Christian Nonviolent Direct Action as Public Theology

Nonviolent vigil at Baxter Detention Centre
Peace Tree Community nonviolent vigil at Baxter Detention Centre

In  August 2005 a group known as Christians Against Greed joined a rowdy protest against a conference of global corporations at the Sydney Opera House, and found themselves sharing the Eucharist with riot police and anarchists. On Human Rights Day that year, four activists calling themselves Christians Against All Terrorism broke into and attempted a “citizens’ inspection” of the Pine Gap spy base. One week after their trial ended in 2007, five people walked into a war games zone at Shoalwater Bay to play frisbee with defence personnel.

These events were all very public and deeply theological. Yet we tend not to consider them, and other actions like them, as examples of public theology – a term for the process of the church thinking and speaking to the general public about contemporary issues.

In this paper I want to argue that we need a broader understanding of ‘public theology’ that includes public action on the part of the church (or members of the church) that speaks directly into the public sphere. I suggest that Christian nonviolent direct action should be seen in this light, and that both the acts themselves and the public statements made by the actors are clearly designed to articulate a Christian message in response to critical problems of their time.

In this paper I look at three recent examples of Christian nonviolent direct action in Australia. Using the ‘best practice principles’ for public theology identified by John W. de Gruchy, I will explore the way in which these actions make statements to the public about God’s judgment of current policies and God’s vision for a transformed world.

Read the full paper here (4000 words, 434kb PDF)

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10 thoughts on “Christian Nonviolent Direct Action as Public Theology

  1. Thanks for this Justin. I have added it to my Facebook profile and also to the page of “Worth Reading” stuff I run for St Mary’s Community in South Brisbane.

    I am inspired by the concept of public theology and the principles of John W. de Gruchy.

    Thanks for the challenge
    Tony Robertson

  2. Hey ya Justin – thanks for the reflection.

    I was interested in the photo of Carole and I at court with the “who would Jesus bomb” – love to get a copy!- where did you get it from?

    The more substantive thought is that I think we need to be careful about positioning oursleves and our tactics as ‘different’ to the rest of the protest movement. I think we are absolutely part of this mob, especially the wider tradition of NVDA. While we might have our own perspective, spritituality and energy to it, so does each activist group/individual. I get particularly nervous when we talk about positioning oursleves between cops and protestors (not that I”m saying this is what you did, just a bit of a tendancy I’ve noticed) as this is NOT where I stand. I stand in protest and resistance, and while I feel free to critique fellow protestors’ tactics, I do not stand between them and the state.

  3. Hi Jess,

    The photo is from the Samuel Hill 5 blogspot site,

    I hear your comment about differentiation. Although having said that, I know people have done exactly that kind of interpositioning that you talk about – indeed, the photo of the Peace Tree crew at Baxter in this post is, I understand, an example of that when things were getting a little out of hand between police and protestors.

    Another friend of mine found himself inserting himself between protestors and police at an anit-WTO rally (at which he was also a protestor).

    I think it points also to the broader issue of doing specifically “Christian” actions vs. joining with others in a “secular” action. That’s something I’m keen to research for a follow-up paper!

  4. NVDA has, I believe, evolved in the rich white world as a mechanism by which alienated citizens (christian or otherwise) seek to redefine their own identity as different from, or opposed to, the constructions of identity inherent in conservative christianity and mainstream society. The individual is so disturbed by the horrors of war and injustice that they are compelled to renounce their complicity, they seek to resolve their own inner anxieties. This resolution takes the form of a public identification with a new set of values, presented as an alternative to the value systems that enable war and injustice.

    However, this self serving mode of action of people in the rich white world has no relationship with the victims of war and injustice and embodies no strategy or direction by which either war can be ended, nor by which the victims can organise and become empowered.

    “Public Theology” has become little more than the expression of opinion in public rather than as an active social movement for change as was created by folk such as Martin Luther King or Ghandi.

    With King and Ghandi, the symbolic protests were just the icing on the cake. They were the propaganda tactics that supported a much bigger movement, in both cases primarily designed to withdraw wealth from the oppressor. Ghandi’s salt marches and textile boycotts were not (just) symbolic gestures but they were designed to prevent Britain profiting from its occupation of India. The non-violent strategy of Ghandhi was not public theology but rather it was a direct economic attack on the invader.

    Similarly King’s civil rights marches and the nonviolent confrontations with water canon, dogs and batons, was not (just) communicating a message of peace but it was to add public pressure to the boycott movement, where by segregated industry was boycotted causing direct economic pain to the opponent. A community with an organised black population, even as low as 5%, could threaten the profits margins of any local business, greater numbers could rapidly collapse a business. The Montgomery bus boycott was not (just) about the personal resistance of Rosa Parkes. Without a co-ordinated mass boycott, Rosa Parkes would have been just another angry black person in gaol.

