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 3: Christian Realism in the Face of Violence
If we want to find out what the Christian attitude toward violence should be, we cannot proceed by deducing the consequences of Christian principles or by enumerating biblical texts. The Bible does frequently condemn violence, but it defends violence just as frequently -- even in the New Testament. So this is not a good method of seeking an answer to our question. I believe that the first thing the Christian must do in relation to problems of social ethics is to be completely realistic, to get as clear and exact an understanding of the facts as possible. Realism is the necessary basis for Christian thinking on society. (Of course, I am not now referring to philosophical or metaphysical realism.) By realism I mean two things: first, seeing the facts as they are and grasping them thoroughly, without evasion or illusion, without recoiling in fear or horror as it becomes evident what the result of some trend is likely to be. Surely the Christian -- and only the Christian -- should be able to exercise this clarity of vision and thought because the Revelation has to some degree given him an understanding of the world, and also because, terrible as the reality may be, he can accept it without despairing, for he has hope in Jesus Christ. In his examination of the facts the Christian must not yield to emotional urges, however justified they may seem (the urge to help the poor, for instance). "You shall not change your judgment according to whether your brother is rich or poor" (Leviticus 19:15), and expressly, "You shall not be partial to a poor man in his suit" (Exodus 23:3). But also: "You shall not attack the rights of the poor" (Exodus 23:6). To say, however, that reality must not be approached with a bias toward the poor is certainly not to say that the rich should be favored. On the contrary!
Second, Christian realism means knowing clearly what one is doing. Naturally I do not deny that the Holy Spirit may intervene and give direction to our action; but the possibility of the Spirit’s intervention is no justification for rushing pell-mell into action, just for the sake of action; for yielding to some emotion, sentiment, visceral reaction, on the plea that "God will turn it to account" or, worse, in the conviction that this visceral reaction is tantamount to a divine commandment or a prophetic insight. Christian realism demands that a man understand exactly what he is doing, why he is doing it, and what the results of his doing will be. The Christian can never act spontaneously, as though he were an Illuminist. He must be harmless as the dove (the sacrificial victim, ready to sacrifice himself in his action -- for the dove is the sacrificial victim ) and wise as the serpent ( that is, fully aware of just what he thinks and does). He must use the light of reason, of science and technology, to get his bearings, for the "children of this world are wiser than we." He must be the careful architect who, in accordance with Jesus’ advice, sits down to work out plans and calculate the cost before starting to build. All of which is to say that, contrary to widely held opinion, faith in the Holy Spirit does not mean that we may act imprudently, close our eyes and refuse to think; rather, it means that we must use our heads and try to see with clarity. True, the Holy Spirit -- who is clarity itself -- may propel us into the greatest imprudence; but then we shall know it.
So the Christian who wants to find out what he ought to do must be realistic; this is the first step. It goes without saying, however, that he must reject a great deal of what the world calls "realism." He may study and analyze the facts, but he will not make them the basis of his action, he will not be ruled by reality. Realism, as generally understood, leads to the conclusion that "things being as they are, this is the realistic line to take." The Christian must indeed see things as they are, but he will not derive his principles of action from them. This realism gives him a clear idea of what the choices are in the given situation, but he will not take the action that is automatically indicated -- though he will be tempted to do so; for reality, once seen, is hard to escape from.
Moreover, Christian realism will prevent self-approbation for what we do; when we calculate the probable results of our actions in a rational manner, we are not at all likely to be proud of ourselves or to praise our works; rather, Christian realism leads to humility. But anyone who is not realistic in this sense is like the blind leading the blind in the parable.
Now, I have been studying the problem of violence (especially violence as practiced today) for a long time, and on several occasions have played some role in violent actions. So I can state that what is most lacking in this regard among my brother Christians is neither good will nor charity, neither concern for justice nor dedication, neither enthusiasm nor willingness to make sacrifices -- none of these; what is lacking is realism. Where violence is concerned, Christians generally behave like imbecile children. And I do not believe that stupidity is a Christian virtue. On the other hand, intelligence is obviously not an absolute requirement, but realism as I have tried to define it is. I shall cite only one text: "But Jesus did not trust himself to them, . . . for he knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25) -- though this certainly did not keep him from giving his life for these same men!
Violence as Necessity
Consequently, the first thing the Christian must do regarding violence is to perceive exactly what violence is. And rigorous realism requires going far beyond the usual generalities; for the natural man fools himself about fact, cannot bear to look at a situation as it is, invents stories to cover up reality. Yet it must be recognized that violence is to be found everywhere and at all times, even where people pretend that it does not exist. Elsewhere I have shown in detail that every state is founded on violence and cannot maintain itself save b and through violence.( See my L’illusion politique. Space will not permit me to repeat this long argument here. English edition, Political Illusion (New York: Knopf, 1967). I refuse to make the classic distinction between violence and force. The lawyers have invented the idea that when the state applies constraint, even brutal constraint, it is exercising "force"; that only individuals or nongovernmental groups (syndicates, parties) use violence. This is a totally unjustified distinction. The state is established by violence -- the French, American, Communist, Francoist revolutions. Invariably there is violence at the start. And the state is legitimized when the other states recognize it ( I know that this is not the usual criterion of legitimacy, but it is the only real one! ). Well then, when is a state recognized? When it has lasted for a tolerable length of time. During the state’s early years the world is scandalized that it was established by violence, but presently the fact is accepted, and after a few years it is recognized as legitimate (cf. the Communist, Hitler, Franco states). What puzzles everyone today is that Mao’s China has not been accorded such formal recognition.
Now how does a government stay in power? By violence, simply by violence. It has to eliminate its enemies, set up new structures; and that, of course, can be done only by violence. And even when the situation seems to be normalized, the government cannot endure except by repeated exercise of violence. Where is the line between police brutality and brutality exercised by others? Is the difference that the former is legal? But it is common knowledge that laws can be so drawn up as to justify violence. The Nuremberg judgments are obviously the best example in point. The Nazi chiefs had to be got rid of. Good enough. This was a violent reaction against violence. The perpetrators of violence were defeated and vengeance had to be visited upon them. But democratic scruples prompted the declaration that this was not a case of violence but of justice. However, there were no laws under which the Nazi chiefs could be condemned. So a special law was invented, a law condemning genocide, etc. And so those Nazis could be condemned by a formal court in good conscience, because this was a case of justice, not of violence. Of course, the world knew that Stalin had done the same things as Hitler -- genocide, deportation camps, torture, summary executions. But Stalin was not defeated. So he could not be condemned. In his case it was simply a question of violence.
Domestically, too, the state uses violence. Before it does anything else it must establish order -- such is the first great rule for states. But this -- at least at the beginning -- means order in the streets, not legal order. For there can be no lawful constraint, based on justice, save when the situation is relatively calm, when citizens obey the laws and order actually reigns. But so long as it faces crisis or encounters obstacles, the state does what it considers necessary, and following the Nuremberg procedure it enacts special laws to justify action which in itself is pure violence. These are the "emergency laws," applicable while the "emergency" lasts. Every one of the so-called civilized countries knows this game. In short, what we have here is ostensible legality as a cover for actual violence. And this masked violence is found at all levels of society. Economic relations, class relations, are relations of violence, nothing else. Truly, we must see things as they are and not as we imagine them to be or wish they were.
The competition that goes with the much-touted system of free enterprise is, in a word, an economic "war to the knife," an exercise of sheer violence that, so far, the law has not been able to regulate. In this competition "the best man wins" -- and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive men necessarily lose.)The system of free competition is a form of violence that must be absolutely condemned. But it would be foolish to suppose that planning will do away with violence; for then the state will implacably impose its rules on the enterprisers. We need only look about, even in France, to see to how great a degree planning involves calculations as to what must be sacrificed. This group of producers, that kind of exploitation are swept away, in accordance with economic estimates. And the Plan that requires these holocausts to the God of Economics is no less violent for being voted by a parliament and being made a law.
