1996 Nonviolence

Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention

1996 Church of the Brethren Statement



The end of the Cold War and the spread of violent conflicts present the Church of the Brethren with difficult challenges–to understand the causes of war more fully, to provide more effective antidotes to them, and to help victims of violence. Although we welcome the end of half a century of US-Soviet ideological conflict and military rivalry, no sooner have old fears faded from view than new dangers loom on the horizon:

  • The easing of nuclear threats between Moscow and Washington has given way to growing fears that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction may spread to additional countries.
  • The gap between the world’s rich and poor has now widened to the largest extent ever in history.
  • Environmental problems spurred by overconsumption, resource shortages, pollution, and burgeoning populations threaten unprecedented violence to God’s creation and stimulate selfish, warring rivalries among those created in God’s image.
  • Ethnic, national, and religious prejudices, inflamed by political leaders seeking power through inciting citizens to hate and fear others, spark violent conflicts and fragment civil societies throughout the world.

In this context, the Church of the Brethren faces difficult questions as national governments and the United Nations use military power to administer humanitarian aid in societies where no domestic order prevails, to rescue civilians threatened with repression and genocide, and to enforce existing international laws prohibiting aggression. Although the church has affirmed its commitment to nonviolence, reconciliation, and humanitarian assistance in official statements and numerous peace and service programs, we have not directly addressed issues related to the use of military force in support of humanitarian assistance or United Nations peacekeeping activities. These issues, expressed in the following questions, are dealt with in this statement:

  • Should the church support the use of military force by the UN or national governments in pursuit of humanitarian goals?
  • How can the church best relate to international peacemaking initiatives, provide humanitarian aid, and implement the peaceful norms with which it agrees?
  • How can the church best encourage ethically responsible forms of resolving domestic and international conflicts?


Can Violence Be Justified? The dominant rationale used to justify resort to violence focuses on concern for victims. The most common question posed to Christians with a commitment to nonviolence is “What would you do if someone attacked your family?” Such a possible threat is seen as having its international counterpart. The Allied cause in both world wars found strong impetus in fear of the Germans evoked by reports of German atrocities. For decades the related question was “But what about the Russians?” The assumed answer was that the United States and its allies needed sufficient military might to deter the Soviets from doing the terrible things they would otherwise do. In the media children and adults see countless scenes in which a hero uses violence to rescue victims from sinister assault or valiant warriors vanquish evil subhuman enemies.

In the period since the end of the Cold War this rationale for violence has undergone some recasting. The plight of victims in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, Sudan, and other strife-torn areas is brought into view. Many citizens see the United States as a sort of humanitarian world policeman engaging in military interventions or wars whenever the plight of victims makes these actions seem necessary. The continued funding of the immense U.S. military establishment at near Cold War levels, even when there is no superpower rival, finds its most appealing rationale in the assumed need to be prepared to do such “peacekeeping;” In a secondary way many citizens see the United Nations as taking a comparable role. From this perspective the underlying question is: How can military force be used to stop inhumanities such as genocide and bring about peace? But for Brethren the central question is: How can we express God’s love faithfully through nonviolent efforts to prevent violence before it begins, to stop it after it erupts, and to heal wounds after it ends?

A Biblical Response. Concern for victims, whether of overt violence or of unjust social and economic structures, is a key element in biblical faith. On that there is common ground with the dominant contemporary justification of resort to violence. But throughout the biblical revelation that concern is addressed in a very different way.

In the Hebrew understanding, God hears the cries of those who are victims, feels their anguish, and acts to help them. Out of the burning bush Yahweh said to Moses: (Exod. 3:7-8) “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”.1

Throughout the Old Testament story God again and again heard the cries of those being violated by rich elites or, alien invaders. Most often pictured was God’s concern for the people of Israel. But that sovereign empathy embraced other nations as well (for example, Deut. 10:18-19; Isa. 19:18-25; 42:1-9; Jon. 3:10-11).

“God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth.” (Psa. 76:9)

The prophets felt with God and voiced God’s response to the cries and deeds of human beings. Much in the prophetic writings has to do with the plight of the Hebrews and other peoples suffering under oppression and the ravages of war. That plight is often seen as judgment upon sin, but then too God weeps with those who weep. In a description of the judgment coming upon a rival nation, God said:

“Therefore I wail for Moab; I cry out for all Moab; for the people of Kir-heres I mourn.” (Jer. 48:31)

As in the Exodus story, God is the one who finds ways to deliver victims from the destructive power of their enemies. The prophets called people to turn from reliance on military capabilities and alliances, put their trust in God, and align themselves with God’s acting (for example, Isa. 30:15-18; 31:1-5; Jer. 21:1-12; Hos. 14:1-3).

