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Marx and Christ: The Question of Violence

by Roberta C. Bondi

In her work as a church historian Roberta C.Bondi has sought to make the wisdom of the early church and the insights of monastic spirituality available to contemporary Christians. Her books To Pray and To Love and To Love as God Loves (both from. Augsburg Fortress) explore the life of prayer as exemplified by Christian monks of ancient Egypt. Bondi, who teaches at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, recently wrote Memories of God (Abingdon) and is now working on a book about prayer titled In Ordinary Time. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 23, 1974, pp. 65-69. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Latin America is the scene of what is probably the most lively Marxist-Christian encounter in the world today. In that part of the globe, economic exploitation and political suppression have produced polarized societies in which the privileged few bask in affluence while the disinherited many suffer in privation. Until recently, the dominant Catholic Church did little to condemn the greed of the ruling class; it opted for the peace and order of the status quo rather than for the justice and turmoil of social change.

This oppressive situation, however, has become explosive now that the masses, conscious at last of the wrong done them, are committed to the belief that they need not live under these conditions forever. As a group of Latin American churchmen has said: "There is no doubt that a revolutionary spirit pervades much of the continent. People are calling for bold and thorough transformations that will radically reform existing conditions... The choice is not between the status quo and change; it is between violent change and peaceful change" (Between Honesty and Hope [Maryknoll, 1970], p. 179).

Latin America, then, is a situation of present oppression and impending revolution; and one of the chief issues raised in this situation is whether or not that revolution ought to be pursued by violent means. Marxists and Christians alike who are committed to social change must face this issue.

Prima facie, one would conclude that Marxism affirms violence while Christianity renounces it. If such be the case, concrete cooperation between Marxists and Christians would have a rather narrow range of possibilities. I propose, however, to raise some considerations that I think would facilitate a much wider range of cooperation between Marxists and Christians.

Marx’s View of Violence

The classic writings of the mature Marx -- the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital -- reveal that violence is a fundamental and necessary feature in his system. According to Marx, every society can be analyzed in terms of two basic and inseparably related structures. First, there is the economic substructure. At its center are the relations of production; that is, the ways in which people associate with each other in order to produce goods and services. For Marx, the relations of production in all pre-communist societies have assumed the characteristics of an oppressor-oppressed relationship. The oppressors, a small elite motivated by insatiable greed, exploit the labor of the masses in order to realize their egoistic desires. The specific form that this oppressor-oppressed relationship assumes during a given epoch is determined by the nature of the productive forces available. Thus there is at the heart of all pre-communist economies a conflictual relation in which the masses are being violated for the sake of the few. Economic violence is the hallmark of all pre-communist production.

The second feature of any society, according to Marx, is the social superstructure, which consists of all the social constructs -- the laws, the prevailing morality, religion, the state, etc. These components are developed in such a way as to express and guarantee the interests of the oppressors in the economic substructure. That is, the oppressors can pursue their egoistic interests and violate the masses of mankind because their interests are defended and their violence condoned by these institutions of society.

When one ruling class is supplanted by another and the social superstructure is reworked to reflect and guarantee the interests of the new ruling class, then society has undergone a revolution. Such a revolution is possible when there develops an economic crisis so severe that it can be solved only through a complete reconstitution of society by a self-conscious challenging class. This kind of revolution, however, requires a violent overthrow of the ruling class because the ruling class has at its disposal legalized methods of social coercion.

Unlike all previous social revolutions, the communist revolution abolishes the class conflict at the heart of the economic substructure and thereby obviates future revolutions. Prosecuted by the armed proletariat who represent the masses of mankind, the communist revolution wrests the power of the state from the ruling elite and deploys that power not to oppress the masses (as was the case in former revolutions) but to abolish the ruling class as such. With the disappearance of the ruling class, the economic substructure is transformed from a conflictual relation of oppression into a peaceful relation of cooperation and brotherhood. Subsequently, the whole social superstructure is reconstituted to reflect and guarantee the interests of all mankind rather than those of the privileged few.

Such then is the nature of the communist society. It is a society of peaceful brotherhood born in the pangs of violence in order to destroy the violence of the class struggle which has characterized all pre-communist society. This communist society, for Marx, is not only desirable; it is also inevitable.