The same holds with respect to classes. I am well aware that one school of American sociologists says there is no such thing as social classes. I think their devotion to a pseudo-scientific method blinds them to the facts. However, their view is on the way out.( See, for example, Leonard Reissman, Class in American Society (New York: Macmillan, 1959). Certainly it is a fact that the relation between classes is one of violent competition for positions of power in the nation, for "a bigger slice of the cake"-- that is, of the national revenue. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone suppose that the lower class -- the workers, employees, peasants -- will unprotestingly accept the dominance of the upper class -- bourgeois, capitalist, bureaucratic, technocratic or whatever? And in any case the lower classes want to get control themselves. I do not want to revive the general "theory" of class war. I am not referring to that, but to the relations of violence that develop as soon as there is a hierarchy. The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when the superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence. Communism’s propaganda methods are psychological violence (or "psychological terrorism," as we call it in France). And indeed no hierarchy can maintain itself without using such violence. But, as Sorel’s analysis so thoroughly demonstrates, once the lower class is no longer domesticated (in the sense that animals are domesticated), it nurses its resentment, envy and hatred -- the leaven of violence.
Wherever we turn, we find society riddled with violence. Violence is its natural condition, as Thomas Hobbes saw clearly. The individual, he realized, had to be protected against violence. Starting out from this premise, he came to the conclusion that only an absolute, all-powerful state, itself using violence, could protect the individual against society’s violence. In support of Hobbes’s conclusion I could cite a vast company of modern sociologists and philosophers. I shall cite only two --men who are well known in France and represent quite different points of view. Ricoeur: "Nonviolence forgets that history is against it."( Revue esprit, 1949.) For history is made by violence. E. Weil: "War is the only force that can lift the individual above himself.... On the level of reality, the good is impotent; all power is on the side of evil."( L’e’tat, Paris, 1964.) I can attest that reality is indeed like that. But it is easier, more pleasant, more comforting, more moral and pious to believe that violence has been properly reprimanded and carefully hidden in a corner -- to believe that kindness and virtue will always triumph. Unfortunately, that is an illusion.
After two centuries of optimistic idealism, violence arose in the U.S.A. That is to say, during those two centuries the nation refused to face reality and piously threw a veil over the facts. I shall not point to Negro slavery, as most critics of America do. I refer rather to the slow, sanctimonious extermination of the Indians, the system of occupying the land (Faustrecht), the competitive methods of the leading capitalist groups, the annexation of California along with the retrieval of Texas -- all this and much besides show that the United States has always been ridden by violence, though the truth was covered over by a legalistic ideology and a moralistic Christianity. Americans have it that the Civil War was an accidental interruption of what was practically an idyllic state of affairs; actually, that war simply tore the veil off reality for a moment. Tocqueville saw the facts clearly.( Let me quote Tocqueville directly. He describes the effects of the white man’s coming on nature, wildlife, etc., then explains the forms this legal violence took: "In our time the Indians are being dispossessed step by step and, one might say, altogether legally.... I believe that the Indian is condemned to perish, and I cannot but think that by the time the European has settled the Pacific coast the Indians will no longer exist.... Isolated in their own land, they have been a small colony of troublesome strangers in the midst of a numerous and dominating people.... The states extended what they called the ‘benefit’ of their laws to the Indians, calculating that the Indians would go away rather than submit. And the central government promised those unfortunates an asylum in the west, knowing that it could not guarantee its promises.. .. The Spaniards, though ( to their eternal shame) they perpetrated unparalleled horrors on the Indians, could not exterminate them, could not even deny them some rights. But the Americans of the U.S. accomplished both these things, and in the cleverest way imaginable -- calmly, legally, philanthropically, without bloodshed and, so far as the world could see, without violating a single great moral principle. It would be impossible to think of a better way of destroying people and at the same I time exhibiting higher respect for the laws of humanity." (Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 10, paragraph 2. ) All this is very far from the right to the pursuit of happiness.) He indicated all the factors showing that the United States was in a situation of violence which, he predicted, would worsen. As a matter of fact, a tradition of violence is discernible throughout United States history -- perhaps because it is a young nation, perhaps because it plunged into the industrial age without preparation. (This tradition, incidentally, explains the popularity of violence in the movies.) And it seems that the harsher and more violent the reality was, the more forcefully were moralism and idealism affirmed.( In November, 1967, Father Arrupe, general of the Society of Jesus, presented a remarkable analysis of the deep moral and religious roots of violence in the U.S.A. At the same time he outlined a reasonable program of action against racial discrimination, basing his recommendations on the experience of the Jesuit order in the field.) Today, Americans are stunned when the world rewards their good will and their sense of responsibility with revilement. But that is because they have never looked reality in the face and have based their international policies on a superficial idealism.( A basic example: American pressure and American anticolonialist idealism forced the colonizing nations -- first the Dutch, then the French in Vietnam -- to make a "catastrophic" withdrawal, The result was that soon after, the Americans were obliged to intervene indirectly in Indonesia and directly in Vietnam. Thus their involvement in the Vietnam war is the direct consequence of their action in disarming France while she was fighting in Vietnam.) They are stunned at Negro violence, etc. The truth is that the United States is in an explosive situation -- a complex situation whose elements are racialism, poverty ( as the Americans understand it), and urban growth involving the disintegration of communities ( the phenomenon of the metropolis ). But for decades Americans have had the idea that every problem could be solved by law and good will. So in this case, too, idealism, refusing to recognize the latent violence, paved the way for the violence that has now broken out. I believe that Saul Bernstein, for instance, analyzes the situation altogether too simply when he ascribes the revolts of 1964-1966 to poverty, frustration, and bitterness.( Saul Bernstein: Alternatives to Violence: Alienated Youth and Riots, Race and Poverty ( New York: Association Press, 1967) On the basis of his analysis, he proposes solutions that are quite as inadequate as those that France proposed to the National Liberation Front in 1957. For Bernstein does not fully understand the significance, the universality, and the law of violence.
In writing this I certainly do not mean to indict the United States. I merely want to point out that even so moralized and Christianized a society, a society that holds to an admirable ideology of law and justice, and conducts psychological research on adaptation, etc.-- even such a society is basically violent, like every other.
Is this a "Christian" statement? It is indeed. For the courage to see this derives from the courage a man acquires through faith and hope in Jesus Christ. But something remains to be said. Granted, violence is universal. But also, violence is of the order of Necessity.( I use this term rather than "fatality," which has philosophical connotations. Besides, it might be objected that Jesus Christ overcame Fatality. But Necessity is always with us.) 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.
I must emphasize that, from two points of view, the order of violence cannot be brought under moral judgment. The man who practices violence cannot pretend to be acting as a moral being and in the name of some value; and the outsider cannot validly pass moral judgment on that violence -- such a judgment would be meaningless. Sorel indeed attempts to work out an ethic based on violence, but obviously he fails. And our moralists who address the practitioner of violence in the name of virtue or religion or the good are indulging in meaningless behavior. The order of violence is like the order of digestion or falling bodies or gravitation. There is no sense in asking whether gravitation is a good thing or a bad one. If "nature" were not a much misunderstood term, and especially if there were not so many people (those, namely, who paved the way for the reign of violence) who actually believe that Nature is beneficent, I would say that what we have here is an expression of Nature. Gandhi said as much when he declared that violence is "the law of the brute."
