Human Coercion: A Fly in the Process Ointment?

by David Basinger

David Basinger teaches philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 161-171, Vol. 15, Number 3, Fall, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


When, if ever, can the process theist condone the use of nonpersuasive power? Dr. Basinger argues that however the process theist attempts to respond, significant problems with the process system develop.

‘Coercion’ is a somewhat ambiguous term within process theology. In their standard metaphysical discussions, process theists usually define coercive power as the power to bring it about that another entity is totally devoid of any degree of self-determination. But they uniformly agree that every entity always possesses some degree of self-determination (freedom). Thus, process theists uniformly deny that any entity, divine or human, can coerce in this sense.

But ‘coercion’ has a different, weaker meaning in normal human discourse. Take, for example, the common contention that Hitler acted coercively when he placed Jews in concentration camps or the claim that parents are acting coercively when they finally pick up their recalcitrant children and make them go to bed or the common contention that a government is acting coercively when it refuses to give its citizens any input into the formulation of the laws by which they are governed. In such cases, the claim is not that Hitler or parents or government leaders have totally divested anyone of all power of self-determination. The claim is weaker: that they have unilaterally restricted the ability of others to act in accordance with their desires.

Process theists do not deny that coercion in this weaker sense occurs, at least on the human level. Schubert Ogden, for example, acknowledges that there are those on the human level who "forcibly destroy the conditions of others’ freedom" (FF94). Hartshorne speaks of the human "power of brute force" which at times results in the unilateral removal of political freedom or even in death (DR 154). W. Widick Schroeder observes that if coercion is defined as "the capacity to act in ways violating others," then "persuasion and coercion interplay in any human community" (PPT 70). John Cobb tells us that if coercion is defined as the unilateral imposition of one’s desires on another, then "no society can exist without some measure of coercion" (PTT 106). Even David Griffin acknowledges that since there are degrees of self-determination, "some activity can be called coercive in a relative sense" (GPE 326).

In short, process theists, like the rest of us, admit that at least on the human level we need to consider more than just two types of power: coercive power which would (if it existed and were applied) completely divest individuals of all of their power of self-determination and persuasive power which never unilaterally forces individuals to act against their wishes. They acknowledge that there is an important nonpersuasive form of coercive power which can unilaterally restrict or destroy the ability of individuals to act in accordance with their wishes.

I am interested in discussing the normative status of this weaker form of coercion within process thought. More specifically, I want to discuss the following question: When, if ever, is it justifiable for a process theist to use, or condone the use of, coercion of this sort on the human level? Or, to phrase the question differently: When, if ever, can the process theist justifiably condone the unilateral restriction of someone’s self-determination? When, if ever, can the process theist condone the use of nonpersuasive power?

I shall argue that however the process theist attempts to respond, significant problems with the process system develop.


Most process theists are serious metaphysicians with a strong desire to maintain an internally consistent world view. Thus, it should not be surprising that although process theists are very concerned with praxis -- the practice of one’s faith in the actual world -- they strongly insist that all such activity must find its basis in one’s doctrine of God. Ogden, Cobb, and Griffin all at least implicitly criticize many of the "liberation theologians" for failing to do this (FF 34, PTT 95).

It seems best, accordingly, to begin our discussion of the process position on the use of coercive power (in the weaker sense acknowledged by process theists to exist) by attempting to discern the attitude of the God of process theism toward it. Let us begin this assessment by asking whether process theists believe God ever coerces in this sense. They have not to my knowledge addressed this question directly. Almost all of their explicit discussions of divine coercion center on the question of whether God can coerce in the strong sense -- i.e., whether God can totally divest another entity of all power of self-determination. But a rather unequivocal answer can be inferred from what process theists say about God’s relationship with other entities. God’s activity, it is often claimed, is purely persuasive in the sense that God never brings about (insures) that the divine ideal (what God sees as best) is actualized. Lewis Ford, for example, tells us that God’s interaction with other entities is always persuasive and that this persuasive lure "is effective only to the extent that the process appropriates and reaffirms for itself the aims envisioned in the persuasion" (PPCT 290). Cobb and Griffin reaffirm this point. In every case, they point out, "the subject may choose to actualize [God’s] internal aim; but it may also choose among other real possibilities open to it" (PTE 53).

