Is Justice Violent?
At the Wild Goose Festival Melvin Bray raised a question in one of his talks that is one that I’ve been wondering recently as well. After a few days of many of us discussing the myth of redemptive violence (as we honored the recent passing of Walter Wink), Melvin courageously asked out loud why is it that those who propose nonviolence always seem to equate violence with force? I had to applaud him for his audacity, for I, even as one who is committed to nonviolence, often find myself at odds with the primary voices within that movement because I am also committed to justice (restorative, not retributive). For as Melvin pointed out, taking action, standing-up for the oppressed, and ensuring the hungry are fed are all actions that ultimately require some sort of force – but must that force be labeled and rejected as violence?
The argument from many within the nonviolence perspective is that to stand up to injustice is a force that implies violence. To tell sex traffickers to stop kidnapping and selling women (or to enact laws that do so) is a violent act against their wills. To stand up for fair wages does violence against those who exploit others by forcing them to put an end to their practices. Those that support nonviolence argue that Christians truly committed to such pacifism should therefore not involve themselves in actions that make use of such violent force. Christians can care for the abused woman and befriend the trafficker in hopes of modeling a different way of life, but not force them to stop hurting others. Consequently many of the most prominent voices for nonviolence also argue against social justice as it too is a form of violence in their minds.
But as Melvin pointed out, to love others means that we cannot be resigned to their suffering. To be afraid that we might do violence to another if we force them to stop hurting others in many cases allows violence to the oppressed to continue. This is why I think affirming a distinction between violence and force is so important. Many pacifists who equate the two argue that even if one sees someone being attacked or raped, one should not resort to violence to stop it. But there is a huge difference between forcing someone to stop hurting someone else and hurting them back. Yes, it requires force to stop a fight or to pull someone off a victim, but it seems far from Christian to argue that it is worse to do supposed violence to someone with such actions than it is to allow the suffering of those already being violated to continue. Same thing with injustice. Standing up against oppression and exploitation requires forceful words, actions, and laws to stop those doing violence to others, but to refuse to use such force is to essentially give approval of the violence that is already being done.
What complicates matters is that those pacifists arguing against social justice often do so from a position of power and privilege as most are straight, white, Southern males. I have a difficult time accepting the theological argument from someone in such a position that it is wrong to stand up to oppression and seek justice. This was an argument used often against Martin Luther King Jr. as the prominent white pacifists of his time criticized his nonviolent marches and calls for bus boycotts as being too forceful (and therefore violent). Yet without such uses of nonviolent force, the blatant oppression of blacks in the USA would not have changed in the way it did. Force is uncomfortable and it challenges the power of the privileged, but that does not make it violent.
I therefore appreciated Melvin’s willingness to bring up this question. I know that it is not an issue for many Christians (as nonviolence has sadly become a minority tradition in the church these days), but for those of us committed to peacemaking it is often the elephant in the room. Those of us who care about justice and work to put an end to oppression non-violently find it difficult to constantly be told by the major pacifist theologians safe in their academic positions that we are the ones sinning by standing up for justice. But the force of love that accompanies the breaking-in of the Kingdom of God in this world is not content with letting the suffering of others continue. I have to believe that letting that love push into the world and overcome the darkness is the call of Christ. I am committed deeply to peace, but because of that overwhelming force of love, I must also be committed to justice.