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Words Like Violence Break the Silence

Sorry about the long gap in posts. Turns out I’ve been busy. Anyways, while I’ve been silent there’s been plenty of good stuff being churned out in the blogosphere, including this post from Paul Griffiths. He offers a list of principles on violence and peace on which he hopes all Christians can agree, which read as follows:

  1. Christians love peace, first and last: the first garden was peaceful and the last heaven will be. That’s the grammar of Christian thought. ‘Peaceful’ here means (at least) that in paradise and in heaven no one damages anyone else, physically or otherwise, and no one wants to.
  2. But, we are fallen. Which means that peace no longer obtains, which means in turn that each of us wants to damage others, physically and in other ways, and that each of us does so. Hence, at the physical level, murder, war, rape, torture, and quotidian beatings.
  3. Christians know that the condition mentioned in (2) is not the way it’s supposed to be; also not the way it once was and, one day, not the way it will be.
  4. We Christians also know that we should act in response to and furtherance of beauty-truth-goodness, and not by calculation of effect. (Controversial this; but true and right nevertheless.)
  5. And so, we ought never act in such a way as to intend physical damage. That would be ugly, a repetition of the fall, a deepening of damage.
  6. But, sometimes, acting in response to and furtherance of what’s beautiful-good-true brings physical damage in its train, as rain can bring flood and sun drought. Sometimes, too, we can know this to be the case: disarming the man with the gun may break his arm; preventing the wife-beater from continuing to beat may hurt him; and so on. [This is a version of the principle of double effect.]
  7. In such cases, we should nonetheless act as beauty demands, thrumming & dancing thereby in response to the Lord, but at the same time wrapped in dark clouds of repentant mourning for the inevitable post-lapsum imbrication with violence of what we do in the Lord’s service. What we renounce as Christians is not actions that in fact produce physical damage, but actions intending that outcome.
  8. Pacifism, then? No. Renunciation of violence-as-physical-damage? Also no. What we seek is peace, which is both prevenient and among the last things; what we know is that our seeking of it will unavoidably contribute to damage. Hence, mourning, lament, penitence. The Christian soldier has to be a good mourner for what he is and does.

A lot of good stuff here. First, I really hope that I can write as well as Griffiths does someday. Also the emphasis on Christian activity always being oriented towards furthering beauty-truth-goodness, though without calculation is vital.

However, its too bad that Griffiths doesn’t do much to alleviate the problem he diagnoses, namely that Christians tend to “argue these questions in a deep conceptual fog about what counts as violence.” His basic thrust seems to be that Christians should never intend physical damage by their actions, but this is inevitable in a falling world, so we should be penitent. This seems to me to be obviously true, indeed Mennonite theologian Chris Huebner has argued a point very similar to this, namely that we don’t ever quite know what “peace” is or the fullness of how our lives are gripped by violence.

However, to move from the observation that we are caught in a world where our actions may, tragically bring about harm in ways we don’t intend, to “the Christian soldier” seems a huge leap in logic. I don’t really see how anyone could be a soldier without purposefully acting “in such a way as to intend physical damage.” As Griffiths rightly notes, “that would be ugly, a repetition of the fall, a deepening of damage.”

There seems to be some sort of inertial Niebuhrianism at work here. Somehow the observation of our fallneness leads (reluctantly) to the point of resignation to active violence-as-intending-harm, all cloaked in an aura of penitence. This, I think is precisely what we must not do. The last thing that observing that our lives are enmeshed in violence should do is drive us to accommodate our active behavior to this state of affairs. The proper response to his is not simply “mourning, lament, penitence” but actual repentance in the face of our failures. But actual repentance, the turning around of one’s life by the Spirit of Christ, and going in a new direction seems to be precisely what Griffiths doesn’t think can really be done. Therefore we are left to simply mourn and continue on as things have been from the beginning. Fortunately I don’t think this bleak outlook is one that we need adopt.


