Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. Published by The Seabury Press, New York, 1969. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: Traditional Views
The churches and the theologians, it is helpful to recall at the outset, have never been in unanimous agreement in their views on violence in human society. Today most people believe that general opinion in the past accepted and, in one way or other, blessed the state’s use of violence and condemned any revolt against the ruling authorities. But it is a mistake to assume that it is only in our day that Christians have adopted a nonviolent stance or, on the other hand, have ranged themselves on the side of revolutionary violence. These two attitudes have had their representatives, their theologians, their sects from the beginning. Let us then put the problem in perspective by reviewing, briefly, the main facts concerning these several positions.
As early as the end of the first century, the Christians found themselves under a political power -- the Roman empire -- which persecuted them but at the same time insured a kind of order and a kind of justice. They also found themselves confronting biblical passages which affirmed the value of the state -- or, at the very least, of the official political authorities -- and ascribed to it a divine origin. We shall not here take up the innumerable 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. For war certainly seemed violence pure and simple, and the police operated by violence --the crucifixion of thousands of slaves, for instance. How then accept that, when it used such methods, this power was ordained by God? To be sure, the Christians understood that the state legitimately wields the sword. But was this valid in all circumstances?
Questions like these led to the development of various theological positions -- that, for instance, which was to be dominant in the West during the Middle Ages (so-called political Augustinianism), or that which triumphed at Byzantium. What is remarkable in these theological constructions is that they do not retain the biblical perspective which sees the state as ordained by God, in harmony with the divine order, and at the same time as the Beast of the Abyss, the Great Babylon; as wielder of the sword to chastise the wicked and protect the good, but also as the source of persecution and injustice. Instead of maintaining the balance of both these truths, these theologians chose rather to validate the political power a priori on a global scale. They worked out their position on the basis of a kind of monism. The question they put was: Under what conditions is the state just, and when does it cease to be just? This led to casuistic reasoning on the acts of the state, and presently to the elaboration of a compromise which allowed the Christian and the church to live in the situation where they found themselves.
Very quickly the state became the auxiliary of the church, and vice versa. The emperor was declared "outside bishop," and the state became the secular arm carrying out the decisions of the church. For its part, the church became an earthly magnitude with a political calling. The world was divided between two powers, the spiritual and the temporal. Nevertheless the church continued to claim for itself the right of judging the state. It was she who declared whether or not the state was just. She could pronounce condemnations, and actually went so far as to order the deposition of the prince. She could do no more than speak the truth about the state. It must be admitted that under this "Christian" regime she often used her power of truth-speaking for her own advantage, to defend her goods and her personages. But justice requires us to recognize that she also used it to protect the weak and to establish peace among the powerful. Contrary to general opinion, the church’s struggle for these ends was very successful in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the political power, though recognized, limited, and in some measure controlled, continued to use violence.
The theologians and the canonists, leaning on the Roman tradition, then established positions which are still influential today. As regards violence, three main points were advanced. First, as to internal violence, the reasoning soon took shape as follows: The state is not of the same nature as man; therefore, since it has received the sword from the hand of God, it never acts by violence when it constrains, condemns and kills. Next, a distinction was made between violence and force: The state is invested with force; it is an organism instituted and ordained by God, and remains such even when it is unjust; even its harshest acts are not the same thing as the angry or brutal deed of the individual. The individual surrenders to his passions, he commits violence. The state -- even the corrupt state -- obeys quite different promptings; even in its demonization (as Karl Barth was also to say) it still, negatively, does God’s will. It is the institution which demonstrates the difference between violence and force. The theologian Suarez’s statement of the matter is well known: a man cannot lawfully kill his neighbor, nor can two men together, nor a hundred men, nor ten thousand; but a judge can lawfully pronounce a sentence of death. There is the difference. This indisputably legitimate power derives from the nature of the state; that nature does not reside in man. There is all the difference between violence and force.
But this was not the end of the matter, for, obviously, the state is not necessarily just, not necessarily right. So the next question arose: whether the state itself is just or not; for the power that condemns to death (and has the right to do so!) evidently may be tyrannical or oppressive, or may condemn by mistake. The question then becomes one of whether the state makes just laws or not. And it is the spiritual power which can say whether those laws are just. (Calvin himself adopted this casuistry.) A further question is whether the prince acquired his power by just procedures or simply seized it by violence; if the latter, he is a tyrant and unjust. Nevertheless the power he holds renders his sentences valid, without violence. Moreover, if the prince uses justly the power he seized by violent means, it is legitimized in the end. Then the final question: whether the state’s use of force conforms to the laws. Here again we find that confidence in the institution which marked ancient Rome: a death sentence pronounced according to previously established procedures, for a crime previously defined as such, and in application of existing laws -- that sentence is just. All the state can do is make decisions in conformity with its laws. (Except that sometimes the laws themselves may be unjust; whether they are is up to the church to decide.) In any case, force is just when its use conforms to the laws; when it does not conform to the laws, it is still force -- not violence -- but unjust force.
