Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

The End of Violence, Part IV: An Argument

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

The End of Violence, Part III: Re-examining Jesus and Violence

To be fair, there are several arguments (other than the one about the swords) given for the position that Jesus advocated for non-violence where possible but never took the position that violence was categorically impermissible.

An article on RealClearReligion.com by Jeffrey Mann organizes some of these arguments, so I’m going to make reference to it (from April 30th, 2014, available at: http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/04/30/the_myth_of_a_non-violent_jesus.html).

Mann makes a few good arguments, I think. In the original Greek, the word used in Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek refers to an open-handed strike—an act of humiliation rather than of serious threat. For Mann, the statement does not preclude a permission to defend oneself. Mann also argues that the example of Jesus going to his death without fighting against it should not be viewed as the example for all people in all scenarios.

I want to agree with the second argument, but I have to acknowledge that we get into tricky territory when we start to say “follow Jesus in this, but not in this.” That difficulty, however, is not sufficient to say that the argument itself is incorrect.

Mann also brings up the point that, when we’re talking about the use of violence to protect others, there is a natural tension between loving the person against whom we might use violence and loving those who we seek to protect. I want to acknowledge that, but I want to argue against his statement (drawn from C.S. Lewis) that failing to punish criminals is a failure to love our neighbors. Punishment occurs when there is no immediate threat; that is a very different thing than using violence to stop an immediate danger to life and limb. I’ll talk about my views on justice in the legal system in other posts, but suffice to say for now that I believe that our punishment of criminals is more about us than them, and I stand against the death penalty as a punishment.

Mann asks the question, “Should we simply forgive them [our enemies] when they do awful things? This clearly cannot be what Jesus intended.” And yet, Jesus forgives those who persecute and kill him. I think that Jesus would have us attempt to love both victim and offender—to help restore the victim to wholeness (to the extent that we can) and help the offender to not offend again. We are called, ultimately, not to judgment but to healing. Unfortunately, people do not always give us the option to help them and sometimes wholeheartedly resist our attempts to love them.

There is also the passage in which Jesus takes a whip to the moneylenders in the temple. (John 2:15). It’s hard to call that a non-violent event; it’s even premeditated considering that we’re told that Jesus fashions the whip himself. On the other hand, the other Gospels make no mention of a whip in the same event, the word for “drove” is the same root as when Jesus “drives” demons out of the possessed and, after all, John is the most metaphorical and least literal of the Gospels.

Origen, the only church father to have commented on this passage in the first three centuries of the Church, reads it in purely a spiritual rather than a literal light. And, nowhere is it stated that Jesus even swings the whip at people, much less that he strikes anyone. For a great commentary on John 2:15, see “Jesus, the Whip, and Justifying Violence” by Nathan W. O-Halloran, SJ on The Jesuit Post blog on Patheos.com (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thejesuitpost/2015/03/jesus-the-whip-and-justifying-violence/).

Where I strongly disagree with Mann is in his use of the Old Testament scriptures as an argument for the permissibility of violence. I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have read my posts on Ambiguity in Scripture and therefore already know my thoughts on this matter. I just don’t think that God did authorize the slaughtering of innocents for the benefit of Israel. I have less trouble with the idea of defensive actions fought by the Isrealites, but the question of whether such behavior is acceptable under Jesus’ New Covenant stands.

Before I leave Mr. Mann aside, I do want to accentuate his excellent point about the theological danger of heaping judgment upon professional or volunteer soldiers if one believes that Jesus would never tolerate any violence under any circumstance. Jesus also told us that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Soldiers end up in often horrifying circumstances not of their own choosing, being asked to give all to do things that others won’t do so that those same others don’t have to.

The soldiers I know, especially those who have seen combat, do not want to kill people but are willing to do so to perform their duty and to protect their brothers and sisters in arms. They have a tremendous respect for the enemy who faces them in open combat. They have a conviction of belief that makes them ready to shed blood for what they hold dear. That is a powerful thing, and to be respected.

On a different note, let us also not forget that Jesus also has hard—and sometimes downright terrifying—statements as well. He tells us that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). His pronouncements about the fate of the wicked often seem to be uncompromising, and he is unafraid to speak of the way that the world will hate those who follow him. Some of this is likely intended to be metaphorical, to be sure, but we cannot simply write off the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.

Maybe I’m simply not capable of unambiguously dealing with an issue of importance. Or maybe it’s that every issue of importance remains ambiguous to some degree or another. Either way, we again end up with great ambiguity with the question of violence.