In short, process theists appear not only to believe that God does not completely divest any entity of all power -- i.e., does not coerce in the strong sense. They seem to believe that God does not unilaterally restrict any individual’s power of self-determination in any context -- i.e., does not coerce even in the weaker sense. But why is this so? If coercion in the strong sense is a metaphysical impossibility, then of course even God cannot coerce. But coercion in the weaker sense is not only acknowledged by process theists to be a possibility but also an actuality on the human level. Humans do unilaterally keep other humans from choosing among real possibilities open to them. We do unilaterally impose our wills on others in ways which meaningfully restrict their freedom. So it is perfectly meaningful to ask why God does not coerce in this sense.

Two possibilities present themselves. It may be that such coercion is not possible for God although it is for humans. Or it maybe that God could, like humans, coerce in the weaker sense but has decided never to do so for some reason. In other words, the fact that God does not coerce in the sense in question can either be seen as the result of a metaphysical limitation or a moral decision.

A few process theists may believe that divine noncoercion is to some extent the result of a decision on God’s part, but the vast majority clearly agree with Griffin’s claim that divine noncoercion "is not due to a decision on God’s part which could be revoked from time to time" (GPE 271). God, they argue, must conform to certain necessary metaphysical principles which necessitate that he can only exert persuasive power (PTE 72).

I have argued elsewhere that this line of reasoning is questionable (JR 64:332-47). It seems to me that given the power process theists grant to God, divine coercion in the weaker sense is possible. But I will grant for the sake of this discussion that all divine power is necessarily persuasive. That is, I will grant that the God of process theism cannot in any sense ever unilaterally control any being’s condition in such a manner that this being is restricted from acting in accordance with its will.

Unfortunately, this fact alone gives us very little insight into the moral status of human coercion. For there is, of course, no necessary connection between what we think is proper behavior -- a moral belief -- and what we can actually do -- a descriptive fact. It cannot, for example, be justifiably inferred from the fact that I cannot personally feed all the starving people in the world that I would not approve of this being done by someone who had the requisite power. Likewise, it in no sense necessarily follows from the fact that God cannot coerce in any sense that God thinks that coercive power ought never be used by those who can exert it. To gain moral guidance concerning the use of human coercion from the process system, we must gain some understanding of the process God’s moral attitude toward such coercion. We can best begin to do this, I believe, by considering the following question: Would the God of process theism occasionally coerce in the weaker sense if this were an option?

At times the process answer would appear to be no. God, all process theists believe, is perfect in every way. But divine coercion, God tells us, "whether limited or unlimited, is incompatible with divine perfection." Only divine persuasion, we are told, is "inherently reasonable . . . and [consistent] with our best ethical and religious insights" (PPC 84, LG 27). Griffin and Cobb seem to agree. Persuasive power, they maintain, "with its infinite persistence is in fact the greatest of all powers" since "the [persuasive] power to open the future and give us freedom is a greater power than the supposed power of absolute control" (PTE 118f.). Cobb is even more explicit in other contexts. "The only power capable of worthwhile result," he argues, "is the power of persuasion" (GW 90). Griffin is also very explicit at points. Persuasive power, he informs us, is "the ultimate power of the universe . . . [it] is finally all-powerful" (PPT 190). A similar theme is echoed by Hartshorne: "the ultimate power is the [persuasive] power of sensitivity, the power of ideal passivity and relativity, exquisitely proportioned in its responsiveness to other beings as causes" (DR 154). Ogden affirms the same point in yet another way. The persuasive power of the God of process theism, he tells us, "is ‘omnibeneficient’ in the sense of being good for others to an extent than which no greater can be conceived" (FF 77).

