We live in a violent world. The war in Ukraine is killing thousands and causes huge waves of refugees, economic instability and food shortages. The war in Syria is still going on, and the conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan no longer even make headlines. During most of the last decade, the world has become less peaceful.
In response to such violence, many people think that the solution is more violence. Conventional wisdom tells us that we need to arm ourselves so we become stronger and deadlier than the “bad guys”.
Christian pacifists, who just like most Christians for the first 300 years believe that Jesus’ words about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek mean that we should not use violence, are often accused of being naive. Some have even claimed that Christian pacifism is evil! While abstaining from violence sounds loving in theory, many argue that the practical consequences of such a stance is catastrophic with countless innocent people killed as the “good guys” refused to harm or kill those who were after civilian blood.
War and violence are thus portrayed as a necessary evil, a last resort that we unfortunately have to use to stop authoritarian, mass-killing regimes.
All this is intuition. It’s what seems reasonable. But when researchers started to compare violent resistance to nonviolent resistance, they were in for a chock.
It turns out that nonviolence is at least twice as effective.
I encountered this research when I was part of a program in peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University. The findings is a real game-changer, making scholars from all around the world rethinking the need and use for military violence in the modern era.
An influential study by conflict researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan from 2012 showed that nonviolent movements are twice as effective as violent movements in achieving their goals. They expanded upon this research in the book Why Civil Resistance Works. They collected data from over 300 protest movements between 1900 and 2016. 53 % of the nonviolent movements managed to achieve their goal, usually a change of regime, within a year, compared with 26% of the violent movements.
Of the 25 largest movements they studied, 20 were nonviolent, and 14 of them achieved their goals. Most astonishingly, if the nonviolent movements included at least 3.5% of the population, they always succeeded in meeting their goal. Always. Chenoweth calls this the “3.5 rule”.
This study was groundbreaking, as no one had compared the results of violent and nonviolent methods in such a comprehensive way before. In 2018, Chenoweth published a new study together with Evan Perkoski that examined how well nonviolence compared to violence counteracted mass killing, when regimes kill 1000 people or more. They found that nonviolent movements were five times more effective at avoiding this than violent movements.
What are the reasons for the effectiveness of nonviolence? Chenoweth points to several factors. Nonviolence is generally cheaper and can easily recruit many more, there is greater variety of nonviolent methods than violent methods, it is psychologically more difficult for loyalists to harm or kill nonviolent trainees than armed rebels, and it is easier for loyalists to change sides and unite with nonviolent protests and nonviolent sabotage.
Chenoweth’s work has made a significant impact on peace and conflict research in general. Even non-pacifists like James Pattison and Ed Cairns have gained greater respect for non-violent methods and warned against resorting to violence too quickly. Cairns wrote:
I’ve never believed that pacifism is an adequate answer to a world of atrocities that – in truly exceptional cases – call out for an armed response. But there’s an awful lot of evidence for caution – and reason to give peace a chance.
Note that Chenoweth’s research does not say that nonviolence leads to guaranteed success. Rather, nonviolence is more likely to succeed than violence. Even in countries where nonviolent campaigns have failed, people have been ten times more likely to move to democracy within a five-year period than if they protested with violence.
Even if you can not guarantee that non-violence will succeed, you can also not guarantee that violence will succeed. The “necessary” in violence as “necessary evil” is difficult to prove scientifically.
This is great news! Loving enemies, like Jesus commanded us to, is actually more beneficial than killing them. Such love does not have to be at the expense of protecting the innocent. The question now is if the leaders of the world will take this research seriously and spend time and money developing nonviolent defense systems rather than military ones?