Understanding Non-Violence: Merton, Bonhoeffer, King, and Scriptural Discernment

I came across a shocking statistic the other day. It was part of an article published at the beginning of the year in ‘Psychology Today’ and was written by the US psychologist Ana Nogales. And the statistic is this: When a child becomes a legal adult, they will have seen 16,000 assassinations and 200,000 acts of violence on television’.

This statistic referred to the situation as it pertains in the USA. I could not find any equivalent figures for the UK, but I suspect it would not be all that different. As a society, we share that sense of desensitisation to violence with our brothers and sisters across the world; violence is all around us, whether it be in the virtual world of the computer game, or in the real world as it presents itself to us in our daily experiences.

The Calamity of War

Nowhere is our inner capacity for peace more obviously shattered when we look outwards and see the manifestations of war on our TV screens, or in our newsfeeds. Most of us though, if we stop for a moment and think about it, might slowly recognise an eerie sense of detachment from the consequences of that form of overt violence. Take modern warfare as an example: it is often depicted as a ‘hands off’ affair, where bombs and missiles can be directed precisely to their targets from a safe distance, avoiding what is often called ‘collateral damage’. But is that really the case? Unmanned drones circle overhead, instilling indiscriminate fear and uncertainty in civilians as well as terrorists; children as well as combatants.

War is diverse and violence manifests itself in many different ways. Today, there are brutal conflicts going on in 100’s of regions across our planet: war in Afganistan, the civil war in South Sudan, the war in Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Syrian civil war. These are just a snapshot of the reality that calls out to us in desperation.

In Northern Ireland, we all know from personal experience of living in a country that would have made that list not all that long ago, that violence leads to devastation and heartache.  There is still violence, albeit on a scale that rarely features prominently in the international media. We live with it, and its legacy. Sadly, research has indicated that the traumatic effects of violence can be transmitted from generation to generation (through epigenetics), and the social and psychological effects are well known. Violence is pervasive. This is not news to anyone who lives here in Northern Ireland.

The Wider Picture

Thomas Merton, the monk, poet and author, expanded the concept of violence, because it so much broader than we commonly acknowledge. We have a tendency to think of violence in the narrow sense of war, crime or some form of abuse; and that is of course a major part of the picture.  But what Merton was saying, by underscoring the more subtle forms of violence, was very insightful and is still strikingly relevant. Consider his observation:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” 

The roots of violence run deep and emerge in the most unexpected of places.

 What Does the Bible Say?

The question arises for those of us of faith: what does the Bible say about violence? Well, this is a hugely complex subject and would take many sermons to address, and even then, I could not tackle all the various nuances and intricacies that present themselves. But I will say this: being a Christian is not easy, and the topic of violence and non-violence is perhaps the most difficult ethical dilemma we face.  It is for each of us to open our hearts to these issues and to come to our own conclusion in the light of scripture and prayerful reflection.


Let us start with this broad-brush statement: according to the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words, violence portrays ‘willful and sinful acts of aggression by people against people’. It goes on to say that, in the New Testament, the word “violent” represents ‘a disposition to inflict harm to gain one’s way’. Across the biblical narrative, the overarching motif/’take-home message’ is one of judgement for violence on one hand, and vindication for those who are peaceable on the other.

From our Old Testament reading today, the prophet Isaiah is depicted as looking to the future, whilst acknowledging the present moment, where violence was a manifestation of fallen humanity and a lack of vision. He writes of God:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

The importance of this verse cannot be overstated: in faithfully accepting and following God, righteousness reigns and violence will be no more; peace will be the norm. When we walk in the light, the darkness of violence and strife is overcome – it becomes irrelevant; the pathway that unfolds before us leads to a destination characterised by love and contentment, the very heart of God himself.

Paul’s letter to the Roman Church develops that Old Testament theme further: In Chapter 12, Verse 17 he writes: “Do not repay evil for evil”, not as a general guideline, but as a natural outworking of discipleship; Christians, in that sense, should be above the fray, able to step back and to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the will of our nature. Vengeance is simply not in our gift.

The apostle Paul urged Christians to “live at peace with everyone”, but he also added two caveats: 1) if it is possible to do so, (acknowledging that even when we desperately want to live in peace and harmony, sometimes violence is thrust upon us), and 2) we should always earnestly accept the responsibility for resolving conflict, and never instigate it.

Life as a Witness to Christ

Some would argue that Paul went too far with his caveats, failing to reflect fully Christ’s refusal to meet violence with violence. There are many examples in Christendom of those who have followed Jesus down that route on non-violence and have paid for it with their lives.

Take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as an example: he preached, and lived, non-violent resistance and was killed in the most violent of ways. King’s ethic was built upon a solid foundation that stretched back to the Nazarene and his earthly ministry; he acknowledged that violence was futile and counterproductive. Non-violence was the alpha and omega of how he lived his life. In King’s own poetic and stirring words:

‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that’.

The light and love exemplified by Christ are too powerful to permit darkness and hate to hold sway; violence ultimately achieves not its stated end, but perverts the truth and fans the flames of hate and depersonalisation.

As another example, I often bring into my sermons the theologian, and Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Nazi Germany he had long been labelled as a ‘pacifist and an enemy of the state’. He was arrested for trying to save the lives of a number of Jews, and for his dissident activities. Bonhoeffer wrote this of his stance:

“It is the great mistake of a false Protestant ethic to assume that loving Christ can be the same as loving one’s native country, or friendship or profession, that the better righteousness and justitia civilis are the same. Jesus does not talk that way. What is Christian depends on the ‘extraordinary’. That is why Christians cannot conform to the world, because their concern is the perisson. What does the perisson, the extraordinary, consist of? It is the existence of those blessed in the Beatitudes, the life of the disciples. It is the shining light, the city on the hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves … It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience. It is the cross. What is unique in Christianity is the cross, which allows Christians to step beyond the world in order to receive victory over the world. The passio in the love of the crucified one – that is the ‘extraordinary’ mark of Christian existence.”

Bonhoeffer’s outlook was not borne of pragmatism; it was borne of principle and a clear understanding of Christology as exemplified in the Beatitudes. But it was not unwavering: the evil of the Nazi regime was horrific. Christians of all persuasions earnestly sought to tackle Nazism, but differed in their interpretation of scripture and how best to confront the barbarity that confronted them.

Each one of us will respond differently to those questions. If we have all the answers, then perhaps we need to think again? Tough questions rarely have straightforward answers, and that is part-and-parcel of a vibrant Christian faith, a faith that challenges our preconceptions and calls us again and again to revisit scripture and our preconceived ideas.

And so let us leave this sacred space with a simple prayer in our hearts: that we can, with God’s help, recognise the violence in our own lives, and commit to a journey of peace; a journey that never instigates violence, but instead constantly seeks to resolve conflict, however that may express itself.

May we never forget, again in the words of Thomas Merton, that: “violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” Christianity is disturbing, because it asks the questions we most want to avoid; it leads us away from the secular consensus and is expressed in ways the world considers foolish.


2 responses to “Understanding Non-Violence: Merton, Bonhoeffer, King, and Scriptural Discernment”

  1. A thorough and thoughtful analysis of perhaps the greatest threat to humanity that now exists. Thanks for this.


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