Jesus’ View of Violence

Jesus’ view of coping with violence appears to imply a perspective diametrically opposed to Marx’s. I believe that a strong case can be made for the contention that Jesus regarded himself as fulfilling the Suffering Servant role of Deutero-Isaiah. (Cf. Reginald H. Fuller’s The Mission and Achievement of Jesus [Alec R. Allenson, 1954].) In the first part of his ministry he announced the advent of God’s Kingdom, and by exorcising demons and healing the sick he exhibited the present power of God’s rule. In due course, after he had gathered a group of disciples around him, he questioned the inner circle of the disciples at Caesarea-Philippi as to how they construed his mission. Peter’s response -- "Thou art the Christ" -- ushered in the second phase of Jesus’ ministry, during which he gradually disclosed to his disciples his own sense of identity with the Suffering Servant model -- a model that depicts eventual triumph through present suffering.

He also continued to invite people to become members of God’s Kingdom; that is, to become citizens whose ruler is God. And through his deeds and words he demonstrated the meaning of this citizenship. In brief, citizenship in God’s Kingdom means at least three things. (1) It means recognition of the conflictual nature of human existence -- that a battle is being waged between the demonic forces of egoistic injustice and the heavenly forces of altruistic neighbor-love. (2) It means decision against demonic egoism and commitment to heavenly altruism. (3) It means radical obedience to the Suffering Servant model as the mode of combat.

Now concerning this mode of combat, it would seem that the violence of egoistic injustice is to be conquered not by violence but by love -- because the whole point of God’s Kingdom is the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men, or the reconciliation of men to God and of men to each other; and because love reconciles and builds whereas violence divides and destroys. Jesus himself offers a paradigm of this approach during the crucifixion. He takes upon himself the violence and hatred of men, and conquers that violence within himself by extending forgiveness and other-affirming love to his assailants. Thereby, he refuses to allow that violence to extend itself further in an unending spiral. Such a mode of combat was personally very costly for Jesus, and it will be costly for his disciples. The disciple, however, is called to costly obedience to the Suffering Servant model.

By loving the adherents of demonic egoistic injustice, the disciples of Jesus affirm the transforming power of unselfish love. When demonic egoism spends its strength in brutalizing the disciples of the Suffering Servant and in the end discovers that forgiving love is the eternal response from the disciples of Jesus, then the agents of demonic egoism will be open to the transforming power of neighbor-love. When demonic egoism discovers that it cannot change other-affirming love into other-violating egoism, then the opportunity for the transforming power of love is present. The disciples of Jesus affirm that the future belongs ultimately to this love -- because it is God’s future. The triumph of such love, then, is not only desirable; it is inevitable.

The Prima Facie Cases Reconsidered

Such, then, are the prima facie interpretations of Marx’s and Jesus’ perspectives concerning violence. Marx seems to encourage his followers to engage in violence as an instrument of social change, whereas Jesus seems to command his disciples to renounce violence. Thus a vast gulf seems to separate Marxists and Christians as to the way to build the brotherhood of the future. The Marxists can claim that nonviolent Christianity objectively commits the Christian either to nonaction or to ineffective action in the presence of oppression; and, further, that nonaction and ineffective action at their best mean exposing the throats of the oppressed to the fangs of the oppressors, and at their worst mean objective participation in that very brutalization. In their turn, the Christians can claim that violent Marxism commits the Marxist to an unending spiral of violence which, in practice, has failed to build in any significant sense the brotherhood of the future; that, instead, one violent oppressive system has simply been replaced by another violent oppressive system, in which the children of the revolution have been destroyed by the revolution itself.

But must Christians and Marxists frankly recognize this vast incompatibility in their perspectives and go their separate ways? Or is a rapprochement possible without sacrificing loyalties?

Christians in Latin America seem to be divided on this issue. Theoreticians like Gustavo Gutiérrez seem to believe that theoretical harmonization of Marxism and Christianity on some key issues is possible. Further, Gutiérrez implies -- notably in his A Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1973) -- that Christians legitimately can and indeed should participate with Marxists in the violence of social change in order to liberate Latin America. In contrast, thinkers like Helder Câmara (see his Spiral of Violence [Dimension Books, 1971]) argue that violence breeds violence in an unending spiral, and that, accordingly, the nonviolent way of Jesus and Gandhi is the only path to the brotherhood of the future, Do these opposed views create an impasse for Marxist-Christian dialogue?

