Four Types of Violence, Part Four: Self-Defense

What I’ve said so far is pretty non-controversial.  Nobody, religious or not, really thinks it’s okay to kill someone for the insurance money, or hunt down and kill someone instead of pressing charges at the police station, or forcibly convert someone (at least nominally) to your religion or point of view.

It’s possible to get so caught up in your nation’s patriotism and propaganda that you miss the fact that a war is primarily about conquest (securing national interests, or, to be cynical, “oil”) as opposed to the official line, which says it’s vital to defend us all from harm.

That’s a failure of discernment, and a dangerous one, but it doesn’t mean people who feel that way actually believe wars of conquest are okay.  A few might, but most do not.

The last type of violence, however, gets the juices flowing.  It’s the difference between just war and pacifism, between the Baptists and Anabaptists.

Self-Defense:  Defensive violence sees an attack in progress and steps in to stop it.

  • It could be a person breaking into a house during the middle of the night, when it’s obvious the owners are home.
  • It could be an invasion by another country.
  • It could be a genocide that merits a peacekeeping action by the U.N. or a coalition of nations.
  • It could be a woman accosted on a city street.
  • It could be World War II.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Do you raise your hand to fight back, or do you stand on principle and allow yourself (or a third party, such as a crime victim or ethnic group facing genocide) to be slaughtered?

It sounds like an easy answer, but the truth is, it’s not.  Jesus talks a lot about peacemakers, about non-aggression, as does the apostle Paul.

And the truth is, just about any war can be justified as a defensive action if the government works hard enough to manipulate public sentiment (or even presents misinformation, such as in the Gulf of Tonkin or U.S.S. Maine incidents).

If “Just War Theory” doesn’t effectively prevent (or at least condemn) any of the many wars the U.S. keeps finding itself in, what it’s good for? 

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Four Types of Violence, Part One: Conquest

David slaying Goliath, painting by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1616 AD

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616 AD

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).

In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.

Conquest, or Selfish Violence – violence committed for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy an appetite, urge, or emotion (such as hatred).  This is the typical robbery and murder that is prohibited by all civilizations and most pre-civilization human societies.

We’ve known this was wrong since before God chose Abraham, but Christ did add something new to even this obvious, black-and-white case: we are not righteous if we only avoid committing the act of violence.  We must also resist the contemplation, the fantasizing, the hate itself that underlies the act [Matthew 5:21-22].

That said, there was one exception in the Old Testament: the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land, which was specifically ordered by God.

Soren Kierkegaard had a term for such things: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That is, the “Knight of Faith” may be asked by God to do things that would not, under other circumstances, be right, like wage a war of conquest or take his only son to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.

There is no reason to believe that, short of a divine revelation of the sort Moses received, that any later wars of conquest can be justified from a Christian perspective.

This seems so obvious to say, but the thing is, whatever war we’re currently contemplating always sounds like the “exception,” whether it involves a full-scale invasion or just bombing a technologically inferior enemy back to the stone age.

I’ve spent too much time talking politics lately, so I’ll just say this. As Christians, we must have some kind of belief that limits violence. We can make an argument for total pacifism. We can make an argument for just war theory. But we cannot, as Christians, argue for Clauswitz’s idea that war is, essentially, just another form of diplomacy. We cannot promote war for “national interests” alone.

We can’t say that whatever country we’re living in deserves our support for all its wars, uncritically. We cannot say, “my country, right or wrong.” We have to be willing to be considered “bad Americans,” “bad British subjects,” or “bad Russians” if that is required of us by Christ.

And if our theory of war never seems to find an “unjust war,” if it justifies every war that our nation desires, then we have a problem.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

Are Pacifists Cowards?

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

One argument I’ve heard against pacifism (or total nonviolence) is that it is a disguise for cowardice. And maybe there was a time when this was true.

Maybe, in World War I or World War II, there were people who claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of pacifism who really weren’t opposed to war, but didn’t want to fight. After all, those wars involved widespread conscription, and people tried a lot of things to avoid the draft.

I’ve got two responses to that argument. The first is that you can’t rightly judge actual pacifists by those who claim pacifism just because they’re scared. This should be obvious.

More importantly, we aren’t in World War II anymore.  Nobody is being drafted into the U.S. Military to go and fight the Taliban. In fact, we’re in process of transitioning from our all-volunteer, professional military fighting a war to unmanned drones targeting “militants” via a Presidential kill list.  Nobody’s claiming pacifism to avoid going to war.

I would argue that right now, in America, it takes more courage to be a pacifist than to not be.  Patriotism is a cardinal virtue here in America, and it seems that patriotism almost always gets wrapped up in militarism.

To support America is to support our troops. To support our troops is to support whatever war congress and the President have sent them to. And to support whatever multibillion dollar weapons system congress is trying to fund this week.  If you don’t support the “$154 million dollar per plane” F-35 jet fighter program, you don’t really love America.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Jet Fighter - for $154 million, it should turn into a robot

Never mind whether it’s true or not. Never mind whether our troops might be better supported and loved by being judicious and critical about sending them off to die. Never mind that the Joint Chiefs don’t even want all the weapons systems congress is throwing at them (or rather, at their friends in the defense industry).

It doesn’t matter if it’s true. This is our narrative. Our politicians may squabble over the details, but precious few want to change the basic storyline. It’s not just embraced by the secular culture, but by the majority of Christians. I’ve even heard it preached from the pulpit.

Pacifism flies in the face of this narrative.

Pacifism says “America is not Jerusalem, and it’s certainly not the City of God.”

Pacifists call us to awareness of the dangers of America, how it can easily become Rome, crushing all those who get in its path, abusing its own people, even while proclaiming the great rights granted to it “citizens”.

Pacifists say things the wider culture, including American Christians, don’t want to hear.

That’s not cowardly. Far from it.