I am not saying that violence is an expression of human nature. I am saying, for one thing, that violence is the general rule for the existence of societies -- including the societies that call themselves civilized but have only camouflaged violence by explaining and justifying it and putting a good face on it. I am saying also that when a man goes the way of violence he enters a system of necessities and subjects both others to it. For such is the necessity in this world. Curiously enough, those who, nowadays, justify violence almost always argue that it is necessary. Many a time I have been told: "But after all, when a poor or unemployed man has nothing, nonviolence is useless, it cannot help him; only violence can. He has to use violence." It is certainly true that when a man suffers severe poverty or humiliation, rage is the only expression left him. But in giving way to his rage he should realize that he is acting on the animal level and is obeying a necessity; that he is not free. Again, the champions of the oppressed tell us: "Things being what they are, can anyone believe that true civic order can be established, that there can be genuine dialogue with the enemy? Dialogue demands that both parties be in a position to speak and reason with each other. But we who side with the poor -- what resources do we command?" Violence! "Some people are incorrigible"-- that is, the rich, the powerful, who "have fallen so low that love does not touch them.... In politics, it is difficult to make an alliance with the saint, the pure-hearted, and particularly difficult for the poor, whose rightful impatience urges them on." Thus Father Marcel Cornelis.( "La non-violence et les pauvres," in Cahiers de la réconciliation, Paris, 1967). So, he adds, there is only one remedy for the ills of the poor: violence. Father Maillard agrees: "It is always the violence of the oppressor that unleashes the violence of the oppressed. The time comes when violence is the only possible way for the poor to state their case."
All this amounts to an acknowledgment of violence as necessity And indeed violence is not only the means the poor use to claim their rights; it is also the sole means available to those in places of power. Jesus Christ told us what the order of this world is like: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them" (Matthew 20:25). And Jesus did not protest against this situation. Let us be clear about this: the text from Matthew refers not only to the chiefs of a legally established government (kings, etc.) or the controllers of wealth (bankers, etc.) but to all who come into positions of leadership. And there is no way for them to keep their power except by violence. All of them are megaloi, obsessed with grandiose ideas, whether they be leaders of the proletariat or revolutionary movements, or notables in the field of economics or science. All of them are subject to the same necessity: to tyrannize over and use others; that is, they are subject to the order of violence, which is a necessity. But "necessity" means "law." There is a law of violence.
The Law of Violence
Realistic appraisal shows that violence is inevitable in all societies, whatever their form. This established, however, we must be equally realistic in examining the consequences. We grant that there is an inescapable law of violence, but we must be equally clear-sighted as to the results. It is disingenuous to say, "Violence is the only way open to us; but you’ll see, the results will be excellent." Here the second aspect of Christian realism enters in: you must know what you are doing.
The first law of violence is continuity. Once you start using violence, you cannot get away from it. Violence expresses the habit of simplification of situations, political, social, or human. And a habit cannot quickly be broken. Once a man has begun to use violence he will never stop using it, for it is so much easier and more practical than any other method. It simplifies relations with the other completely by denying that the other exists. And once you have repudiated the other, you cannot adopt a new attitude -- cannot, for example, start rational dialogue with him. Violence has brought so many clear and visible results; how then go back to a way of acting that certainly looks ineffectual and seems to promise only very doubtful results? So you go on using violence, even if at first you had thought that violence would be only a temporary expedient, even if you have achieved thorough change in your own or the general political situation. Mr. André Malraux, the government official, has a bodyguard of police armed with automatic pistols; the same Mr. Malraux, in the days when he was a revolutionary, carried an automatic himself. That, as we have seen, is the way with revolutions. They are born in violence and establish the reign of violence for a generation or two. Violence broke out in France in 1789, and continued, with a few interruptions, up to 1914, when it was mutated into world war. And the Marxist idealists are simply naïve when they believe that, once a reactionary government has been overthrown by violence, a just and peaceful regime will be established. Castro rules only by violence, Nasser and Boumedienne likewise; there is no difference at all between their regimes and the previous colonialist regimes that they ousted by violence. It is one of Mao’s greatest merits that he has the courage frankly to repudiate socialist idealism and to see clearly that violence perpetuates itself. But he errs when he declares that a doctrine is involved here. The fact is that once violence is loosed, those who use it cannot get away from it.
The second law of violence is reciprocity. It is stated in Jesus’ famous word "All who take the sword will perish by the sword". (Matthew 26:52). Let me stress two points in connection with this passage. There is the insistence on "all." There is no distinction between a good and bad use of the sword. The sheer fact of using the sword entails this 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 a 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. The violence of the colonialists creates the violence of the anticolonialists, which in turn exceeds that of the colonialists. Nor does victory bring any kind of freedom. Always, the victorious side splits up into clans which perpetuate violence. The violence of the blacks at Newark was justified. But it prompted the violence of the forces of order, whose Commission of Inquiry declared (February 12, 1968) that the black riot was not justified. I find this commission very interesting. It stated clearly: ". . . our country cannot fulfill its promises when terror reigns in the streets and when disorder and disregard of the law tear our communities apart.... No group can improve its condition by revolt." Well and good. But to remedy the situation the commission recommends measures looking to centralized government control (which would only invite more federal interference and also infringe on the citizens’ liberties); for example, development, on the federal level, of a plan for coping with disorder, and the creation of a special police force for suppressing riots. How can anyone fail to see that (people being what they are) this means a stronger system of repression -- the normal result of violence. And as the violence of the government increases, the people, their own violence temporarily curbed, nurse their hatred. The French and the Italians were held in check by the Nazi occupation. The moment they were liberated, their violence exploded, and they perpetrated crimes and torturings that imitated the atrocities of the Germans. I am bound to say that I saw no difference at all between the Nazi concentration camps and the camps in which France confined the "collaborators" in 1944 (at Eysses or Mauzac, for example).
The man who, in whatever way, uses violence should realize that he is entering into a reciprocal kind of relation capable of being renewed indefinitely. The ethic of violence is a truly new ethic, permitting neither peace nor surcease. "Suppression" of a revolt is not intended to assure peace. In this respect, the Hitlerites were more honest than our modern socialists, anticolonialists, etc. They made no pretenses about wanting to usher in an era of peace. They said frankly that their aim was to establish a new ethic, a new norm of human relationships, namely, violence. No, they were not savage beasts; they were straight-thinking men who had made violence the supreme value in life, the thing that gave a meaning to life. What our moralists and theologians of violence take to be a new and recent discovery is simply the result, and at the same time a repercussion, of what the Hitlerites proclaimed. We have not escaped the Nazi contamination of violence; and in their ways of operating, the anticolonialist movements still echo Nazism. Violence imprisons its practitioners in a circle that cannot be broken by human means. Study of the possible results of violence shows that it will have only one certain result: the reciprocity and the reproduction of violence. Whether any other results are attained -- equal rights, legitimate defense, liberation, etc. -- is wholly a matter of chance, and all those results, too, are subject to the reciprocity which is one of the laws of violence.
The third law of violence is sameness. Here I shall only say that it is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence, between violence that enslaves. (We shall return to this problem farther on.) Every violence is identical with every other violence. I maintain that all kinds of violence are the same. And this is true not only of physical violence -- the violence of the soldier who kills, the policeman who bludgeons, the rebel who commits arson, the revolutionary who assassinates; it is true also of economic violence -- the violence of the privileged proprietor against his workers, of the "haves" against the "have-nots"; the violence done in international economic relations between our own societies and those of the Third World; the violence done through powerful corporations which exploit the resources of a country that is unable to defend itself. Examples of this last are oil in the Middle East, or the agricultural specialization ( cotton, sugarcane, bananas, etc. ) forced on a country that is totally the victim of exploitation. Asturias has demonstrated that, even though no shot is fired, sheer violence is at work.
