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Nonviolence – Effective Methods Inspired by Christ

Updated: 3 days ago

James Lawson showed us how to practice nonviolence.

Photo of Rev. James Lawson sitting at a microphone gesturing as though making a point.
Photo: ufcw770, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest civil rights leaders in our nation’s history, the Rev. James Lawson, died this week.  He was a masterful teacher of Jesus’s call to reject violence in our dealings with one another.  We can apply his methods in our personal lives, even as we celebrate his public successes.


An advocate for nonviolence who guided others to effective action


Few Americans can tell you anything about Jim Lawson.  This is not surprising, considering the limited education many of us have received regarding the fight to end our nation’s tarnished history of race-based oppression.  Few Americans, when asked to talk about that era, can get much beyond Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.  Rev. Jim Lawson is one of the many lesser-known heroes of that time.


Lawson was a student at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville when plans were first formulated in 1959 to use sit-ins to protest segregated lunch counters.  There, he taught Black students how to use nonviolent methods to protest the unequal treatment they faced.  But his first lesson in the ways of nonviolence came from his mother. 


A formative moment set him on the path to nonviolence


As a child of perhaps 10 years old, Lawson had once slapped a White child who threw the n-word at him.  When he proudly told his mother what he had done, she asked him what good he had accomplished by that.  She reminded him that he was loved by his family and by God, who all knew his character and intelligence, and she suggested he could ignore “ignorant words from an ignorant child” (quoted in David Halberstam, The Children, Fawcett Books, 1998, p. 31).


Later in life, Lawson said that his conversion to nonviolence began in that interchange with his mother.  By the time he went to college, nonviolence was a commitment.  Before he graduated, he went to prison rather than serve in the Korean War.  His faith in the nonviolent teachings of Jesus held firm.


After prison, Lawson had a chance to serve as a missionary in India.  While there, he saw firsthand Mohandas K. Gandhi’s practice of nonviolence.  When we returned to the United States, he found an opportunity in Nashville to put his learning into practice.


Training students in the methods of nonviolence


In late 1959, Lawson began leading workshops that brought together students from several Nashville area universities who wanted to join the work of the civil rights movement.   Their goal was to integrate the lunch counters in downtown Nashville; but Lawson knew they needed some adjustments in their own psyches in order to be ready.


As David Halberstam relates in his book The Children, first Lawson had to help them embrace the philosophy of nonviolence.  He taught them the power of Jesus’s directive to love your enemy (Matthew 5:43-45).  He taught them to value the rightness of their cause, and to believe that righteous actions can change unjust laws.


Then he taught them how to respond when mistreated, as they undoubtedly would be.  They had to be able to get beyond the n-word and the anger it would provoke.  Halberstam describes Lawson’s teaching in this way: “You are all someone, he taught, you are all children of God, you have within you, the greatest of qualities, human nobility.  The true children of God, he taught them, do not reap anger or violence on others. . . .  They who were about to be abused had to try to understand their own anger and control it.  He and the people he was advising needed to end the cycle of violence.  They had to start by forgiving their enemies.  Just as Jesus and Gandhi would have done” (p. 78).


Lawson put the students through rigorous role-playing exercises, practicing the role of protestor and taking turns being the White antagonists.  They would subject the “protestors” to all kinds of verbal abuse.  They would physically jostle and poke them.  They would pour salt on the heads of “protestors” and subject them to other indignities.


All of this was designed so that each participant could get used to the feeling of being mistreated, recognize how anger would rise inside of them, and learn how they could control the anger and respond nonviolently, no matter what happened.


How Lawson responded when personally mistreated


One day, Lawson was unexpectedly called upon to demonstrate what he was teaching.  Some white men attacked a group of students outside before they even reached the lunch counter.  Lawson came over.  When the leader of the attackers, who was wearing a motorcycle jacket, saw Lawson’s quiet assurance, he spat at Lawson.  Halberstam tells us what happened next:


Lawson looked at him and asked him for a handkerchief.  The man, stunned, reached in his pocket and handed Lawson a handkerchief, and Lawson wiped the spit off himself as calmly as he could.  Then he looked at the man’s jacket and started talking to him. . . . Jim asked a technical question or two and the young man started explaining what he had done to customize his bike.  Amazingly, . . . these two men were now talking about the levels of horsepower in motorcycles; a few seconds earlier, they had seemed to be sworn enemies, one ready to maul the other. . . .  In that brief frightening moment, Jim had managed to find a subject which they both shared and had used it in a way that made each of them more human in the eyes of the other.  As they walked away, Jim waved to the man, and the man remained still, neither accepting the friendship nor, for that matter, rejecting it.  It had been a marvelous example of Christian love. . . .


In that split-second of confrontation Jim Lawson not only had conquered his ego, he had forced his enemy in some basic way to try and see him as a man. (David Halberstam, The Children, Fawcett Books, 1998, pp. 137-138)


Lawson showed his students the true meaning of loving one’s enemy as he guided them to success in the 1960 Nashville sit-ins.


Lessons we can learn


There are many lessons we can draw from just these few moments in the life of Jim Lawson:


  • A few well-chosen words at the right time can influence a child, or anyone, for a lifetime.


  • Training is essential, especially where our emotions try to get involved.  We must learn to be as detached as Rev. Lawson was, when our anger might otherwise get in the way of our commitment.  Sometimes we fumble a chance to be a voice for the ways of Jesus because we let our emotions jump in, ahead of our mind and will.  The Letter to James tells us that the anger of a human does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).  Training our emotions to stay in their place is in important step toward effectiveness in everything we do.


  • One of the keys to approaching an “enemy” is to make a point of personal connection.  They might no longer see us as just an “other,” and we, too, will see beyond the surface of the other.  In bridging the gap between people, there is the possibility for changing human hearts.  This is something that can be practiced in the realm of difficult political battles, as all mediation and negotiation must try to do.  It can also be practiced in our everyday lives – when we engage someone who supports “the other guy” rather than our candidate, or practices a different religion, or disagrees with us on a pressing social issue.  Finding points of personal connection might help reduce the barriers that keep us apart.


  • The teachings of Jesus about nonviolence are still relevant.  A nation that claims to believe in justice cannot forever ignore an insistent, nonviolent witness that asks it to live up to its ideals.  Violence provides an excuse for governments both to quash protestors and ignore their message.  Nonviolent resistance holds up a mirror that forces democratic governments to see and respond to the darkness that clouds their unrighteous claims.


Halberstam summarized his impression of Rev. Lawson in this way: “Mild and gentle he might seem, but he was a true radical Christian, who feared neither prison nor death” (p. 49).


Thank you, God, for the witness of Jim Lawson.  May all who profess faith in Jesus be as fearless and radical in their commitment to the ways of Christ.




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