Comments on Christianity and State-Sponsored Violence

Submitted by Jonathan on Sun, 04/14/2019 - 00:30

What follows is the text of comments I gave at a recent symposium at the University of South Carolina on the topic of "Christianity and State-Sponsored Violence." I was one of four panelists, each of whom was invited to speak for about 10 minutes on the topic, or some aspect of the topic, after which there was about an hour and a half of free-wheeling conversation between the panelists and the audience. It seemed to go well so far as I could tell; but this was my first experience as a "panelist," so what do I know? 

Ukrainian Priest and Soldiers
What would Jesus do?

I am philosophy professor at an evangelical Protestant institution here in the Columbia area: Columbia International University, previously known as Columbia Bible College, and even more previously known as Columbia Bible School. Though the term “evangelical” as it is used in the U.S. political scene of today hardly evokes thoughts of social justice advocacy, this has not always been so. Evangelicalism has its roots in the Protestant “Great Awakening” movements in the 1700s in England and the United States, in the ministries of people like John Wesley, George Whitfield, and Jonathan Edwards. In England it produced later adherents such as John Newton, the former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament who led the movement to abolish the international slave trade. For these evangelicals, Gospel proclamation and action against social evils went hand-in-hand. This is the sort of evangelism that gave birth to Columbia Bible School in 1923, when Emily Dick and six of her friends (now known as the “praying ladies” at CIU), out of concern for both the physical and spiritual welfare of local mill workers, founded an institution offering a two-year course of biblical studies to those workers. So when I speak of myself as coming to this conversation from an evangelical Protestant background, I would like you to think more along the lines of Newton and Wilberforce than Dobson and Falwell, Jr. That is the first way I would like to preface my remarks.

The second way is by acknowledging that, though I am a philosophy professor and I do teach ethics courses, I am not a specialist in the topic area at issue here today; consequently, I would like to come as a student to my esteemed colleagues here, and invite them to be my professors. So I wish to ask questions in the attempt to acquire greater understanding and clarity.

My first question is: what is “violence”? Dictionaries, and even international aid organizations, usually define violence as something like “exercise of physical force with the aim of causing injury or harm.” We might immediately want to quibble with such a definition, since it appears to not recognize the existence of psychological or even spiritual violence as violence. But surely one can aim to harm others in their psyche or spirit without also aiming to hurt their bodies—isn’t that still a kind of violence? But suppose that we do accept such a definition; it is not immediately clear why all instances of violence should be evil, sinful, or wrong. Any surgeon, after all, exercises physical force with the aim of causing injury, though that aim is in the service of the further aim of doing a greater good for the very one injured. Similarly, an agent of the state, such as a police officer, might exercise physical force with the aim of causing harm or injury to one who is actively engaged violence toward others, with the ultimate aim of stopping further violence by means of violence. Are these both cases of “doing evil so that good may come”; that is, of the attitude condemned by St. Paul in Romans 3? I doubt that any would consider the surgeon to be engaging in evil, but perhaps some would insist that the police offer is doing evil.

Assuming that we could resolve definitional matters, the next step may be to understand the conceptual space when it comes to positions taken on the ethics of state-sponsored violence, and here I take the fundamental question to be this: is the use of violence by the state ever morally justified? I’ll assume that there are three basic kinds of views on offer when it comes to the question of the moral justification of the use of violence: pacifism, realism, and (if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase) just violence theory. Obviously I have borrowed these terms from the literature on the morality of war, but each position in that debate is generalizable to views on the use of violence in general. So the pacifist with respect to violence would maintain that the use of violence is never justified, and so acts of violence ought never to be done. The realist would agree that violence cannot be morally justified, but would say that, nevertheless, we must sometimes resort to violence. On such a view, the use of violence may be pragmatically rather than morally justified. The just-violence theorist would argue, contrary to both the pacifist and the realist, that the use of violence can be justified—morally justified—under certain specific conditions. Perhaps these conditions are extremely demanding, such that most acts of violence are ruled out; even so, it is at least possible for acts of violence to be righteous acts. Is this a good way to think of the options open to us?

Here is a further question: Does a negative answer to the question of the moral justifiability of violence rule out the possibility of a moral justification for civil government? All laws, after all, carry with them the threat of violence against law-breakers. If violence is always immoral, then to threaten with violence is also immoral. So if it is correct that the force of law is the threat of violence toward the law-breaker, then either violence is at least possibly morally justifiable, or no human government is morally justifiable. If this line of reasoning is correct, then it seems that to take the pacifist stance is to invite anarchism; that is, that the only consistent pacifism is anarcho-pacifism. If that is not so, where does this line of reasoning go wrong?

By the way, I should say that the so-called “moderate pacifism” of one who thinks that violence is not morally justified except in extreme situations, such as the “relative political pacifism” position taken by Bertrand Russell in 1943, is really a “just violence” position, albeit a strict one. The difference between such a view and that expressed by Mao Tse Tung, when he said that “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun” appears to be a difference in degree and not in kind.

Supposing the above questions could be adequately addressed, I would turn to questions of specifically Christian concern. Suppose that “Christian” means someone who is, in some sense, a follower or disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, called the “Christ.” Disciples, among other things, adhere to the instructions of the one of whom they are disciples. Jesus instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But he went further: we are also instructed to love even our enemies, and to bless and do good to those who curse us. The question that then arises for us is: can loving my enemy ever be consistent with acting in violence towards my enemy?

Suppose that we say, “no, loving your enemy is inconsistent with acting violently toward your enemy.” Consider, then, that William Wilberforce’s political enemies included all those who profited from the slave trade, and he was not reluctant to use the state’s threat of violence against lawbreakers to force them to cease their trade. Was he wrong to do so? Did he fail to rightly love his enemies?

This raises the question: what is love? Does the nature of love imply: “baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me”? Or can it be that “love hurts, love scars, love wounds”? The account of the nature of love that I prefer is Eleonore Stump’s account of Thomas Aquinas’ account, which she presents in her recent work, Wandering in Darkness. Love is a complex of two desires: the one who loves desires good for the beloved, and also desires union with the beloved. While both desires must always be present in love, the desire for one could mean sacrificing the desire for the other. It seems to me that in almost all cases, the desire for the good of the beloved must be the ruling desire, such that, if union with the beloved must be sacrificed in order to obtain the good of the beloved, so be it. That is what love demands of us. But if Jesus our Lord requires us to love our enemies, and loving our enemies means prioritizing the good of our enemies, how can we ever justify harming our enemies by any means, whether means of the state or otherwise?

Finally, I would like to raise an epistemological question that is of perhaps of more existential import for Christians here and now in the United States: even if we can answer the above questions, and even if we do come up with, say, a “just violence” account that permits us to at least possibly endorse some instances of state-sponsored violence, could we ever know that the justifying conditions obtain in any particular case? The complexities of the contemporary political situation, and what we already do know about our government’s history of the use of violence both internally and externally, and manipulation of news media, etc., it seems to me, give even the just violence theorist little justification for believing that particular engagements in violence by our government are, in fact, morally justified. What is a disciple to do? Why not say, as many evangelical Protestants sometimes do say: “The world is damned. We cannot save the world through political activism, but we can preach the Gospel to our neighbors, perhaps saving some—so that and only that is what we shall do”?