Psychological violence also is subject to the law of sameness. It is simply violence, whether it takes the form of propaganda, biased reports, meetings of secret societies that inflate the egos of their members, brainwashing, or intellectual terrorism. In all these cases the victim is subjected to violence and is led to do what he did not want to do, so that his capacity for further personal development is destroyed. Psychological violence, though it seems less cruel than the policemen’s bludgeon, is in fact worse, because the reaction it stimulates does not take the form of pride or self-assertion.
The psychological violence all countries employ is absolutely the worst of violences, because it lays hold of the whole man, and, without his knowing it, gelds him. Violence means all these things, and to try to differentiate among them is to evade the problem. The velvet-glove violence of the powerful who maintain the regimes of injustice, exploitation, profiteering, and hatred has its exact counterpart in the iron-fist violence of the oppressed. Likewise the violence of nations, be they weak or powerful, encourages violence in their people. When a nation -- as all European nations do -- trains its young men in the most extreme kinds of violence in order to prepare them for battle (parachutists, etc.), the result is bound to be that the whole nation imitates this violence.
Moreover, to say that sameness is one of the laws of violence is to say that, on the one hand, violence has no limits and, on the other, that condoning violence means condoning every kind of violence. Once you choose the way of violence, it is impossible to say, "So far and no further"; for you provoke the victim of your violence to use violence in turn, and that necessarily means using greater violence. We have seen the so-called escalation of war in Vietnam. But, mind, this "escalation" is not a result of chance or of a government’s wickedness; there never are limits to violence. When you begin to employ torture in order to get information, you cannot say: "This bit of torturing is legitimate and not too serious, but I’ll go no further." The man who starts torturing necessarily goes to the limit; for if he decides to torture in order to get information, that information is very important; and if, having used a "reasonable" kind of torture, he does not get the information he wants, what then? He will use worse torture. The very nature of violence is such that it has no limits. We have seen that it is impossible to set up laws of warfare. Either no war happens to be going on, and then it is easy to make agreements as to the limitations that should be established; or else a war is under way, and then all agreements fall before the imperative of victory.
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.
Now the third aspect of this sameness that characterizes violence: once we consent to use violence ourselves, we have to consent to our 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. This is true in two senses. A government that maintains itself in power only by violence (economic, psychological, physical, or military violence, or just plain violence) absolutely cannot protest when guerrillas, revolutionaries, rioters, criminals attack it violently. It cannot plead that it represents justice legitimately constraining dangerous assassins. And this holds even when economic violence is met by physical violence. But the opposite also holds, namely, that the revolutionary or the rioter cannot protest when the government uses violence against him. To condone revolutionary violence is to condone the state’s violence. Yet in recent years we have been hearing endless protests from the revolutionaries. They seem to think that all the "rights" are on their side, but that the state may act only in strict accordance with the law. Almost every week rioters complain about police brutality; what about their own brutality?
During the Algerian war, France’s left-wing intellectuals constantly protested against the brutality of the French army and its use of torture, but pronounced legitimate the torturings and massacres committed by the National Liberation Front. "They have to do these things," we were told, "for no other way of operating is open to them." This "they have to" amounts to saying, "In the face of the increase of crime, we simply have to use torture as a preventive measure." The revolutionaries who claim for themselves the right to use violence but deny it to the state, who demand that the state act correctly, in the light of love, justice, and the common weal, are guilty of hypocrisy (such as Mr. Debray exhibited during his trial). I certainly do not condone the dictatorial government of a Barrientos. I do ask, however, that the man who uses violence at least have the courage to admit the consequences of his action, namely, violence against himself. Let him refrain from appealing to great principles --a Declaration of Rights, democracy, justice -- in the hope of escaping the reaction of the power he has attacked. We must recognize, and clearly, that violence begets violence. Does anyone ask, "Who started it?" That is a false question. Since the days of Cain, there has been no beginning of violence, only a continuous process of retaliation. It is childish to suppose that today’s conditions are unprecedented, to say, "There are dangerous communists about, we must be on guard against them," or, "This government is basely imperialistic and dictatorial, we must overthrow it." When a man is born, violence is already there, already present in him and around him.
Violence begets violence -- nothing else. This is the fourth law of violence. Violence is the 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. No government established by violence has given the people either liberty or justice -- only a show of liberty (for those who supported the movement) and a show of justice (which consists in plundering the erstwhile "haves"). And I am speaking not only of the revolutions of 1789, 1917, or 1933, or the revolutions of Mao, Nasser, Ben Bella, Castro; what I say above is true also of "liberal" or "democratic’’ governments ( I have cited the U.S.A. as an example ). Sometimes indeed such a government is captured by the very thing it fights. To combat communist propaganda by "good propaganda" is in fact to fall victim to the psychological violence of the enemy. The violent struggle against racism -- at first against Hitler’s racism -- has caused the development of racism throughout the world. Before 1935, racism was very rare and sporadic. But the opposition to Hitler’s racism, by propaganda and by arms, made the opposers familiar with his vision of man and society. In fighting racism by violence we have all become racists. (Characteristically, Pastor Albert B. Cleage, Jr., of Detroit, one of the leading spokesmen for black power in the U.S.A., declared that violence is redemptive. ( The idea of violence as purificatory was advanced in France to justify the violence of the liberation in 1944-45.) But after the riots Pastor| Cleage said: "Now we are no longer afraid; now it is the white man who is afraid." Quite right. But this proves that violence is not redemptive and that, contrary to Pastor Cleage’s opinion, violence does not open the way to negotiation but only transfers fear from one side to the other.) In the United States, the moment the struggle became violent, the blacks began to move from antiracism to racism. Exactly the same thing happened in the case of anticolonialism: its corollary, evident among all the African peoples, is nationalism. And the spirit of nationalism cannot be expressed save by violence. The French resistance to Nazism aimed to create a free and just republic. In 1945, the same resisters massacred 45,000 people at Sétif in Algeria, and in 1947 they massacred almost 100,000 in Madagascar.
It is a very serious matter that in spite of multiplied experiences, every one of which showed that violence begets violence, there should still be illusions on this score. Violence can never realize a noble aim, can never create liberty or justice. I repeat once more that the end does not justify the means, that, on the contrary, evil means corrupt good ends. But I repeat also: "Let the man who wants to do violence, do so; let the man who thinks there is no other way, use it; but let him know what he is doing." That is all the Christian can ask of this man -- that he be aware that violence will never establish a just society. Yes, he will get his revenge; yes, he will subdue his "enemy"; yes, he will consummate his hatred. But let him not confuse hate with justice. I quote from J. Lasserre’s article "Révolution et non-violence": (Cahiers de la réconciliation, Paris, 1967, pp. 34-36 ) "We do not believe that peace can come out of violence, that justice can issue from generalized criminality, that respect for man can emerge from contemptuousness. Hatred and crime result neither in justice nor in reconciliation, but in bitterness, cowardice, vice and crime.... All these attitudes are in no way propitious for the creation of a just and humane society.... [Those who hold them] have bent the knee to the bloody idol. And since they are swept along by the internal logic of violence, their struggle soon ceases to be a means of attaining justice and becomes an end in itself. Ultimately, the cruelest and most clamorous among them take over -- the toughest, not the most just. And the revolution is aborted under the dictatorship of a new tyrant. How can you defend and build man when you begin by suppressing and destroying men?" In other words -- words that apply to absolutely all cases: "Violence never attains the objectives it sets up." And, tragically, the proponents of violence always talk the same way. Here are some sentences that appeared in Le Monde ( April 27, 1967 ):
"What a wonderful future we could look forward to, and soon, if only two or three or more Vietnams flourished [sic] on the surface of the globe, each with its countless dead, its terrible tragedies and its daily feats of heroism, each delivering blow after blow to imperialism, compelling it to spread its forces thin to meet the assault of the growing hatred of the world’s peoples! . . . Where we die does not matter much. Death will be welcome, if only our war cry penetrates receptive ears, if only another hand reaches out to take our weapons, if only other men rise up to intone the funeral chants as the machine guns crackle and new battle cries and songs of victory sound out."
