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Violence is never the answer: Except when it is…

Here is a post that is a long time coming.  First some caveats:  my target audience here is the Bible-believing Christian, namely the kind that takes the Scriptures as authoritative.  That said, I believe that Christianity manifests the true account of the moral code, and as such I think that what follows might apply to non-Christians, too.

Ok, now, this will sound like a weird place to start, but stick with me a moment.  I consider myself a conservative (although more precisely, a libertarian-constitutionalist-voluntaryist) but I wasn’t always one.  I grew up on default… that is, more or less as a liberal, especially on political and economic issues.  What changed?  Well, when I came to the place where I decided that Truth mattered, I realized that my belief system should, to the best of my ability, resemble reality.

This notion that I should adjust my mind to the world as it really was was really critical in shaping how I’ve come now.  You see, there are lots of things that I wished were the case.  Unfortunately, they aren’t.  For example, I might wish that the members of the government can be trusted to look after the interests of the citizens, but it just isn’t the case.  (Formative for me on this point was Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky).  History and today’s newspaper reveal otherwise.

I have learned that in life, actions have consequences.  I can try to shut my eyes to them and hope that by magic this time the action will have a different consequence (the one that I wished would happen) or I can accept reality.  Accepting reality made me into a conservative.

Now, I say all of this in prelude because in this post I’m going to tackle something that I think even conservatives don’t get right a lot of times.  I have heard liberals and pacifists and progressives all say something very similar to… “Violence is never the answer.”   But I have heard conservatives say it, too.  A quick google search reveals people across the spectrum making this statement.

But every sane person knows that, in fact, there are times when violence is the answer.  Even most insane people know that sometimes violence is the answer.

So what we have here is a sentiment that is casually flung around that nearly all of us know isn’t true.  In short, in saying such a thing, we are out of touch with reality.  And one of the things I’ve learned about holding sentiments that don’t actually mesh with the real world is that inevitably bad things result.  For example, if you think that you can step in front of a bus going 70 mph without getting hurt, a bad thing will result.  Some times, the ‘bad things’ aren’t immediate or clear, but never fear, God cannot be mocked:  we reap what we sow.

I have had the unfortunate experience in my life to interact with two who really really really really believed that ‘violence is never the answer.’  These were both Christians.

The conversations went a bit like this…

“Are you married?”
“So let’s say that someone comes into your house and starts to rape your wife.”
“That would be horrible.”
“Yea, I should say so.  Would you do anything about it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t use violence, if that’s what you mean.  But I would try to stop him.”
“Well, of course I would call 9-11.  And then I would try to pull him off her.”
“You don’t think ‘pulling’ is violent?”
“Not like shooting him in the head would be.  That would be wrong.  Jesus would never do something like that.”
“Do you think he’s just going to stop because you pull on him gently?”
“Well, I might have to pull hard.”
“And that wouldn’t be violent?”
“It isn’t the same.”
“And if he still doesn’t stop even though you’ve pulled really hard?”
“Well, like I said, I would have called 9-11.”
“Ok, so the cops finally arrive.  You’ve been Christ-like in your insistence that ‘violence is never the answer.’  What do you think the cops are going to do to the guy?”
“Well, I suppose they’ll make him stop.”
“By asking nicely?”
“Well, they would probably pull him off, too.”
“And if that didn’t work, do you think the cops are just going to leave him to it?”
“Of course not.”
“You think they might pull their guns and shoot the guy if he doesn’t stop?”
“Yes, well, they very well might shoot him.”
“So, ‘violence is never the answer’ for you, because that would be murder, but you don’t have objections to calling in other people to do your dirty work for you?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“If the cop kills the rapist, is he justified?”
“No, because that is murder, and is always wrong.”
“Then why even bother calling 9-11?  You think that just because you can out-source your sin that you’ve handled the situation correctly?  Can you explain to me precisely how a husband goes about ‘laying down his life’ for his wife to protect her if you’ll just stand there while she’s being raped.  How does your wife feel about this knowing you’d ‘pull gently’ at a rapist raping her?”