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Not “as beauty demands,” but as Christ preaches.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  2. Wilson wrote:

    The leap of logic of the Christian soldier is a scriptural one (2 Tim 2). Pacifists (like Yoder) do not deny the existence of the Christian soldier metaphor, but admit that the Christian soldier is not one who fights other people or necessarily protects others, but one who fights the powers and principalities. That is how a person can be a Christian soldier without intending to enact physical damage.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Ok, but that metaphorical notion of “Christian soldier” is not, I think what Griffiths has in mind. I should think that would be rather clear.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  4. Dees wrote:

    For the record, this is actually really bad writing. A few examples of why:

    a) “Which means that peace no longer obtains…Hence, at the physical level, murder, war, rape, torture, and quotidian beatings.” Most people know “obtain” as a transitive verb, but there’s a second, intransitive option meaning “to be generally recognized or established, prevail”. Wouldn’t “prevail” have been way better, and not send people looking for an object the way “obtain” does? Also, “quotidian beatings” – I guess he means commonplace beatings, but I only think of everyday beatings, as if it’s part of one’s daily routine. Time for your quotidian beatings, children!

    b) “We Christians also know that we should act in response to and furtherance of beauty-truth-goodness, and not by calculation of effect. (Controversial this; but true and right nevertheless.)” First of all, I don’t immediately see that “response to and furtherance of beauty-truth-goodness” and “calculation of effect” are opposed. Wouldn’t you have to calculate the effect of your actions to further something? Then there’s that obnoxious theological trope, the double hyphen word, and that charming archaism “controversial this”.

    c) “In such cases, we should nonetheless act as beauty demands, thrumming & dancing thereby in response to the Lord, but at the same time wrapped in dark clouds of repentant mourning for the inevitable post-lapsum imbrication with violence of what we do in the Lord’s service.” Thrum mostly means strum, but it conveys a sense of monotony or detachment, which doesn’t fit with dancing. Moreover, who dances “thereby”? And dark clouds don’t wrap. And I don’t feel the need to explain why I’m not too high on “post-lapsum imbrication”.ees

    Halden, you’re an editor. Your job is stop people from writing like this!

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Well, if it was appearing in a book, perhaps it would be another matter. For a blog post I appreciated its whimsical tone.

    Maybe I just like some use of big words and interesting turns of phrase from time to time. I understand if others find it off-putting.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:


    I posted this question on another post of yours (and nobody responded) and, as it fits with this post, I’d like to repost it here: what of violence as violence — not as that which harms others — but that which destroys idols and other items or tools utilized in the service of death? Perhaps that is our way out of the impasse many of us are feeling about violence and the pursuit of peace.

    Think, for example, of the willingness of the prophets to destroy the altars of baal, of Gideon destroying the local idols, of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple, and so on. How is this any different than blowing up a weapons manufacturing plant, destroying logging machinery, etc.?

    I don’t hear much (or any) discussion of this sort of violence in contemporary Christian discussions. Everybody seems hung up on the idea that violence involves harm to other people, and nobody is looking at the idea of using violence against (idolatrous and death-dealing) property.


    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Dan, thanks for reposting that. I’ll let other respond, but I think there may indeed be space for something like what you’re talking about. How to imagine it is something I’m not quite sure of yet. But it does seem to be a question that must be asked if pursuit of “peace” is not to simply become a cloak for middle class inaction.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  8. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    I have responded to these posts, if anyone cares. Teaser: I come to a counterintuitive conclusion about violence!

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  9. Stephen wrote:

    Is calling someone a blogging star a hipster way of insulting them?

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    You’d have to ask a hipster — for my part, I was calling Halden and Ben Myers “theology blogging mega-stars” way before it was cool.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  11. bruce hamill wrote:

    The problem with what you are saying is that it presupposes that you can define violence purely in terms of use of force. However, if for an act to be violence it must be the violation of a ‘good’ then your examples are not violent. On this view destruction of idols, although it uses force, is not a violent use of force. Assuming of course, that in the broadest possible construal idols are not ‘goods’

