Friday, December 11, 2009

Christians and Violence, Part III

While Ellul has established that Christians must reject the use of violence and not offer justification for it, he leaves much room for the unbelieving, enslaved world to use violence without condemnation—under specific circumstances. Ellul believes Christians may condone violence "when a man is in despair and sees no other way out, or (2) when a hypocritically just and peaceful situation must be exposed for what is in order to end it. But I must emphasize that in these cases, too, violence is of the "order of necessity," therefore contradictory to the Christian life, whose root is freedom." His emphasis on the use of violence as remaining "of the order of necessity" is an important one, that may too easily be dismissed. (page 133-134)

He even calls this use of violence as having its "virtues." Yet he remains firm in the conviction that "the Christian cannot participate in a movement that makes violence and men's anger a factor in its strategy; nor can he credit an ideology that promises to establish a new order through violence." (page 134) So while the Christian may condone the use of violence, with reservations, without participating in it, "the Christian can neither avoid involvement by escape into the realm of spiritual values, nor side by default with the dominating party (as he has done so often in the course of history). Necessarily, in virtue of the Lord's example, in virtue of the order of love, he is on the side of the little people, the poor. His place in the world is there—the only place the way of love leads to." He still cautions Christians, "must be on guard against creating the impression that his presence in the movement gives it a kind of moral guarantee. 'The Christians are on our side' is interpreted as 'God is on our side.'"

If Christians become entangled in violence he can "only admit humbly that he could not do otherwise, that he took the easy way and yielded to necessity and the pressures of the world. That is why the Christian, even when he permits himself to use violence in what he considers the best of causes, cannot either feel or say that he is justified; he can only confess that he is a sinner, submit to God's judgment, and hope for God's grace or forgiveness."

There is no room in Ellul's judgment for violence in the Christian life. This is an issue that may not be compromised. It is a tough, firm, and respectable position that is compelling. It also requires a different interpretation of Romans 13 than the modern church gives us. Ellul only briefly mentions Romans 13 in the beginning of the book, stating, "We shall not here take up the innumberable exegeses of Romans 13 and parallel texts. The important thing is to understand that such passages and exegeses predisposed the Christians to accept the political power as more or less valid. On the practical level, however, they saw that the state always threatened to become a persecuting state, and they saw also that it used violence against its enemies, internal or external." (page 2)

Violence is only one hundred and seventy-five pages long, so its scope is necessarily limited. So strangely, as it may seem, he does not return to the passage, nor does he discuss Genesis 9. These are two large shortcomings of the book, in my opinion, as they warrant his attention.

I meant to end the review with this part, but I will return to spiritual violence—"the violence of love" next.

Update 12/18/09: I found a paper online entitled Violence, Anarchy and Scripture: Jacques Ellul and Rene Girard, written by Matthew Pattillo, that summarizes Ellul's interpretation of Romans 13. He writes:

"Ellul agrees that the verses do come from Paul, but must be properly contextualized both within the epistle and within Paul's other writings. The discussion prior to Romans 13 concerns loving and being at peace with others, both friend and enemy. The last verse of chapter twelve (Rm 12:21), "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," leads into the discussion of political power, which is an evil that must be endured. Paul is far from advocating revolution or violent resistance, counseling submission instead. If we owe taxes, we pay them, nothing more. We recognize that these exousia, or powers are ultimately subject to God alone, but we know, too, that as Christians we have been called to struggle against these exousia (Eph 6:12). While these powers are already defeated by Christ, for the time being we experience and admit their necessity, but never their legitimacy."

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