Choosing to Live Actively, in Peace
Updated: Oct 3
Violence leaves ugly images in our minds and hearts. We don’t usually need help interpreting a burning house with a nearby sign that says, “Go Back Home.” We are repulsed by acts of destructive force or of subtle verbal manipulation. We see them as unjust, because they exert power over another person, family, institution, or country.
Non-violence may be more difficult to define or describe, but I offer three main components that need to be present to recognize actions as positive alternatives. 1) Behaviors between and among humans will show mutual respect. 2) Disputes or disagreements will be acknowledged by all sides involved. 3) Resolution must be intent on safekeeping the dignity of each person, side, or group that’s involved.
For Anabaptists, it may be especially important to understand that non-violence is not passive. It’s more than not violent, more than inaction. Being a bystander can be a means of avoidance. But being non-violent requires an active choice that considers and respects the rights of all individuals and groups affected.
In my historical fiction trilogy, Scruples on the Line: A Fictional Series Set During the American Civil War, narrated by five voices from traditional peace churches, Esther Shank is the character who lives in the Shenandoah Valley, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her husband and oldest son flee their home area several times to avoid serving in the Confederate Army; another son willingly joins the South’s army. Several middle-aged children and two babies stay at home with Esther.
By late spring of 1864 she becomes aware of ominous reports that the North is sending soldiers toward Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, these soldiers are very hungry. What if General Robert E. Lee sends Southern men to confront these Northerners who are seen as invaders? Esther recognizes the rampant conditions of upcoming violence: soldiers at cross-purposes marching nearby, putting children and other non-participants of war in harm’s way. How will she protect and feed her young ones in non-violent ways?
Here are Esther’s words of narration from chapter 10 of Book III, Passages.
“The man stumbled in our house last week like a drunk one. My butcher knife at the ready on the chopping block. I only meant to keep him at bay. Other soldiers shouted outside. Was it so wrong to hide a loaf for my children? How many loaves have I given away? Plus, my man and three big boys given, one way or another. Taken! On the day the soldiers came again, I sent William outside with orders: ‘Give each man one loaf to his lonesome.’ I kept one loaf for my children to share.
“I said to Mary Grace afterwards: ‘I’m not a bad person. I don’t want anyone to starve.’ I said it again; she nodded. Now she reminds me to eat—our Miriam, four months, needs nourishment…
“The men at our place—ravenous and lacking manners—shouted outside, until this wild one staggered in, his eyes glazed. I shook in my bones. What did he intend? The last loaf at the far end of Miriam’s cradle, back in the back room, under bedding. Others tell of hiding eggs, too. The smell of bread lingered, but that man wasn’t going near my babe. I waved my knife like a sword. I meant no harm. Mary Grace says I shouted."
This example from Esther’s life is only one brief excerpt of the types of challenges that occur repeatedly for Anabaptist adults and children. Must they choose to follow the advice and act on the words of Luke from the New Testament: “Give to everyone who begs from you; and when someone takes your things, don’t ask for them back”? Does “love your enemies” in the Sermon on the Mount mean the men with a conscience against killing are allowed to hide or flee? Must a non-violent citizen hand over his boots to a barefoot deserter? Must she offer a blanket and safe place to sleep, beside their only remaining horse?
Look again at Esther’s thoughts, actions, and behaviors in 1864. Like most of us, she is a mixture of character flaws and heroism. How do you respond to a stranger who asks for help, or who takes without asking?
Being non-violent is not hypothetical or easy. As we read these print books, we may cheer or grieve in testing our beliefs and practices against those of our historical ancestors. Currently, the books are also available on audible.com by the same titles: Shadows (I), Loyalties (II), and Passages (III), and work is underway to prepare the audiobooks for availability in public libraries. Reading and hearing models of non-violence from Civil War times can inspire us to live in peace actively right now.
Evie Yoder Miller