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    I think you actually invented the practice.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  13. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    We citizens of the Empire begin with ‘idealistic’ and challenging phrases like ‘bearing the witness of the crucified God;’ but a reckoning with the (hypothetical) ‘real world’ urges us towards the compunction of the ‘just war theory’ of Augustine, until the barbarians actually break thru the gates of Hippo (or NY). Then we reluctantly, and with repentance, compromise for the pragmatism of Tony Soprano (the necessary killing by the Sicilian mob is morally superior to that of the Russian mob, but hey, people are always gunna screw and use dope no matta what, but at least the Sicilians will try to keep the ho’s and crack away from schools and donate to the Church). To quote Vivek Iyer (over at “An und für sich” on a similar track titled “Hot and Cold Violence”) who put it much better: “Benjamin certainly, reversing the arrow of history, can preserve the difference between the Moravian martyr and the Jihadi ’shaheed’. But is this a mere Mannerism- a baroque turned rococo- an attitude? Surely no discourse so noble could end in a mere dandyism of the soul- an impoverished dandyism- while the Elect are raptured to Glory?
    Yet this too is a cross- -bear it who may, though bespattered with our spittle- they bear it, perhaps, to our own redemption.” Obliged. (oh, and, my people are from Sicily

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  14. dan wrote:

    No offense to you, Bruce, but this is my problem with raising this sort of question in Christian circles. Without missing a beat, people end up discussing what sort of action can be defined as ‘violence’; rather than discussing whether or not this is the sort of action we might (or should!) engage in.

    Personally, I don’t care if we call if ‘violence’ or not. Some people will say it is, others will say it is not. I can understand both perspectives. For me, it comes down to what we are to do… not how we (inevitably arbitrarily) define ‘violence’.

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  15. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I think it matters what you call something. Words are not merely words. They matter.

    That said, I think I agree with what you are talking about. Property destruction is not in itself violence and in my opinion, those who hold the contrary have bought into a capitalist notion of property and an ideology that will protect it at all costs. I have seen pacifists who protect corporations from “violence” and capture people who break windows and turn them over to the cops. Sometimes, that kind of “nonviolence” protects the state and capitalism. I am completely against that type of pacifism, but I am a pacifist.

    The main problem with property destruction is that I would not want such actions to legitimate violence done with imperial backing as well. For example, when Christianity spread into the Celtic-Germanic areas of Europe, some monks destroyed pagan temples with the help of warriors of the kings and used this reasoning. Then at other times, it was just the missionary going in with an ax and cutting down the sacred tree, and thus demystifying the things power.

    Those two actions are fundamentally different I think.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    This brings to the surface a question I’ve been pondering that Dan’s comments have stimulated: what does it mean to “destroy idols and other items or tools utilized in the service of death”?

    I wondering where this leads us. Should we be burning down Hindu or Buddhist temples at night? Destroying any copies of the Koran we can get our hands on? That seems to correspond to the mode of action of many of the prophets. Not saying any of this is wrong just wondering where it takes us and why.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  17. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Yeah, those are good thoughts. Is there a difference today between a Hindu temple and an arms manufacturing plant? I live near a Hummer plant and I see miles of Hummers go by on trains, headed probably for Iraq or Afghanistan. Is there a fundamental difference between that type of manufacturing and the idols of a Hindu temple? I think there definitely is, and I think it matters that the people building the war machines by and large call themselves Christians.

    I think that, more than anything else, is what burns me up and would motivate me to at least not condemn a person, or even help protect somebody, who destroyed that type of idol as compared to a Hindu statue. The Hindu statues are dead, lifeless and ultimately cannot save or kill actual people. Who are we to judge those outside the church anyhow? Hummers with Machine gun mounts, on the other hand, built by people with Jesus t-shirts…I cannot express how pissed off that makes me.

    I don’t know…this is a tough question, and I don’t want to come across as carte blanche advocating property destruction. Where does one draw the line, who decides what is worthy of destruction and what is not, what kind of controls do you put on it and how do you get it under control once you unleash a potential beast?

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  18. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    Marx in an editorial on the civil war in the U.S. trenchantly pointed out the crucial role that the bankers and counting houses in London played in financing the war effort of the confederate South. Would one be justified in destroying those counting houses…at night? How about the counting houses of the twin-towers if you got all the people out first? I admire the witness of Christians (and others) that refused to buy Southern products, welcomed runaway slaves into their homes, worked as field nurses for the wounded of both sides, etc.. Maybe some of them then went home and smacked their wives around, squatted on Indian land, and drank too much (and 150 yrs later voted for George Bush, but that’s not the issue here). There is much that can be done that is not ‘spectacular,’ just slogging along, making hard choices and measured sacrifices within the limitations of our brokenness and half-assed (but not half-hearted) impulses towards the eschaton. Once in a while a Mother Teresa or a Che Guevara (Barabbas?) shows up and inspires/tempts us to zealotry—then WTF, go all out!! There is plenty of lumber available to build crosses and nail ourselves to (after making an offsetting carbon footprint donation). Obliged. (oh, and I live next door to a Hindu family, youall gotta go thru me to get to them!).