In all these matters, too, Calvin generally, though with some nuances, took the positions that were widely held in his time. We today hold many of these ideas, even if we have abandoned the conceptions of the church as judge of the state and of the supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal power. Yet modern Christians are always prone to judge the state and to tell it what it ought to do -- thus tacitly admitting that the state is valid, legitimate, and a priori capable of using force justly.
By such a course of reasoning, the theologians and canonists attempted, first, to clear the state of the charge of violence by explaining that it was not violence; and second, to establish a viable compromise between the state and Christians.
The same method was applied to the second form of violence; namely, war. Obviously the political authority was always fighting with its external enemies. It waged war. Should it have done so? Very soon -- as early as 314, at the Council of Arles -- the church realized that to deny the state the right to go to war was to condemn it to extinction. But the state is ordained by God; therefore it must have the right to wage war. Yet is not war intolerable violence?
So began the casuistry of the just war. To analyze the successive phases of that argumentation and to describe the tests set up would be superfluous. Let us simply recall the climactic point of the just-war debate in the analysis made by Gratian and Thomas Aquinas, which became the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church. (B. de Solages, La théorie de la juste guerre (Paris, 1956). It is based on the conviction that man can retain control of violence, that violence can be kept in the service of order and justice and even of peace, that violence is good or bad depending on the use or purpose it is put to.
Clearly the theologians’ prescriptions for a just war have theoretical solidity. According to them seven conditions must coincide to make a war just: the cause fought for must itself be just; the purpose of the warring power must remain just while hostilities go on; war must be truly the last resort, all peaceful means having been exhausted; the methods employed during the war to vanquish the foe must themselves be just; the benefits the war can reasonably be expected to bring for humanity must be greater than the evils provoked by the war itself; victory must be assured; the peace concluded at the end of the war must be just and of such nature as to prevent a new war.
Obviously we need not, in this brief historical review, proceed to analyze or criticize this elaboration of the just-war idea. Let us point out only that the whole argument rests on the concept of "justice" -- a concept that was perhaps clear to the Middle Ages but certainly is not so today; moreover in those times notions of "justice" were much more juridical and Aristotelian than Christian. Let us point out also that these seven conditions were formulated in a day when it was possible to see a war situation with relative clarity; but the phenomena of modern war -- total war as well as wars of subversion -- and the extent of the battlefields rule out utterly the application of these seven criteria and render them altogether inoperative.
Nevertheless these just-war ideas have been taken up again and again. At present we find three orientations. Catholic thought generally poses the problem in terms of the lesser evil: war is legitimate as an extreme means of preventing greater evil for humanity. But note that this greater evil is variously identified --by some, as the spread of communism; by others, as the exploitation of the Third World by the capitalist nations. Karl Barth takes over the idea of a just war. But of the conditions set up by the medieval theologians, he considers the third the sole test -- that of the ultima ratio. Granted that the state cannot be condemned to disappear, its right to defend itself must also be granted -- but not unless it has previously employed every means to solve the difference pacifically, has made every possible sacrifice and exhausted every possible procedure for a peaceful settlement. That is to say, war cannot be just except as a last resort.
Barth’s view also seems unsatisfactory. The fact is that such negotiations and efforts for peace often give the eventual aggressor time to prepare himself better. For example, we must admit that the Munich pact of 1938, or the nonintervention in Italy’s war against Ethiopia in 1935, bespoke wise and just attitudes on the part of France and England; and yet it was precisely these settlements that made the war of 1939-1945 infinitely more savage. All the world knows that if other nations had intervened against Hitler and Mussolini in 1934-1935, those two regimes would have foundered -- and millions of lives would have been saved.
Finally, while they generally decline to set up definitions of a "just war," some Christians today state their position as follows: We are forced to go to war; we must accept war because, according to Christian teaching, we must obey the state; but the Christian, as Christian, will engage in war without hating his foes; he will kill the enemy but he will not hate him. In this connection there has been talk about the "Christian paradox"; for to love the enemy and at the same time act cruelly toward him seems impossible. I do not say that this is absolutely impossible. I do say that the heat of battle and the violence of combat rule out any thought or emotion except the consciousness of "kill or be killed." I say also that present-day long-distance weapons, which permit the collective destruction of a far-off enemy, rule out love; what is called "love" in this situation will be mere sentimentality, and its expression mere verbalism.