Now, you may believe this or not, but I have had 2 conversations that went almost completely like this.  (GIO, if you’re out there, thanks for the unpleasant conversation!).  I think all of us, when pondering a scenario like this, understand that really, truly, violence is sometimes the answer.

The thing to do, then, is to think through the when and the how and the why one would use violence, not deny reality.

Compare and contrast this with the recent story of the young boy whose hat was deemed ‘inappropriate’ by his teacher because it displayed toy army men on it.

From the article:

Kenneth DiPietro, superintendent of Coventry Public Schools, insisted that the issue was not with patriotism or honoring the military but the promotion of weapons in school.

Just out of curiosity, if the Columbine shooters came back from the dead and began shooting up a school somewhere, would any superintendent anywhere not want the police to come in and put them back in the grave?  No.  But wouldn’t the police display of guns (and actual use of them) represent a ‘promotion of weapons in school’?

Well, yes it would.

The rejoinder here is that of course we can conceive of a an appropriate time for a gun to be used in a school- when a bad man is shooting in a school HE MUST BE STOPPED!

But that’s precisely my point.  As it turns out, violence is sometimes the answer.  Sometimes, we want weapons in schools.  Sometimes, we want people to use lethal force.  So why on earth do we hand down to our children platitudes about non-violence that we know don’t comport with reality?

I think the answer, in part, is that of course we wished that we could say ‘violence is never the answer.’  Oh, to live in such a world!  Some parents might say that they don’t mean to communicate an absolutism, and are just delivering a moral lesson in a way that their child will find easiest to understand.  I can sympathize with that.  It isn’t an easy thing to teach an eight year old when it might be appropriate to use force, even lethal force.  As an adult, I’m not sure that I’ve even got it all figured out.  I can see the temptation to default to the platitude.

But the platitude is dangerous.  On the one hand, when we transmit it, we transmit something we know is not actually true.  That’s bad policy right there.  On the other hand, it shuts down an important area of human experience that requires extensive critical thinking.  In a world filled with evil and malignant men, every good person must be prepared in their mind for what they should do given certain eventualities… because we know from the newspaper and history book that these things do happen.  Another danger to the platitude is that it sets people up for guilt after they perform a violent- but righteous- act.  Finally, if someone has never actually thought about the matter before and all they’ve been fed is the platitude, they might freeze up and do nothing, or flee when they should fight.

I can think of no better example then the story that emerged out of the Virginia Tech massacre of Liviu Librescu.  Here is a survivor of the holocaust, gunned down through the door that he refused to open for the gunman.   If Liviu was a Christian like the one I encountered above, I suppose he would have been concerned about maybe hurting the gunman’s finger or some such thing by violently keeping the door shut.  Liviu’s heroics were not in vain:  about 20 students had their lives saved as they fled through the windows.

But what about the 15 or 16 people who died after Liviu died?  Could they have been saved?  What if the students in Liviu’s classroom had bum rushed the dude as he came in the door?  As it is, the dude killed two people in that room.  Would he have been able to kill more than that if the class had attacked him from close range?  I don’t think so, and I think that all those who died afterward would have been saved by this measure.  That’s about fifteen people, about half of the total that were killed that day.

Now, you might be protesting right now (especially if you’re one of the 20 students that fled out the windows!) that such action is highly unwise by unarmed students, and it assumes knowledge that might not have been in hand (ie, the number of shooters).

And I think that there is some weight to that protest.  So why not learn from the scenario and in the future let college kids carry guns with them and instead of issuing them the platitude that ‘violence is never the answer’ instruct them on the moral and practical dimensions of violence?

Right, I know.  We can’t do that, because violence is never the answer.  That’s why we call the police, and have them use violence.  Because it’s never the answer.  Except when it is.  Oh, I just can’t get it straight!

Ok, so you can’t consider this post exhaustive.  I turned over a lot of ground and left a lot of issues unanswered.   I took for granted, for example, that every reader, including 99.99% of Christians, believe that in fact violence is an appropriate response to raping and school slaughter.  And certainly there are many times and places where non-violence really is the answer.  There are even times when (as Christians) not resisting a violent man is called for.  Yes, I know.  I didn’t deal with these issues.  Perhaps in a later post, I will.