In the last (probably) post in this short series, I’ll try to offer a nuanced and workable approach that, I hope, seeks to follow Jesus intentionally and to the fullest extent possible while also accounting for the exigencies and realities of a fallen world.

The End of Violence, Part II: Jesus and Just War

Jesus is pretty clear about violence, it seems. We are to “turn the other cheek” to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” and to “love our neighbors.”

The “sheepdog” community (those tactically-trained civilians who see it as their duty to protect the unarmed masses from threats—we’ll talk more about this later) often likes to refer to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells the disciples, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…” as justification for the carrying of weapons and use of defensive force. This, I think, takes the comment out of context. Just two lines later (Luke 22:38), the disciples bring Jesus two swords and he says “that is enough.” Something non-literal, something symbolic is taking place here.

Some theologians point to the passage as Jesus ensuring that a prophecy is fulfilled, without any real intention that the disciples take up arms. Indeed, Jesus has up to this point defied the expectations of those awaiting the Messiah and avoided leading an armed rebellion against Roman overlords.

The authors of the New Bible Commentary: Revised Third Edition go even further, comparing the statement with previous times Jesus has sent the disciples out with nothing—especially not swords—and they had been provided for without fail. The statement “That is enough,” is Jesus ending a conversation the disciples have failed to understand rather than commenting on the number of swords he has been brought.

This jibes well with the events in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting the ear off of one of the men who comes to arrest Jesus, healing the man and warning that “they who take the sword shall perish by the sword”—violence begets violence (Matthew 26:52).

The entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry makes clear that Jesus would have us love, and that his conception of love does not brook violence, right?

I think that we can definitely say that Jesus tells us (and experience bears this out) that violence is never a good solution to a problem. But does that mean that the Christian should never use violence as a last resort?

An example of the other side of the coin can be found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the main character’s civics teacher, a military veteran himself, retorts to a student who complains that “violence never solves anything” to “tell that to the Carthaginians!” (During the Punic Wars the Romans completely devastated the Carthaginians so that they could never again be a competing world power against the Republic.)

It is true; violence does solve problems. A person you’ve beaten into submission or killed is no longer someone you have to argue with (at least not directly). But that doesn’t mean that violence is ever a good solution. Still, the exchange in Starship Troopers does, I think, lay bare the purpose of violence—to end a conflict that cannot be ended through peace, agreement and reason. Let’s explore whether that end can ever be legitimate in light of Jesus’ example.

I’d like to talk about Just War Theory or Doctrine. Just War Theory (within Christianity) has two primary concerns: when it is just to go to war (or to use violence) and how war must be ethically conducted (how violence may permissibly be used). In essence, this is the same inquiry I’m making in these posts, but I’d like to point out some places where I disagree with the commonly propounded aspects of the doctrine.

Both Augustine and Aquinas believed that war could only be justified by a proper governmental institution. To them, this was a safeguard that the aim of a war complied with the greater good of the people. Unfortunately, I think there is a greater tendency for violence authorized by the state to be unjust than to be just. In many cases, the desire for the highest degree of national security and the desire to act ethically are diametrically opposed. To make the state the arbiter of when war is just or not implies that the actor contributes to the righteousness of the thing at least as much as intention.

I also disagree with doctrines of Just War that assert that the punishment of a guilty party is sufficient cause for war (see below) or that a preventative war might be permissible as just. One of the conclusions that I’ll ultimately arrive at is that violence must be used only to prevent an immediate threat. A peremptory strike may obviate the possibility of attempts at peaceful resolutions.

Regarding the conduct of war, experience shows that no war is just in its conduct. Even in the best of circumstances and the noblest of intents, there is death, suffering, exploitation, humiliation, fear and a whole host of other undesirable ripple effects. These are things that may be necessary, but should never be called just. Can war be conducted ethically? Yes, particularly on the individual level. In the greater scheme of things, I’m not so sure.

On the subject of justice, my reading of history seems to indicate that most wars simply set things up for the reasoning of the next war. Consider the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the first World War and the second, with the Treaty of Versailles placing Germany in such a position as to allow the rise of one like Hitler. Shouldn’t a just war result in lasting peace? I’m not sure that there’s ever been such a thing.

That said, I don’t want to say that wars are never necessary or that they never accomplish some good. Certainly, Hitler and the Third Reich needed to be stopped because greater suffering would have resulted from their victory than from fighting them, steep as the cost was. Even less do I want to say that soldiers are evil, or even necessarily wrong, in the professional practice of violence. I hope that this will become clear as these posts continue.

