Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Christians and Violence, Part I

Jacques Ellul presents a complex case for Christians to "struggle against violence." Throughout the book he interacts with other Christian thinkers on the nature of violence and whether or not it may be justified for the Christian to either partake in or condone violence. One has the sense throughout the book that he opposes violence, but it is not until late in the book that he establishes a clear position and argues against it.

Ellul gives a glimpse of his view half way through the book. He writes,"...violence is of the order of Necessity. I do not say violence is a necessity, but rather that a man (or a group) subject to the order of Necessity follows the given trends, be these emotional, structural, sociological, or economic. He ceases to be an independent, initiating agent; he is part of a system in which nothing has weight or meaning; and (this is important) so far as he obeys these inescapable compulsions he is no longer a moral being." (page 91)

He describes the nature of violence: "Violence is hubris, fury, madness. There are no such things as major and minor violence. Violence is a single thing, and it is always the same. In this respect, too, Jesus saw the reality. He declared that there is no difference between murdering a fellow man and being angry with him or insulting him (Matthew 5:21-22). This passage is no "evangelical counsel for the converted"; it is, purely and simply, a description of the nature of violence." (page 99)

Ellul uses the words of Jesus to demonstrate his "second law of violence"—"reciprocity." He of course refers to Matthew 26:52, "…For all who take the sword will perish by the sword." He writes, "Let me stress two points in connection with this passage. There is the insistence on "all." There is no distinction between a good and a bad use of the sword. The sheer fact of using the sword entails the result. The law of the sword is a total law. Then, Jesus is in no sense making a moral valuation or announcing a divine intervention or coming judgment; he simply describes the reality of what is happening. He states one of the laws of violence. Violence creates violence, begets and procreates violence." (page 95)

With this law of reciprocity, it is of course natural that, "...once we consent to use violence ourselves, we have to consent to adversary's using it, too. We cannot demand to receive treatment different from that we mete out. We must understand that our own violence necessarily justifies the enemy's, and we cannot object to his violence." (page 99)

"Violence begets violence--nothing else... Violence is par excellence the method of falsehood. 'We have in view admirable ends and objectives. Unfortunately, to attain them we have to use a bit of violence. But once we are the government, you will see how society develops, how the living standard rises and cultural values improve. If we revolutionaries are only allowed to use a little violence (you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs), you'll see the reign of justice, liberty, and equality.' That kind of thing is repeated again and again, and it sounds logical enough. But it is a lie. I am not making a moral judgment here, but a factual experimental judgment based on experience. Whenever a violent movement has seized power, it has made violence the law of power. The only thing that has changed is the person who exercises violence." (pages 100-101)

Next, we'll look at the foundation for his argument.


Pilgrim said...

I haven't read all the Ellul posts carefully, but a problem with an "anti-violence" philosophy is that it makes no allowances for God to be violent. The God of Israel is a violent avenger of evil.

Nor, it seems, are there anti-violent categories for parents to use violence - spanking - as discipline for their children. We hate our sons and daughters if we refuse to use violence against their disobedience.

Seems like the idea of "authority" needs to be developed, the rights and responsibilities thereof, and the promises and threats made to those authorities who will, and who will not, faithfully administer legitimate violence.

Shootin' from the hip. We're of the same mind regarding interventionist foreign wars.

John said...

You have anticipated one of the criticisms I had until finishing the book. Keep reading, I'll get to this in Part III which I'll post tomorrow.

I am not prepared to take a firm position on Ellul's perspectives on violence yet, but I confess that the argument, especially as presented in Part II (coming later today) is very compelling and I anticipate will be difficult to refute.