But above all we must recall that the attitude described above, which seems so modern, is a very old one. The Catholic Church, for example, held this attitude toward heretics. She condemned the heretic not to punish him but to save him, not to protect herself or society against him but to lead him back to the truth; for on the other side of his heresy, as it were, she loved the person she put to death to deliver him from his heresy. I am not being ironical at all. Excommunication was called a remedium animae. And the auto-da-fé, the act of faith, was meant for the salvation of the condemned. It is easy to see where such a doctrine can lead.
The last point developed by the medieval theologians is this: that if the violence used by the state is force, hence legitimate (even if sometimes unjust), and if the state is eminently a servant of God, any revolt against it is forbidden. Some kinds of opposition to the state may be allowed; for example, the church, as we have seen, may be competent to oppose the state. Calvin holds that the "officials" may offer opposition, but this must always be reasoned, measured, juridical opposition. On the one hand, the subject himself may absolutely not rise up against the state; on the other hand, the methods of opposition may never be violent. But the individual’s opposition will always, inevitably, be violent, therefore must be condemned. Coup d’état, rebellion, all this kind of thing is rejected by the theologians. Since the authorities (and there are many definitions of "authorities," but they all lead to the same conclusion in the end) in power are ordained by God, every revolt is a revolt against God himself. This was also the position of Calvin and Luther. As to Calvin, everyone knows that he attacked the revolutionaries, "those ferocious beasts," and considered any tyranny, no matter how harsh, better than the disorder of revolt. As to Luther, everyone knows what stand he took at the time of the peasant war. In fact, in this line of thought, when a man uses violence the state has a right to apply all measures against him.
But this theological orientation, which may be considered the dominant one, seems like a solution of compromise. The reasoning back of it, one may suppose, ran something like this: "We certainly have to live in society. These are no longer the days of the first Christian generation, when extreme, uncompromising attitudes were possible. We must accommodate ourselves to the situation that exists; we must become a part of it if we are to go on living. Now there is a political power in this society, and it often plays a positive role. It is better to normalize that power and to parley with it. It is better to round off the angles of Christian demands and to seek solutions of compromise, thus preserving the church and giving the state a new meaning." Such reasoning led to overevaluation of the several positive texts in the Epistles which uphold the political power. This position has generally been defended by theologians and church people and by the men at the heart of the ecclesiastical institution.
Opposed to the position described above is that of nonviolence. This, too, is an orientation that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity and has always been represented in the church. It seems to witness to the teaching of Jesus on the level of personal relations -- Love your enemy, turn the other cheek. Jesus carried the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" to the extreme limit, and in his person manifested nonviolence and even nonresistance to evil. When he was arrested, he neither allowed Peter to defend him nor called the "twelve legions of angels" to his aid. But this is common knowledge. In any case, it seems that up to the fourth century, such was the view of Christians generally and the official position of the church, in regard to both public affairs and, especially, military service. (For what follows, I have drawn on the excellent historical study by J. M. Hornus, Évangile et Labarum (Geneva: Labor & Fides, 1960). To be sure, the first and succeeding generations obeyed and honored the political power, but, because of their love of humanity and their respect for the stranger, they refused to render military service. Indeed they showed their horror of war plainly. In this connection the testimony of Lactantius (Divine Institutions) is most important because of both its incisiveness and the character of the witness-bearer.
The refusal of Christians to render military service, then, was prompted by their desire to go beyond the simple local community and extend it to embrace all men. Nevertheless there probably were Christians in the army, though no text or inscription earlier than the end of the second century clearly indicates as much. Tertullian is the first author to mention the presence of Christians in the military, and he condemns it. The writings of his era indicate that Christians became soldiers only under duress, and that soldiering was not approved of. Then, as the military needs of the empire grew in the third and fourth centuries, the conflict broke out. In Africa, toward the end of the third century, many Christians were martyred because they refused to serve in the armies. Best known is the case of Maximilian, whose words have become famous: "I cannot be a soldier, I cannot do evil, because I am a Christian." Others at first accepted military service, then, plagued by conscience, either deserted or suffered martyrdom in consequence of their faith. Among the Copts, too, it was the Christians who started the conflict. Likewise in Gaul, the most celebrated case there being that of St. Martin of Tours, who, a soldier and a soldier’s son, after his conversion refused to serve any longer and accepted death, explaining his position in terms that, theologically, are remarkable.
It seems then that -- granted its varied origins -- the stand for nonviolence was taken by a great many Christians, though certainly not by all. But in the fourth century this position became less rigid. The last military martyrs no longer objected to army service as such; they only refused to fight against Christians.
