Conservative Catholics and Protestants have recently advocated boycotting Disney, Google, J.C. Penny, Lowes, and Starbucks, among other companies because of the actions these entities have taken on socio-political issues. As a result, debate has arisen over whether or not boycotts are "effective" and whether or not Christians should engage in them to influence political and socio-economic change.
At issue is how an "effective" boycott is defined and achieved. It is defined as refusing to use, buy, or associate with a business as a form of protest, using the power of money to achieve a political end. It is achieved when a company assesses that its financial losses will exceed its gains as a result of being boycotted and then changes the policies it would not have otherwise changed had it not been boycotted.
Boycotting is historically considered to be a form of nonviolent resistance, but it is actually coercive, because it forces another to change a particular practice against one's will. Any form of coercion, even economic coercion, is a form of violence.
It's important to note that Ghandi practiced nonviolent resistance to what he perceived as evil or unjust practices, but Jesus did not. Jesus practiced nonresistance (not resisting authority, even when it is unjustly exercised), trusting rather in God than in man to determine the outcome of every situation.
As such, the notion of being coercive through any form, whether through boycott or protest, was not even conceivable to the early followers of Jesus, let alone the Hebrew prophets or the New Testament disciples.
To clarify, there is nothing wrong with choosing not to buy a product or see a movie out of moral conviction, but coercing someone to accept a particular belief system because it is economically profitable is unbiblical.
While Jesus' mission was soteriological, his witness and message was clear as to how his followers must interact with nonbelievers. They are to proclaim His love, forgive those who offend them, and reconcile if possible-even with enemies (Matt. 5:38-48). Likewise, Jesus proclaimed that the two greatest commandments are to "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Luke 10:26-28).
In light of this, it is troubling to understand how any Christian can support economic coercion that forces a person or a corporation to adopt a belief or practice that they would not otherwise willingly choose to do themselves. Cutting off economic ties with a company or refusing to do business with a person eliminates the opportunity for Christians to love their neighbor or to reconcile with them through God's redemptive love.
Christians can still be salt and light in their respective cultures, but never through force. One can confront wrongdoers in a nonviolent way, as Jesus did (Matt. 23:1-36; John 2:13-22), but they must be committed to overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21; 1 Pet. 2:21-24). Banding together to cut off someone else's livelihood is antithetical to the life of a Christ.
Examples abound across America of Christians who choose to love, rather than coerce their neighbor. In Beaumont, Texas, for example, controversy surrounded a strip club's location next to a Baptist church. When asked about the church's position, the minister said, "For me to say that the club is bothering me that would be wrong, because if I call myself a man of God, I got to love my brother in spite of what he may be doing."
In Ocean Grove, N.J., Christians live next door to same-sex couples. Rather than judge them, the Christian community commits to dialogue and to living as neighbors. As the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association president said, "This is an opportunity to show that we respect them."
And throughout the country, Christians sought to combat anti-Islamic rhetoric with "Love They Neighbor" ads, clarifying that "when Jesus said, 'Love your neighbor as yourself' he didn't add stipulations."
It is impossible to both love and coerce someone at the same time. One must choose between the two. No matter what the issue or circumstance may be, Christ commanded his followers to love-regardless of the outcome.
The only effectiveness with which Christians should be concerned is the measure by which they love their neighbor, exhibiting the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.