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Is Justice Violent?

2012 July 12

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.


8 Responses leave one →
  1. July 12, 2012

    That’s funny, I never thought of force or activism as a form a violence. I always thought violence specifically meant either killing people or beating the shit out of them.

    But you do bring up a good point. People tend to confuse pacifism with passive-ism. Big difference between the two!

  2. July 12, 2012

    I concur with Travis. I had never thought of nonviolence as being a total passivity that takes no action whatsoever. I don’t see such action as violence against the will of others as appropriate intervention on behalf of those who are being violated. I am reminded of the life and actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although committed to nonviolence, he recognized that there come times when a person must choose to act in order to stop the violence of others. He wrote at some point (I’ve been trying to find the exact source but haven’t yet succeeded):

    “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

    I think that retreating into a passivism that refuses to act on behalf of those being harmed by the violence of others is in fact a form of moral cowardice, an extreme relativism that is ultimately untenable in reality.

  3. July 13, 2012

    As an Asian American who is a big proponent of nonviolence, I have had profound conversations with other very thoughtful hyphenated Americans who have suggested that nonviolence is often a privileged worldview (recognizing that there are those non-privileged like MLK and Gandhi who engaged in nonviolent protest).

    They make the argument that, especially for those believers who engage in real, life-threatening environments (war, oppression, tyranny) on a regular basis, the idea of God bringing justice restoratively rather than retributively makes no sense if there is such a thing called justice–bringing the world to “rights” (as NT Wright puts it). How could one reconcile the idea that the violent oppressor would simply be pardoned, if God has a standard of goodness, morality, etc.?

    Anyway, just a thought to add some flavor to the convo.

    • July 13, 2012

      But is that justice or revenge? I fully understand the desire to see others have to pay for the ways they have hurt others – that is one of the main reasons christians are so desperate to cling to an idea of hell. But is putting this right making sure others suffer in same way we suffer, or is rightness helping people become who God created them to be?

      Many fans of nonviolence theologians reject feminist and liberation theologies because they reject not only the use of force to end the suffering of the oppressed, but also the tendency (real or imagined) for the oppressed to become the oppressors out of a sense of revenge once they are freed. And so the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater and liberation attempts of any kind are rejected. The problem I have with this is that it is hard to tell if such theologians are rejecting such movements solely because they abhor violence or because they are the ones who will lose power and potentially become oppressed if cultures change…

  4. Joe carson permalink
    July 13, 2012

    if “violence” is defined as illegimative/unlawful use of physical force, then the State has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. “Non-violence” means eschewing use of unlawful phylical force, but allows other ‘force” to be used – economic, political, speech, etc.

    So the whole discussions seems misquided, I have to use force to breathe, eat, etc, etc. “non-violence” means eschewing one type of force – unlawful use of physical force – nothing more.

  5. Sharon permalink
    July 13, 2012

    A little different take on the subject. Both my husband and a good friend of mine were Chicago police officers. My friend and his partner once caught a rapist in the act, alerted by the victim’s screams. They pulled him off the woman and threw him in the back of the paddy wagon. I’m bound by oath not to divulge the details, but let’s just say this happened in the good old days. By the time they reached the station, the welts all over the rapist’s body matched the flowers carved in his “old hippy” belt.

    Make of that what you will. I don’t particularly care for violence or physical force, but if I’m in trouble, I want the meanest, most physically violent copper in the City, with a list of CR numbers a mile long, to come and help me.

    • July 14, 2012

      I think most people do too, and we wonder why the world is so messed up and people refuse to help each other. People are not content with stopping injustice, they want others to receive an eye for an eye. Combine fear with this deep desire for revenge and you have the lawsuit-crazy, concealed-gun class obsessed, broken culture we have today. People are free to choose this way of life, I just wish they wouldn’t still call themselves Christians at the same time since it directly contradicts the message of Jesus.

  6. December 21, 2012

    Thanks for the wonderful article it has really helped me. Two things I like about the post, one it is straight forward and two it does not attempt to promote anyone’s position particularly. Great job Julie.

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