When I was a younger man I was discerning a call to ministry while working as a military contractor. As part of my discernment process I decided to read the entirety of the Bible. I read the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, with gusto and completed the task in less than three months. That experience was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life and sent me in a direction I could not have predicted. I finally read some biblical passages, like the entirety of Lamentations, I had never read before. And I read some passages that I had read many, many times in fresh, new ways. One such passage was Jesus’ so-called “Sermon on the Mount.”
I had a hard time squaring Jesus’ call to radical nonviolence and peacemaking in that sermon with my work preparing weapons for war. And then 9/11 happened. And then the US declared a “War on Terrorism.” As I found myself discerning a call to Christian ministry I also found myself feeling called to a life of Christian nonviolence. However, like any red-blooded American male, I was raised in a culture that glorified violence, defended it through appeals to the Bible, and taught the existence of a vengeful, violent God that demanded the torture and murder of God’s son as necessary for the world’s salvation. Thus, I wasn’t yet converted.
And then I went to college and read the work of Mohandas Gandhi and John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King Jr. and my faith, life, and vocational trajectory radically changed. Gandhi taught me the practical value of nonviolence in social and political life, Yoder gave me a Christian theological lens to understand the centrality of nonviolence to Christian discipleship, and King gave me a practical way to blend them in the American context. Reading the work of these brilliant twentieth century scholars of nonviolence was, in many ways, a second conversion experience in my life.
And then I learned of Gandhi’s sexual duplicity and patriarchal power plays over young women, and over the last several years details of Yoder’s own sexual violence have emerged. (And King, though we have no evidence of sexual violence, was also unfaithful to his own vows of sexual purity to his wife Coretta.) Gandhi “experimented” and “tested” his commitment to celibacy by sleeping beside young, often nude, women. He did this after forbidding his followers from sleeping with people of another sex to deepen their “experiments with truth.” And there is plenty of evidence that Gandhi “failed” these “tests” he gave himself. Yoder, apparently, was conducting “experiments” with female students to explore a “non-lustful” Christian sexuality that could include sexual contact outside of marriage. Both Gandhi and Yoder, then, used their creativity, which was so powerful in imagining alternatives to political violence, to justify abusing their religious and/or political power to coerce women into participating in their sexual “experiments.”
What both of these men did not realize, or ignored, was the ways that their actions were forms of violence that violated their own teachings. In much literature on nonviolence there is a gendered component that is especially “masculine.” From rhetoric of nonviolence being “true bravery” or “real strength” to ignoring the ways that women are at risk of violence in a variety of ways that most men do not experience to an assumption that violence refers mostly to political violence and does not include violence in the bedroom, proponents of nonviolence, even (if not especially) Christian nonviolence, have not taken the experiences of women into serious account. And, at least in the cases of Yoder and Gandhi, they have committed such violence (regularly) themselves.
What the violence of these influential male pacifists demonstrates to me is the necessity of feminist perspectives and the experiences of women in all ethical work. Taking the experiences of women seriously has the potential to transform much thinking about the ethics of war and peacebuilding (fields traditionally dominated by men). And it would challenge the assumption that it is possible to avoid violence in a patriarchal society. Male pacifists too often speak with ease about the possibilities of stopping a rapist through nonviolent means or assume that their faithfulness to a principle of nonviolence or following the way of Christ on the cross absolves them of any responsibilities to protect vulnerable persons in their lives. In addition, they too often assume Christian nonviolence applies to people who “give up power,” often physical, and willingly accept suffering. This assumption does not apply to all people, however, and is less likely to apply to those with little to no power (such as many women, children, the differently abled, etc.) to give up in the first place.
The sexual violence of Gandhi and Yoder also raises questions about the relevance of the lives of influential thinkers to how their work is received and utilized. Part of the power of Gandhi’s writing, for example, emerges from his courage in facing physical violence in the streets without responding in kind. It’s not just theory, for Gandhi, but was action – and effective action at that. Likewise, Yoder draws from a tradition with a long history of nonviolent suffering. (Unfortunately, it is also a tradition with its own long history of gendered, sexual violence.) It is the deep spiritual and intellectual wellsprings of that tradition that give Yoder’s work its “meat” as more than abstract theorizing. In light of this, revelations of sexual violence by Gandhi and Yoder should similarly make us look at their writings about nonviolence with skepticism. Or, at least, to read them more critically than those of us who are sympathetic to the ethics of nonviolence may have read them in the past.
Ethics is not divorced from praxis. As someone influenced by liberationist thinking, I would even argue that good theology cannot come from bad praxis. The praxis of these thinkers, then, should cause us to reevaluate their theologies and amend them where appropriate. A proper starting place, in my view, would be to refuse to read them (or write about them) without putting them alongside the voices of women who were victims of sexual violence. Doing so might lead to a very different kind of Christian nonviolence than we have known in the past.