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Non-violence or Non-hate?



This article has been at least partially inspired by comments that a Quaker attender from Australia has been making on our forum about our efforts on two occasions in the past to raise a radically new approach to crime and punishment. Because the punishment involved inflicting pain (rather than locking someone up for part of their life, or demanding payment of a fine, which hurts the poor far more than it hurts the rich), we have been condemned for having "perpetrated violence".

There really can be no denying the fact that, in those two incidents, we were responsible for violence being inflicted on people. However, because the full picture was that members of our community actually volunteered to take the punishment on behalf of the law-breaker, it seems only fair to recognise that what we were trying to illustrate in both cases (through substitutionary suffering) was a form of "punishment" mixed with mercy, that would have a far greater chance of bringing about the kind of inner change that is needed for meaningful rehabilitation. Our action, while involving violence, was, in fact, a powerful demonstration of love.

A strong reaction against what we did, on the basis that it involved violence, has been a powerful illustration of what I believe is a significant flaw in using non-violence (rather than non-hate) as a cornerstone for dividing between good and evil. And so I want to take a closer look both at what we did, and at what non-violence is all about.

If you look up the meaning of non-violence, you will see that it is generally understood to be a strategy for political change, which centers on political demonstrations rather than the use of armies/force. It certainly has been a radically different approach to politics, just as what we have done has been a radically different approach to law and punishment. Nevertheless, what I see as a Christian, is that non-violence, as such, is limited in terms of how far it can be promoted as an all-encompassing philosophy for everything that one does as a Christian.

As soon as we turn to non-violence as the criteria for determining the morality of everything that people do, we run into problems. Gandhi, who pioneered the use of this strategy in the political arena, found that there were times when he felt obliged to use corporal punishment as a way of communicating important truths to very young children. A slap on the hand, for instance, when a toddler gets too close to a very dangerous situation (e.g. a fire, or a busy road) along with a warning about what awaits them if they proceed further, could easily save lives, and, as such, is almost certainly being administered in love. This is a far cry from the physical abuse that exists in many homes. Yet, if you weigh up the two actions on the basis of how much love is being communicated (rather than whether or not violence took place) it is easy to see the difference.

We also have situations like surgeons inflicting pain and suffering onto patients in an attempt to deal with more serious problems (e.g. cancer). In every position of leadership, there are times when a decision has to be made that is going to hurt some in order to help others. That's just part of the reality of life. People who have had very little experience of life or of leadership may not be able to appreciate the limitations of the "don't hurt anyone" ideal.

And then we have the whole complex issue of law enforcement.

William Penn, an early leader of Quakers, who founded the state of Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment", also experimented with trials. Penn who encouraged the concept of trial by jury (rather than arbitrary decisions made by a single judge), in an attempt to arrive at more just ways of dealing with offenders. While Quakers pride themselves today on their pacifist ideologies, and while they have campaigned against capital punishment and for more humane treatment of prisoners, they have never really come up with a viable alternative to the prison system.

John Calvin, another early Christian theologian who preached strenuously about mercy and forgiveness, actually set up a utopian community in which offenders were occasionally executed. So he, too, fell short of applying his high ideals in the real world of law enforcement.

Now let's look at what we Jesus Christians tried on two occasions in 2006. First, there was the case of a robbery in Kenya. Several boxes of books had disappeared from our compound, and we reported the matter to the local police. They discovered the books in the hut of two of our workers, and Fran was called to witness the police "interrogation" of one of the suspects, who was given a severe beating, involving more than twenty lashes of the whip, and sent away from the local community. (He did not live there locally.) Fran was so distressed by what he saw that he asked the police to allow us to consider some alternative to their approach for the other offender.

We discussed it amongst ourselves, and then we discussed it with the District Officer ("chief of police") who was a professing Christian. We asked him if it would be possible for us to bring the offender to our compound, along with local witnesses and anyone he wished to bring with him, and to go over the details of the incident, prescribing some kind of a punishment if he was found guilty, but then offering for one of our members (Fran) to take the punishment in the place of the offender. The police chief found this most irregular, but said that, as a Christan, he would be happy to give it a try, and keen to see how it would work. Local police officers were also invited to the "trial".

As it worked out, the young man pleaded guilty, was prescribed five lashes with the same whip that the police used, and then he said that he did not want Fran to take the punishment for him (although he was quite moved by Fran's offer). He said he was prepared to take the punishment himself. He was then given five lashes, administered by a young Kenyan woman, who did not put much oomph into the strokes. As he was wearing long pants at the time, the pain was not much at all. Nevertheless, the whole incident had a positive effect on everyone involved locally.

The young man returned to work with us and we had no further trouble with him (even though he had been known to steal from people at many times in the past). He later left the compound, but he has continued to be a good friend.

So the question is this: Do we condemn what was done on the grounds that it used violence? Or do we use some other criteria by which to judge it?

The obvious answer to me is that we need to look at motives here, and not what happens in terms of a rubber whip touching someone on the thighs, through a pair of long pants. The word violence rarely appears in the Bible, although Jesus obviously taught his followers to "turn the other cheek" to those who used violence against them. In fact, Gandhi used this "violent" concept in his famous demonstration at the salt works in India, where hundreds of Indians volunteered to be beaten by the people defending the factory, until their beatings reached the point where they stirred the consciences of people all over the world.

