For the previous post in this series, click here.
As promised, I’m going to humbly offer here my own views as to the appropriate relationship between the Christian and violence. The best way to begin, I think, is to start with a few statements based upon the previous posts in this series (or from scripture not discussed) and which all readers could (I hope) agree upon. Following these statements are some questions raised by the previous analysis that represent issues that must be resolved.
First: When it has a chance of success, a non-violent approach is morally superior to a violent approach.
Second: Jesus never explicitly commands his followers not to do violence.
Third: Jesus wants us to love even our enemies.
Q: If some violence is acceptable, when and how much?
Q: Does loving our enemies (or our friends, for that matter) necessarily mean punishing those who commit injustice?
Q: How do we resolve the tension that results when we are called to love both those who would do harm and those they target as victims?
The three statements and three questions give us a good foundation to build upon before we delve into the gray area. Here’s how we begin:
Precept 1: The Christian should, to the extent possible, avoid using violence.
Violence solves problems, yes, but it typically creates more problems than it solves. Thus, Matthew 26:52, “They who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
As a student of Renaissance history, I often think of the Wars of the Roses or the vendettas fought amongst the Italian nobility during the Quattrocento. One act of violence creates a need to “get justice” or “get even” or “punish wrongdoers.” We are left with a century of bloody conflicts, each subsequent engagement arising out of those fought before it. I’m not sure that any other century is different.
Machiavelli, writing about that time, offers the pragmatic advice in The Prince that, when one moves against one’s enemies, one ought to destroy every remnant, every vestige of the enemy and his friends and relations so that none is left to seek reprisal. In the struggle for power, as was the status quo in Machiavelli’s Italy, this is sound advice. But it also reflects the extremity to which violence must be used to prevent further violence.
We ought to realize that violence, even if used for just purposes, is a result of the fallenness of humanity. Were everyone to love his neighbor as himself, there would be no need for violence. Thus, while an individual act of violence may not be a particular sin, the use of violence is always the participation in the corporate sin of humanity. Because of this, it must be used only as a last resort and should be employed only with a since of sorrow that a better outcome could not be achieved.
Precept 2: Violence should only be used to prevent or stop violent injustice against a person, not after the fact. The need for violence must be immediate.
If there’s time to think of alternative solutions, there’s time to seek a non-violent resolution to a problem. On the other hand, if immediate action is required, however, the time for seeking de-escalation of the conflict has been lost. This precept helps us to comply with Precept 1.
Let’s also think of the collateral consequences here. One of the questions posed above was how we can balance loving victims and wrongdoers. When immediate action is not necessary, we can attempt to work on loving solutions for both parties. Yes, this may be punishment for a wrongdoer, but I leave that an open question for another series of posts. When immediate action is necessary to preserve life and limb, it seems just to intervene against the wrongdoer to protect the innocent. Not our first choice given the requirement to love even our enemies, but the choice to do something non-violent has been taken from us when immediate responsive violence becomes necessary.
This also means that we do not use violence to punish wrongdoers when there is no immediate threat. Violent punishment has largely been shown to be ineffective at deterring future offense (look at 18th Century England, where the death penalty was handed out like it was about to be outlawed). More important, punishment is more about the punisher and not the punishee. When we seek violent retribution for wrongs done to us or others, we are willingly participating in the fallenness that perpetuates violence in the world. “Vengeance is mine…sayeth the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19). Violence inflicted as punishment cannot restore to wholeness the party injured by a crime. Because only God is truly just, we ought to leave the meting out of retributive punishment to God. I’m not saying we should never punish wrongdoers; however, violently punishing them is nothing but retribution.
This also means that violence should not be employed to protect property—only people. I’d like to avoid (for now) debates about Jesus’ views on personal property and ownership. Without going into that, I think that we can agree that Jesus’ teachings and life made clear that he valued human life over any property rights he believes in (whatever those may be).
In Texas, where I live, the law explicitly allows justified use of force for the protection of property in specific circumstances. But the law and morality should not be confused—they are separate entities with separate goals and concerns, only sometimes aligned.
Precept 3: Only the necessary amount of violence ought to be used.