A skepticism about the claims and pretentions of rulers finds strong expression in the prophets, the words of Jesus, and the book of Revelation (for an example; Ezek. 28:1-19; Matt. 10:16-18; Mark 10:42-45; John 19:8-11 Rev. 13, 18) In a time when those who govern have unprecedented means to persuade the population that whatever they do is necessary and good (thus that any military intervention is humanitarian), biblical people do well to draw from that skepticism.

Throughout the Old Testament is the warning that evil comes upon those who do evil. This result is seen as God’s judgment, and God is often depicted as wiping out armies or destroying cities with their inhabitants. Many such passages seem to indicate that certain groups and nations are outside the compassion of God.

If Christians view this Old Testament outlook through the lens of God’s central revelation in Jesus Christ; questions remain but some conclusions stand out. God’s judgment upon sin is to be taken into account with utmost seriousness. There is with regard to doing evil a dark sowing and reaping (Jer. 6:19; Hos. 8:7; Gal. 6:7-8). Those who live by violence are brought down by what they do (Matt. 26:52; Rev. 13:10; 16:6). But Christians must not presumptuously try to become God’s agents executing terrible judgment upon wrongdoers (Luke 9:51-56; Rom. 12:19-21). Jesus himself did not do that (John 7:53-8:11; Matt. 26:53-54). Most of all in going to the cross, he made clear that God’s gracious love embraces every human being and every ethnic group. That love seeks out every rebel sinner–thus each one of us.

How Jesus Came to the Aid of Victims. Jews at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry were longing for a messiah who would deliver them from oppression. The dilemma confronting Jesus was in essence quite similar to contemporary situations that are widely seen as necessitating a military “solution.” Many contemporaries of Jesus thought that only a violent uprising would throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus was tempted to move in that direction (Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8). He felt the distress of his people under the Roman occupation But he refused to become a military messiah. He rejected the popular pressure to become a king who would lead his people against the Roman forces (John 6:15). He saw resort to violence as totally contrary to God’s will for him and as madness that would bring destruction on the Jewish nation (John 18:33-37; Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24).

Jesus cast his lot with the poor and oppressed. He moved among the masses. He stood with those that were suffering and reached out to them (Matt. 9:35-36; Mark 1:32-34; Luke 6:20-26). His approach was not that of seizing political power by violence in order to set things right. Rather, he drew together a community of disciples committed to living out God’s intentions for humanity. Their life together was to be preserving salt, illuminating light, and permeating leaven for the world (Matt. 5:13-14; 13:33). He taught them to love enemies, to meet cursing with blessing and evil with good (Matt.5:38-48; Luke 6:27-29; 23:34).

Jesus’ concern for victims is vividly expressed in Matthew 25:31-46. He so much identifies with those who are hungry, thirsty, uprooted, without clothing, sick and in prison that he can say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v.40).

The sufferings mentioned in the passage are often a result of armed conflict. Jesus, stands in the midst of every population smitten by violence and with all the poor of the earth. He calls all human beings to join him in accompanying victims and healing their wounds.

In the conflict with adversaries who were determined to do away with him, Jesus lived out what he taught. For instance, when the authorities came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword to defend him. But Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). He rejected the use of violence even in the best possible cause and became the supreme victim of the human readiness to kill for what are seen as good reasons (John 11:47-50; 19:7,12). Jesus’ willingness to die at the hands of enemies rather than to kill brought redemption for all humanity (Matt. 26:26-28; Rom. 5:6-11; Rev. 5:6-10).

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ provides a very different sort of answer to the perennial questions intended to justify violence on behalf of victims. Yes, disciples are to care deeply about victims and act on their behalf. But what they do should be in accord with the teachings and spirit of Jesus. Moving against the life of another human being is never in harmony with what God has revealed in Jesus. In faithfulness to the Lord, disciples do not have guns to use against an attacker. Even when terrible inhumanities are being threatened or perpetrated, disciples refuse to become agents or advocates of violence. They cry out with victims. They intercede and pray against the powers of destruction. They may be called into actual accompaniment of victims, sharing their jeopardy, working at mediation, and joining with them in nonviolent resistance to those who victimize them. They seek the Spirit’s guidance into creative initiatives that can show the judging love of God to those who move against others.