Officially, the church also seems to have gone along with condemnation of the army in that period. Not only Tertullian but Clement of Alexandria and the document called "Apostolic Tradition" (Roman ecclesiastical regulations dating from the end of the second century) declare that he who holds the sword must cast it away and that if one of the faithful becomes a soldier he must be rejected by the church, "for he has scorned God." However, this official stand was soon relaxed. It was agreed that the ordinary soldier who was converted while in the military might remain a soldier, but that the officer would have to give up his rank. Apparently this remained the official position until the fourth century. But little by little extenuating circumstances were recognized. For example, it was admitted that the Christian who is forced by the public authorities to become a soldier should not be condemned. Also, a distinction was made between militare and bellare: in time of peace the Christian might be a soldier (militare) , but in time of war he must refuse to fight (bellare) . The Synod of Elvira and then the Council of Nicea authorized these relaxations. Thus the principle that the Christian must not be a soldier was maintained, with certain modifications and tolerances. And it seems that the principle was consistently applied. In fact it accounts for one of the accusations leveled against the Christians by Celsus: by running away from military service and refusing to defend the empire and their country, they greatly weaken the army and prove themselves enemies of mankind.
This position was abandoned at the time of Constantine’s conversion. Indeed, after the Council of Arles, Christians were required to serve in the army, and Augustine became the grand theorist of the necessity of defending the earthly city. But the belief that Christians must refuse to do violence persists in the church to this day. Conscientious objection to military service is, after all, only a specific illustration of this position. Need I mention Francis of Assisi and his refusal to do violence even to animals? The story of the wolf of Gubbio is particularly significant. And the astonishing success of the Franciscan movement, which was based on the principle of nonviolence, demonstrates that this "evangelical sweetness" carried a permanent appeal for the people of the church. This was also the principle of the Brothers of Waldo (at Lyons) and of those heretical movements -- Joachimites, Brothers of the Poor Life, etc. -- which preached true evangelical communism, practiced absolute nonviolence, and declared that apocalyptic visions had revealed that the "poor and pure religious orders will bring in the mystical government of the world." But these ideas were not altogether pure, for by calling for the exaltation of the poor they implied condemnation of the rich. In time, members of these movements abandoned the ideal of sweetness and plunged into violent struggle against the rich. John of Leyden is a striking example. He, too, declared for nonviolence and spiritual, evangelical communism, and in the end he resorted to violence in defense of his "city of saints."
Finally, this orientation became very strong in the church after the war of 1914, when conscientious-objection and nonviolent movements multiplied everywhere. Some churches adopted this position -- for example, certain Baptist churches, the Pentecostalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. In France, the Reformed Church acknowledged that conscientious objection is a vocation in the church, a prophetic sign.
But it is important to note that proponents of nonviolence differed among themselves. Some held that "Thou shalt not kill" is an absolute commandment, admitting of no exceptions; that this is a law of God which applies unconditionally to and against everyone. Others believed that the objective was above all to seek out ways of expressing love. Hence the view developed that in and of itself, as absolute act, nonviolence is of no direct value; that the principle of nonviolence must lead to ways of acting that are valid expressions of authentic love of neighbor. Thus there is no need to distinguish between good and bad, oppressor or aggressor; violence must not be used against them, because violence is necessarily contrary to love. Love can overcome evil, and we are under an imperative to go beyond the order of justice by way of the order of love. This line of thought, however, rests on the conviction that it is God who transforms the heart of man. In other words, it betokens an attitude of utter faith in the action of the Holy Spirit, a recognition that the will of God is not accomplished through violence on the part of man, but on the contrary that man’s obedience, sacrifice and nonresistance to evil clear the way for the action of God to manifest itself.
This attitude leads to two approaches. The first centers on the person of the proponent of nonviolence. Nonviolence, it declares, cannot be an "external" attitude; it resides in the heart of man. It is in being himself at peace that a man becomes peaceful; it is in living the love of God that he becomes capable of manifesting that love; it is through his practice of it in his personal life that nonviolence spreads to society. A man who believed in nonviolence yet remained violent in character would count for nothing and his action would be meaningless.
