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 depending on his wife and daughters to pick the crops while being protected by local constables. Eventually, he gave in and fled Ireland altogether.

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

More than 130 years later, boycotts have become a staple of nonviolent resistance and economic suasion. Christian groups, in particular, appear to have an 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. More recently, liberals activists have targeted the Komen foundation for defunding Planned Parenthood, while conservative activists objected to J.C. Penny because the company hired a homosexual woman, Ellen DeGeneres, as its spokeswoman.

Who Would Isaiah Boycott?

When deciding whether to use the tactic of boycotting, we tend to fall back on the pragmatic question, “Will it be effective?” Rarely do we weigh the more pertinent consideration: Should Christians even engage in boycotts? And, if so, when can they be legitimately used?

For many Christians in America, to even ask such questions is absurd. Because of their association with the era of civil rights and other laudable movements of the 1960s, boycotts tend to have an air of romance. 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 has explained, 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, reliance on his redeeming power, and a realistic eschatological hope.

Yet in our fallen world, uses of power—both violent and nonviolent—can sometimes be legitimate and necessary. If boycotts have any lawful 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 trivializes whatever legitimacy the tactic may have. While Disney and J. C. Penny may be in the wrong, they are not committing evils that justify the use of coercion for their correction. Nonviolent resistance should be weighed carefully, especially in situations when violent resistance would be considered an absurd option. Unless we think that Mickey Mouse and Ellen are legitimate combatants, we should carefully consider why we believe it is necessary to use such a drastic coercive measure.

Rebuke, Don’t Boycott

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 people 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 commerce to an otherwise licit venture has no obvious biblical warrant.

To clarify, the term boycott here refers to the act of refusing to use, buy, or deal with a business as an expression of protest or as a means of economic coercion. The concern, for Christians, should be with the coercion part. Simply refusing to participate in an economic transaction with an individual or company is not a boycott. Our choosing not to spend money on lottery tickets is a values-based economic decision, but it is not a form of coercion. As Alan Noble recently said, “Whether it is through votes or dollars, coercing someone to accept our position is nihilistic: it suggests that real change—change of heart and mind—is impossible, or unlikely, and so the safest bet is to make it profitable to adopt our beliefs.”

Forcing someone to adopt our beliefs—whether by violence or economic threat—is a questionable use of our economic power. “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 the claim of the brilliant Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz: “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 may be turning away from righteousness toward an unjust form of economic warfare.