An atheist that I will call “Samantha” made an argument that was borrowed from Christopher Hitchens. She basically argued that the command to “turn the other cheek” in the New Testament is itself evil because it would lead to uncontrolled evil. Freed from the fear of violent revolt, so the argument goes, domestic tyrannies would abuse their populations unchecked. Likewise, if Christians refuse to use violence against external aggressors, evil powers such as Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would run rampant and enslave the peoples of the world. Let us consider both aspects of this argument.
Christian Pacifism in the Face of External Aggression
As I have argued elsewhere, the command to turn the other cheek was meant as a restraint on personal behavior and not as a blanket endorsement of pacifism. This takes care of the aspect of the argument that concerns aggressive external powers like Hitler’s Germany or what Hitchens called “Islamo-Fascism”, but it doesn’t improve the situation with regard to domestic tyranny. With Christians renouncing personal violence and relying solely on the government to protect them from harm, the government has no check to prevent it from doing enormous harm itself. This seems like a real problem, but this fear does not take into account the effectiveness of non-violent forms of resistance against domestic tyranny.
The Effectiveness of Non-Violent Resistance
I have never advocated “passive” anything. We must never submit to unjust laws. Never. And our resistance must be active and provocative. (disputed quote attributed to Gandhi)
“Turning the other cheek” is a non-violent resistance, not a passive resistance. This kind of resistance has been extremely effective against domestic tyranny. Let us consider some examples from the history of nonviolent resistance:
- Lech Walesa and Poland
- Gandhi in India
- Boris Yeltsin in Russia
- Martin Luther King in the United States
- Nelson Mandela in South Africa
As we can see from these examples, non-violent resistance has an impressive record fighting domestic tyranny. The main reason for this can be understood if we consider a famous image from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In the image, a courageous young protester blocks a line of tanks by standing in front of it. How could a single human being stop hundreds of tons of metal designed to tear through concrete obstacles?
It seems obvious that the driver of the tank had a considerable reluctance to crush and kill a protester who was not threatening violence of any kind. The driver had a number of things in common with the protester and these commonalities made it extremely difficult to kill him in “cold blood”. They spoke the same language and were countrymen, they were approximately the same age, they had eaten the same food, they had watched the same movies and they may even have lived in the same province. How can you deliberately and brutally crush someone with whom you have so much in common when that person is not threatening you?
Notable Failures of Violent Resistance to Domestic Tyranny
The success of non-violent resistance against domestic tyranny can be contrasted with the failures of violent overthrow. Why does violent overthrow of the government lead to tremendous problems? Because the most violent and least scrupulous individuals are going to take power in the period of turmoil that inevitably follows the violent overthrow of any government. Consider the following examples of violent revolutions and the strongmen who took power in the aftermath:
- Saddam Hussein in Iraq
- Josef Stalin in Russia
- Maximilien de Robespierre in France
Now there is one example where violent overthrow of the government seems to have succeeded admirably, but I would argue that the United States paid a heavy price for the Revolution against King George III.
To understand why I think the United States would have been better off using non-violent means to seek independence, one has to understand that slavery and the Civil War had absolutely devastating long term effects on the nation. While I am not going to detail these effects here, one can easily understand the point if one considers the Civil War, the KKK and a hundred years worth of Jim Crow and racism.
Why is the devastating impact of slavery so important? Because it is widely believed by historians that the United Kingdom would have abolished slavery in 1791 if it had not been for the French Revolution. But the French Revolution was itself inspired by the American Revolution. Not only that, but financing the American Revolution bankrupted the French monarchy and made it susceptible to overthrow. So if the American Revolution had not occurred, it seems probable that the French Revolution would not have occurred and that American slaves would have been freed several generations earlier than they actually were. This would have avoided the most catastrophic war in U.S. history and the hundred years of racism that followed it.
What would have happened if the American colonists had pursued independence through non-violent resistance instead of rushing off after Thomas Paine and those who sought to foment violent revolution? It is impossible to know, but a successful non-violent revolution in the United States might have led to similar non-violent revolutions in France and Russia. Without the violent revolutions in France and Russia, world history would have been dramatically less violent over the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, human beings prefer the quick and easy solution and we use violence whenever it is convenient.
In keeping with his Marxist views, Christopher Hitchens seems to have believed that violent revolution is a panacea that provides boundless fruits of human progress. Because he believed this, he believed that Jesus Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” is an evil teaching used by tyrannical governments to hold on to power and enslave their populations. To an observer less convinced of the merits of Marxism and violence, however, there seems to be ample evidence that “turning the other cheek” is an extremely practical teaching that has long term positive effects.