To me, it appears rather that they prompt two fundamental questions: First, does the Christian in effect jettison his model of Jesus as the Suffering Servant if he pursues social change by violent means? Second, is the Marxist committed to an unending spiral of violence by his use of violent means?

The Nature of Violence

It seems that a good deal of confusion has arisen because of lack of clarity concerning the nature of violence, Building on the analysis of Troy Organ (‘The Anatomy of Violence," The Personalist, Autumn 1970) , we might define a violent act as one in which the agent, according to the judgment of an ideal observer, is objectively attempting to impose his will upon another. The power of this definition of violence is that it makes obsolete the much-used distinction between violent force and nonviolent force. If violence means the imposition of one’s will upon another, it is not limited to acts like rape and murder but also embraces such deeds as boycotts, verbal threats and oppressive economic structures. And if this be the case, violence is an inescapable feature of the human condition. Marx insisted that human beings are individual-social beings. To emphasize human individuality at the expense of human sociality, or vice versa, is to speak not of man but of an abstraction. The human situation involves, as it were, a cluster of individual freedoms or persons. The freedoms cannot exist apart from the cluster because no person is self-produced or self-sufficient; and the freedoms cannot exist in the cluster except conflictually, because all social conditioning or education, from toilet training to term papers, involves some violence. From this perspective, the development of society is the story of conflicts and compromises among these freedoms; that is to say, the history of man has been, is and will continue to be a history of violence.

Accordingly, the conflictual activities of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are not to be contrasted with the conflictual activities of Lenin, Stalin and Ernesto (Che) Guevara as nonviolence versus violence. Instead, both groups must be seen as persons imposing their wills upon others, hence as participating in violence. What divides them is the degree of violence they approved.

Violent acts, I think, can be described in terms of a continuum or spectrum. At the ultraviolent extremity would be acts, such as murder, which impose the will of the actor upon others with a dreadful finality. These acts mean the complete desecration of other freedoms; they seal off all the possible futures of the violated persons. At the other end of the spectrum would be infraviolence, such as the subtle bribery used by a parent who is aware of the power of Skinnerian positive reinforcement applied to a child. Infraviolence does not seal off the possible futures of a person; rather, it nudges the violated one in the direction of a preferred cluster of possible futures. Between these extremes of the spectrum would be countless acts by which we impose our wills upon others. The position of any particular act on the spectrum would be determined by the degree to which the act seals off the possible futures of the violated person; that is, the degree to which the act resembles ultraviolence.

The Christian Goal: Reconciliation

To what degree, then, can the disciples of the Suffering Servant engage in violence without abandoning their Jesus model? I suggest that the life and teachings of Jesus imply a criterion on the basis of which acts of violence can be evaluated. Jesus did not adopt the Suffering Servant model for its own sake. That model was instrumental to the accomplishment of his mission; namely, the reconciliation of men to God and to each other. Friendship with God and friendship with men in this world is the goal of Jesus’ mission to mankind. I submit then that only that violence which facilitates the goal of reconciliation is legitimate within the Christian perspective. Consequently, ultraviolence cannot be legitimized from the Christian point of view precisely because ultraviolence means killing, and that means placing one’s opponent beyond the possibility of reconciliation. Ultraviolence and reconciliation are incompatible. Therefore war and all other forms of murder must be rejected by the adherents of the Jesus model.

To be sure, there are not a few Christians who support ultraviolence in the form of political assassination or of war, both international and civil. They seem to argue that, ultraviolence is justified as an act of love in behalf of an oppressed neighbor. For my part, I think the case can be made that Christian love must be seen in the service of reconciliation. I am inclined to believe also that some of the Christians who condone and practice ultraviolence do so out of frustration; when faced by ultraviolent opponents, they see no possible response other than ultraviolence. But ought Christians to confess the poverty of their imaginations so readily? Are there really no other options for combating ultraviolence than ultraviolence itself? What about all the other degrees of violence?

In short, I suggest that violence is an inescapable feature of human existence, but that, because the Christian’s acts are to be instrumental to reconciliation, ultraviolence cannot claim Christian justification. What degree of violence that falls short of ultraviolence may be appropriate in a given conflictual situation must be decided in the concrete situation by reason and love in the service of reconciliation.

