Nonviolence As Spiritual Engagement

"Nonviolence and Reconciliation is a Sign of the Reign of God Here On Earth


by Chris Baker Evens

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:21

Fifteen people were packed into a two-bed hotel room. Each person from Pursat province, north-west of Phnom Penh. And each one telling the same story, "The company is clearing our land. If we oppose them they come and hit us, take us to court, put us in jail, make us afraid."

Brother "Long" invited me this evening to discuss ways I might be able to support their community. I was already in Phnom Penh to co-lead a workshop and we happened to be in the capital city the same week. I sat and tried to listen and ask questions, to understand their situation and what they see are the available solutions.

"Two weeks ago we were so fed up with the company and our local authorities that we blocked the main road to Battambang to make it clear we have a complaint. Look, here are the nine demands we gave them."

I was impressed with the energy and initiative of this group of rural Cambodian farmers. Most of them have primary-level education and here they are taking on a well-connected and well-financed Cambodian corporation. What courage!

"But it's not enough. There are six districts affected by the land concession and only one district is complaining. Before, the company would clear our community land right in front of our homes, now they are more cunning. They clear land far away from our homes where we don't see it for many days - up by the mountains and deep in our forests."

Many rural Cambodian communities rely on a mix of agrarian practices and forest gathering. I've been to some communities in the deep of the Cambodian forest and each time I'm amazed at what can be harvested from the trees, bushes and roots. Once I was served what I thought was tapioca pudding. It was made from the seeds of a local bush. There is a deep sense of serenity there. And when a company is bulldozing fields right by your house it's a call to action. When they bulldoze land far away you might not notice it for days, weeks even. The large majority of the community, then, was simply not interested in getting involved when the problem was "out of sight, out of mind" and the cost of resistance seems too high.

While I sat in that small room listening to the stories of this community I was encouraged by their experience, courage and hope. Yet there was fear and despair, too. There are very few "success stories" of communities winning their land back from companies and government officials. And many communities are feeling worn down and frustrated. The likelihood of spontaneous violence is ever-present. It's therefore vital to maximise the community's knowledge and skills of active nonviolence.

In response to that meeting I teamed up with two local Cambodian organisations and a national community-based network of land activists. We collaborated on a workshop developing nonviolent strategies for long-term change. The key goal being the nonviolent recovery of their land and the nonviolent expulsion of the companies from their respective communities land. This workshop ran in December last year (2010) with around 25 participants from four different communities. Those who joined left with a greater understanding for an overall strategy, and we hope to follow up with further training and coaching.

Nonviolence as spiritual engagement

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect... " Romans 12:2

Since my involvement with the Dey Krahom community back in 2007 I have reflected on my role and identity as foreigner and outsider, as well as my attempts to reflect the Way of Jesus in a country that is predominantly Buddhist.

Nonviolence, I'm finding, is not simply a political tool to work for justice for remote Cambodian villagers. Nonviolence speaks to the Biblical vision of who God is and how we might relate to God. Nonviolence helps me to re-read the Bible in light of Jesus' nonviolent commitment:

"If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile ... love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Matthew 5:39-41

The core power of nonviolence is that I decide to no longer allow another to treat me violently AND I refuse to treat that other person violently in return. That is to say, I change my identify from helpless victim to active agent of reconciliation.

The question then is, "what good does this do if your enemy hits, shoots or kills you anyway?" There's no point in being a passive doormat, which is how we often read these lines from the Bible.

Writer and biblical Scholar Walter Wink teaches that these statements are in fact creative nonviolent tactics for use by people living under a military occupation. By "turning the other cheek" we refuse to go down in submission and assert our equal humanity. Our fresh cheek is a direct challenge to a relationship based on domination by one party and submission by the other. By "giving your cloak" which was, in fact, your undergarment, you have stripped yourself naked saying to your opponent, "you are so greedy you have literally taken everything I own." Finally, Roman soldiers were permitted to enforce local populations to carry their packs for one mile only. To force a person to carry it further was a serious breach of military law. By "going the extra mile" you turn the tables on your oppressor, "sure I'll carry your pack, in fact I'll go this next mile for you, too!" There would be a hilarious interaction as the distraught soldier attempts to retrieve his pack before his superior sees the infraction.

When we receive the violence of someone else, without responding with violence in return, we provide them an opportunity - like holding up a mirror - for our enemy to see their distorted image for at least a moment. This is an opportunity for change and reconciliation.

Jesus himself took on this role. By knowingly walking to Jerusalem (and the cross), by submitting to a horrifying and humiliating death, he exposed the violence around him - the violence that fuelled the religious, social, economic and political systems. The powers-that-be killed him to keep the secrets of their wealth and power hidden, yet the crucifixion highlights for all of us to see the violent roots of their actions.

Jesus' confrontation of the economic, political and religious authorities throughout his ministry led to his eventual assassination. He could have run away. Instead, he faced events as they unfolded, became a knowing recipient of violence (in response to his nonviolent provocations of healings, accusations and demonstrations), and therefore offers all of us an opportunity of transformation -  either to walk away from our desires to control others, of getting what we want in life without consideration of the consequences on other people and the world around us, or to nonviolently walk towards those who abuse us. In short, Jesus gives us space to work towards reconciliation between all those we currently and formerly have tried to control for our benefit (or vice versa). We are no longer conformed to the world, but transformed!

A lot more could be said, and I want to stress that I am not suggesting anyone willingly submit to violence and abuse without working for change and transformation. The many stories of battered wives staying with their violent husbands, or communities refusing to speak out about evictions, simply to maintain "peace and harmony" is a grand distortion of what nonviolence and the Reign of God is all about.

Finally, what I am seeing in the community in Pursat - and many others in Cambodia - is an answer to a prayer prayed by just about every Christian who has ever lived: "Our Father who is in heaven, your name is holy. May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!" Not only have I have found a role in encouraging the "brother Long's" and their communities struggle for nonviolent structural change but they are also participating in God's reign here on earth, as it is in heaven.