Nonviolence FAQ

Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence

Apr 18, 2021

What could be more important in this life than learning not to harm or kill others?.. However, people continue to doubt and ask questions. Answers to the most common of them are collected below.

Before all else, let's remind ourselves: criminals and security forces are not the only ones who kill people. They are joined by completely ordinary people who support these security forces with their taxes, and/or are linked by citizenship ties of some kind — and therefore, voluntarily or involuntarily, they are participating in the "rules of the game": the rules that are set by the authorities, the army-police, the president / commander-in-chief, etc. The permissibility of killing a person as a security measure is quite officially enshrined even in such a "humane" document of our era as the European Convention on Human Rights (as of August 1, 2021):

Article 2 — Right to life
1. Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. [...]  
2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
   (a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
   (b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
   (с) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.

The question is why almost no one is able to (wants to?) change their mind and end this readiness to kill. Or at least admit that forceful protection by killing and maiming people is a terrible shame that needs to be eradicated without delay — from our minds and from life itself. Instead, we must seek and find bloodless and non-lethal ways to provide protection, and actively build a culture of non-acceptance of violence, etc.

Of course, we should not overlook those who are genuinely concerned and actively engaged in these tasks (see Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches). But this cannot be compared with the amount of support for institutionalized violence.

What's wrong with us?

And this is the really scary part. We are accustomed to assuming that those around us are "quite good people." Not everyone, but very many. Smart, decent, well-intentioned. Able to show meekness, humility, mercy. Honoring the Gospel and praying to Christ. In certain circumstances, they might even be recognized as part of the "conscience of the nation."

But why are we not disturbed by the bloody means we use for our own safety? Why aren't we turned inside out by the killing and maiming of people who are just like us? Why have we clung to these murders like bees to the hive, and aren’t able to rub our eyes, look at our bloody hands, and quickly begin seeking, discussing, and implementing alternatives?

Reasons and assumptions

Below are possible reasons for this state of affairs. Which of them is the main one? — decide for yourself. Sometimes it seems that fear (of being killed or maimed, falling into poverty, hunger, disease, or slavery) is the explanation. Sometimes an inner lack of belief in God. Or maybe there are simply no teachers who are able to show us who we really are.

1. Just no time. People tackle the set of problems that are closest to them, almost without regard to other problems beyond that set. When you are always busy, whether your tasks are essential or unnecessary, you simply don’t pause to consider, with horror, the price that has been paid for your security.

2. Submissiveness. To get up and quietly leave — only a few are capable of this. To stand up and oppose — almost no one. It is difficult to acknowledge the shame of something that everyone else considers honorable or at least without shame. If even the most decent are silent, why should I doubt?

3. Never been shot. In the truest sense of the words — these are people who have never experienced gunshots and stab wounds, imprisonment and bullying and the most terrible consequences in the form of pain, treatment, long-term rehabilitation, lingering dysfunctions. All this is somewhere far away: troops, skirmishes, prisons, torture... And the things that are close at hand — security services and police with their weapons — are too close, they’ve been familiar from childhood on.

4. Psychological unpreparedness. Does everyone kill? Me, you, our friends, our neighbors? Blood, severed limbs, torn and burned bodies?! It just can't be. The brain protects itself from horror. Denial kicks in: "We don't kill, ... we only scare." Indeed, we do not kill so much as we threaten to kill. Which, by the way, is tantamount to murder itself. But the brain also rejects this; people do not want to be responsible for what they got involved in or were drawn into.

5. Fear of change. They feel that rejection of murder will lead to working on oneself — serious enough work that their whole way of life will be completely transformed. Another response: "What changes are really possible?" They anticipate resistance, they see no simple solutions. “We will have to go against everyone (or away from everyone), without any hope of success, facing threats of aggression and reprisals.”

6. A lack of teachers. There are no real teachers of nonviolence, no living examples, practitioners, contemporaries. No manuals, case studies, guides. Even the specialized field of "peace education" allows the killing and maiming of people as an extreme measure of protection. In sum, people can master the theory of nonviolence, but nothing is offered beyond that. Aside from the lack of teachers, there is no development of self-sufficiency, no motivation to go further.