In other words, many process theists seem clearly to be saying that persuasive power is superior to (more perfect than) any form of coercive power. Thus, since they believe that God is ultimate perfection, it might seem that they would uniformly deny that the process God would use any form of coercion, even if such coercion were possible.

But the issue is not this simple. A growing number of classical theists believe that although God could coerce in the weaker sense, God has chosen not to do so because a world in which there exists significant freedom and the potential for evil is superior to a world containing neither. That is, a significant number of classical theists believe divine noncoercion to be the result of a self-limitation on God’s part. Now, of course, since process theists believe that God cannot coerce, we must expect them to disagree with the metaphysics of this classical position. But should process theists not agree with the moral stance inherent in the classical free will theist’s position? If process theists believe that God would not coerce in any sense even if this were possible, should they not then be in moral agreement with those classical theists who claim that God does not coerce even though such coercion is possible?

One would think so. But this is clearly not the case. In discussing the classical free will theist’s position, Griffin, for example, asks why a God who can occasionally coerce does not "do so occasionally, in order to prevent particularly horrendous evils?" The fact that this would violate our freedom, he contends, is not a sufficient response, for "as precious as freedom is, is it so valuable that God should not override it every once in awhile, to prevent some unbearable suffering? After all, it would have taken only a split-second’s violation of the world’s freedom to convert Hitler, or induce a heart-attack in him. Surely, if God could reassert divine omnipotence from time to time, these kinds of things should be done" (PPT 193). Ford agrees: If "God has the power to actualize the good unambiguously, then his goodness requires that he do so, and that right early" (LG 23). Cobb and Ogden make equally strong claims (FF 78, GW 20-41). In fact, it seems fair to say that the most common criticism process theists level against the God of classical free will theism is the claim that if such a being really existed and were wholly good, we should expect to see displays of divine coercive power more often. But if process theists really do believe that some coercion would not only be preferable but required at the divine level if it were possible, then it appears that they must also acknowledge that the God of process theism would coerce if this were an option.

What we find, then, in the last analysis, is that there is no clear process response to the question at hand. When discussing the persuasive power of the God of process theism, many process theists explicitly argue that such power is morally superior to and more effective than coercive power and, thus, at least implicitly argue that the God of process theism would not use coercive power even if it were available. But when criticizing the concept of God affirmed by classical free will theism, process theists seem to reverse their position by arguing that a being who could coerce should at times do so.

Or to state this seeming dilemma more explicitly, to the extent to which process theists support their criticism of classical free will theism by arguing that a divine being who could at times coerce should do so, the ‘moral’ and ‘utilitarian’ status of persuasive power is diminished. But to the extent to which they support the ‘moral’ and ‘utilitarian’ superiority of persuasive power by claiming that the God of process theism would not coerce even if this were possible, their criticism of classical free will theism is damaged. Process theists cannot have it both ways.

But which way, then, do they want it? I am not sure. So we will consider the implications of both options for the use of coercion on the human level. Let us first assume that a perfect being would only use persuasive power and, thus, that since the God of process theism is perfect, coercive power would never be used even if it were available. If this is what process theists believe, then we might well expect them to criticize any use of coercive power on the human level. For if persuasive power is the greatest power in the world and is "the only power capable of worthwhile results," anything more than ‘pacifistic persuasion’ would appear to be unjustifiable in all cases. At times, process theists appear to be sympathetic to this line of reasoning. They explicitly criticize much of the use of coercive force in our world. Cobb at one point even goes so far as to say that "if we would be perfect as God is perfect, then we will undertake vigorously to affect the course of events creatively, and that means by persuasion" (PTT 107f.). But, in the last analysis, most major process figures do not condemn the use of all coercive power -- even all violent coercive power -- on the human level. Ogden, for example, argues that by far the most important way in which we can participate in God’s emancipating work of "helping people manage their opportunities for good... is to labor for fundamental social and cultural change." This means, he continues, that "we cannot avoid the conflicts of human interests or evade the demand always to take sides with the oppressed against all who oppress them." Accordingly, he concludes, we can never "rule out the eventuality that we can be obedient to this demand only by using force to oppose those who forcibly destroy the conditions of others’ freedom" (FF 90, 93f.). Hartshorne clearly agrees. We should, he argues, always use persuasion when possible. But

