Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Temptation to Justifiable Violence

A conscientious person who wishes to do good in the world faces the temptation for violence. When one looks at the brute evil that causes harm in the world, there is a temptation to use violence to prevent harm or to cause good. The temptation to violence for a good cause is a strong one, and one that requires vigilant, committed resistance. Men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez certainly had just causes, and they deliberately chose means of nonviolence to strive for their causes.

According to John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, Jesus was tempted greatly by violent political action, that he "perceived the Zealot alternative, was tempted by it as by no other, and nonetheless rejected it" (52). By "Zealot option," Yoder means "the issue was whether violence is justified in principle for what one considers to be a very righteous political cause" (58). Yoder's thesis is provocative: even Jesus, who taught his followers to love their enemies, who even forgave his murderers and mockers as he suffered painful death, who was willing to sacrifice his own life, was tempted to righteous violence.

Nicholas Kristof devotes his life to traveling the world and exposing suffering and injustice: he is a man who does and desires to do good for the world. He is eloquent and passionate in his efforts to do good and prevent evil. And so he makes a worthy tempter for supporting military action in Libya, as here and here. Kristof's is the liberal case for military action, it is the argument that sometimes, however rarely it may be, a positive impact of military violence can outweigh the negative. Kristof's is a reasoned, realistic rather than idealistic argument, and a tempting one. Why reject it?

There are, of course, practical reasons: the cost of war, the suffering that come with war, the unpredictability of war's outcomes, the tendency of violence of war to spread and cycle over distance and time and to leave long-term problems. There is also the argument that war puts aside creative nonviolent intervention strategies. I find these arguments compelling: the fear of war's unpredictable, lingering effects makes me wary of any argument for war. Yet Kristof's argument is practical too.

This is where the religious grounding of pacifism is important for me: when the practical argument is tempting, I must stand with the theological commitment to peace. This is where I have to rely on Jesus's teachings and example of nonviolence, of loving and forgiving enemies, of what Yoder calls "revolutionary subordination." I have to remember that he too was tempted. This is where I have to remind myself that Martin Luther King Jr., with firm knowledge that his cause was just, with belief that God had called him to this cause, as he faced violent opposition to his cause remained committed to the principle of nonviolence, and his cause was the better for it.
Peace, too, can look scary. Practicing nonviolence, too, means uncertain, unpredictable outcomes, and can mean suffering. But I place my faith in peace rather than war.

Works Cited
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus (2nd edition). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

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