The obvious objection is that for many situations responses in the spirit of Jesus are not adequate to deal with the threatened or actual violence. To this it can be said that when Jesus refused to become a military messiah, he held back from trying to provide a quick and full solution to things wrong in the world around him. He lived out, and called others to live out; God’s way of overcoming the world’s evil with good. Like the Master, disciples do not claim to have a swift remedy for every deplorable conflict. But they believe that this Lord calls them and all humanity to live out God’s amazing love toward enemies. Although God’s way often does not seem to win out in the short term, God’s people are sustained by Jesus’ promise that it will win out in the long term. In the surrounding society many do not recognize Jesus as Lord, and many who claim to, fail to see the issue of resort to violence as being under his Lordship. God’s intent proclaimed in the Gospel is that all human beings, individually and corporately, give themselves to Jesus Christ and his way. Disciples should strive to make that intent manifest in their lives and witness. They must not, therefore, give their support and blessing to governmental policies and actions that are in stark opposition to the way of Jesus. They seek to propose and promote policies and actions by government that do have some congruence with his way.

In 1989 Annual Conference declared: “The state is under God and is to be ‘God’s servant’ to order the interrelationships of human beings, to restrain evil, and to promote good (Rom. 13:3-4). Even when there is little or no recognition of God’s sovereignty, the state in all that it does is still accountable to God and what God requires.”2 What God requires has been revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ. Christian response to issues related to humanitarian intervention should be grounded in this revelation.


In our continuing effort to be God’s people, we find guidance in wisdom from the past. In numerous Annual Conference statements the church has declared that our peace stance is a renunciation of war but must also include active peacemaking and solidarity with victims. As early as 1775 the church emphasized both aspects when, during the devastation of the American Revolution, the Brethren and the Mennonites explained to the Pennsylvania Assembly, “we find no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in any thing by which men’s [and women’s] lives are destroyed or hurt,” but they dedicated themselves to serve all people “in every thing that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s [and women’s] lives.”3

In 1934 Annual Conference resolved that “all war is sin. We, therefore, cannot encourage, engage in, or willingly profit from armed conflict at home, or abroad. We cannot, in the event of war, accept military service or support the military machine in any capacity.”4

In 1951 the General Brotherhood Board said that the mere refusal to kill “does not reflect the whole essence of Christ’s example of redemptive love…. We are to leave behind the old ways and venture on the new paths which he pointed out.”5 In 1959 as the church sought to strengthen Brethren service efforts as one means of engaging in peacemaking, the Annual Conference affirmed: “Peace is not the absence of conflict but it requires the presence of justice. It is the ability to cope with conflict in nonviolent and helpful ways.”6 Similarly in 1988 Annual Conference declared: “The Brethren understand peace as something more than merely the silence of guns and bombs; it is also the presence of justice, the practice of mutuality, and the process of reconciliation.”7

Nearly fifty years ago, the Brethren sought to influence the United Nations toward “the highest principles of Christian international co-operation”8 and later affirmed the distribution of foreign economic aid through multilateral agencies such as the United Nations as a means of responding to the injustice of rampant poverty in nations around the world.9 Similarly, the 1959 Annual Conference strongly affirmed the call to provide humanitarian assistance and further stressed that such aid must also involve “the ministry of reconciliation, which includes both the teaching of peace and the deeds of peace.”10 The Church of the Brethren has also responded to concerns related to the poor and hungry through “self help” relief programs such as Heifer Project International.

The church has consistently counseled the use of nonviolent conflict resolution as a means of active peacemaking. The 1958 Annual Conference strongly exhorted members of the church to “unceasingly urge our government leaders to promote and use nonviolent methods and institutions.”11 The 1977 Conference called members of the church to urge governmental officials to “strengthen global institutions that facilitate nonviolent means of conflict resolution.”12 In 1991, Conference urged the church to “advance efforts toward a more peaceful world order through supporting the peacemaking efforts of the United Nations.”13 This statement, written before the UN military interventions in Somalia and elsewhere, assumed the more traditional, nonviolent role for peacemaking.


