What Is Nonresistance?
The term ‘nonresistance’ comes from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Luke’s account elaborates, saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.”
Nonresistance goes beyond the establishment of peace through the absence of conflict. It is more than simply a nonviolent response when confronted with hostility. Nonresistance, while refusing to return evil for evil, refusing to ‘fight fire with fire,’ proactively seeks to overcome evil by doing good to all people and in every situation. Following Jesus’ admonitions and example, it always actively works toward forgiveness, reconciliation, love, and mercy and always shuns participation in and preparation for all violence, all wars, all hate, and all abuse – even in the face of such violence, war, hate, and abuse. It is by no means passive, and to do anything less is to fall short of the life that Jesus has called us to.
There is some disagreement regarding the extent to which protest and civil disobedience can be employed within nonresistance. However, it is clear that Jesus and the apostles were not shy about opposing, both in word and in deed, the unrighteousness of their day.
Rev. Martin Luther King offered the following thoughts on the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance, which are excerpted from his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Circle.
1) Nonviolence is resistance to evil and oppression. It is a human (and humane) way
2) Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his/her friendship and understanding.
3) The nonviolent method is an attack on the forces of evil rather than against persons doing the evil. It seeks to defeat the evil and not the persons doing the evil and injustice.
4) Nonviolence means willingness to accept suffering without retaliation.
5) The nonviolent resister avoids both external physical and internal spiritual violence - not only refusing to shoot or strike, but also to hate, an opponent. The ethic of real love is at the center of nonviolence. (Dr. King went to some length to describe this love, which he noted is not reciprocal in nature, meaning that this is not the love given to someone who returns love to you. He identified the love most accurately with the Greek word agape, meaning an understanding, redeeming good will towards all people, a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor and all fellow beings, making no distinction between friend and enemy.)
6) The nonviolent resister has a deep faith in the future, and believes that the forces in the universe are ultimately on the side of justice. To quote Dr. King, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Perhaps the best description of the principle of nonresistance comes from Christian Nonresistance In All Its Important Bearings by Adin Ballou:
What is the principle from which nonresistance proceeds? It is a principle from the inmost bosom of God. It proceeds from ALL PERFECT LOVE, that absolute, independent, unerringly wise, holy love, which distinguishes the Divine from all inferior natures, and which, transfused into the natural sentiment of human benevolence, superinduces the highest order of goodness. Of this it is said, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Or as the amiable John expressed it, “He that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.” This love is not mere natural affection, nor sentimental passion, but a pure, enlightened, conscientious principle. It is a divine spring of action, which intuitively and spontaneously dictates the doing of good to others, whether they do good or evil. It operates independently of external influences, and being in its nature absolutely unselfish, is not affected by the merit or demerit of its objects. It does not inquire, “Am I loved? Have I been benefited? Have my merits been appreciated? Shall I be blessed in return? Or, am I hated, injured, cursed and condemned?” Whether others love or hate, bless or curse, benefit or injure, it says, “I will do right; I will love still; I will bless; I will never injure even the most injurious; I will overcome evil with good.” Therefore its goodness is not measured by or adjusted to the goodness of others, but ever finds in itself a sufficient reason for doing good and nothing but good to all moral agents. Jesus, in whom flowed the full current of this divine love, the sublime efflux of the heavenly nature, laying hold of the great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” drew it forth from the ark of the Mosaic Testament, all mildewed and dusky with human misapprehension, and struck from it the celestial fire. The true principle was in it, but men could not clearly perceive it, much less appreciate its excellence. He showed that the “neighbor” intended was any human being, a stranger, an enemy, a bitter foe – anyone needing relief, or in danger of suffering through our selfishness, anger or contempt – the greatest criminal, the worst wretch of our race. Hence, knowing that the entire wisdom of this world had justified injury to injurers, hatred to enemies, and destruction to destroyers, he reversed the ancient maxims, abrogated the law of retaliation, and proclaimed the duty of unlimited forbearance, mercy, and kindness. Imperfect religion, worldly minded philosophy, and vindictive selfishness had concurrently declared, “There is a point beyond which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.” He swept away this heartless delusion with a divine breath, and sublimely taught obedient and everlasting adherence to the law of love, as well toward offenders, injurers, and enemies, as toward benefactors, lovers, and friends. “I say unto you, take not life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. Smite not the smiter to save thine own cheek. Give to him that asketh, and turn not the borrower away. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father in Heaven. For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love, and salute, and do good to them that love you, what are ye better than the publicans?” Be like your Father in Heaven. Such is the true light radiated from the bosom of the Infinite Father, and reflected on this benighted world from the face of Jesus Christ. What are the puerile sentimentalisms of effeminate poets, or the gossamer elaborations of the world’s philosophers, or the incantations of solemn but vindictive religionists, compared with the divine excellence of truth, as it is distilled in the language of the Messiah?