Who said that -- Hitler or Che Guevara? No one could tell, save for the fact that Vietnam is mentioned. ( Hitler too often attacked imperialism. ) But who could imagine that a leader capable of such words would lead the way to justice and freedom?
Finally the fifth law of violence is this: the man who uses violence always tries to justify both it and himself. Violence is so unappealing that every user of it has produced lengthy apologies to demonstrate to the people that it is just and morally warranted. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Nasser, the guerrillas, the French "paras" of the Algerian war -- all tried to vindicate themselves. The plain fact is that violence is never "pure." Always violence and hatred go together. I spoke above of the rather useless piece of advice once given Christians: that they should make war without hatred. Today it is utterly clear that violence is an expression of hatred, has its source in hatred and signifies hatred. And only a completely heartless person would be capable of simply affirming hatred, without trying to exonerate himself. Those who exalt violence -- a Stokely Carmichael or a Rap Brown, for instance -- connect it directly with hatred. Thus Rap Brown declared: "Hate has a role to play. I am full of hatred, and so are the other blacks. Hate, like violence, is necessary for our revolution." Carmichael has repeatedly spoken of the close relation between hate and violence. In one of his speeches(At the conference in Havana, August 2, 1967.) he declared: "As Che Guevara said, we must develop hatred in order to transform man into a machine for killing."
It is absolutely essential for us to realize that there is an unbreakable link between violence and hatred. Far too often intellectuals, especially, imagine that there is a sort of pure, bloodless violence, an abstract violence, like that of Robespierre, who dispassionately ordered executions. We must understand that, on the contrary, hatred is the motivator of violence. If I quote Brown and Carmichael it is not because they have a monopoly on hatred, but rather because they state, boldly and clearly, the truth that is universally relevant. A government, when it goes to war, can afford to refrain from declarations and proclamations of hatred of the enemy (unless Hitler is the enemy!), because, being in a position of power, it can put on a show of magnanimity. Nevertheless, the violence exercised by the French and American governments in Algeria and Vietnam, respectively, involves hatred, only in these cases the hatred is expressed by intermediaries. The head of the government can keep on declaring his good will, his objectivity, his freedom from hate, for he is not directly engaged in the military action. He can keep on pretending to pray and professing to love humanity. He can praise nonviolence, as President Johnson did when Martin Luther King was assassinated. But all that is façade. A ruler has to save face and show that he is a well-disposed man; he has to justify himself! But this means becoming part of the system characteristic of violence, which tries to justify itself. Brown and Carmichael also follow this pattern, and even while they justify themselves they continue to protest their blamelessness. Listen to Brown: "The white taught us violence. Violence is a part of American culture.... The only answer to slaughter is slaughter.... We hate the white because he has always hated us.... A black cannot love himself unless he hates the white." (In an interview published in the Nouvel observateur, September, 1967.) And Carmichael: "The white exploits people, he must be crushed.... Violence is the only way to destroy the American capitalism that oppresses us." (Ibid. I certainly agree that the colonialists and the whites started the violence. But here I am stressing only one point, namely, the system of justification.) Usually, history or the need to retaliate or the unavailability of other means is cited to justify violence. The argument runs: (1) Violence is inherent in history, history makes for violence (an argument we shall deal with further on); or (2) "We are treated with violence, and the only way to cope with that is violence" (which is a confirmation --and out of the mouth of the proponents of violence -- of what I have called a law of violence, namely, continuity. But these apologists forget that their own violence also creates new violence!); or (3) "Such and such a system is unjust, and only violence can change it. We are driven to violence."
Very often, purely imaginary constructs are set up to excuse, sustain, or justify hatred. Countless writings show this concern for legitimacy. But it soon becomes plain that if you are going to justify your violence, it cannot be just any kind of violence. There has to be a legitimate kind of violence! Thus, for example, Father Jarlot stated:( At a press conference held at the Vatican, March 26, 1968, on the occasion of the anniversary of the encyclical Populorum progressio.) "Unjust violence can be repelled only by just violence." And he called for a theology of just violence. But how could he miss seeing that, in saying this, he was entering into the vicious circle that "just war" theologians were caught in and have never escaped from; they have emitted only platitudes and empty phrases. And to pose the problem of just violence is to start that whole thing over again. What makes violence just? Its objective? We have seen that violence corrupts the best of ends. Is it the way it is used that makes violence just? But violence has no limits. Here is sheer stupidity. Stokely Carmichael recently declared that the blacks do not want to fight in Vietnam. "We don’t want to be a generation of murderers," he said (and that meant: we don’t want to go to Vietnam to fight). "To escape that, we are ready to plunge the United States into chaos." (Discours à la mutualité, Paris, December 6, 1967.) This means that using violence to create chaos in the United States is right, but fighting in Vietnam is murdering. This is a very common type of "reasoning." It shows up the weakness of the pro-violence position; for this position is based entirely on irrational choices and blind hatred. But there is the need to feel justified! And at that point violence can be quite as hypocritical as the conservative bourgeois system. Hitler’s system is the best example in point. The violence of the Hitler party in 1932 and 1933 was fascinating to watch. Cynical in the face of bourgeois hypocrisy, it aimed to destroy the traditional moral system and to create a virile community; to repudiate paternalism, exalt stern self-control and willingness to meet death, and establish equality at whatever cost in pain and suffering. All this was an ideal that, to the young athirst for absolutes, seemed far nobler than the mediocre aims proposed by those of their countrymen who frankly favored violence. But this ideal was mere verbiage, façade; this was "pure’’ violence. What came of it was an orthodoxy, a statism, more rigorous and coercive than the one it displaced; a morality just as hypocritical as the old one, a social conformism just as blind, and a dictatorship that fooled the people with its lies.
Violence is hypocritical. And to say that the question of legitimizing violence is a false question is also hypocritical. For to say that is to say in effect that violence can be legitimized only by "the communal action of men, which is a revolutionary action.’’(Abribat at the Bordeaux conference, February 15, 1967.) But if any action, provided it be the "communal action of men," legitimizes violence, then we shall have to put up with a great many wars fought by enthusiasts who completely disregard the authorities. And to say that revolutionary action itself legitimizes violence is to introduce a value judgment. People do not start a revolution blindly, without cause and without hope of success. First, they decide that the conditions obtaining are bad, and then . . . So, like it or not, all this leads back to a theory of just violence!
It is very important to be clear about this persistent longing for justification. I do not say that the practitioner of violence feels uneasy and that therefore he must be experiencing pangs of conscience; but in acting violently he is so unsure of himself that he has to have an ideological construct that will put him at ease intellectually and morally. That is why the person inclined to violence is necessarily the victim propaganda aims at; and, conversely, violence is the theme that above all others lends itself to propaganda. Champions of violence ought to do a little thinking about the poor moral quality of those who are led to violence, and also about the fact that there can be no political violence without propaganda -- that is, without engineering demonstrations, without debasing man even as it professes to liberate and exalt him.( On the relation between violence, justification, and propaganda, see my Propaganda ( New York: Knopf, 1965 ).
These are the laws of violence, unchanging and inescapable. We must understand them clearly if we are to know what we are doing when we damn violence.
Are There Two Kinds of Violence ?
Finally, we must examine a view that is very often advanced -- the view, namely, that there are two totally different kinds of violence. While the Algerian war was going on, Casalis, the professor of theology, declared: "There is a violence that liberates and a violence that enslaves." This statement can be taken as summarizing the position of many intellectuals ( Duverger, Domenach, etc. ). To illustrate: During the Algerian war, the National Liberation Front used violence to liberate the people from the French colonial yoke; therefore, while violence must he condemned, this particular violence was to be condoned. But the French army used violence to keep the people enslaved, thus adding servitude to violence.