From the Scriptures and a long, rich history of Brethren discernment, a general orientation toward nonviolence and social action becomes clear. Brethren believe that means must be consistent with ends. Whether we perceive actions as means or ends, they must be compatible with Christ’s teachings and God’s will. Means that are at odds with their intended consequences have unintended results. The Gospel warnings against employing evil for good purposes are realistic and wise (for example, Matt. 5:38-48; Rom. 3:8; 12:14-18; 1 Th. 5:15-22).

The many forms of injury–physical, psychological, spiritual, individual or collective–when committed intentionally, are unChristlike. Although we recognize the inevitability of our daily complicity in the estrangement that characterizes the human condition, we are called to persist with humility in striving to reduce all forms of violence. In doing so we seek to love rather than to injure other people.

We recognize that in a fallen world there is need for confronting sin and evil. Passivity in the presence of injury or injustice is not an option for Christians. Non-coercive approaches, such as persuasion through teaching and witnessing, are preferable. Forms of restraint, although less desirable, may sometimes be necessary to protect others from injury and death. When a parent pulls a child from danger or citizens boycott a firm that persists in toxic pollution, life is affirmed. Such nonviolent action may be a necessary response of faithfulness in both interpersonal and social contexts.

Coercion that intentionally injures or kills other persons is violence that denies the teachings of Christ and usurps the role of God as judge and arbiter (Luke 6:37; Rom. 2:1-5; Jas. 4:11-12). Such violence distorts beyond recognition the intent to love others as God loves us (Rom. 13:8-10). It is incompatible with the Christian Gospel.

Our individual and collective histories testify to the travails of humankind that have come from attempting to use violence to correct injustice. We acknowledge that we may not always discern nonviolent actions that would adequately resolve every crisis. However, we seek their discovery and pursuit. Sometimes there may be no way–violent or nonviolent–to save a house or a people already on fire. We commit ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ to work at prevention rather than to make futile gestures at uncontrollable infernos.

Our call to reject violence does not assume that contending parties in a conflict are equally right. We are called to reconciliation where possible, but we recognize that one party in a conflict may struggle to end injustice and oppression while the other struggles to maintain injustice and privilege. As Christians we are called to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 1:21), not to seek compromise between evil and good. We must refrain from participating in dehumanizing processes necessary to do violence in all its forms. Our challenge is to recognize the connections that bind us all (see Acts 17:22-31) and the humanness of the “enemy.”

Our Christian nonviolence is not anarchist. On the contrary, we seek an orderly, legal, just, and peaceful global community. We light the path that leads away from military combat and cycles of violence that follow in its wake. We approve of local, state, national, and international actions based on mutual cooperation for the enhancement of life so long as they are remedial and life-preserving.

The church is called to relate to the state without approving injurious coercion as an acceptable means for either church or state. If it is necessary for the state to impose restraint, the church calls upon the state to use means that are non-injurious. We do not renounce the use of force in every situation; we do renounce the use of violent force–intentional injury or killing of people–in all situations. We recognize that not all physical force is violence and that the appropriate role of law enforcement is to prevent further injury without committing violence.

In rejecting violence, but acknowledging the necessity for nonviolent initiatives and physical restraint in a fallen world, Brethren must urge alternatives to military action, including mediation, negotiation, and nonviolent tactics. Genuinely nonlethal instruments that restrain but neither kill nor permanently injure might also be used in accord with compassion. Restraint must allow for redemptive possibilities. Killing, which is unalterable, irreversible, and absolute, must not be accepted. We recognize that disavowing of killing demands rethinking the role of government, but this requirement issues from the heart of the Gospel itself.


Problems of International Intervention. In applying these principles to current conflicts we recognize that governments often choose military means to aid humanitarian purposes before they have exhausted other less militaristic options. In addition, those governments favoring military intervention often should, because of their past arms export policies an miserly support for justice and human needs, share blame for conditions that give rise to gross violations of human rights. Having relied excessively on military means in the past and thereby having contributed to the causes of violence, the major powers then claim to come to the rescue of victims of militarism by employing more military power in humanitarian intervention. Moreover, when governments favor UN auspices for military intervention, they often have highly self-interested motives,14 as military powers have had throughout history when they have intervened unilaterally in weaker societies; The UN may appear to stand above national interests when in fact it may be manipulated to serve the vested interests of its most powerful members. In such cases, the poor and the weak whom Jesus described as “the least of these” are victimized by the powerful under the guise of United Nations internationalism. If the major powers would shift priorities from trying to make the UN system serve their national military and economic interests to addressing the underlying causes of violence and establishing the rule of law in world affairs, then conflicts over the long run could be solved without resort to collective violence.

