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Lee: Thoreau’s vision of civil disobedience, and even that of the Civil rights movement, was primarily nonviolent. Was there a turning point of people thinking that protest was dominantly nonviolent? Or was there a time when protest was just seen as inevitably becoming more violent?
Daniel K. Williams: The whole idea of political protest is something that I’m not sure was conceivable to people in the early church in the way that it is today. I think in the New Testament, the way that these stories were told was part of a package of proclaiming Jesus as the sovereign Lord over all of the earth. And Caesar, as well as every other king, of course, was far below that.
That was the framework. It wasn’t the idea that the government of Rome needed to be challenged or changed. It was rather that the government of Rome had no legitimate authority over Christians, except for that authority that God had given to that power. And so that’s the framework in which I think Christian martyrdom occurred for the first few centuries.
Thoreau had a very different framework. His was the framework of the new American Republic and the idea that this is a government that has been created contractually. It’s a Lockean framework. Well, if that’s your framework, at what point did nonviolent protest take hold instead of violence?
And I guess I would say that with the American Revolution, it started nonviolently. The early demonstrations in the 1760s and even very early 1770s against British power were not directly violent. They involved a lot of petitions, pamphlets, street theater, and that sort of thing. And violence only developed.
And I guess I would say the same thing with Thoreau. He was an advocate of nonviolence and he believed that this could be done nonviolently. Within a decade, others like John Brown thought differently over the same issue and most of the rest of the country was beginning to think differently.
There, of course, are those who’ve drawn a firm line between nonviolence and violence. And there’s, of course, a strong Christian tradition on that side. One could look at the Quakers and find many examples of creative ways to nonviolently challenge slavery or other injustices.
For others, it’s been a less firm line. And many people started out as advocates of nonviolence—Frederick Douglass would be one example—who then became willing to accept at least one form of violence. Sometimes people would differentiate and say they might accept state violence through war, but not necessarily private violence around the lines of John Brown.