Duverger explains that violence may fall in with the trend of history. He takes up the well-known idea of revolution as the midwife of history. And so far as it accords with the trend of history, violence as means must be condoned. Thus communist violence is in line with history, but fascist, capitalist, or colonialist violence must be condemned because it goes counter to the trend of history. Likewise Father Jarlot, who declares: "There are structures that are unjust in themselves, because they are serious obstacles to realization of the legitimate aspirations of millions of people and to the necessary social and economic development of their country."(Loc. Cit. p. 27) Here the distinction between the two kinds of violence is based on what is held to be the need of "ungluing" economics and society (in "stages," as laid down by W. W. Rostov). Father Regamey makes the same distinction, but in more classic fashion: "The violence that is an unjust aggression, from outside, against persons, is bad violence, even though this injustice be called order. The violence that is a last resort -- there truly being no other way to achieve the genuine good of persons -- is good violence." (Op. Cit., p. 27) However, Father Régamey adds honestly: "The distinction between good and bad violence is quite clear in theory, but applying it is terribly puzzling." Puzzling indeed! Moreover, if we are to take his words seriously we must first know what the injustice is that he makes his criterion. The same strictures apply to Father Jarlot’s statements.
But "the genuine good of persons" seems to me even more puzzling. In the first place, what is that "genuine good" of persons? Their standard of living, their physical well-being, their participation in political life, their personal development, or perhaps their "eternal salvation"? And, finally, Father Régamey’s appeal to "persons" leaves me even more in doubt, for he carefully ignores the persons who are the victims of this just violence. No one can convince me that the expulsion of the French settlers from Algeria was for their good (even the reason for their expulsion was their own violence in the past), or that the murder and torture of Battista’s partisans was for their own good. The unhappy fact is that violence operates only for the good of its users.
Others are insisting these days that, in a class-ridden society, violence is the only possible relation between the classes. So their oppressed class, which bodies forth for the future , may validly use violence, but the other class may not. To say this, however, is not merely to set up a moral criterion for violence; it is to assert that there are two kinds of violence which have nothing in common, indeed are not of the same nature. This line of thought is developed further. Some say that one cannot speak about the state as such, that everything depends on the end the state is pursuing. If that end is socialism, for example, the state is legitimate. But this notion leaves out the account the fact that, by its very structure, the modern state controls socialism and perverts it, turning it into nonsocialism. Others declare that nationalism is a fine thing when it leads to the liberation of peoples; it is only Europe’s old-fashioned nationalism that they condemn. But this is to close one’s eyes to the fact that the characteristics of nationalism are always the same, that a young, liberating nationalism has exactly the same sociological structure as German or French nationalism, and that the transition from "young" to "old" nationalism is tragically swift. China and Algeria are examples of how, in the course of a few years, a young nationalism turns into an old, sclerotic nationalism.
But to return to violence. I remind my readers that we are trying to apply the realism that is inherent in the Christian faith, trying to look at reality without being misled by words. Let us then ask what, concretely, is the result, the actual result, of "legitimate, liberating" violence. It is plain that in every case this violence has in fact led to establishing a greater violence. Well then, if violence is a continuous process, where does it end? This is the first question we must ask. What did Algeria’s National Liberation Front achieve by its use of violence? Elimination of the French, of course; but also an economic recession, the establishment of a dictatorial state, a false and altogether regressive socialism, and the condemnation of all who had participated in the violent struggle, because they proved completely unfitted for conducting a rational government. In what way does it move with the tide of history? So we must try to determine whither violence is leading. And this is one of the insurmountable obstacles that make a mockery of the theory of just violence.
Domenach writes that violence must be condoned as a means of combating social injustice or of coping with the violence of others -- provided, however, that it be used for the benefit of others, not for that of its practitioner. This requires an impossible casuistry. We would have to be able to measure out exactly the amount of violence needed to achieve the result aimed at. But we have seen that the result aimed at is purely ideological and never coincides with the result achieved by the use of violence. We have seen, too, that violence by its very nature is without limits -- that there is no such thing as a tiny dose of violence for realizing this or that particular purpose. Let us do some computing. The evil I want to inflict on the other (who is bad, either because of his personal qualities or because he belongs to a certain race, class, or nation or holds certain opinions) -- is the evil I inflict justified by the evil he has done? I am not asking for a moral or spiritual judgment but for a realistic one. Is there any justification? At the very least, my violence must not be worse and more far-reaching than his. How am I to know this? If you protest, "I am only defending myself," I have no more to say; but then we are at the animal level. How else can I measure the quantity of violence? Is torturing with a razor, as the National Liberation Front did, worse or less bad than torturing with electricity, as the French paras did?
Further, I would have to consider the number of people involved. Take the case of a minority oppressing a majority (the bourgeoisie oppressing the proletariat or a colonialist nation oppressing a colonized people). Their suffering justifies the majority in using violence against the oppressive minority. But what if the situation is reversed? What if the minority is crushed by the majority? Is violence legitimate in this case because the largest group uses it against the smallest? Was the Bolshevik dictatorship’s suppression of the kulaks better than what obtained under the tsarist regime? Was Ho Chi Minh’s torture, execution, spoliation, and banishment of the Vietnamese Catholics -- a minority, though four million strong --more acceptable than the action of the French in protecting the Catholics and oppressing the Indo-Chinese people? Who will make this calculation? Who will gauge the gravity of violence against a single person? Looking at the situation concretely shows that the evil arising from violence will never be neatly calculable. The one thing that is true in this connection is that, on the moral scale, violence exercised against a single human being is an absolute weight, whatever the form, the result or the cause of that violence. And there really is no difference between the violence done one person and the violence done a million persons. As to the reference to history, that is a lie.
Now, concerning my strictures on Algeria, I shall be told, "But wait for the outcome. When Algeria has recovered its equilibrium, when it realizes socialism . . ." I answer: Who will see the outcome? How many generations will it take to realize socialism -- and what kind of socialism? Absolutely nothing that is happening there today gives even the smallest assurance that Algeria is moving ahead toward "socialism." Well then, what element in all this justifies the violence that is going on today? In what direction is current history moving?
In short, the idea that there are two kinds of violence is utterly mistaken. From whatever side the problem is approached, it invariably turns out that all violence is a piece, that it follows the laws formulated above. That is why it can be affirmed that violence never attains the objectives it announces as justifying its use. The objectives and ends it proclaims always relate to man -- to man’s existence, condition, and destiny. Indeed the champions of violence present their case humanistically, so to speak. According to them, violence is legitimized by being put into the service of man. They never call for violence in defense of an institution or an abstract value. When these are invoked it is purely as a matter of form. But it is obvious that, on the concrete level, institutional reforms never satisfy the proponents of violence, even if they demanded those reforms. For violence must go ever further.
Here is an important point: On the level of institutions or values, it is possible to distinguish between end and means. On this level only, the traditional distinction holds up. Institutions exist only for and through men. But while institutions are always the creation of human beings, and whether they are just or unjust, effectual or ineffectual depends entirely on the people who use them. Values have no meaning except as they are lived by man! We always come back to man. Everything depends on how man relates to man. But violence always breaks and corrupts the relation of men to each other. And I am not impressed if someone says, "But violence has already broken and corrupted that relation." That is no reason for those who claim to represent justice to continue violence. We Europeans know all too well that colonialist violence has torn apart every human relationship; and alas, we know that we are to blame. The writings of A1bert Camus, or Montherlant’s Rose des Sables, witnessed to Europe’s guilt long before Frantz Fanon, justifiably, raised his angry cry. Again, it is a fact that our university professors have never had a truly human relationship with their students. It is a fact that by degrading the colonialist peoples the colonialist corrupted humanity, and that by making his students into show animals the professor also corrupted humanity.
