Faith and Violence

As a culture we have developed the concept that violence, in any and every form, is evil. Yet we entertain ourselves with endless violence throughout every form of media, which we decry even as we consume it. We support seemingly endless wars, we encourage violence against criminals even as we chastise our children that ‘hitting is wrong’. We deprive our children of any legitimate means of expressing their frustration and anger, and then we wonder why school shootings are on the rise. In truth, as a nation, we have no clear concept of when violence should be used and when it should be avoided. We have no consistent philosophy of violence in relation to our daily lives. We might be able to espouse the tenets of Just War theory, but we can’t explain if or how America follows those tenets,or why they are justifiable in the first place. We certainly can’t explain the tenets of Just War theory in relation to Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the sermon on the mount. As individuals and as a nation we must answer the question: when and why is violence appropriate?

There are a number of seemingly pacifistic commands in scripture. Four of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9, 43-48; Matthew 6:39; Matthew 7:12) and another warning against violence appears in Matthew 26:52. However, only Matthew 7:12 truly supports a concept of Christian pacifism, and it only to the degree that every presentation of the Golden Rule supports pacifism, which is to say that it can be taken that way, but is better understood as a general standard of behavior. After all, if we all went around treating one another exactly as we individually want to be treated, we would doubtless cause many people to be aggrieved. No two people want to be treated in quite the same way. That being said, these verses do give us strong and real warnings against violence. Christ tells us that peacemakers will be blessed (though historically force can and does bring peace: consider the Pax Romana or the peace brought by the military might of the Han dynasty), and he tells us to turn the other cheek (i.e. violence is not a tool for vengeance). He also tells us that those who wield violence will die violently, which is all to often true, and he commands us to love our enemies.

However, the scriptures also have an inordinate (at least with a concept of pacifism) amount of violence in them. God commands the Hebrew people into many violent conflicts, and multiple times commands the people to commit genocide. He raises up violent oppressors to punish the people in the form of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and he himself does violence, both to the Jews (as a punishment) and to their enemies (as a boon). In the New Testament we see Christ drive the money-changers out of the temple violently. It is also interesting that in Luke, before his capture at the Garden Christ commands the disciples to procure the very swords that he later chastises Peter for using. In Matthew 10 and Luke 12 Christ promises to bring violence and division rather than peace, and in the book of Revelation we see God bring immense amounts of violence to the Earth, culminating in Revelation 19 in which Christ slays all those who oppose him. We also see, both in the Mosaic law and in Romans 13, the acceptance of violence in the pursuit of justice.

So, as faithful Christians, how can we practically approach the philosophy of violence? First, we must accept that violence does solve problems. As Jean V. Dubios says in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when confronted with the claim that violence never solves anything: “Tell that to the people of Carthage.” It is true that violence has probably solved more disagreements throughout history than any other method. However, this does not mean that it is the best method of solving problems.

Second, we must understand the places in which violence is appropriate. For instance, violence is appropriate between friends. A good-natured fight can be a lot of fun and a good way to get exercise. As long as both people are involved for the same reasons and no grudges are formed, then violence between friends is appropriate, natural, and healthy. Violence can even be a good way to solve problems between friends, as long as all parties are recognized as equals in the end. Violence is also appropriate in the pursuit of justice, for the protection of oneself or others, and in the defense of national interests. Formalized violence (i.e. refereed matches) can also be both a good form of entertainment and a practical means of solving a dispute between two parties.

Third, we must understand the places in which violence is not appropriate. For instance, while violence is appropriate in the pursuit of justice, it is not appropriate in the pursuit of vengeance. Violence should not be used to satisfy the emotional need for retribution. While violence can be a good means of resolving disputes between friends or opposed parties, it should not be used to oppress. A good fight between friends leads to agreement and mutual trust. When violence between friends results in oppression and resentment, then it is not healthy in itself, and it does not lead to healthy ends. Violence should never be uncontrolled. Whether it is controlled intentionally by those using violence, or controlled by a referee, violence that is controlled can be an excellent emotional outlet. However, when violence is uncontrolled, while it may be an emotional outlet, it generally doesn’t end well.

Lastly, we must understand that violence is never a replacement for faith. When one has a choice between faith and violence, faith must always win. God is our guide, our lord, and our judge, and when he commands us either to commit or abstain from violence we must obey. The capacity for violence demands responsibility, because if a violent person is not responsible in their use of violence, the result is almost never desirable.