Marx’s Human-Affirming Principle

Let us turn now to the second question: Is the Marxist committed to an unending spiral of violence by his use of violent means? I suggested above that violence is endemic to the human condition. To be human, I said, means to be a freedom in a cluster with other freedoms; but such a cluster exists not as a frozen tranquillity but as a dynamic conflict of freedoms. The resolution of conflicts involves the imposition of one will upon another, hence violence. In dialectical fashion, freedoms in conflict yield to resolutions which in turn become the occasion for freedoms in conflict, and so on. So there is truth in the concept of the unending spiral of violence. And that spiral is not to be shunned or feared but to be welcomed, for it is the dynamic of social progress.

Accordingly, the question needs to be reformulated, thus: What safeguard does the Marxist have which will restrain violence from escalating into the darkness of ultraviolence where the children of the revolution themselves are slaughtered by the revolution and the future brotherhood of man is pushed ever more remotely into the future? That is to say, does Marxist theory contain a human-affirming governing principle in the light of which violence is to be evaluated?

The response must be an equivocal No-and-Yes. First, consider the No. In the writings of his maturity Marx articulated what he thought were the laws of historicoeconomic development. As generalizations based on empirical data, these laws were, for Marx, scientific laws, on the basis of which he predicted the course of social development. He claimed that he had demonstrated scientifically that communism is the destiny of mankind. He explicitly stated that he was not projecting communism as an "ought to be": that is, communism is not to be construed as a future moral solution to a current immoral society. Communism is a historical necessity, not a moral necessity.

Now, many of Marx’s disciples took their master at his word and proceeded as scientific socialists whose task was to cooperate with the irresistible forces of historical development in order to hasten the realization of the inevitable communist society. The scientific socialists were guided by a certain moral sense which convinced them that the revolution they were making was something that ought to be done for the sake of mankind; nevertheless, this moral sense remained vague and philosophically undefined. Accordingly, when they prosecuted their revolutions, they were guided by the laws of Marx’s scientific socialism. In those laws, people appear as dispensable ciphers to be manipulated as calculating reason dictates. These scientific socialists, then, were devoid of an explicit human-affirming norm which could guide and criticize their use of violence. Accordingly, these revolutionaries rushed headlong into escalating ultraviolence that evoked ultraviolent reaction.

Now consider the Yes. The case can be made that Marx initially became committed to communism as the moral solution to an immoral society. This case rests primarily on an analysis of Marx’s early writings, where he engages in some rather heavy Hegelian philosophizing and offers a philosophical view of man that is tantalizingly incomplete but still sufficiently articulated to allow us to discern what he was about. Marx saw man as "free, conscious activity"; in other words, as "a continuous self-world creator." Man is the being who makes products; and with those products he not only fulfills himself but shapes his world and participates in the creation of other worlds. As I said above, man is for Marx an individual-social being, a freedom clustered with other freedoms. This view of man led Marx to condemn the dehumanization in his society and to call for the realization of communism as the end of dehumanization and the inauguration of unprecedented levels of human fulfillment.

Given that view, might it perhaps be argued that ultraviolence means self-destruction because it means destruction of part of the cluster of freedoms which constitute the agent? And, since multifaceted human fulfillment is Marx’s goal in the early writings, might not ultraviolent self-destruction be rejected as inimical to this goal? If so, Marx himself (in his early writing) supplies a criterion by which violence can be evaluated. It is the task of humanistic Marxists to explore this human-affirming principle and to use it to judge the activities of Marx’s disciples -- especially those who call themselves scientific socialists and who manipulate persons as dispensable ciphers.

Let me sum up this discussion of Marxism, Christianity and violence. Violence -- the imposition of one will upon another will -- is an inescapable feature of human existence. Accordingly, the question initially posed by the Latin American situation -- Will the inevitable social change be violent or nonviolent? -- is a pseudo-question. Similarly, the dichotomy between a violent Marxism and a nonviolent Christianity is a pseudo-distinction. The real question posed by the conflictual nature of human existence is, What is the norm by which we judge our use of violence? To that question Christianity may respond with the norm of reconciliation and Marxism with the norm of continuous self-world creatorship. Both these norms are human-affirming principles. Whether or not the Christian and the Marxist are willing each to accept his master’s norm will, to a considerable extent, determine whether ultraviolent oblivion or the brotherhood of man is our future.

We are violent. May our violence promote brotherhood!


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