    I notice in De Gruchy’s principles there is nothing about involving the poor, the victims of war and injustice into the scheme of public witness.

    Justin is correct when he says……..”Christian nonviolent direct action speaks, in slightly different ways, to four different audiences: the government, the wider public, the movement for peace and justice, and the church.”……..But where do the poor, the victims, those prioritised by God, fit into this scheme of things?

    In most cases, including the radical Catholic Worker movement, the poor are just clients of welfare programs totally detatched from the political and public process of theology. The main actors remain the christian activist, not the poor themselves. The victims of war in Iraq, Afghanistan etc. are just theatrical backdrops to the public activities of the christian activists, they are not considered to be relevant to the leadership and direction of the campaign against the war.

    The artist formerly known as Ratzinger killed off the emergence of liberation theology – a theology forged of the experience and necessities of the poor in South America. It articulated a radical vision of justice that was designed and controlled by the poor themselves. it directly empowered the poor.

    Does NVDA directly empower the poor? Or does it just use the poor as a subject of its own public commentary?

    This is an article I wrote on this stuff
    “Pacifism and Liberation Theology”

    And here is a brief description of liberation theology, which I suggest is much more in tune with King and Ghandi and Jesus than the ideology of NVDA
    “Making common cause with the poor” – the Liberation Theology of Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff

    John Tracey

  5. Thanks John, a challenging response!

    I’ve alerted folks to your comment. Hopefully we’ll get a few replies shortly from folks who have participated in these actions.

  6. John,

    A welcome and thought provoking response, one that requires reflection and dialogue.

    If I understand you correctly you are holding out a clear challenge to those of us who long to follow Jesus’s radical path of nonviolent resistance and transformation.

    It seems to me that those that advocate nonviolent resistance and are informed by Christian faith are challenged to ensure that nonviolent resistance is not merely symbolic but withdraws support from the key sources of power that props up the particular injustice we are seeking to change.

    To do that effectively requires that nonviolent resistance is organised, collective, persistent and connected to a strategy of change that targets the sources of power. And for those us in the majority world who are engaged in solidarity we are required to take the time and energy to build real and ongoing relationships with those affected by injustice, the poor and oppressed. And that this work will be long and difficult and disturb and challenge those of us living in the comfortable and isulated world, in places like Australia. Our task here is to move closer towards right relationships and justice. And that movement will often mean more conflict and often more violence from those whose interests are challenged. I do agree with you that our role as privilged solidarity activists is to join hands to respectfully support the strategies of the poor and oppressed in their own struggles for liberation. That will also benefit people like myself who are privileged (white, male and comparitively speaking, wealthy).

    To do all this with integrity requires those of us who are are beneficiaries of systems of class, race and power to work on transforming structures of oppression in our context. In the case of Australia that includes confronting the dispossession of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, working to address the violence of capitalism, sexism and other systems of oppression.

    Personally, i am also guided by a framework that seeks personal and spiritual transformation alongside nonvioelnt resistance to injustice and the building of alternative processes and structures that meet the needs of the poor and the living earth.

    For me, doing this not out of guilt but out of a desire to seek justice and joy is a deep challenge. To recognise my own shortcomings and inconsistencies and to keep going anyway present additional challenges.

    But the biggest challenge that your response holds out to me John is that too often those of us who engage in solidarity – whether we be Christians or secular folks – do so to salve our conscience rather than seeking to be effective. I need to work with those at the pointy end of injustice to win real changes and real justice in the world. That’s a challenge worth responding to with action, day in, day out.

    Thanks for holding it out and opening up dialogue. I look forward to reading others responses.



  7. My challenge is not just to NVDA. The way in which the church, including the radical communities, relates to the poor is within a framework of affluent and imperial consciousness.

    Whether it be the institutions such as the Salvos or St. Vinnies or the radical hospitality of christian community, the framework of engagement is within a welfare charity mode where the christian/missionary has all the power and the poor are just powerless recipients of charity.

    Like NVDA, the welfare/charity mode is driven primarily by the desire of the christian activist to deal with their own inner motivations such as fulfilling a religious obligation or a personal desire to have a relationship with the poor.

    The poor must come into our own philosophical or institutional framework and a relationship is built totally within the terms of the christian activists own needs and agendas.

    Like NVDA, the poor fulfill the needs of the christian activist rather than the other way around. The poor become the platform on which the christian activists can manifest their own ideas and priorities.

