Four Types of Violence, Part Five: Some Parting Thoughts

Peace Sign made of garlic, photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

Good for the World, Good on Spaghetti
Photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

I’ve been talking about violence a lot lately, and I think it’s time to bring it to a close now.  Kurt Willems has a great series here outlining a powerful argument for total pacifism among Christians.  Needless to say, there are other interpretations.  MT at Biblical Self Defense  discusses several OT and NT passages that relate to self defense, including armed self-defense, as not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

Though I have not yet been swayed to the point of actual pacifism, I have to say that Kurt Willems’ arguments have profoundly affected me. He’s helped me to reassess my overall attitude towards violence done in my name as an American, the violence in the media that I consume, and the violence in the culture that I create.

And let’s face it, our American culture is awash in violence. We glorify revenge at every turn. Even as Christians, if you look at the time we spend watching violent films and TV, we probably glorify “good guys killing bad guys” more than we glorify God.

So what is the answer? I’m afraid I don’t have the whole answer. I may never have it. But I’ll keep wrestling with it. I know this much for sure:

Even without being convinced of true pacifism, the kind that would not use force to resist a home invader who threatens my pregnant wife, the kind that would not use force to resist the Nazis in World War II – even without taking that (admittedly radical) step … I can commit to pursuing peace today, through:

  • Questioning the violent actions my government takes, whether declared wars or unilateral (even unmanned) actions
  • Questioning the level of violence used in our justice system, especially against peaceful protesters and nonviolent offenders
  • Questioning the violence that is allowed to happen by authorities turning a blind eye or simply being overwhelmed: bullying in schools, beatings and rape in prisons.
  • Turning the other cheek in personal disputes, refusing to use even verbal ‘violence’
  • Protesting verbal violence, especially misogynist and racist bullying
  • Valuing the lives of foreigners in distant nations as much as I do my own, especially if they are civilians
  • Examining the culture I consume and create, and expunging anything that glorifies violence as a positive good.
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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? 

Four Types of Violence, Part Three: Holy War

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades, painting by Gustave Dore, 19th century

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades by Gustave Dore, 19th c.

Holy war. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps it is. I can see no evidence that conversion by force was ever condoned in any fashion by Jesus or the apostles, ever.

I honestly see no instances of using violence to gain converts even in the Old Testament. God ordered the destruction of some cities, and ordered the conquest of certain areas, but conversion by force? Not that I recall.

In fact, Jesus orders Peter to not even raise a sword to defend Him when the Sanhedrin-led mob comes to arrest Him (“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. – Matthew 26:52, NIV).

At no point do the apostles or early church leaders violently resist persecution.  They skip town sometimes, they are rescued by angels sometimes, and other times, they submit to indignity, injury, and eventually death.

(According to church tradition, the only apostle who wasn’t murdered or executed was St. John the Divine, the writer of the Book of Revelations, and he was exiled to Patmos, essentially imprisoned.  Many notable non-apostles, like Stephen, also died for their beliefs, and they offered no violence in return).

There are, doubtless, many reasons for this.

First, opposing the military might of Rome would require a literal miracle, and Jesus had made it clear that he was not that type of Messiah.

Second, fighting back would have made the Christians and their persecutors seem like warring religious factions, little more than gangs fighting over whether or not some rabbi was divine.  It would have ripped the credibility right out of their message.

Third, for those who were apostles and full-time evangelists, there was only one focus: preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and leading people through repentance and into true discipleship.

There was no time for marriage and children, no time for personal property beyond travelling necessities, and no time for self-defense.  They were to throw their lives into God’s hands, and spend every bit of energy and time they had into spreading His message.

There is, I believe, another reason. I believe God knew that Christianity would spread, and nations would become majority Christian in time.

Kings and nobles would convert, and bring a new danger into the soul of Christianity: an unholy union with government, and the specter of holy wars, religious persecution by Christians, and inquisitions in which even Christians were not safe from church-sponsored violence.

Had these leaders read and prayed and paid attention (and actually cared), they could have seen that Jesus and the apostles never condoned these sorts of things, and in fact eschewed them.  But they did not: they were dominant rulers, accustomed to enforcing their will through force and fear, and their new-found Christianity did not sink deep enough to change that.

Granted, this has probably been the least controversial of the series. Honestly, though, I’m not sure that it’s because we’ve evolved past it. After all, we’re still a very warlike species, even in the post-industrial nations. Just because we kill with drones and cruise missiles doesn’t mean we’re not still killers.

I choose not to believe that our rejection of holy war comes from not taking our religion seriously enough.  I choose to believe that it comes from actually caring about the examples of Jesus and the Apostles. I choose to believe that it represents progress.

We know that war is not a holy thing. We may still support our secular national government’s wars, but at least we don’t want the Church involved.  And that, to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, is a good thing.

–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.

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.