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Non-violence Is Not Enough: the need to deal with coercive control

Tuesday, 12 July 2022  | Dave Andrews

I have a friend called Zalman Kastel who is an orthodox Jewish Rabbi. One day I asked Zalman what he finds most confronting in the teaching of Jesus. He said it was his radical call to practice unflinching non-violence in the face of violence. I said to him that many Christians aren’t even aware of how integral nonviolence is to the gospel of Jesus. Zalman said they obviously hadn’t studied the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible to read the Sermon on the Mount and not realise nonviolence is central to the gospel of Jesus

Jesus said, ‘Don’t react violently against those who attack you. If anyone hits you on one cheek, turn the other cheek’ (Matt 5:39). He told his disciples to put aside their weapons, ‘for all who live by the sword will die by the sword’ (Luke 22:36–38). He said ‘Do good to all people, even to those who do evil to you. Love those who hate you. Bless those who curse you’ (Matt 5:44).

Under his guidance, the Jesus movement became an active, radical, revolutionary peace movement. For three centuries, Christianity remained more or less a pacifist movement. The Apostles taught Christians the pacifist principle: ‘Love does no harm to its neighbour’ (Rom 13:10). Paul taught Christ followers to ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge’ (Rom 12:14–19). On the contrary, ‘If your enem[ies] are hungry, feed [them]; if [they] are thirsty, give [them] something to drink.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Rom 12:20–21).

And many people in the Waiters Union, the faith community I'm in here in Brisbane, still seek to practice active, radical, revolutionary nonviolence.

However, the French Christian philosopher, Jacques Ellul, suggests we would do well to remember that, for Jesus, non-violence is not a practice of primary value, but a practice of secondary value, contingent upon the practice of non-dominance as a primary value. In other words, it is likely we will only be willing to lay down our swords, if we are prepared to lay down our lives for others.

Jesus said, ‘You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matt 20:25-28).

According to Jesus, we must set aside our structures, strategies and tactics of coercive control, and we will only do so, if we, like him, set aside any intention we have to control others, and instead commit ourselves to serve others, and spend our lives enabling, equipping, and empowering them.

Recently, 2000 years after Jesus first called us to stop using coercion to control others, the Queensland Government finally legislated against any ongoing attempt to control others by abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation ‘that erodes a person's autonomy and ability to flourish’.

It is important for all of us to support the government’s public campaign in society against coercive control in family relationships because ‘many victim survivors of intimate partner violence describe coercive control as the most harmful aspect of their abusive relationship. Victims – who are mostly women – may be trapped in a relationship characterised by fear and manipulation for decades without any physical violence, but the torment is just as devastating’.

But it is also important for us to critically reflect on communities like ours, who might pride ourselves on a political commitment to nonviolence, yet personally be guilty of coercive control.

An obvious example of coercive control was in the way I tried to manage the matter of the fridge:

When Ange and I lived in India, we tried to have a standard of living similar to the standard of living for our Indian friends. Since most of our friends didn’t have a fridge, we decided not to have a fridge. But over the years, as each successive summer brought the searing heat that left our fridge-less fresh food rotten, Ange suggested we revisit our decision about the fridge. Each year, I vetoed the decision in the name of ‘sacrificial involvement’, which I said meant ‘sacrificial identification’ with our friends who had no fridge. Then one year, when I vetoed the decision to get a fridge in the name of ‘sacrifice’, it was too much for Ange. She asked me why I could have a motorbike, but she couldn’t have a fridge. I answered that I needed the motorbike for my ‘ministry’. She countered by saying that she needed a fridge for her ‘ministry’. Then she said something I will never forget. She said that if I was radically committed to sacrificial involvement and identification, I shouldn’t sacrifice something that was important to her, but I should sacrifice something that was important to myself. She said that for me to take something that was important to her and sacrifice it was not radical, but hypocritical. So I sold the motorbike and bought the fridge.

A less obvious example of coercive control was the way I manipulated consensus decision-making.

When Ange and I got married we resolved to make decisions by consensus, and for most of our marriage, we did. At least, for most of our marriage, I thought we did. So it came as a significant shock to me when, after some years, Ange said to me that she had never agreed to many of the decisions we had made together. When I talked with her and tried to figure out why she felt this way, it became clear that, even though Ange and I always made decisions together, I tended to dictate the speed of the decision-making process, which left Ange, who needed to make decisions more slowly, often feeling hurried, rushed and pushed into decisions prematurely. I needed to realise that for me, as Carl Jung says, ‘Hurry is the devil’.

Paul said, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… and becoming a humble human being, obedient unto death …’ (Phil 2:5-8).

It is not enough for us to be non-violent, ‘setting aside our swords’; we need to be non-dominant, ‘taking on the form of a servant’, spending our lives enabling, equipping and empowering others.

For me this means I need to serve my wife Ange, whom many of you know these days is not very well, by being present and sensitive to her, being supportive and protective of her, and having lots of fun and laughter with her.

What does this mean for you in your relationships?


Dave and Ange Andrews and their family have lived and worked in intentional communities with marginalised groups of people in Australia, Afghanistan, India and Nepal for fifty years. You can read their story in 'To Right Every Wrong', which Engage.Mail has reviewed here.

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