The second approach centers on the military and its growing power. (On all these problems, see P. Régarney, Nonviolence et conscience chrétienne, 1958. English edition, Nonviolence and the Christian Conscience (NewYork: Herder&Herder, 1966). In our society, adherents of this view point out, every kind of violence is dealt with, Ultimately, by the army or the police. An oppressive or unjust government can remain in power only because it has armed force at its disposal. Therefore the army is the point at which the issue must be joined. For, stripped of armed support, an unjust, oppressive government or social order can save itself only by mending its ways. Thus the whole problem of nonviolence comes down to this: the state must be divested of its instruments of violence; and, for their part, proponents of nonviolence must respond to the state’s use of violence by nonviolent actions -- acceptance of sacrifice, noncooperation, civil disobedience, etc. Some hold that the response must be absolutely nonviolent; others think that perfect nonviolence is a fiction and that some compromise may be necessary. They put their case in familiar terms: "Of course a person can accept violence and injustice for himself and hold to nonviolence when he alone is affected. But what when another is threatened? Must we not help the victim of oppression? And on the social level, is it not the fact that refusal to act violently against oppressors and to defend the oppressed is to give injustice a free hand, therefore to side with the oppressor? In other words does not this refusal amount to being violent by ‘passivity’ -- but with a good conscience?"
So some proponents of nonviolence argue. But for a long time now these same criticisms have been coming from other quarters also. And in attempting to answer these criticisms pacifists invariably refer to Gandhi and his experience. Obviously it is a fact that it was by absolute nonviolence -- even amid the crying problems India faced after her liberation -- that Gandhi finally secured not only his country’s independence, but led it to adopt policies that no other of the world’s nations will imitate. Certainly this is the fact. But those who cite this fact forget an essential factor in Gandhi’s success. To whom was his nonviolent approach directed? On the one hand, to a people shaped by centuries of concern for holiness and the spiritual, a people with highly developed conceptions of virtue and purity -- a people, in short, uniquely capable of understanding and accepting his message. Elsewhere in the world the situation is quite different. On the other hand, Gandhi was dealing with an invader -- Great Britain -- that officially declared itself a Christian nation, though there is no doubt that it took over India by violence, corruption, conquest, etc. Yet, because its Christian tradition was relatively strong, Britain could not remain insensible to Gandhi’s preachment of nonviolence. Even if Britain’s affirmation of "Christian values" was merely formal, the affirmation was made, and appealing to it was truly to put the English government on the spot. If worse came to worst, it could imprison Gandhi; but it could not simply crush or silence him, and it could not kill his disciples.
But put Gandhi into the Russia of 1925 or the Germany of 1933. The solution would be simple: after a few days he would be arrested and nothing more would be heard of him. It was their "Christian liberalism" and their democratic scruples that enabled the English people to sympathize with nonviolence. Let us entertain no illusions as to what would have happened elsewhere. But this is exactly the mistake that proponents of nonviolence so often make. They do not recognize that India’s case is unique. To believe that these methods would work in all situations is tantamount to believing (1) that a government can maintain itself without ever using violence and (2) that there is such a thing as a "just state" which would be sufficient unto itself. Their concern to show that their position is also efficacious lands pacifists in a position that, ultimately, is completely unrealistic. They would do better to declare the validity of nonviolence without pretending that it is universally applicable.
This position has generally been upheld by the "spirituals," the prophets; that is to say, by relatively isolated persons, at least in the beginning. Note, however, that this doctrine influenced church opinion more and more between the two world wars and again after the Second World War. Certainly the example and preaching of proponents of nonviolence have changed the point of view of a great many Christians. Today it is almost unthinkable that a Christian nation should adopt the slogan "Gott mit uns" (inscribed on the belt buckle of the German soldiers in 1914). Today no one believes in a "Christian war" or a war to defend Christianity (the last time that idea was exploited was in 1940-41, by the Vichy government) ; no one believes that God is with "our" armies.
Unfortunately, however, in recent years nonviolence has become selective, that is, politicized. In France, for instance, pacifists have taken a stand in relation to political affairs. They protested nonviolently against the French war in Algeria, but ignored the violences committed by the National Liberation Front. They protested nonviolently against American intervention in Vietnam, but ignored the violences committed by the Viet Cong and gave no thought to the consequences for the whole of Vietnam should a communist government gain control. Yet it is well known that violences have been committed in the north (especially against the Vietnamese Catholics) and that after communist rule was established in North Vietnam its atrocities claimed more victims than were claimed by the actual war. (It must however be recognized that one of France’s noblest champions of nonviolence, Pastor Jean Lasserre, maintains a cool head and his objectivity in the midst of all the conflicts and passions.) In other words, if the pacifist becomes involved without being partisan, his nonviolence remains authentic, in the contrary case, nonviolence becomes a means of propaganda.
Let us now consider a third orientation in Christian thought, an orientation that, like the preceding, has never had official status but has always been represented -- albeit in sporadic fashion -- in spite of official disapproval. This is the view that, aside from any question of authority, violence on the part of the individual may be legitimate. This is not at all a modern discovery, though the "theologians of revolution" seem to think so. In fact, however, the use of violence, whether by Christians or non-Christians, has always been accepted in Christian thought, on various grounds.
