dedication, training, and resources that we devote to war.

As a pacifist, I found Sider’s book inspiring but also challenging. Sider can be equally critical of comfortable pacifists who claim conscientious objector status but then benefit from the sacrifices of others. He quotes Gandhi early in his book, who says, “Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice.” This book’s focus isn’t on attacking the position of comfortable pacifists or just war theorists; rather, Sider wants to focus on real-world examples where nonviolent action works to draw both groups into dialogue.

This appeal to both Christian positions is the real strength of Sider’s book. I am curious how others who are not pacifists might respond to Sider’s book and was surprised how universal the respect for this book was in other reviews, regardless readers’ background. In particular, I was struck by a Canadian Army chaplain’s strong endorsement, even though he disagreed with Sider’s pacifist position. This chaplain also highlighted one of the gaps in this book, mentioned by others, namely the subtitle: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. Sider really never attempts in a systemic way to define these untried Christian ethics, perhaps because he has...


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pp. 160-161
Launched on MUSE
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