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Taking the Gandhi approach

29 April 2016

Michael Bourdeaux on the achievements of non-violent action


Nonviolent Action: What Christian ethics demands but most Christians have never really tried

Ronald J. Sider

Brazos Press £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70



RONALD J. SIDER has a long-standing reputation in the United States as an advocate of the power of concerted Christian action, having previously written on world poverty. Now he sets out to chart the effectiveness of pacifism, and writes of the successes of non-violent activism in recent world history. In this country, his work is less well-known, and it is good to have this opportunity to evaluate it.

His survey is, in parts, convincing. It is excellent to have on hand a succinct summary of Gandhi’s campaign to defeat the British Empire in India and Martin Luther King’s struggle against racism in the US. The juxtaposition is powerful. His account of the defeat of communist dictatorship in 1989-91 is less convincing. What Sider calls the “Revolution of the Candles” in East Germany is well told (why, though, not name the late Kurt Masur as the “famous orchestra conductor” who used music to oppose the regime?).

On Poland he sounds less sure, and he credits an assistant for doing the basic research. He cites Pope John Paul II as the moving force, but what about Fr (now Saint) Jerzy Popieluszko as the irrepressible preacher of freedom, who was murdered by the communists?

On the Soviet Union he is plainly inadequate. Three pages cannot even begin to set out the complexities of Mikhail Gorbachev’s period in office. Though not a believer, Gorbachev reinstated dissidents (including Christian leaders). In a recent talk at Harvard, the British scholar Robert Service surmised that, overall, the dissident voice became so powerful that it subtly eroded the self-confidence of the Kremlin.

The Baltic republics receive less than a page, but a separate chapter on the astonishing bravery and determination of the Lithuanian Catholics in their passive resistance to Soviet terror would have added immeasurably to the power of Sider’s argument. Lithuania had not been “under Soviet control since the 1930s” — Nazi Germany overran it in 1941 and extended the terror in a different form. The Christian leader and first President of free Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, is every bit the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King, and what a shame it is that he is not even mentioned.

From the overthrow of communism, Sider moves on to the power of a women’s movement to overcome a Liberian dictator and then to the Arab Spring. The timing here is unfortunate, through no fault of the author. He recounts all the hopes of the recent past and underlines the power of the original peaceful protests. The book was researched before the appalling consequences became reality.

Even Egypt, which he highlights, has dashed the hopes that it would become a democratic model for other Arab states. The destruction of Syria and the rise of IS simply came too late for inclusion. Pacifist action (initially in Tunisia) led to unrest that eventually caused untold suffering throughout the region. Was Israel too controversial to mention?

The dismantling of Franco’s regime in Spain by King Juan Carlos could have been cited as another example of peaceful change. This short book (177 pages) deserves expansion and an update.


Canon Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.


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