Apparently, the first to act on this idea were the anchorites of the Nile valley, those hairy, savage hermits of the third and fourth centuries, who periodically descended on the great cities of the valley (especially Alexandria) and, wielding their long gnarled sticks, set about beating up people and smashing everything in sight. As they saw it, theirs was a kind of purifying violence. In the face of the corruption of morals rampant in Egypt at that time, they proclaimed the imminence of the stern judgment of God, and drove home their proclamation by their violent actions. They took it upon themselves to punish sinners here and now and to manifest God’s judgment on the world in concrete ways. Thus these terrible anchorites were motivated primarily by a prophetic and spiritual concern. They took their cue from the celebrated biblical passage which tells how Jesus whipped the merchants and drove them from the temple. (J. Lasserre interprets this text to exclude every and any act of violence on Jesus’ part: I. Cahiers de la réconciliation, Paris, 1967.)
But in time the outlook changed completely, and the problem became that of the violence of the poor and oppressed against their oppressors. Was such violence legitimate before God? The answer was an unqualified "yes," sweeping aside all the Old Testament passages which indicate that God is the one who avenges the misery of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed; sweeping aside also the New Testament passages which counsel the unfortunate to practice the virtue of patience and exhort servants to obey their masters even if the master is unjust. All these passages are so familiar that I need not cite chapter and verse here. But I must emphasize at once that practically no biblical text directly justifies this "yes."
Note now some of the important applications of this "yes." Especially significant is Thomas Aquinas’ statement that when a poor person, out of his need, steals, he is not committing a sin and should not be punished by the church. The bread he stole was due him from the rich man; and if the poor man stole, it was because of the rich man’s hardness of heart. This analysis of Aquinas’ was to be one of the arguments regularly cited to justify violence.
In this connection, reference must be made also to the innumerable social movements that -- generally basing their appeal on Christian grounds -- agitated Europe’s peasantry in the Middle Ages. As an example I mention only the movement of Joachim of Floris and its consequences. One element in Joachim’s thought was exaltation of the poor. To be sure, he meant this on the theoretical level, but the idea was soon interpreted in a social sense. Wealth came to be viewed as a crime. The "fury of the proletariat" boiled up from the religious underground. Then, under the leadership of Fra Dolcino, the Joachimite movement became egalitarian and violent. Dolcino headed a band of the Illuminated who plundered and destroyed and announced the reign of the Spirit. In 1507 they were vanquished by the "forces of order"--that is, an army commanded by the Bishop of Vercueil.
Later on, this kind of thing was repeated again and again. (I omit mention of the Crusades, for these were, in the main, conducted under the auspices of the church.) The sixteenth century particularly saw an ever increasing glorification of violence on the basis of Christian motifs. There was first the great revolt of Thomas Münzer, which aimed to establish a truly Christian state where all would be equal; for, Münzer declared, the children of God are entitled to happiness in this world and to full enjoyment of all the goods of Nature which God gives to man; and they are kept from enjoying what is rightfully theirs by the rich and powerful who have cornered the goods of the world. Münzer’s views derived from Reformation ideas, but he was also affected by the spirit of revolt that stirred in the German peasants during most of the fifteenth century. He took Upper Suabia and installed a perfectly egalitarian regime at Mühlhausen. The rich were required to support the poor, and all citizens were forced to observe a strict and simple moral code. Subsequently Münzer reworked his manifesto ("Sorrows and Sufferings of the Poor") into twelve articles. But little by little the Christian, religious substance of his message and preaching was weakened, and in time his movement became a revolt pure and simple, full of hatred and a passion for looting. Meanwhile the former Cistercian monk Heinrich Pfeiffer had joined the movement. But far from bringing into it a more profound element, Pfeiffer’s presence only inflamed the passions of the citizens. Be that as it may, when the last battle was fought the peasants were still praying to the Holy Spirit.
