Posted by: Dan | May 16, 2008

On Loving Our Enemies: A Postscript on Violence

As something of an afterthought, most closely related to Parts One and Three of this series, I thought I would make two further points about violence.

First of all, I wish to emphasise that the violence that we must resist most adamantly is precisely just violence. Other forms of violence — those forms that are oppressive or unjust — are already transparent. We can see that these forms of violence are abhorrent and should be resisted. However, this is not so clear for the violence that we call “just”. Consequently, it is precisely the violence that appears to be necessary, or justified, or moral, that must be resisted most strongly.

In this regard, a parable told by Winston Churchill (and repeated by Hardt and Negri in Multitude) may be an helpful illustration. Allow me to quote it in full:

Once upon a time all the animals in the zoo decided they would disarm and renounce violence. The rhinoceros proclaimed that the use of teeth was barbaric and ought to be prohibited but that the use of horns was mainly defensive and should be allowed. The stag and porcupine agreed. The tiger, however, spoke against horns and defeneded teeth and even claws as honorable and peaceful. Finally the bear spoke up against teeth, claws, and horns. The beer proposed instead that whenever animals disagreed all that was necessary was a good hug. Each animal, Churchill concludes, believes its own use of violence to be strictly an instrument of peace and justice.

And so, Hardt and Negri go on to argue:

Morality can only provide a solid basis to legitimate violence, authority, and domination when it refuses to admit different perspectives and judgments.

This, then, is most obviously illustrated in the discourse of just war against terror. Precisely whom is the terrorist? Is America the terrorist because of the violence and oppression it propogates around the world? In this case, is Al Qaeda justified in attacking American business interests, occupying forces, and even civilians? Or is the violence of America justified against Al Qaeda because it is they who are the terrorists? It all depends on who you ask — an American businessman may tell you one thing — a Muslim farmer, driven to poverty by external powers, may tell you another. Of course we could multiply examples (is Palestinian violence justified against the occupying forces of Israel? Is Israeli violence justified against the Palestinian population?) but I think the point is made.

So what is the point that is made? That any form of violence can be justified, depending on whose perspective is operative. Consequently, we must be skeptical of all justifications of violence, and must be especially wary of the forms of violence that appear to be justified from our own limited perspective(s). That which is said to justify violence is actually far more subjective than we may have first imagined, and so we must not risk imposing the death-dealing consequences of violence due to such a subjective decision (another reason why vengeance belongs to the Lord, as Paul says in Ro 12).

Indeed, I think that this observation can only lead us in one of two directions. Either we recognize all violence as just (i.e. America is justified in fighting a global war on “terror”, and Al Qaeda is justified in going to war against American business, and American occupying forces) or we renounce all violence. The result of going the first direction is an unending cycle of violence. Furthermore, given that we as Christians are called to be peacemakers, we cannot offer such a wide-open acceptance of violence. Consequently, we must choose the latter of these two options.

So much for my first point. On to the second.

When discussing violence, and our refusal thereof, it would be useful to first come up with an operative definition of “violence.” This is trickier than one first might imagine. For example, while violence has more traditionally been understood as using physical force against another person, more recent social theory has noted how the use of words, the imposition of limitations, and other things, can be a form of violence. Consequently, our understanding of violence has been expanded… but now it appears that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and anything can be described as violence.

The reason why this is so important is because it relates to our understanding of crafting creative alternatives to violence. For example, in Part 3 of this series, I argued that a good way to diffuse a violent situation is to physically place one's body between the violent person and the person being attacked (or between two violent people!). Some might argue that this itself is an act of violence — i.e. I am forcefully using my body as a shield between two people. Indeed, the use of restraints — from trying to hold a person back, to imprisoning a sociopathic killer — could also be described as a form of violence. So, for the moment, I still have no clear definition of what violence is, and I fear that I am drifting into a casuistic form of reasoning. This troubles me because it, too, is uncomfortably subjective (i.e. it is premised upon the belief that I can recognize what is, or is not, “violence” in any given situation).

So, I end with a question. How should we define “violence”?

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