So, point and counterpoint—Jesus tells us to avoid violence, but World War II gives us a seeming example of when violence proved necessary. And here’s the crux of this whole issue: we Christians want (or at least ought to want) to love as fully and deeply as Jesus did and to avoid violence, but sometimes violence seems like the best of alternatives. How do we resolve that discrepancy?

The End of Violence, Part I: Introduction

This Saturday, I’m going to a combined defensive pistol and defensive carbine class. It’s not my first tactical shooting class, and I’ve in the past been an NRA Pistol Instructor and a Texas Concealed Handgun Instructor. Regardless, the occasion seems a good one on which to share some of my thoughts about violence given my Christian faith.

This is not an easy subject and, while I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying various martial arts—krav maga, karate, sport fencing, historical European martial arts (swordplay, knife/dagger fighting and wrestling, mostly) and shooting—I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a real fight. As such, I simply don’t have access to the experience of either the event itself or the psychological aftermath. I invite those with such experience to comment on this series; I’m going to attempt to restrict myself to the abstract and philosophical side of things.

As a person of staunchly moderate political leanings and progressive theological positions, I’ve had the rare opportunity to be considered both conservative and liberal. Coming from one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. and being a theatre person with friends holding a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities, moving to College Station put me solidly in the liberal minority, at least among the studentry (I nevertheless had no problem finding likeminded people—Texas A&M is a big school, after all). Then, going to Austin for graduate school, I suddenly found myself to be considered a conservative by my peers.

When many of my fellow students of medieval and renaissance literature discovered that I had a license to carry a concealed handgun, they suddenly had this idea that I had fashioned myself a vigilante; that I wanted to live in the Old West and have a shootout at high-noon; that I had naively decided that combat would be fun (or evilly decided that hurting other people could be enjoyable). When I explained myself, however, I often found them surprised.

I told them that I preferred to carry—legally, and not all of the time (campus carry was illegal back then, of course)— a firearm that I had trained seriously with because that way I knew that I would walk away from a violent confrontation (or, I at least had a good chance of doing so) and that I could try every non-violent dispute resolution technique I could think of rather than responding out of fear. Indeed, as a Resident Advisor at Texas A&M I had been trained in conflict de-escalation, and Texas requires similar training as part of the concealed handgun license coursework. I am convinced that there is no more valuable skill that a person may learn—whosoever they may be—than how to communicate peaceably, respectfully, empathetically and constructively with others, even if that results only in an agreement to disagree. In the broader scheme, more training in the world in how to relate and talk to people with competing interests would save more lives than all the firearms training in the world.

That was certainly my experience the only time I ever came even remotely close to drawing my weapon when carrying it. This was, conveniently, in Austin. K and I were living in an apartment on the southwest side in a suburban area well away from campus. Nevertheless, at about 2:30 in the morning one night, some undergrads in the next building over were blaring music, drinking heavily, and throwing beer bottles into the parking lot from their third floor balcony.

Admittedly, I am a very grumpy person when disturbed from my slumber. I got up, put some clothes on, and holstered my pistol in concealed holster just in case. The first move was mine, and I immediately made a mistake: upon getting close to their building I yelled up at them to turn the music down, using no expletives but not in the friendliest of voices. Immediately, three men, all very inebriated, ran down the stairs to confront me. I stood my ground but tried to backtrack, apologizing for yelling and explaining that I wanted to come ask them to turn the music down and stop throwing beer bottles rather than just calling the police.

They responded with threats. I kept my hands up and palms toward them in a non-threatening manner (also because it happened to be a good defensive position, just in case), but I also made clear that I was not intimidated. I repeated my request matter-of-factly, despite their threats at my mention of the police (they were happy to remind me that they outnumbered me, despite the fact that they were all practically falling over on their own and any collaboration between them was certainly out of the question). In the end, it became clear, perhaps as it should have been from the beginning, that I could not reason with them. I cautiously removed myself from the situation, returned to my apartment and called the police. The next day, I reported the confrontation (although not my possession of a firearm, which was immaterial as it was never produced) to the apartment management. The offending tenants were evicted for threatening fellow residents—a clear violation of the Texas Apartment Association form lease.

I’d like to think that, despite my rough start, the confrontation went about as well as I could have hoped for—I walked away unscathed and without the regret and what-ifs what would have attached if I had injured someone else—justifiably or not.

But the point of this post is not to talk about me (although I hope the long introduction has provided some background to my own biases and experience). Let’s talk about weapons, violence and Christianity. We’ll start in the next post.