7. Godlessness. Without recognition of the divine nature of every person, obtaining security from birth to old age only by way of threatening, maiming, and killing of people — what kind of God, beyond the god of indifference, can we be talking about?

Unfortunately, yes. One common misconception is that “if I do not come into contact with violence in any way, then I do not participate in it.”

Here are five key roles that each of us has in our lives in relation to violence. Check which of them are dominant in your case:

  1. Accomplice — I condone and by implicit consent agree with the so-called security forces (army, police, secret services, justice system) who are prepared to and do use threats of murder, maiming and torture
  2. Co-governor — by my own citizenship I unwillingly share in the responsibility for the crimes committed by the state and civil society
  3. Sponsor — I provide support for the apparatus for violence from my own pocket (taxes, duties, tolls, etc.)
  4. Victim — at any moment I can face unaccountable professional aggression from armed authorities who are often incapable of empathy and recompense
  5. Role model — I demonstrate to the people around me (children included) the permissibility and admissibility of staying in a violent society over the long term.

The most shameful of these roles, of course, is our inability and unwillingness to let people be — i.e. our unwillingness to stop forcing neighbors to support threats and murders financially and morally (via citizenship, taxes, education, etc.).

This is the answer to the question of ensuring personal safety. The question of ensuring collective safety can be found below, see "Who will protect the homeland?"

Here we are talking about protection from spontaneous, unmotivated, uncontrolled aggression against which dialogue and persuasion do not work (drunkenness, anger, mental illness, etc.)

Methods of protection:

  1. Retaliatory violence, assuming you cannot resist using it. It is unusual that one of us would already know in advance how to defeat evil with good. Therefore, in the critical moment, instinct is more readily accessible than knowledge. But even when you don’t succeed in refraining from violence, it’s important to distinguish between an instinctive violent response and deliberate preparation for violence. These situations are not the same:
    • A spontaneous forceful reaction to the crime, without any advance intention or preparation to kill or wound the perpetrator (for example, not keeping weapons in the home)
    • The threat of mutilating and killing people as a constant practice — the same practice that comprises the daily tasks of the security forces.
  2. Nonviolence. If you do not wish to reciprocate with evil and violence under any circumstances, you can find methods here: Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches, the "Methods of protection" and "Conflict resolution" sections. The available security techniques used are: finding shelter, hiding, distraction using actions/noise/light/other signals, attracting attention of those nearby, using non-lethal protection methods, using methods of passive security, etc.

The protection of lives, resources, territories and orders by force is not simply “the lesser evil,” but a terrible shame and crime. Among all the confirmations of this truth, these three stand out: power, impudence, and the denial of God.

1. Power. The vicious practices (such as slavery) resulting from power will be considered below. The drive for power, both at the individual and collective level, is a sign of a person’s and society’s backwardness. And it is not important whether a person is at the giving or receiving end of this power.

  • From a materialistic point of view — in developed societies the vertical relationship of power is gradually replaced by horizontal interaction, based on equality of positions, dialogue and communication, with the organization of administrative and economic activities and security on a mutually accepted and voluntary basis;
  • From a spiritual point of view — there is no power except God’s. Yes, the apostle said “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” But this can’t be used to approve an abject submission to power — for example, when the authorities use their power to command you to do evil things. This along with other controversial parts of the Gospel are discussed in Christian FAQ.

2. Impudence. The security forces apply forms of violence to other people that, for the most part, they themselves have never experienced:

  • Officers and commanders in the police, the army, and secret services have not received serious gunshot or knife wounds that have torn or burnt the body, including muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and bones, from which it takes years and a great amount of effort to treat and recover, or — when recovery proves impossible — a life of pain and disability.
  • Judges, prosecutors, bailiffs, investigators, interrogators, etc., have not spent months and years behind bars. They have not experienced systematic bullying or torture via hunger, cold, isolation, beatings, lack of medical attention, etc.

3. Denial of God. Murder is taking away a life that you did not give and that you cannot restore, no matter how hard you try. Torture, torment, and maiming people, actions which lead to the loss of health or even death, have similar irreversible effects. But, as is known, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” Therefore, the crime is not only that you violate other people’s lives, but, first and foremost you violate God’s gifts and creation as well as His law, “Love one another.”

