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In 1873, a retired British Army captain became the agent for the 3rd Earl of Erne’s estates in County Mayo. It didn’t take long for the old soldier to find that he had taken the wrong job at the wrong time. Local tenant farmers, enraged at the high rents being charged by their English landlords, had begun to organize into a group called the Land League and the movement was spreading across the Emerald Isle.

When the captain refused to reduce rents after a poor harvest season, the Land League began applying an unconventional tactic. Local residents refused to sell him supplies, tend his fields, or even to speak to him in passing. The landlord was reduced to having his wife and daughters pick the crops while being protected by local constables. Eventually, he gave in and fled Ireland altogether.

The tactic was so effective that it was introduced in September and by November newspapers in Britain and America were referring to it by the landlord’s name: Charles Cunnigham Boycott.

Over a hundred and thirty years later, boycotts have become a staple of nonviolent resistance and economic suasion. Christian groups, in particular, appear to have a special affinity for the measure, often using it to apply pressure to wayward corporations. In recent years, conservative Catholics and Protestants have punished Disney for various sundry offenses. And, more recently, liberals have targeted Whole Food because the company’s chief executive criticized health care reform plans .

Focusing on the effectiveness of the tactic, however, may be causing believers to miss a more pertinent question: Should Christians even engage in boycotts? And, if so, when can they be legitimately used?

For many Western Christians the question may seem absurd. In America, boycotts tend to have an air of romance because of their association with the era of civil rights and other laudable movements of the 1960s. But while the causes were just, Christians must always be mindful that nonviolence, like just war, can only be considered a necessary evil. As political philosopher Glenn Tinder wrote in a First Things ’ article in 2004, the concept of nonviolent resistance never would have occurred to any of the ancient Hebrew prophets. It is worth remembering that while Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian, he learned his principle techniques from the Hindu leader Gandhi rather than from the founder of his own religion.

The tactic affirmed by Jesus, as Tinder correctly notes, was nonresistance , a way of refusing all power, and completely different from nonviolent resistance , which is always stained by the moral impurities inherent in the use of power. Nonviolent resistance also rests on the assumption that human evil is not so deeply ingrained that it cannot be overcome by a display of profound moral courage. The way of nonviolence requires only strength, fortitude, and a naive view of humanity. By contrast, the way of Jesus requires a willingness to be weak, a reliance on his redeeming power, and a realistic eschatological hope.

In a fallen world, though, uses of power—both violent and nonviolent—can sometimes be legitimate and necessary. The preference, of course, is for nonviolent means but even nonviolent resistance should be forced to meet as stringent set of criteria. (We could use the equivalent of jus ad bellum for non-resistance tactics.)

If boycotts have any legitimate role, it would be as part of a greater nonviolent resistance against a government or other institution that has a coercive control over a people. The boycott of public busing in Montgomery during the 1960s is a prime example.

Using such a tactic on a corporation merely trivializes whatever legitimacy the tactic may have. Disney and Whole Foods may be in the wrong but they are not committing evils to such a degree that the use of coercion is necessary to correct them. Nonviolent resistance should be weighed carefully, especially in situations when violent resistance would be considered an absurd option. Unless you think that Mickey Mouse and the Whole Foods produce manager are legitimate combatants, I see no reason why they should be the object of such a drastic coercive measure.

The righteousness of a cause cannot be imputed to the tactics. Even when we have legitimate concerns about a corporation’s activities, boycotts are almost always an improper abuse of power. Rather than being a loving rebuke, boycotts become a form of moral extortion. By cutting off economic ties with a corporation or business, the boycotters are using coercion to force a person to do something they would not willingly do on their own. While Christians may have legitimate reasons for not using a certain product or associating with a particular business, banding together to cut off legitimate commerce has no Biblical warrant.

(To clarify, the term boycott refers to the act of using , buying , or dealing with as an expression of protest or as a means of coercion. My main concern is with the coercion part. Simply refusing to participate in an economic transaction with an individual or company is not a boycott. For example, my refusal to spend money on strip clubs is a values-based economic decision, but it is not a form of coercion. )

“Nonviolent resistance,” Tinder writes in his book Political Thinking , “is a way of using power and is thoroughly political.” Tinder’s claim brings to mind a Clausewitz quote that, “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” Nonviolent resistance may sometimes be a legitimate political act. But by mixing in the coercive tactic of boycotts we turn away from righteousness and to an unjust form of warfare.

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