To the extent that we can avoid doing more harm than necessary, we should. This is an aspect of loving our enemies. Deadly force ought not to be used if less-than-deadly force could reasonably suffice. The amount of violence we use ought to be scaled to the injustice or violence we seek to prevent. This, perhaps, is what we should take away from Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek—violence is not the answer to offense, even if violent, that does not really threaten life or limb.
I need to hedge and be absolutely clear that, while a solid precept from a philosophical/theological standpoint, strict adherence to this precept is extremely difficult in practice. When we apply force—especially deadly force—against another person, we have little surety in the ultimate results of the force. There’s plenty of second-guessing to be done in the aftermath of a violent engagement (Would fewer shots fired have been sufficient? Could I have done something differently to stop the attacker and injure him less?), but split-second decisions must be made in a fight and survival is on the line, so the objectively best choices may not be made in the moment.
I recently heard someone say, “if the bad guy is worth shooting once, he’s worth shooting five times.” This is tactically correct—while the human body is a frail thing and a single wound from a firearm may kill a person in a relatively short amount of time, the body is also highly resistant over the short term and a single shot from a weapon the likes of which a civilian would be wielding is unlikely to immediately physically stop the attacker (though it might psychologically). Since the goal of morally-applied violence is to stop the attacker as soon as possible, a high amount of force quickly applied may be necessary, making it less likely that the attacker will survive.
As another complicating factor, applying a lesser degree of force is often accompanied by a greater degree of risk of injury to ourselves. Having studied techniques of unarmed combat, I know (technically) how to defend and disarm someone with a knife. But the same training has made clear that, when fighting a person with a knife, you will get cut, and even expert fighters (which I do not claim to be) can be killed in a knife-fight because of bad luck. If knives come out and I have reasonable tactical distance from the threat, I’d rather be behind a gun. I’m not a big guy by any means, and there are plenty of people in this world with whom I’d prefer not to go toe-to-toe unless forced and, if I’ve decided that violence is morally justified, I’m going to fight to win. A disparity in force with my opponent means the stakes of the violence may be raised higher than I would have voluntarily raised them and I must respond in kind.
Where we can, though, we ought to mitigate the results of our violence to the extent possible. After the threat is over, we ought to provide all the medical attention we can to the injured parties—including and perhaps especially any wounded attacker(s). Again, this is a matter of loving our neighbors.
Precept 4: A Christian who is prepared to do violence must make efforts in the world to prevent the necessity of violence.
If, as I do, you stand willing to do violence to other human beings to protect the innocent, you must recognize some responsibility for participation in culture and human nature that permits violence. Recognizing that, you ought to make efforts to proactively prevent the causes of violence where possible.
By this, I mean actively trying to make the world a better place. Of course, the Christian is called to this anyhow; we are called to show mercy and love justice, so we ought to (non-violently) pursue justice for the oppressed where we can, and we ought to focus on giving wrongdoers the chance to atone and reintegrate into society rather than focusing on punishing them.
This means showing kindness and respect to others—especially those with who you disagree, helping the poor to escape poverty, helping to improve unjust systems and institutions, and showing the love of Christ to our neighbors.
The person willing to do violence ought not to be quick of temper and ought to be ready to forgive offenses—otherwise our readiness to do violence turns to definitely destructive and sinful ends. We ought to hope that we never have to do violence to another person, even if we devote time, talent and money to preparing for the possibility. We must recognize that the proper response to violence is not always more violence.
If we are prepared to do violence, we Christians must be more prepared to refrain from doing violence.
I’d like to summarize my argument thus: We ought to view violence itself as an evil, but one that may be occasionally be used to prevent greater evil. While Christ does not explicitly command us not to do violence, it is clear that love ought to prevail wherever it can. Violence should be employed only reluctantly and with sorrow for the alternative resolutions that have been lost, even if they have been lost through the will of someone other than ourselves. Most of all, we ought to do everything that we can to prevent violence, both in our immediate situation and in the world at large.
I think I probably have one more post on this topic to do, to clean up a few loose ends and address a few things that I realize I’ve left out (what about the Ten Commandments!). More to come.