it is quite another matter to exclude the use of force even where no superior method can be found. And there are such occasions. . . . There is a power of brute force which is going to be wielded by someone, and it had better be retained by the conscientious and intelligent as a last resort against the unscrupulous who would, if not thus restrained, gladly accept it as their monopoly. (MVG 171, DR 154f.)

Cobb is equally clear in his opposition to much of the use of coercion we find on the human level. "Nevertheless," he tells us, "it is very clear that entrenched interests are normally extremely resistant to persuasion. They maintain their power by institutionalized and counter-insurgent violence which causes enormous suffering and numerous deaths. Against this, revolutionary coercion, including violent coercion, is sometimes justified." In fact, he goes on to argue, "a Whiteheadian cannot be an absolutist in opposition to violence. Just as there are possible justifications for inequality (and for the use of violence in its defense), so there are also possible justifications for resort to violence against existing structures of power" (PPT 27f.) Cobb even gives us one concrete example, claiming that "in Nicaragua the Christian conscience sided with the use of relatively limited violence to bring an end to massive structural violence by a corrupt dictatorship" and that "this is surely a gain worth the price paid" (PTT 107). Finally, Schroeder tells us that "in some instances, humans must use force to protect human persons and human societies from predators, both human and sub-human. Universal pacifism is not possible in the present cosmic epoch" (PTT 70).

But is not this stance inconsistent with the contention that God would never coerce even if this were an option? Such process theists are not just claiming that coercion does in fact produce good consequences. They are clearly making a normative claim: that such coercion is morally superior, justified and even demanded of the Christian in some contexts. But how can it be justifiable for us as humans to willfully use even violent coercion if God would never coerce at all? Or, to be more specific, if God would never use coercive power because persuasive power is morally superior and produces more worthwhile results, how can process theists justify the human use of coercive power in some cases? How can it become morally superior and more worthwhile for us?

I can conceive of two possible responses. Some might argue that God and humans have somewhat different agendas with respect to human activity. Cobb at one point tells us that God’s ultimate creative goal is to "introduce the possibility of a creative synthesis of the new with the old," and Ogden tells us that "God’s only aim or intention in exercising his power is the fullest possible self-creation of all his creatures" (PTT 107, FF 89). From such statements it might be inferred that God prizes ‘freedom’ more than ‘justice’. God is grieved by the unjust, oppressive uses of freedom by some humans. But God’s primary goal is for each of us to be as fully self-creative as possible, even if such creativity results in human oppression, and this is why God would not unilaterally keep self-creative individuals from abusing the freedom of others even if this could be done. But the divine agenda for humans, it might be argued, is slightly more utilitarian. While God prizes ‘freedom’ above ‘justice’, God wants us to prize ‘justice’ above ‘freedom’. That is, while God will tolerate injustice for the sake of maximizing each person’s creative options, God desires us to maximize the quality of freedom for the greatest number, even if this means we must at times unilaterally minimize the freedom of a few. This, it might be concluded, is why we are encouraged to coerce occasionally even though God would never do so.