The Anabaptist movement was important also in the Low Countries, where John of Leyden, by equally violent means, set up his regime at Münster. Here, too, we find the same preaching -- a mixture of Christian elements (Blessed are the poor. .. There will be neither rich nor poor), millenarist ideas (we must establish the Kingdom of God on earth at once, for the reign of the Spirit is at hand), and purely social, revolutionary factors. But to say that all this resulted from human misery and that the Christian preachment was simply the ideological veil of the situation is to misjudge the facts. The reverse is the case: the Christian preachment comes first, effectively reaching the hearts of men and stirring them up; and their misery occasions their revolt. (Gabriel d’Auburède (La révolution des saints, Paris, 1946) is right in emphasizing that Munster went from heresy (first) to revolt (second). Still, the means used is the same; namely, violence. And, curiously enough, in these movements physical violence often accompanies proclamations of the reign of the Spirit, a reign erupting in violence, as though spiritual passion were incarnated in violence. Remarkable passages in the sermons of John of Leyden testify to this view. For instance, he speaks of the power of the Spirit, and, referring to his enemies, adds: "Terrify them!" Or he quotes the Bible and incites to violence in the same breath: "Don’t return for your coat; arm yourselves and follow me!"
Soon after there appeared on the scene another group of Christians who took a stand for violence -- not, like the Anabaptists, as a means of relieving the oppressed and improving society, but as a political tool. These were the doctrinaires who posed the problem of he "unjust prince" and tyrannicide. Must the people support a tyrant without protest? A great many writings on this theme are extant, some by jurists or historians -- who tried to associate their position with a Christian point of view -- others by politicians. I cite two examples. The first is Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1573), about whose author little is known. However, he begins with a description of the king’s function, goes on to explain the double contract between God and king and between king and people, and concludes that if the head of state is a tyrant who has won his office by violence, his subjects are duty-bound to revolt against him and to use all means to destroy his power. The second example is De justa abdicatione Henrici III, written by the "Curé of Paris," Boucher, at the time of the Holy League. Boucher plainly defends tyrannicide in principle. But he distinguishes among tyrants, as follows: If the prince is a tyrant by reason of the origin of his power (usurpation, violence): in this case, every citizen has the duty of killing him. If the prince is a tyrant by reason of the abuses of power he commits against the "republic": in this case, the people’s representatives must pronounce a judgment (secret, of course!), but private persons will have to carry out the sentence (by assassination). Finally, if the tyrant wrongs private persons, they may not avenge themselves; only the whole people, or the "public powers," can revolt. In all these cases the tyrant is a public enemy. These ideas were in fact applied in the assassination of Henry III.
I need hardly point out that Cromwell and the Levellers held similar views. The interesting thing is that here the two currents of thought described earlier in this section join in favoring violence. On the one hand, there were the Christians who affirmed the validity of violence from a political point of view, as a way of fighting tyranny and bringing in a republican form of government or insuring submission to a "constitution." This was the case with Cromwell. On the other hand, there were the Christians who took the part of the poor and affirmed the validity of violence to defend the poor. This was the case with the Levellers. Note that one of the Levellers, John Lilburne, was perhaps the first to set forth a "theology of revolution." He wrote that "the most authentic servants of Christ have always been the worst enemies of tyranny and the oppressor" (Legitimate Defense, 1653) .
Study of these writings reveals certain facts that apply generally. These Christians actually moved, and rapidly, from an attack on the political powers to an attack on the church; for the church, they thought, was in league with the political powers (and such was indeed often the case). But, for one thing, their ideas were Christian only in a quite vague and general way (so with Overton of Walwyn). And, for another, their attack on the Christian hypocrites who were in league with the political powers soon led them to reject Christianity itself. Broadly speaking, it may be said that the defense of the poor, prompted in the first place by Christian sentiments of solidarity or charity, crowded out all the rest of Christianity and ended in total abandonment of faith, in indifference to the revelation, and in the atheism that appears to be a normal revolutionary position.
Be that as it may. This position was worked out primarily by "political" men. Faith and theology had small part in it and in any case were not the point of departure, the deep motivators. Rather, Christianity served as the justification, the legitimization of this position, as a complementary argument. What interested these people was political or social action. They held that faith or theological arguments might be means, instruments, but never decisive factors. And that such was the case is proved by the fact that no biblical or theological reasoning, no appeal to the community of the faith, ever induced them to change their position.
If I have dealt at some length with this old tradition, it was to show that for Christians to take a position in favor of violence is nothing new at all. From all quarters nowadays we are told that the "theology of revolution" is one of the most remarkable developments in modern theological thought and that, thanks to it, we shall get rid of the conformism that has long marked the churches. Not so. At most, this theology represents a return to traditional currents of thought. I do not disparage it, but I should like to see its partisans moderate their enthusiasm.
I have tried to describe the three positions held by Christians in respect to violence. Formally opposed each to the others in content, all three are alike in some ways and quite different in others. The differences, it seems to me, are not so much a matter of theological disagreement as of temperament. The first position appeals to reasonable (not simply conformist and hypocritical) Christians who believe that, after all, every period of human history has its values: that it is better to try to Christianize a given situation than to enter into conflict with it; and that one cannot sweep the whole socia1 and cultural edifice into outer darkness. These people -- they are the prudent ones -- practice the virtues of moderation and temperance. However, the fact is that this first position, though it is held by many in the Roman church and in so-called "Christian countries," is much less important today than formerly. While it still has its partisans, they hardly dare affirm it radically on the doctrinal level.