And Gandhi amongst many others used a form of self-inflicted violence in going on hunger strikes in order to capture the attention of those in authority.

What I am saying here is that even Gandhi, the modern-day father of political non-violence, did not have a problem with allowing (and even encouraging) his followers to engineer a situation in which they knew violence would be meted out to themselves. They knew that the violence at the salt works would communicate something about the difference in their commitment to their cause and the factory's commitment to its cause. What Gandhi did was not a perfect parallel with what we did, but it did set a precedent for deliberately setting out to "absorb" violence as an expression of a deeper commitment.

We had a second trial later that same year, in which the offenders refused to even attend. This time, it was a family who had tried to kill one of our members, and who had almost succeeded when they were caught on camera and fled. In that trial, several of our members took the punishment, which included up to 25 lashes of the whip. These lashes were administered by a fairly heavy Mexican-American young man who had been instructed not to pull his punches out of sympathy for those of us who had volunteered to take the punishment. We wanted people to know that our commitment to loving the family (while hating the sin) was not superficial.

The proceedings, and in particular, the lashings from the whip, were covered by the media, who then took pictures of the punishment meted out and beamed them around the world as evidence that there is something sick and perverted in our community. Almost no effort was made to examine the bigger picture of why members of our own community were taking the punishment for someone else. Instead, the overall impression given to the public was that we are a community of religious fanatics who lash each other with whips as some kind of a sick religious ritual.

I myself was kicked out of the Australian Quakers for having allowed myself to be whipped. I tried unsuccessfully to get Australian Quakers to look at the matter from a perspective of non-hate rather than a perspective of non-violence, but by that time the hatred against myself had been whipped up sufficiently to cause Quakers to do something that has rarely ever been done in the very long history of Quakers in Australia, i.e. to disfellowship me because of a doctrinal issue, even though the organisation itself has always boasted that it has no creeds and that members are free to follow their own conscience in all matters of faith.

As a community, we knew at the time that we announced our intentions of holding a mock trial, with whippings as the presumed method of punishment, that we were opening a door to widespread opposition. We had hoped, however, that the fact that we were offering to take the punishment ourselves, would calm a few people down sufficiently to hear us out with regard to what we were trying to do. That trial has become the turning point in our history as a community, marking us as a "dangerous cult", and sparking a worldwide campaign involving a great many supposedly non-violent activists to have us destroyed.

That Quaker attender from Melbourne is just about the only one of those people who has had the courage to come to our website forum (welikejesus.com) to voice her opposition. We believe that it is the almost universal unwillingness of our opponents to come out in the open, using real names and posting their objections on our own forum, that has indicted them more than ourselves. This well-organised hate campaign against us now means that anyone who googles my name or the name of our community will come up with dozens of links to videos and hateful comments about the mock trial and similarly distorted reports on ourselves before they will ever receive the opportunity to link with what we actually did and what we actually teach.

We have to ask ourselves (and the rest of the world), "Why is it that these people are so obsessed with keeping people from hearing our side?" Isn't it because a full explanation of what happened in those two experimental trials would actually reveal a powerful illustration of exactly what Christianity is all about? Isn't it because we were offering the world a truly Christian, truly loving, fully forgiving alternative to the vengeance and retribution that typify so much penal legislation even in today's enlightened world?

Even the fact that we chose violence over incarceration and fines, as a form of punishment, was actually an expression of love. Penal experts agree that prisoners would almost all prefer a whipping to incarceration, so that they can get on with living their lives. But, of course, what they have also found (whether the punishment involves fines, imprisonment, or corporal punishement) is that NONE of them significantly alter the behaviour of the offenders. In fact, imprisonment more than any other punishment (and no matter how humane) tends to make the behaviour worse on release. Why? Because (a) they are forced to spend their lives surrounded by other offenders; and (b) they are made to feel so much condemnation and hatred from society as a whole as "convicted felons" that they cannot help but believe that society is being hypocritical in its black and white distinctions between themselves (the bad guys) and their judges (the good guys).

Our experiment, which we accept would probably never be put into effect on a large scale, did, at least in those two isolated instances, offer a radically different and powerfully promising alternative. Yes, it uses violence, but no, that violence is not an expression of hatred, but rather a very deep and moving expression of love, much like the lesson of Jesus Christ's death on the cross for our sins and the sins of the world. God could have just said, "Do whatever you like, and I will forgive you anyway." In fact, that is precisely what has been communicated by so much of the "cheap grace" that is being peddled in the church world these days, and it is why people do continue to sin with impunity. But instead, God chose to tell the world that he hates sin so much, and sin is so evil, that he would rather see his own son tortured and killed than to throw away all distinctions between good and evil. While he hates sin intensely, he loves the sinners so much that he would choose to take the punishment himself if it would change our hard hearts.

What a shame that in both instances (what Jesus did and what we did), the world seems to have lost the message of love, with a myopic interpretation of all violence as being evil instead.

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