4. Laziness and indifference. The threat of violence and the use of retaliatory or preemptive violence is like the childish reasoning “I’m just doing what they do,” a classic answer of evil for evil: committing a symmetrical retaliatory crime against people’s lives and health. The mature person, striving for safety and public order, will study and methods of protection that do not shed blood; see Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches.

5. Unwillingness to consider the true nature of peace. People who have decided that protecting peace by force is their calling are more often ready to define “peace” on their own terms. The opinions of different people (including those who disagree) interest them less and less over time. Before too long they apply their own force-based understandings to their personal relationships with other people — family, friends, others ... but then also to the whole world around them.

6. The multiplication of evil. This results from misunderstanding the nature and consequences of using force. Violence may free you from immediate danger and threats, but, in the longer term, that same violence will provoke even greater anger, hatred and retaliation in those against whom it is directed. For each of your strengths, sooner or later there will inevitably be another, greater force:

  • more arrogant and unbalanced
  • more prepared and motivated
  • “our own” etc.

7. Seduction. Once seduced, the security forces have much worse influence on society. Persons who legally commit violence convince others, by their example, that murdering others is normal, maiming them is normal, that rape is an inevitable part of life. The effect is to teach others not to take notice of obvious and terrible crimes against people’s lives.

Compare these scenarios:

You did not take up arms against the invaders, but as it turned out, you were captured. Forced labor, illness, and death await you.

You did take up arms against the invaders, but as it turned out, you lost and were captured. Forced labor, illness, and death await you.

The result is the same. But in the first case you did not give in to the temptation to answer evil with evil, saving your God-given soul. And, in the attempt to restore peace through goodness, this grace was multiplied. In the second case, the soul gave up and put itself in mortal danger of hell.

But this is not the worst scenario. The worst is when you take up arms and win. You defended yourself, your loved ones, your territory by murder. But, all around you, the anger and hatred was multiplied. Now, not only is your own soul in mortal danger of hell, but also those of the people around you.

This is the answer to the question of ensuring collective security. The question about ensuring personal safety can be found above, see "How to protect yourself and your loved ones?"

What is the homeland?

You can accept your so-called homeland (motherland, fatherland, etc.) as a given. On the other hand, if you reject a concept of “homeland” that presupposes the threat of violence and coercive pressure on its own subjects and neighboring peoples, you may decide not to accept being part of a homeland.

In any case, the concept itself will often include the following:

  • Neighbors (“our own,” of one nationality, faith, language, culture, or other common features)
  • Territories that these neighbors consider to be their own, including their resources and infrastructure
  • Shared history, including the history of previous generations

Who threatens the homeland?

Here we are talking about mass aggression (fanatics, fascists etc.) when dialogue and persuasion are already not possible.

How to protect the homeland?

  • The history of the homeland does not need to be protected by means of killing and maiming — even though rulers who want to motivate you to kill the “enemy” will often appeal to history;
  • Territories, resources, infrastructures are often given more value than human life and are protected accordingly: by threats and killings. You, as someone who pays to maintain these places and structures (or as someone who refuses to have anything to do with them), can think differently and use nonviolent protection methods prepared in advance instead of murders; see Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches. Unfortunatelly you may find that your neighbors are not willing to take nonviolent preparations for defense into account, moreover they may condemn and restrain you, or even simply kill you for your nonviolent choice;
  • Neighbors are people who today consider themselves compatriots alongside you, and have built their lives and yours around this shared identity (with borders, state, army, etc.). You have the right to decide that your mutual obligations to your neighbors will not include killing, but they also may condemn or kill you because of this.

So, who will protect the homeland?

The armed forces, by maiming and murder. People of good will, by nonviolent methods. But only until the former (normally intolerant of peace and nonviolence, and accustomed to patterns of command and subordination) do not kill the latter, who are, after all, their own compatriots, with whom they share a homeland.

The main problem with the homeland is that it does not know how to let a person be.

As a rule, your country of birth (more specifically, your first neighbors) make the following claims and demands upon you:

  1. Records — documents of registration demanded by the authorities (your employment, businesses, other affiliations, property, cars, licenses, place of residence, familial relations, etc.)
  2. Finances — taxes, duties, tolls, etc.
  3. Obligations — adherence to laws, including the execution of authorities’ orders during states of emergency and other extreme situations (for example, in a pandemic), and ranging all the way to murdering other people (in war)

It is necessary to note that any other neighbors in any other country will also require this from you — with the possible exception of participation in murders. But your original and most immediate neighbors in this sense almost always impose these claims with special zeal and aggressiveness.