Possibilities for Law Enforcement. We endorse efforts to abide by and enforce international laws that prohibit military aggression and the denial of human rights–rules that have been established by the international community and are in accord with our understanding of the Gospel. However, we must choose carefully the means by which we seek to nurture and enforce the norms of peace. Is UN use of force to maintain peace and achieve humanitarian purposes similar to police enforcement within domestic societies? Our church’s stance has been less clearly defined with regard to police enforcement than is our position on war.

In practice, Brethren have implicitly accepted some functions of domestic police in helping to carry out the purposes of the state, including “maintaining order, securing justice and freedom, and promoting the general welfare.”15 However, Annual Meeting minutes from the nineteenth century also reflect a continuing tradition of reservation about police duties and roles, especially as they might “require actions incompatible with Christ’s call.”16

International peacekeepers are increasingly called upon to function as police, enforcing agreed-upon rules and protecting the innocent. However, when peacekeeping becomes military action, it loses its similarity to law enforcement. Police action and military action are, in principle, two fundamentally different approaches. When police are functioning within appropriate purposes (which is not always the case), the primary distinctions between police and military action are clear:

  1. Law enforcement in intent avoids killing rather than seeking it, as is the case with military combat.
  2. Law enforcement focuses upon individuals suspected of guilt; military combat dehumanizes an enemy people and does not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.
  3. Law enforcement, when just, seeks to protect, without prejudice, individual rights and interests for the benefit of the whole; military action usually protects special (national) interests.
  4. Domestic police operate, ideally, under clearly defined laws made and agreed to by the community, to which all parties, including officers, are subject; war, in spite of the Geneva Conventions, is essentially lawless.
  5. Police roles may include community service functions such as linking people with help and offering mediation in conflict, such as family interventions; military action has no such aim.17

Brethren recognize the legitimacy of civil authorities in restraining violence, keeping order, and protecting the vulnerable. There is, however, a growing militarization of the police in the United States that parallels increasing reliance on military force for international peacekeeping. We believe that such a movement toward greater police reliance on weapons adds to an escalating climate of violence in society. We call for the development of nonviolent alternatives to the use of lethal weapons in the implementation of police functions and for exploration of possibilities for an unarmed police force.

As Christians, we find reason under some circumstances to hesitate in relying upon civil law enforcement ourselves. When we call upon law enforcement authorities, we also take on a measure of responsibility for the potential violence, both physical and structural, that may mar their action. For example, a call to the police may set in motion a range of potential consequences, including the possibility that lethal weapons will be used in law enforcement. We who have declared ourselves unwilling to wield such weapons against other human beings must refuse to ask other to do so on our behalf.

Although proper domestic law enforcement offers a model for using international police enforcement in place of war dangers inherent in the domestic arena encourage caution in international enforcement efforts. As we can in principle support nonviolent domestic law enforcement to carry out the best purposes of government, so we affirm a growing role for nonviolent international law enforcement as distinct from military actions. Where domestic police, international peacekeepers, or multilateral humanitarian interventions avoid the use of violent force, we recognize they may play a constructive role.


The Church of the Brethren continues its longstanding support for United Nations efforts to build world peace.18 We support a more active United Nations seeking nonviolently to dampen civil wars and to come to the aid of victims of genocide, military aggression, and gross violations of human rights. Because the UN is the most representative global political institution, it can help move conflicts from The battlefield to the negotiating table and the international courtroom. In claiming authority over decision making for military intervention, it can reduce the likelihood that one country can claim a unilateral right to make war. We believe the UN should have the authority to prevent war.

People sometimes oppose international law because of a tendency to give higher loyalty to national sovereignty, which claims the need to kill some people in war, than to God’s sovereignty, which sees all people as precious in God’s sight. The Church of the Brethren believes that, although national sovereignty may serve good purposes, it may also tempt us to idolatry, in which we serve the gods of national power and wealth rather than the God of love calling us to care for “the least of these” throughout the world. Nationalism wedded to militarism is a particularly harmful idol because it obstructs genuine respect for others and the growth of world community among all of God’s creation. If we do not bow down to today’s idols, we can through the grace of God be loving without killing.

Inspired by this belief, we express concern about the troubling tendency among governments today to seek UN endorsement for military action. Although the UN is more representative of the world’s peoples than any single national government and deserves appropriate respect in this regard; it remains a political ins