But we have a right to say: "If you protest against this degradation and this corruption, do better. Re-establish an authentic and true relationship among men, restore nobility to man. But you won’t do that by humiliating, torturing, or degrading the colonialist, the bourgeois, or the professor. Your violence also kills man’s authenticity. The system you want to set up also corrupts. You, too, break the relationship of man to man -- and among yourselves as well as outside your ranks, For violence -- your just violence! -- is contagious. You use violence against the enemy. In time, violence will be used against you!"
However, institutions established through "just" violence are never an improvement. Just violence envisions human relationships of a particular kind, and these cannot be realized without coercive institutions. These institutions will not establish freedom, because they are violent. They cannot be free institutions unless all the opposing parties reach an agreement -- unless there is not one person left who seeks revenge, not one person who sees the institution as a powerful machine that rides roughshod over him. Similarly, liberating violence cannot establish a society’s values; for if they are to be communal values they will have to be accepted as good and true by every member of the community (not only by a majority). But that can never happen when the values are imposed by, or as the result of, violence. Whatever his own faults, the victim will never recognize those values. Obviously, the murderer does not recognize the policeman’s values. The Algerian war certainly has not led the Algerians to accept Western values -- though the Castro and Nasser dictatorships are certainly no advertisement for socialist values. Here the problem of means corrupting ends comes up again, indirectly. Violence has long-lasting effects on the man who suffers it. It cannot be said that the effects of violence end when violence ends. The victim carries the effect on his body and in his heart and subconscious for years, perhaps all the rest of his life.
People who talk about "just violence" ought to know all this. To support their assertion that there are two kinds of violence, they would have to do what in fact they often do: refuse to recognize reality; namely, the law of violence. That is why I consider it so very important to point out that a realistic attitude is basic to a true understanding of the phenomenon of violence. But this implies rejection of idealisms.
Rejection of Idealisms
Invariably, an idealism serves to justify the use of violence -- the idealism that consists in taking violence for something other than it is. This idealism is of a piece with that (described earlier in this book ) which sees the violence exercised by a government not as such but as "public force." Even those who are strongly in favor of violence resort to this idealism. They throw a veil of political, economic, or philosophical considerations around violence, or they create what amounts to a mythology of violence, exalting it into a kind of value (as Sorel does). Certainly when you collide with a value no blood will flow. The mystical exaltation of violence at the hands of Hitler and of all modern revolutionaries makes people forget that violence means bloodshed, means human beings screaming in pain and fear. Let us briefly consider the various aspects of this idealism.
The type of idealism most widespread today is revolutionary idealism. Intellectuals especially are prone to it. How many French professors of philosophy glorify Che Guevara and make extremely violent speeches. Malraux had an answer for them: "If you really believe that the welfare of humanity depends on the guerrillas you will go to Bolivia to help them fight; otherwise, you had best keep silent on this subject."( Interview with Malraux, Europe No. 1, October 27, 1967.)
The usual themes of revolutionary idealism are two: violence as liberating and violence as purificatory. The person who is crushed in our society, who feels profoundly at odds with it and wants to challenge it radically -- this person talks about violence and sometimes practices it. For violence is a way of escaping from conformism, of breaking with the bourgeois environment and rejecting compromise. Violence, the revolutionary declares, reveals the facts, strips the mask from social hypocrisy, exposes the true condition of humanity to the light of day, and so divides society that its traditional ways of acting, its morals and organization can no longer stand up. Violence is beneficial surgery; it cauterizes the flesh to kill the poison; it purifies both itself and society. Violence liberates man from the false rules imposed on him by society, from the wearying grind of daily toil. It leads him into an adventure through which he may become a complete man. I could write pages about this hypostasis of violence. Today, in exact imitation of Hitler, the partisans of the guerrillas idealize violence in this fashion. But this idealism also throws a veil over violence and insists that there is no violence when in fact violence obtains everywhere. Robespierre and St. Juste showed the way when they declared that the Reign of Terror during the French revolution was a form of government required by the circumstances and therefore entirely legitimate. Since then all governments have hidden their violence under a mask of legality. It was Karl Marx’s great merit that he brought into the open certain facts: the proprietor’s domination of the worker is violence, even if it involves no act of cruelty; class war goes on even if the proprietor does not call for police or army intervention; an army serves first and foremost as guarantor of the power of the ruling class. But all this is disguised by legal fictions, political doctrines, and appeals to patriotism. The Christian must tear away this hypocritical, idealistic mask and at the same time must condemn the idealism that interprets violence as purificatory and sanctifying.
Moreover, violence is always used in the conviction that it is the only means adequate for attaining a noble end -- social justice, the nation’s welfare, elimination of criminals (for the political or social enemy is always considered a criminal), radical change of the economic structures. Those who propose just revolution always represent violence as the "point of no return," with which, consequently, history is obliged to come to terms. But my study of politics and sociology has convinced me that violence is an altogether superficial that is, it can produce apparent, superficial changes, rough facsimiles of change. But it never affects the roots of injustice -- social structures, the bases of an economic system, the foundations of a society. Violence is not the means appropriate for a revolution "in depth."(These statements are developed in a study of revolution that I am presently engaged in writing) It succeeds in eliminating a group of directors, of resented neighbors, embarrassing witnesses, hated oppressors, but it never creates decisive change. A new police force, a new factory manager replace the old ones. Thus the belief that violence can effect decisive change arises from a dangerous idealism that promotes violence and produces illusions of the worst kind.
Another idealism we must reject is what I shall call "generous" idealism. This wears many forms. For instance, it proclaims that the great desideratum is reconciliation, and that, once violence has done its work, reconciliation will be possible at last. This is a Marxian vision of a paradise where man will be reconciled with himself, with his fellow men, with nature; but the necessary preliminary to this paradise is bloody contention and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Some Christians sympathize with this idea. T. Richard Snyder, for instance, suggests that the Christian preachment of reconciliation is unrealistic because it does not take account of the violence that is a necessary preliminary.( In his review of the Fanon and Debray volumes, in The Christian Century, January 17, 1968.)
Then there is the generous idealism of so many young men who risk imprisonment or death rather than participate in a war they condemn only because they idealize and whitewash their country’s enemy. Those young men are heroes and fools both. They are repelled by the violence they see -- the massive, enormous violence that cries to heaven. And here they are right. But seeing this highly visible violence, they forthwith make lambs, saints, and martyrs of its victims. For they close their eyes to what the enemy is really like, to his cruelty, his violence, his lies. They overlook his real intentions; they overlook the fact that he would use terrible violence if he won power. Poor young men, totally unknowing, uncomprehending, blind, perceiving only what is happening now! So they side with the enemy and countenance the enemy’s violence.
In France, before the Second World War, a great many people sided with the Nazis. Hadn’t the Nazis, out of their generosity, protested against the violence done the Sudeten Germans, the Croats, the Germans of Danzig? Hadn’t they declared that they would defend the rights of the poor and the unemployed, the victims exploited by the capitalists? Their admiration of the Nazis cost those people dearly. Again, after the war, many French people sided with communism, "the party of the poor, the proletariat." A few years later they were stunned by the declarations of the Twentieth Communist Congress and by Moscow’s suppression of the Hungarian revolt. This is the kind of idealism that must be combated and radically condemned.
