James Howell: Talking nonviolence in church

Why are peace and safety pitted against one another like a zero-sum game?

Church conversations about peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness have gotten on my nerves for a long time. I can quote Jesus or point to Gandhi or King, and they sigh dismissively, thinking (and occasionally voicing) standard “realistic” replies, like “You wouldn’t let somebody murder your family would you?” or “We can’t let terrorists take over . . . ”. Blah blah blah.

Recently something entirely obvious occurred to me -- while I was preaching! -- and I’m curious what others might think about this as a way to get past such false dichotomies as these: either we love our enemies or we use good sense; either we are nonviolent or we protect ourselves and think safety.

Coventry Cathedral was bombed by the Luftwaffe in November 1940. As the Church was rebuilt, some of the ruins were left in place, and an altar amidst them now has inscribed above it the poignant words, “Father forgive.” Theologically profound -- but I am pretty sure that if we could interview Coventry folk back in 1940, they were not ready to surrender England to the Nazis; they were still rooting for Churchill in his bunker in London. While still prosecuting a regrettable war, they said, “We will forgive.”

At Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006, Charles Roberts entered a one-room Amish school house, held children hostage, and eventually killed six of them. As we know, those Amish delivered food to and raised money for the family of the shooter. I should imagine that in Pennsylvania we still have police, and the Amish would agree that we need to protect children should somebody again go crazy and seek to harm them. But those Christians in Nickel Mines said, “We will forgive.”

At Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. was interrupted mid-speech with the news his home had been firebombed -- with his wife and daughter in the house. King assuaged an angry crowd by saying, “Don’t do anything panicky. Don't get your weapons. If you have weapons take them home. Remember what Jesus said. We want to love our enemies.  We must meet hate with love.” King absolutely understood we need good laws in our land and they need to be enforced so that people's homes aren't bombed, and so that people aren't hated because of the color of their skin. But when that broke down in Montgomery, at least one Christian leader stood up and said “Let's remember what Jesus said.”

Recently I got to visit the Dietrich Bonhoeffer home in Berlin -- where he was arrested in 1944 by the Gestapo. He lived in jail and concentration camps until being executed just days before the Allies freed Germany. What is amazing is that the prison guards told how much they loved Bonhoeffer, how he listened to them, prayed for them, sang with them. Bonhoeffer loved his enemies. He knew Hitler had to be brought down; he played a small part in a plot to assassinate him -- which is why he was imprisoned by the Gestapo in the first place. But when he was in jail, he looked at his enemies and loved them.

Is this a helpful way to talk about nonviolence and forgiveness and help regular folks get past the Either/Or in their minds -- and lives?

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.