In order to protect yourself from the unacceptable part of their claims (in particular, moral and financial support for threats and murders), in the case of mass intoxication by force, power, and impunity, you have three options:

  • A nonviolent struggle. In this case, within days or hours you may suffer condemnation/confinement/punishment. At the same time a large part of your own resources (strength, time, property, finances) will remain with the authorities, which already had control of them.
  • Internal emigration, living off the grid, living monastically (traditional or “new monasticism”), moving to the woods, fields, villages, etc. As in the previous case, this may involve months or years. Your personal resources will still be taken by the authorities, though perhaps to a lesser extent.
  • External emigration. Evacuating the territory that is inhabited by people intoxicated by force in order to not be a willing participant in the harm they cause. In many cases, this is the most effective method to seriously reduce daily participation in violence. The rest, unfortunately, is similar to the previous paragraph.

See also: Nonviolence in action: methods and approaches

Pacifism is a strange and often inconsistent thing: “No” to war, but “yes” to police, courts, prisons; “we are for peace” while continuing to feed armies and other forces every day. However, pacifism is a solid step, a phase that is necessary for many on the path of nonviolence.

Homeland is a more complex and difficult concept. As a rule, it is made up of a) your first neighbors [OR your primary circle of neighbors], b) the territories, resources, and infrastructure that these neighbors consider their own, and c) the history of preceding generations.

In order to give the briefest possible answer to the question posed above, it would be appropriate to describe each side of the question in terms of only the following two groups of people:

  • those who are not ready to kill and maim some people in an attempt to save others;
  • those who are ready for this and demand it of everyone around them. In point of fact, today this is the majority of your neighbors, given that finding people who are ready to do this themselves but don’t demand it of others would be rather difficult.

And so, concerning betrayal:

  1. Life in any country is not cost-free, including for citizens of that country. And, to put it plainly, it’s not cheap. In any country, pacifists have to pay exactly the same amounts for residence and accommodations as anyone else — including, unfortunately, the expenses of maintaining armed forces.
  2. This country (whatever country you have in mind) has been built by, among others, the labor of pacifists. Moreover, the average pacifist is a driver of the economy and of progress to a much greater extent than those who pump a significant part of their strength, time, and resources into the armed forces.
  3. Betrayal or treason is only applicable if there has been a refusal, despite prior agreements, to observe obligations that were assumed a) consciously, and b) voluntarily. Obligations that are imposed by the homeland (that is, by those neighbors) are neither conscious nor voluntary, but rather imposed under the threat of persecution or violence:
    • citizenship
    • conscription
    • payment to the full panoply of police and armed services
    • moral support for the armed state and so forth.

The last challenge that pacifists are presented with is the so-called sacrifice made by their neighbors who are ready to be killed and to kill — that is, to put their own souls in danger of sin — in place of the pacifists and for their sake. This claim is as wild as all the rest, considering that mature pacifists:

  • never create conflicts and tensions themselves (in contrast with people who are ready for armed showdowns)
  • when conflicts arise, never kill, and never drive others to kill; they instead protect others’ lives and souls
  • use nonviolence to resolve conflicts, see Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches.

Simply surviving does not mean that you can relax. Very often survival is the start — or the continuation — of a serious, daily fight for life. Therefore:

  • From the materialistic point of view it is not the strongest who survive but the most unpretentious and organized.
  • From the spiritual point of view it is not the strongest who survive but those whom God gave the ability or means to survive. In turn, as a rule, you now bear a greater responsibility for your own and other people’s lives.

The army and other armed services — are truly paths for social mobility. But they don’t go upward, they go downward. The basic reasons are enumerated above, see "What’s wrong with army, police and justice?"

In view of those reasons, the question begins to sound a bit different: what to do with the enormous numbers of youth and men for whom the police and armed forces serve as

  • one option for managing their own aggression and underdevelopment;
  • a way to earn wages and secure their room and board;
  • a career, social recognition, and so on.