In the meantime, I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that if someone breaks into your house to do your harm or bursts into your kid’s school and starts shooting, you’ll be among the first to dial 9-11.

And that’s enough to prove the point:  violence is sometimes the answer.

Let’s lose the platitude and start using our brains.



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    • Cecilia on June 24, 2010 at 4:14 am

    In the vast majority of cases, violence is not the answer. The problem is that cruel, evil people will take the rare times whem it is the answer (or when we don’t know any other answer), and use that to push for violence across a wide spectrum of situations, when it really isn’t the answer. They do this because they are cruel and evil and want to see people get hurt (or worse). Not only that they want to trick you into doing the violence.
    “The violent man entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.” Proverbs 16:29
    You can ususally tell when someone is doing this, because they are horrified at the idea of a nonviolent solution to the conflicts of life. “Ewww, don’t even go there,” one pro-violence fanatic said, as she wrinkled her face in disgust, at my suggestion that God could lead the bad people she wanted dead to repentence.

    Knowing all the unnecessary pain and grief caused by people who advocate violence when non-violent methods would work as well or better, I have a healthy suspicion when someone says that now is the time for violence. God feels the same way. He said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” While God understands in situations where violence can’t be helped, it’s clear He prefers nonviolence whenever that can be done. He also said, “As much as lieth within you, live peaceably with all people.” Romans 12:18
    Those conservatives, who say violence is never the answer, aren’t pacifists. But they know that violence should be avoided whenever possible.
    No more pushing for violence. It makes your motives look suspicious.

    • Anthony on June 24, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Hi Cecilia,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I am confused by your statement, “No more pushing for violence.” I assume that is directed to me, but where was I pushing for violence?

    I am pushing for logical consistency and critical thinking. Even your own post seems to reflect the contradiction, seemingly affirming the platitude that ‘violence is never the answer’ while adding that even God understands there are situations where violence can’t be helped.

    It would have helped if you provided some kind of scenario or example. I’ve never met someone who was ‘horrified at the idea of a nonviolent solution.’ Maybe it is just the circles I run in, but I always get just the opposite: horror at the idea of a violent solution. And yet, I have provided two examples where most decent people will admit the need, at least potentially, for a violent solution. One would have been enough to put the lie to the platitude.

    I am not urging violence or arguing for violence. I am arguing against incoherence and ignorance. From your post I gather that you abhor violence and violent people and yet you admit that God knows sometimes violence ‘can’t be helped.’ Really? What kinds of situations would those be? Don’t you think it would be wise to think through these issues a little so that we are as prepared as possible for the real world and not the idealized world we wished we lived in?

    I do. Hence the post. 🙂

    Again, thanks for your comments.

    • Anthony on June 24, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Hi Cecilia,

    I see that I’m getting some traffic from prolifeblogs and perhaps you were one of these. You may think that my post was meant to be interpreted in the context of the abortion movement. In fact, while I am a pro-life speaker, this particular blog is an apologetics blog which covers a whole host of issues. I can see how if you thought this was meant to be a pro-life column (or one targeting the pro-life community) that it might come across as ‘pushing for violence.’ My post was not intended in anyway to be interpreted from within the abortion fight prism. It is a general discussion that can be taken on its face.

    Thanks again for your comment,

    • End Bringer on June 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    If anything if more people used their brains to distinguish when violence is appropriate and when it is not, people would actually be encouraged to use peacible methods to address the abortion issue. Because we have sadly seen cases where violence was used and it ended up hurting the pro-life movement more than helping.

    So the gist of the post is indeed correct – think things through.

    • Tim on July 3, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    The problem is that Jesus isn’t a pacifist. Blood to a horse’s briddle upon his return(2nd coming). I came to bring a sword, not peace(first coming). I came to kindle a flame, and how I wish it was already kindled(1st coming)etc. We’re living in the after glow of His Lamb of God office. He will return as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in the office of The Avenger of Blood. BTW, the command is; Thou shalt not murder, not kill. IITim3:16 ‘All of the scripture is to be used,’ not just what you like. It’s called exegesis. Great article, but it isn’t about common sense anymore.

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