Theology blogging meta-star Halden links to a post by Paul Griffiths (perhaps best known in local blog circles for his abyssmal First Things article on philosophical engagement with theology) that lays out what seems to me to be a very typical conservative Christian response to Christian pacifism: of course violence is bad, but sometimes it’s necessary, and we should be suitably sorry when necessity drives us to it.
While I agree with the conservative position insofar as I think Christian pacifism is untenable as a blanket rule, I also find the conservative position palpably inadequate insofar as it leaves out a crucial element, which Bruce’s recent post brought back to the front of my reflections: our enjoyment of violence. That enjoyment means that violence can never be the simple “means to an end” that the standard conservative response envisions it as.
I will admit to a strong attraction to Christian pacifism early in my theological education. Strangely, though, what convinced me it was untenable didn’t follow the typical conservative path through the justified war (roughly the over-simplified pattern of the pacifist Bonhoeffer who comes to realize that assassinating Hitler is the only option, etc., etc., etc.) — rather, it was the visceral rejection of pacifism by many of the women at my liberal seminary. I wound up coming to the conclusion that a strategy of non-violent resistence was the ideal path to social change, but that the viability of that strategy depended on a lot of conditions being met: a public setting, a showdown with political authorities, a certain degree of recognized “dignity” among the participants that will render their deaths more than a statistic (for instance, U.S. citizenship, perhaps a certain level of education, etc.).
None of those conditions obtain in your home when your husband is beating you. None of them obtain when you’re getting mugged in the street. None of them obtain when you’re living under a Third World “national security” regime as a common peasant. In all of those situations, I think that violence is acceptable and necessary. And in all of those situations, I expect that violence is going to be very satisfying. In class once, I used the example of a mugging — if I somehow managed to get control of the situation, I’d imagine it’d feel pretty good to beat the shit out of the mugger. He would’ve threatened me, made me feel afraid (perhaps even for my life), and I would’ve turned the tables. Similarly with the battered woman who finally fights back, or with the insurgent who kills the cop who last night “disappeared” someone.
It feels good to reassert one’s power and dignity in those situations. What’s more, asserting one’s power and dignity is not a bad thing in those situations (this is what informs feminist critiques of the notion of self-assertion as sin) — what’s bad is that they were taken away in the first place. We should feel good fighting against evil. What’s more, on a deep level there’s something justified in making the abusive husband or the torturer feel fear. Anthony once told me of
the person who murdered Che the CIA operative who helped capture Che [thanks to Anthony for this correction] and wore Che’s watch around as a kind of prize, and I thought: that person should feel deeply afraid to show his face in public.
Yes, our goal should be a world where no one has to feel afraid, etc., etc. Fear and violence are not good insofar as they should never become goals in themselves. But it’s not the oppressed who have made fear and violence into ends in themselves! It’s not the battered wife who first came up with the idea of forcing another human being into submission through physical force and the threat of death. Non-violent resistence should be given preference in situations where it works, but violence that overcomes violence isn’t simply equivalent to the original violence — it undoes the knot of violence as an end-in-itself. Even if the enjoyment that accompanies this violence sometimes results in excesses — as in the mutilations of the corpses in Inglourious Basterds — moral discernment absolutely requires that we refrain from the easy conclusion that the oppressed have become “just as bad”: there are more important things in life than keeping one’s hands clean, and we need to recognize those excesses as fundamentally our excesses, as participations in that same spirit of liberation. They pose certain dangers that should be obvious, but they can’t be used to disqualify acts that are fundamentally justified. To stick with the Inglourious Basterds example, that means that we are constrained to say that the Basterds do not and cannot become “just as bad as what they’re fighting.” Even if only a thin line separates the two opposed forms of violence, that line is the line separating humanity and inhumanity.