The second position appeals to those whom I shall call "sufferers," people who are acutely conscious of the scandalous gap between Christian affirmations and the behavior of our society. They often feel the sufferings of others so keenly that they are ready to make serious personal sacrifices. They are marked by true charity, a spirit of sweetness and, often, great humility. This position was revolutionary after 1918. It still has many adherents. Yet it is losing ground today, for two reasons. First, it has been officially recognized as valid by many churches, hence no longer seems dangerous or extreme. Second the problems we come up against today are quite different from those involved in traditional wars and states, and much more difficult to resolve.
The third position appeals to people of passionate temperament, men and women who are uncompromising, hard, incapable of dialogue or moderation. They are obsessed with the question of social justice and the problem of poverty. But for all that they certainly do not exemplify Christian charity. Of course they talk about love. But while the "sufferers" try to practice love of enemy in concrete ways, these people (like the prudent individuals who take the first position) make love a kind of theoretical value. A harsh judgment? It may seem so. But the fact is that these people very easily accept the evil that befalls others. These Christian partisans of violence are not at all inhibited by the thought of the suffering that this violence will inflict on thousands and hundreds of thousands of human beings. No, they have rendered their judgment of what constitutes "justice." The bad people -- the powerful, the police, the rich, the communists, the colonializers, the Fascists -- deserve to be eliminated. So I cannot call these partisans exemplars of charity in Christ. Their love is selective. They have chosen the "poor." Good enough. But toward the "bad" they are pitiless.
Thus, we see, differences of temperament have an important bearing on those three positions. But, on the other hand, all three are alike in one basic respect. All are what one might call "monist." By that I mean that we are dealing with Christians who think there must be a Christian "solution," a valid way of organizing society or the world. Those who seek a Christian solution try to formulate a compromise between the demands of Christ and the necessities of the world, to work out a quantitative determination, a balance of factors that will bring in a viable social order. Those who seek a plan for reorganizing society on Christian lines make a judgment of society and a demand on the world -- the judgment that the world ought not to be as it is, and the demand that society so change that there will be no more war, no more poverty, no more exploitation of man; so change that a Christian finds it satisfactory.
Both these groups, implicitly or explicitly, cherish the hope that the various elements involved can be brought into accord. They forget that this is the world that has absolutely rejected Jesus Christ; that there can be no accord between the values, the bases, the stoikeia of the world and those of the revelation.
Certainly, Luther also held a dualistic position -- so conceived, however, as to make a separation between the world and the revealed word. Thus there remained a sort of autonomous sphere for society, to be directed by power, a power that was completely and directly an expression of God’s action. It seems to me -- and I state my view briefly; I cannot develop it here -- that the attempt to assimilate world and faith to each other is one mistake, and the attempt to separate them radically is another. It is a mistake to emphasize -- as is always done -- that the word "world" has several meanings in the Bible, and to suppose that "cosmos" in the material sense has nothing to do with the world of power, revolt and opposition that John in particular speaks of. I think it is society in the first place that is the world of revolt, rejection and negation.
Again, it is a mistake -- an enormous mistake -- to suppose that the Incarnation and Lordship of Jesus Christ have resolved the problem. If the Incarnation has a meaning it can only be that God came into the most abominable of places (and he did not, by his coming, either validate or change that place). The "Lordship of Jesus Christ" does not mean that everything that happens, happens by the decision of that Lord. No, the world remains the world, but whether or not it knows it the world is subject to that Lord.
Finally, it is a mistake, and one that is made again and again, to fasten an undue interpretation on the text "God so loved the world," to assume that it implies that the world is not so bad after all. (Incidentally, those who cite the text for this purpose usually omit the rest of it: "so that all may believe" -- and that is certainly dishonest.) I believe that | the meaning of that passage is precisely the opposite. It is because the world is radically, totally evil that nothing less would do than the gift of God’s son.
Let us then remember that God’s love is utterly boundless, that he loves what is by nature detestable. And let us not say that the world is good, that this word has been given us. So we must stand at a distance from our society, its tendencies and movements. but we must never break with it, for the Incarnation has taken place. We are invited to take part in a dialectic, to be in the world but not of it, and thus to seek out a particular, a specifically Christian position. It is from this point of view that we shall consider this problem of violence, which is so urgent and tragic today.
Viewed 80819 times.