    When christians read the bible, they often identify with the apostles and seek the meaning of Jesus as if it were preached directly to them. However the apostles and the whole Jesus movement up to the 2nd century was an indigenous hebrew movement, disposessed of its land by the brutality of the Roman empire. The contemporary parralell of the apostles of the bible are not the rich white christians in Australia, we are the gentiles, samaritans and Romans of the bible story.

    Even the Roman centurion was welcomed into the Jesus movement, but he had to join and adopt the spiritual consciousness of the indigenous Hebrews, he had to live according to the God of the land and the poor, not his imperial masters.

    The rich young ruler was not asked to extend a helping hand to the poor but rather to sell all he had and give it to the poor – to existentially join the poor.

    Jesus calls the rich to a family relationship with the poor, to join the poor who, in the bible, are the disposessed Aborigines (lost sheep) of Israel. They had a culture, a spirituality and a social organisation which could be joined. Poverty was not a theoretical concept that the disciples discussed, it was their very life. This poverty is where we find Jesus.

    “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” yet what has the church done to the “least of these” in today’s world? At best they have offered a coffee, a sandwich or perhaps substandard temporary accomodation. is this really good news for the poor? or is it a satisfying feel-good project for the rich? Church social justice reports or public witness events may clearly articulate a problem that those “other” people have – the Aborigines or the homeless or the starving Africans, but such so-called prophecy speaks from outside of the experience of poverty and oppression. The christians might consider themselves advocates of the poor and oppressed but this is a self appointed authority based on the values and consciousness from within the rich sociology.

    Since Constantine bastardised and co-opted the indigenous Hebrew religion, christians (radical and conservative) have imposed their own imperial culture and consciousness onto the indigenous stories of the bible. The message of Jesus is no longer good news for the poor based on the faith, health and action of the poor themselves, as in the new testament. Church mission has evolved to a process of charity and welfare from the rich imperial church extended to the poor, who were made poor by the very same culture that the church has been a pillar of.

    So, I am not just picking on NVDA but rather on the cultural assumptions of modern christianity including the radical communities and activists.

    If the rich young ruler (which i suggest can be used to describe powerful and affluent white Australian society) cannot enter the kingdom of heaven until he has joined the circumstance of the poor as an equal, then any prophetic statement he might make prior to giving all he has to the poor, is not based on the kingdom of heaven but on a material legalism of the kingdom of Caesar or of the corrupt temple hierarchy.

    I claim that non-violence is a material legalism that obstructs rich christians from communion with the poor and entering the kingdom of heaven. I am not pro-violence, like Ghandi I believe non-violence is always the most sensible option. it is the idolotry of raising non-violence – a cultural construct, to the point of a spiritual law.

    I do not condemn the Aboriginal guerilla resistance to British invasion, nor do I condemn the violence inherent in Aboriginal customary law today (e.g ritual spearing or even kidnapping young men against their will for initiation). To understand Aboriginal history and culture, white christian nonviolence has to be, at least temporarily, transcended.

    To transist from a product of affluent imperial society to an equal member of the family of the poor requires a massive consciousness shift – to be born again.

    We have to come to the kingdom as children, not with a sophisticated cultural framework of non-violence. Non-violence is just one of the many conditioned assumptions that we have that need to be transcended before we can even begin to see the truth.

    here is an essay I wrote on being born again

    The power of prophets such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King is that they were speaking on behalf of their own experience and people. Ghandi’s central philosophy was not non-violence, rather it was satyagraha – “truth force”. Ghandi spoke the truth because he lived the truth, not because of a comprehensive moral philosophy that he applied as an advocate to other people’s experience and oppression.

    Thanks for reading my rants,


  8. p.s.

    So, what’s my alternative?……

    I am involved in the Oodgeroo Sacred Treaty Circles process –

    This is a process of direct support for Aboriginal agendas, based on a spiritual unity within aboriginal customary law processes.

    The St. Mary’s Catholic community of South Brisbane (who are presently being threatened by the Vatican with excommunication) have joined this process which, I believe (and hope) can open up new pathways for the whole Australian church to explore new ways of bringing the good news to the poor.

    This process is open to anyone anywhere if anyone wants to get involved, but I am just offering it as an example of a different paradigm of doing theology.

    There are many injustices, not just Aboriginal oppression, but it seems to me that if we can’t address that one, the war under our own feet, then we won’t be able to tackle such things as homelessness, addiction and ecological collapse with anything but tokenistic bandaids. Like the law and culture of the Hebrews, Aboriginal culture has much to offer in developing new paradigms of responding to all the other issues, from outside the sick and dysfunctional imperial culture that has gotten us into all the problems.


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