In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?
Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).
Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?
Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.
So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:
As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)
This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).
“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.
I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.
While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.
I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.