All-perfect, independent, self-sustaining, unswerving love – DIVINE LOVE – is the principle from which Christian non-resistance proceeds. What is the sub-principle that constitutes its immediate moral basis? The essential efficacy of good, as the counteracting force with which to resist evil. The wisdom of this world has relied on the efficacy of injury, terror, and EVIL to resist evil. It has trusted in this during all past time. It has educated the human race to believe that their welfare and security depended mainly on their power to inflict injury on offenders. Hence it has been their constant endeavor to possess a sufficiency of injurious means to overawe their enemies, and terrify their encroaching fellow men. Their language has been, “Keep your distance; touch not my property; insult not my honor; infringe not my rights, assail not my person; be just and respectful; yield to my convenience, and be my friend; or I will let slip the dogs of war; you shall feel the weight of my vengeance; I will inflict unendurable injuries on you: death itself, torture, imprisonment in a loathsome dungeon, pains and penalties shall be your portion. I will do you incomparably greater evil, than you can do me. Therefore be afraid, and let me alone.” And so perfectly befooled are the children of this world, with faith in injury as their chief ultimate security, that scarcely one in a thousand will at first thought allow the non-resistance doctrine to be anything better than a proclamation of cowardice on one side, and of universal anarchy, lawlessness and violence on the other. As if all mankind were so entirely controlled by the dread of deadly, or, at least tremendous personal injury, that if this were relinquished a man’s throat would be instantly cut, his family assassinated, or some horrible mischief inflicted. Very few know how entirely they trust for defense and security in this grim and bloody god of human injury. They have enshrined him in the sword, the gibbet, and the dungeon. They worship him in armies, navies, militia organizations, battle-ships, forts, arsenals, penal statutes, judicial inflictions, pistols, daggers, and bowie knives. And if we propose to lay all these evils aside, and go for nothing but un-injurious beneficent treatment of mankind, never transcending, even with the most outrageous, the limits of firm but friendly personal restraint, lo, they cry out with alarm, “These have come hither that turn the world upside down!” “Torment us not before the time!” “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” “Great is the sword, the halter, the salutary power to kill or injure sinners at discretion! What would become of human society if war, capital, and other injurious punishments should be abolished!” On this altar they have sacrificed human beings enough to people twenty such planets as the earth, with no other success than to confirm and systematize violence throughout the whole habitable globe. And yet INJURY is their god, and at his gory altar of revenge and cruelty they are resolved forever to worship, amid the clangor of deadly weapons, and the groans of a bleeding world.
But the Son of the Highest, the great self-sacrificing Non-Resistant, is our prophet, priest, and king. Though the maddened inhabitants of the earth have so long turned a deaf ear to his voice, he shall yet be heard. He declares that good is the only antagonist of evil that can conquer the deadly foe. Therefore he enjoins on his disciples the duty of resisting evil only with good. This is the sub-principle of Christian non-resistance. “Evil can be overcome only with good.” Faith, then, in the inherent superiority of good over evil, truth over error, right over wrong, love over hatred, is the immediate moral basis of our doctrine. Accordingly, we transfer all the faith we have been taught to cherish in injury to beneficence, kindness, and un-injurious treatment, as the only all-sufficient enginery of war against evil-doers. No longer seeking or expecting to put down evil with evil, we lift up the cross for an ensign, and surmounting it with the glorious banner of love, exult in the divine motto displayed on its immaculate folds, “RESIST NOT INJURY WITH INJURY.” Let this in all future time be the specific rule of our conduct, the magnetic needle of our pathway across the troubled waters of human reform, until all men, all governments and all social institutions shall have been molded into moral harmony with the grand comprehensive commandment of the living God – “THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF.” Then shall Love (God by his most sublime name) “be all in all.”