Examples of the most common options for peaceful employment, taking into account various aspects of masculine character, are given in Nonviolence in Action: Methods and Approaches, in the section on Economy and business (civic engagement, charitable work, etc.).

"People have a certain characteristic that constantly causes trouble and catastrophes — even such catastrophes as senseless wars, whose conclusions are celebrated with parades and carnivals. This quality is submissiveness, the readiness to be obedient. With this quality, people are ready to submit themselves to anything that could demand it of them convincingly enough.

After WW2 there was a scientist, Stanley Milgram, who tried to find out what made ordinary, everyday citizens participate in war crimes en masse. He wanted to find out what made respectable fathers go and murder other fathers with their battalions and weapons. What made them service the camp crematoria? What made them do senseless, nightmarish things? Milgram conducted an experiment, the results of which were astounding. Here’s the gist of this experiment. The participant was asked, under some pretext, to shock another volunteer by pressing buttons. In fact, there was no current, and the second participant was an actor, but the subjects didn’t know this. They saw an authoritative-looking man in a white coat, “a leader.” They saw the impressive electric shock “device” with labeled buttons and a nameplate. The subject couldn’t see the other dummy participant, but they could hear him hitting the wall with his feet — this occurred after increasing the force of the “shock” beyond a certain point. They wanted to find out how far a normal person would go in fulfilling the requirements of an important leader. They assumed that only a small percentage, or even a fraction of a percentage, of the participants would reach the end. But in fact most reached the end. People started to be doubtful, but the man in the white coat calmly and confidently told them to continue — that was enough for them to do so. Don’t forget that this was a voluntary experiment and nobody was held there by force. The experiment was repeated many times, even changing the conditions such as the country in which it took place and the gender of the participants, but the results didn’t significantly change. The majority of the volunteers were ready to do anything abominable if ordered to do so. This is a proven fact.

People are roughly the same everywhere. The soldiers of one army are not different in any way from those of another army. Soldiers, and not only soldiers, are ready to murder and die simply because they were told to do so. And they kill. And they die. All because the Motherland ordered it. And soldiers (young men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, dads and moms) do whatever, go wherever. Do not say that one is attacking while the other is defending. That’s nonsense. ”Wherever they order, we go.”

People! Since we’re here, take a look at your commanders’ faces. Look at the chiefs of all ranks, at the presidents. Listen to what they say. Look at what they are doing and why. Think. These people stand above you, their diseased will is not to be questioned.

Since Milgram has shown us the explanation for evil, maybe we can start to somehow rid ourselves of this slavish obedience; maybe we can try not to give up our personal responsibility to anyone in exchange for… everything. Leave me my life, my family, my arms and legs, my conscience. On this condition, I promise to hold myself accountable for all my actions.

And I advise you to do the same."

The Feast of Obedience
Kamil Churaev

Put this way, the question is badly framed from the start. It assumes too much.

From a materialistic point of view, nobody owes anyone anything. No institution is guaranteed existence, even less our support.
From a spiritual point of view, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Romans 13:8).

Therefore, if someone decides to enter the army to participate in collective protection, such a decision can be only voluntary.

And such an army must operate without shedding blood, because it is unacceptable to use violence and to attract others into this practice.

Here are some examples of organisations that fit this description:

  • Christian Peacemaker Teams
  • Peace Brigades International
  • Nonviolent Peaceforce

For more details see Nonviolence in action, section Conflict resolution

This is a widespread point of view among people who are untrained in nonviolence. These are people who did not have good teachers, or good opportunities, or desires to learn. As a result, nonviolence appears to them to be a matter of passivity and powerlessness. Do not be alarmed if these people represent an overwhelming majority in your community. Instead, take the necessary measures — see Nonviolence — Where do I begin?

What nonviolence really means is knowing how to avoid conflicts. And if conflicts arise — even direct attacks — nonviolence means to resolve them bloodlessly.

Our resource center is concerned with precisely this: learning how to respond this way. We are ourselves learners. The number of actual teachers is tiny.

You shall not kill

Nonviolence in action: methods and approaches. Alternative ways and means of protection

See more

Jesus and the army

Is there a clear prohibition against murder in the Gospel? Where and when did Jesus allow for the killing of people?

See more