Christian Realism and the "Necessity" of Violence
In these politically charged times, how should Christians understand the role of violence during times of tumultuous political change. Ellul helps us through this with the concept of "necessity."
Christian violence? Is this even a thing? Can Christians, as Christians, be violent revolutionaries? Can violence be legitimized? If so, in what circumstances and for what reasons? This question seems to be all the more pressing in the early days of May 2022. Breaking convention, the draft opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, indicating that the controversial Roe vs. Wade ruling will be overturned, was leaked to the press. This sparked protests by those who support free access to abortion. They have doxed the justices, protesting in front of their houses. A pro-life advocacy group in New York City had their storefront offices firebombed. How should Christians respond to the intense anger and violence of the pro-abortionists?
Because of the nature of the fight against abortion, other than a brief period when some groups took it upon themselves to bomb abortion clinics, activists have generally taken the high road in their fight. Peaceful protests. Calm decorum. Quiet prayer. Pro-life. They have worked within the system to restrict and limit the number of babies killed through abortion. They have focused on helping and supporting mothers as well as providing adoptions. They have worked to have pro-life judges appointed. These efforts have yielded results. It looks like Roe vs. Wade may soon be overturned. But now what?
How should Christians respond to the intimidation tactics and the violence from the pro-abortion activists? There is a fear among many pro-life supporters that the movement will get steam rolled precisely because it has always taken the high road. Yet, to meet the pro-abortion activists’ violence with violence of our own would seem to be a betrayal of the movement. After all, it is pro-life. Many, like me, see the abortion debate as the fulcrum in the culture war. There is the sense that if this battle is lost, losing the culture war entirely would be a foregone conclusion. Again, how do we respond? There are no easy answers, but Jacques Ellul in his typical clarity, develops a theory, a philosophy of violence, from a Christian perspective that he calls: Christian realism.
Introduction to the Question
Ellul is quick to remind us that Christian teachings on violence go back deep into the Old Testament. There is a long history of discussion on the subject. Throughout this time, especially in the Christian era, there has never been unanimous agreement on the role of violence in human society. Down through time the general opinion was that the state was justified, even blessed, in its use of violence. The state’s role was to maintain the metaphysical order. In a sinful world within which there is evil, there will be a need for the state to wield the sword in order to curb and restrain society’s baser instincts. At the same time, because of this metaphysical order, rebellion against the state, especially using violence, was condemned. Revolt was not just revolt against the king, but also against God. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Christians have only ever advocated for non-violent protest against an unjust ruler. They have also at times backed the idea of revolutionary violence. We must see that both those who advocate violence and those who support non-violence can look back into Christian tradition and find support for their adoption of one mode or the other. This debate has been with us from the early days of the Christian faith.
After spending some time reviewing the traditional arguments for just war, for the use of force by the state as well those of radical Christian pacifism, he begins to lay the groundwork for a third option. To do so, in a fashion typical to Ellul, he begins looking at the whole problem by trying to properly understand violence and its ubiquitous presence in the world. What is violence? How does it manifest itself? How does violence work? What does it do?
He begins by making the observation that in regard to violence, the refusal to use violence in the face of violence, the refusal to use violence in order to protect the oppressed is in fact a form of passive violence. The typical non-violent response to violence—taking the high road, we would call it—is in fact a form of passive violence. I allows you to be violent, but I feel good about it because I was not violent. Ellul argues that today’s non-violent approaches to activism are not authentic; rather, they are a form of propaganda. They allow their opponents to continue being violent so that they can signal and message to the world their moral virtue. It is done to create the propaganda that “our side” are the “good guys.”
Ellul argues that the acceptance of violence has always had a place in Christian teaching on various grounds. That said, there is not direct chapter and verse “yes” to something like revolutionary violence of the oppressed against the oppressor. In fact, if anything, the scriptures lead away from that conclusion, instead trusting things to the judgment of God. At the same time, someone like Aquinas was willing to justify theft by a poor man against the rich because the rich man had neglected his duty to the poor. In a sense, if the poor are stealing from the rich, it is a judgement of God against the rich. If the poor are in such a state that they think they must steal to survive, the rich have been neglecting their duty and do deserve what they are getting.
Once you set this back and forth aside, is or isn’t violence justified, especially when it is not the state acting, what you discover is that when private political actors like revolutionaries use violence, their Christian faith actually plays a small part in their justifications for its use. Their Christian principles are almost always abandoned in the revolutionary process. Ellul comes to this conclusion:
“The attempt to assimilate world and faith with each other is one mistake, and the attempt to separate them radically is another.”
He says that it is a huge mistake for Christians to believe that the victory and lordship of Christ has resolved the problem of violence for the Christian. The world we live in is a world in which the radical salvation of Jesus exists side by side with a world where sin and evil are still very much present realities. This dual nature of the world, this in between time between Christ’s death and resurrection on the one hand and his second coming on the other, places us in a situation where we face contradictory realities that must be accepted.
Ellul argues that the recourse to violence in our age is particularly tempting in part because of technology. The embrace of technology, and with it technical thinking, is to embrace the spirit of power, that is the “will to power” that is evident in all technical thinking. Technology is the effort to apply the power of human reason to master the world, to dominate and control it. Science and technology are inherently violent in their nature. As Christians embrace the technical, they typically set aside the virtues of humility and resignation. We must solve every problem because we can and with the power of technology behind us we will be able to realize a truly Christian world. It is the will to power and it is violent. It is also a hypocritical lie.
He argues that Christians who engage in violence often do so with a “distressingly simplistic cast of mind.” They typically judge all socioeconomic problems in the simplest of terms, using stereotyped formulas in the place of real thought and real solutions. But few ever stop to think that when the violence is over and the force has been applied, often the real problems don’t start to show themselves until after we think we have solved them. When you look at Christians who engage in violent movements, they typically did so not because of their Christianity, but because they shared the dominant ethos and ideology of the day.
“Let me emphasize that recourse to violence is a sign of incapacity: incapacity to solve the fundamental questions of our time and incapacity to discern the specific form Christian action should take.”
Ellul argues that the primary roll of Christians and the Christian community is first of all to act in a prophetic role towards the rest of the broader society. Flowing out of his book on politics, Ellul works from the understanding that any public, political form of Christianity will be inherently hypocritical. In order to succeed in the realm of politics as a Christian, its exigencies will demand he compromise his stated beliefs, rendering him a hypocrite. This happens largely because of the necessary use of violence in any state, “Christian” or otherwise. This has been the tragic history of Christian politics.
“Christians ought, above all, to play the role of society’s sentinel (Ezekiel), to interpret for society the meaning of acts and events.”
But this clarity of purpose for the Christian community does not let the Christian off the hook:
“The Christian who accepts violence, like the Christian who thinks he can ignore violence, has abdicated from Christianity as a way of life.”
This seemingly contradictory statement provided the launching pad for Ellul to discuss his theory of violence, that of Christian realism.
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