But there is also pacifist idealism, and this is especially suspect. I can hardly omit mentioning the hippies in this connection. They, too, have been generous-minded. There is of course, the matter of drugs and sexual freedom, but this has not been the most important thing about the hippies. They have been opposed to society as a whole, and with good reason. They repudiate society because of its conformism, its moral emptiness, its loss of soul. They proclaim Flower Power -- perhaps in opposition to Black Power, certainly in opposition to all forms of violence. They predict the end of the West -- and they are at least partly right, for the only ideal the West cherishes is economic growth. Their appeal to love, their partial adoption of the thought of Krishna, their repudiation of nationalism in favor of a sense of common humanity and universal understanding, are all laudable. And their appeal to the individual to exercise his initiative so that he may discover what "his thing" is and help to shape a new nonmoralistic ethic suggests what true ethical Christian preaching might be. All this is truly valid and profoundly serious, however debatable the external aspects of hippiedom may be. We ought to join in their insistence on nonviolence as the absolute principle, in their condemnation of all forms of violence
Unfortunately, all this splendid élan seems doomed from the start, because the hippies have no understanding of what their real place in society is. What I censure in them is not their vice or their contentiousness, but their complete lack of realism. (Of course, as we all know, they will say that they do not want to be realists, for to be so would mean acquiescing in the very things they reject in our rationalistic civilization.) They do not know that the reality of this society -- a violent society, devoted to technology and to production-consumption -- is the basis of their own existence. They are a supplement to this same society -- the flower on its hat, its song, its garland, its fireworks display, its champagne cork. They reject and indict it -- so they think. In reality, they are only the product of its luxuriousness. They cannot exist materially unless this society functions fully. For insofar as they work little or not at all, yet consume a not inconsiderable amount of goods (even if they refuse to use machines), they are an unproductive load on that society. Only a society that has reached a certain level of production and consumption can support a few of its members in idleness. The hippies are in fact a product of the luxury that a highly productive society can afford. Obviously, the hippie movement could not exist in a poorer society or in one experiencing a period of limited growth, simply because, in such societies, all the young people would be regimented and forced to work hard, or perhaps would starve to death. But if they live in a rich society, they depend in fact on the existence of those economic mechanisms, technical rigors, and open or hidden violences that form the warp of that society. Were it not for that society’s morality of high returns, exploitation, competition, and "progress" ( though "progress," the hippies rightly object, is a misnomer), they simply could not exist at all.
Yet, on the other hand, the hippies seem to be the answer to a deep need experienced by that same society. Such a society’s subject to boredom. Unconsciously, it senses its own lack of youth and enjoyment. Gloomy, dull, and joyless, it thinks of itself neither as representing the utmost in good living nor as a paradise. It is always on the prowl, trying to discover what it is that is wanting. Such a society provides leisure and distractions, but these are not enough; you have to know how to use them! The members of such a society are not happy, do not feel that they are free or better than others. They need a supplement ( in addition to what they have, of course! ); and suddenly, there is the hippie, the perfect answer to their need. Need finds a way. The hippies introduce color, youth, pleasure. To be sure, they are a bit shocking, but a society held together by boredom is more or less proof against shock. The important point in all this is that the hippie phenomenon, far from attacking this society, meets its need, gives it what it lacked, what it must have if it is to remain what it is. For the hippies bring the complement of joy to this rationalized, producing society, and so it can go on to even better developments. The hippies mistake is that they think they are outside that society, when in fact they are its origin and its product.
Their nonviolence is an idealism for several reasons. First, they can exist as a nonviolent group only thanks to the order and productiveness (which is to say, the violence) , of that society. Second, they think that, being themselves a society or a worldwide group, they can live in freedom and without violence; whereas they can live so only because they are surrounded by the rest of the society into which they have inserted themselves. Their Rousseauism cannot work except as the rest of society grows organizationally and develops more constraints. Sympathetic as I am to hippies, I fear that, because of their blindness as to both their true situation and significance and their relation to this world’s society, they are in great danger of becoming a society of violence. Such a society always is organized under cover of the most generous idealism.
Finally, we must reject the kind of Christian idealism that appears from time to time in the history of the church. In one way or other, this idealism is always concerned with the goodness of the world of man. Christians find it most difficult to keep in mind the Bibles double affirmation of radical evil and radical love. For a while, they see only the radical evil of man and the world -- and this means puritanism, moralism, emotional aridity, an end of forgiveness and joy. Or, again for a while, they see only grace and love, and then they think they are already in Paradise. Actually, the new theological orientations go in this direction. Their bases, as we are constantly reminded, are three in number. First, "God so loved the world . . ."; therefore the world actually is redeemed, is good. The work of salvation was undertaken for the world; therefore whatever happens in the world has already been blessed and loved by God. The work of this world is beneficial, and Christians ought to make their contribution to it. Second, where sin abounds, grace abounds more greatly. Of course, there is still evil in the world, but we ought not to concentrate on sin or be obsessed by it, for sin is totally within the system of grace, and grace is stronger than sin and all-encompassing. It is useless to analyze evils, disasters, economic or social corruption. Rather, remember that the operation of grace is evident in man’s marvelous and excellent works, in his techniques, his politics, his science, etc.
Third, these idealists point to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the world. If Jesus Christ is truly Lord, then all that happens in the world is under his Lordship. Therefore it is not in the church (with its rites and ceremonies and prayers) or even through study of the Bible that we participate in his Lordship, but in the world. It is by communion with all men (with men who know Christ and men who do not) that the kingdom of this Lord is built -- this Lord who is present incognito in even the least of these (Matthew 25:40,45)
These theological bases ( they must, of course, be taken together, not singly) lead to putting a high value on man and the world, to exalting technological, scientific, and political works, and to defining the Christian’s true vocation as participation in human culture. But systematically to make positive judgments of politics or technology leads to the rejection of all realism in regard to them and to a belief in progress. For example, consider that (as the Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx put it) (At a conference in Brussels, March 13, 1968. Clearly, this statement is inspired by the theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his conception of "Holy Material.") "the world as it is, is implicitly Christian," and that therefore all Christian participation in the world advances the Lord’s work. For, curiously, where this theology formerly led to quietism, today it leads to activism. In the name of this theology (which is in part that of the World Council of Churches), Christians are induced to participate unreservedly and with a good conscience in political or scientific action; for, they are told, whatever evil there might be in such action will necessarily be overruled by the good.
Obviously, this idealism fosters illusions as to the reality of violence. On the one hand, Christian idealists are scandalized at the very possibility of violence. In their idyllic world, harshness, torture, and war seem abnormal and almost incomprehensible. But it is only gross, highly visible, undeniable violence that evokes this scandalized reaction. They deny the existence of masked, secret, covert violence insofar as this can be concealed. (The violence of capitalist enterprise in the subject countries or the violence of Stalin’s concentration camps was so well concealed that its existence could be denied.) But those Christian idealists fully approve the violence incidental to the revolt of the little people or the oppressed. They consider such violence an expression of justice. However, this approval is based on ignorance of what violence really is, on insufficient knowledge of the world, on blindness (voluntary or involuntary) to the results that violence always has, whatever the justification for it.
Yet the same Christians who so readily accept violence are incapable of killing a man themselves. Indeed they would probably be very much at a loss if someone handed them an automatic pistol.( An interesting example: Father Jaouen, who is famous in France for his work with the youth of Paris, declared that the film Bonnie and Clyde would not harm anyone; that the violence it showed was unimportant, that there was no danger of this film’s making youth more violent. "For in France’s society, there is no violence except that done by the police; and in the world, there is no violence except in Vietnam." ( Témoignage chrétien, February 2, 1968). Surely blindness can be no blinder.) But the theological error that underlies this idealization of violence leads them into a new, a sociopolitical Manicheanism which (like the earlier, metaphysical Manicheanism) is also an idealism, a simplifying resource to help people participate in a complicated world where, they know, they had better do what the powers that be recommend and take sides. So these Christians blindly take sides in an engagement that is in no way specifically Christian.
Thus, whatever its milieu, its motif, its basis or orientation, idealism always leads to the adoption of a false and dangerous position in regard to violence. The first duty of a Christian is to reject idealism.
Viewed 72761 times.