This line of reasoning, however, generates serious difficulties. First, if ‘freedom’ is from God’s perspective a higher good than ‘justice’, then it is difficult to see why it should not also be so for us. Or stated differently, if God so prizes human autonomy that a Hitler would not be coerced even if this were possible, then it is hard to understand why God would want us to do so. It would seem, rather, that we, mirroring the divine ranking of values, should also refrain from all coercive uses of power. Moreover, it is not at all clear that most process theists really accept this ‘two agenda’ model. Ogden, for example, tells us that "God is not neutral or indifferent to creaturely conflict but always sides with what makes for the good of his creatures as against all that makes for evil" (FF 94). Cobb is even more explicit: "Process theologians are led, no less than others, to the view that the special concern of the Christian, as of God, is with the liberation of the oppressed" (PTT 149). Griffin agrees: "God not only wills the end of oppression, but is continually active in the world toward this end." Thus, when "we, inspired by God, work toward such a society," we do so "not only for the sake of ourselves and our descendants, but also for the sake of God" (PTT 195).

Such statements are admittedly somewhat ambiguous. But they can easily be interpreted as saying that God and humans do share a similar agenda. That is, they can easily be interpreted as supporting the contention that God also believes ‘justice’ (maximized freedom for the greatest number) to be more important in some contexts than the maximal preservation of freedom for each individual.

But if this is so, how can process theists still maintain that God would not use coercive power even if it were available? If God, no less than humans, wants to end oppression, and God desires us as humans to use coercion at times to accomplish this end, must not process theists grant that God would coerce if this were possible? Perhaps not. God and humans, it might be argued, do share the same agenda with respect to the oppressed. But it is only for God that persuasion always has more worthwhile results than coercion (DR 154). For only God has immediate, constant access to every human, and only God knows the true motives behind each human behavior and how such motives can best be affected. Thus, only God can insure that persuasion will be maximally effective, and only constant maximal persuasion is more effective than coercion. Where such persuasion is not possible, coercion is sometimes more effective than persuasion alone. This is why God sometimes approves of (lures us toward) coercion on the human level even though such coercive power would never be used by God even if it were available.

But this line of reasoning is also quite problematic. It may well be true that God can persuade more effectively then humans. But this fact alone tells us little about whether God would, or we should, coerce. If we assume, as we presently do, that the primary goal of both God and concerned humans is to maximize freedom (creativity) for the greatest number, it is the following query with which we must be concerned: Do continuous divine persuasion and occasional human coercion, in conjunction, better maximize freedom than would continuous divine persuasion alone? If the answer is no -- that is, if divine persuasion alone is as effective or more effective than the combination of such persuasion and some human coercion -- then why would God approve of any human coercion? Since human coercion has absolutely no intrinsic value within a process system (in fact, is an intrinsic evil), it would appear that if divine persuasion is maximally effective alone, process theists should be pacifists. On the other hand, if the answer is yes -- that is, if divine persuasion alone does not maximize human freedom to the extent that such persuasion and divinely approved human coercion does -- then it is difficult to see why the process God would not use coercive power if this were an option. If God believes that some coercion is a useful and morally acceptable means of achieving a desired end, then there appears to be no reason why such coercive power would not be used if it were available.

We must conclude, then, that whether we assume that the God of process theism has the same agenda (goals) as humans or not, there are no good reasons for assuming both that God approves of human coercion in some cases and that God would not coerce in this manner even if this were possible. One of these beliefs, it seems, must be dropped or modified.

But this may not be a serious problem for all process theists. We never meant to be read as saying that the God of process theism would never use coercive power if it were available, some might argue. We do believe the process God cannot coerce. But we have always believed that the God of process theism would on occasion exert coercive force if this were possible.

To make this move has some obvious benefits. For example, it allows process theists to continue to challenge the moral integrity of the God of classical free will theism. Moreover, it certainly does create a strong theological justification for the type of coercion many process theists believe is necessary on the human level.

But again problems develop. For instance, once process theists acknowledge that God would at times act coercively if this were possible, they must radically revise some of their claims about the nature of persuasive power. They can still maintain that persuasive power is more consistent with freedom than coercive power and that persuasive power, when effective, has the most worthwhile results. And they can still claim that we should attempt to persuade whenever possible. But if the God of process theism would coerce if this were an option, then process theists can no longer maintain with Ford that divine coercion, "whether limited or unlimited is incompatible with divine perfection." Moreover, process theists can no longer agree with a strong reading of Cobb and Griffin’s claim that "persuasive power, with its infinite persistence is in fact the greatest of all powers." Persuasive power my be the ideal. But if God would coerce at times if such power were available, then it must be acknowledged that, in principle, the use of both persuasive and coercive power would at times be the best and most useful course of action. Nor can process theists continue to accept Cobb’s claim that "the only power capable of worthwhile results is the power of persuasion." If God would use coercive power if it were available, then there are, in principle, times when divine persuasion plus divine coercion would bring about more worthwhile results. Finally, if God would coerce if this were possible, process theists must question Ogden’s contention that God is omnibeneficient in the sense that he is "good for others to an extent than which no greater can be conceived." A God who would coerce but cannot may rightly be said to be good for others to the greatest extent possible, given that being’s limitations. But such a God cannot be said to be good in the greatest conceivable sense, since, in principle, a God who could actually coerce would be capable of doing even more good.

In short, once process theists grant that God would coerce if this were an option, they can no longer imply, as some seem to do, that divine noncoercion has a moral basis -- i.e., no longer imply that a perfect being would for moral reasons never coerce. They must rather admit that divine noncoercion is an unfortunate metaphysical limitation, a limitation which God can attempt to overcome only by attempting to persuade us to coerce in those situations where this would accomplish the desired ends. But to portray the God of process theism in this fashion will in the minds of many simply reinforce the most common classical complaint about process theism: that the God of process theism is a ‘weak’ being who is struggling to shape and control a world containing entities -- e.g., some humans -- who in some respects have more power than God does. Process theists have most frequently attempted to counter this ‘negative’ divine characterization by arguing that since God’s primary aim is to maximize creative activity for each individual, God would never coerce even if possible. But this response is not available in the present context. The process theists we are now discussing grant that God would at times coerce if possible. Accordingly, it appears that the classical characterization in question is one with which such process theists must live.


It is important in closing that I clarify what has been argued. I have not argued that process theists cannot consistently allow for the justifiable use of coercion at the human level. My argument, rather, is that any attempt to demonstrate such consistency generates serious tensions within the process system. Ultimately, process theists must determine whether coercive force (in the sense in which they grant it is possible) would be used if it were available to God. If they decide it would not, they retain a strong basis for claiming that persuasion is morally (and possibly even practically) superior to coercion. But it is then very difficult to see why God would want us to use coercive power or how the classical God of free will theism can be criticized for not coercing. On the other hand, if process theists decide that God would coerce if this were possible, they establish a sound basis for the human use of coercion in some cases. But they must then give up the claim that coercion is morally "incompatible with divine perfection" and the claim that persuasion is always the "greatest of all powers and "the only power capable of worthwhile results." Furthermore, they must acknowledge that humans possess a ‘desirable’ form of power God simply does not possess. Process theists cannot have it both ways. Moreover, whichever way they go, it seems fair to ask of them that they clarify their claims about the moral status of both persuasion and coercion on both the divine and human levels accordingly.



DR -- Charles Hartshorne. The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

FF -- Schubert Ogden. Faith and Freedom. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979.

GPE -- David Griffin. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

GW -- John B. Cobb, Jr. God and the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

JR -- David Basinger, "Divine Persuasion: Could the Process God Do More?" Journal of Religion 64 (1984), 332-47.

LG -- Lewis S. Ford. The Lure of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

MVG -- Charles Hartshorne. Man’s Vision of God. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1941.

PPCT -- D. Brown, R. James, and D. Reeves, editors. Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971.

PPT -- John B. Cobb, Jr., and W. Widick Schroeder, editors. Process Philosophy and Social Thought. Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981.

PTE -- John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

PTT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Process Theology as Political Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982.