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, those are things I wonder as well. A lot of it also depends on where you live. In the Pacific Northwest a Hindu temple seems pretty innocuous. I doubt it would appear that way to many Christians in India. Mosques are only more vivid as an example.

    The point about Christians versus non-Christians is important too. What’s notable in the biblical accounts of idol destruction is that it seems (as far as I can recall) to take place within the community of Israel.

    I certainly don’t see anything materially wrong with storming into a sanctuary and tearing down the occasional American flag, that’s for sure.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  20. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    I think I might write on this topic for a Catholic Moral Theology course . . . my thoughts on it are not systematic or sustained. It is certainly a topic that pacifists have not wrestled with at length, except maybe in issues surrounding the Berrigan brothers. I doubt it is given serious lengthy treatment though.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  21. kim fabricius wrote:

    “Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple must be understood, in the light of the prophetic passages cited [Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11], as a call for repentance and a sign that the promised eschatological restoration is at hand…. In any case, none of the evangelists presents this incident as a coup attempt to seize power over the religious or political establishment in Jerusalem. It is, rather, an act of symbolic ‘street theater,’ in line with precedents well established in Israel’s prophetic tradition (e.g., Jer. 27:1-22). Thus, it is an act of violence in approximately the same way that antinuclear protesters commit an act of violence when they break into a navy base and pour blood on nuclear submarines. No one is hurt or killed in Jesus’ Temple demonstration. The incident is a forceful demonstration agaisnt a prevailing system in which violence and injustice prevail, a sign that Jesus intends to bring about a new order in according with Isaiah’s vision of eschatological peace. It is difficult to see how such a story can serve as a warrant for Christians to wage war and kill.”

    Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Tetsament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), pp.334-335.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  22. I think this is right on. We shouldn’t be invading others’ territory to destroy their idols, be they Hindu murti or American flags. But we shouldn’t be tolerating such things in our “temples” or our own personal living space. We live in pluralistic communities and we don’t have a mandate from God to conquer the land and drive out the “heathen”.

    That said, how does this apply to our relationship to instruments of destruction that are say the property of the U.S. government? It must matter whether we see it as “ours” or within “our territory” or not. How do we, as Christian communities in the U.S., holding U.S. citizenship, relate to, say, army bases? As something to tolerate as part of a pluralistic society, like the Hindu Temple? It seems to me that any justifiable or obligatory destruction of instruments of war would be grounded in our identifying as part of U.S. polis, and not only of a totally separate Kingdom of God polis.

    Does that ring true?

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  23. dan wrote:

    Damn, I hate these skinny comment strings.

    Anyway, just to be clear of my intentions, I never even thought of associating idols with other religions. Rather, I was thinking of idols as those things which both represent and (more importantly) perpetuate Death and its reign in the world. My hope in this is to move us out of the realm of the symbolic, and into the realm of the historical.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink
  24. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Just another pop therapeutic-laden, self-help post as far as I could tell: violence might make you feel good if you’ve been down-trodden. As if emotional highs are good reasons for action and valuable in themselves.

    Taking drugs will also make people feel good who are oppressed. Hell, I hear crack is out of this world…I do not recommend it though.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  25. d barber wrote:

    Andy, why “pop therapeutic”? Because it connects the question of violence to the question of desire? And the equation of Adam’s account with unqualified recommendation of drug use? Come on. Unless “as far as you can tell” is not very far, your claims of pop therapy amount to not much more than namecalling and discrediting.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  26. dan wrote:

    Sorry, got cut-off there. What I mean regarding moving from the ‘symbolic’ to the ‘historical’ is moving from engaging in symbolic modes of resistance (political theatre, culture jamming, pulling down flags) and into the more historical and actual modes of resistance like overturning money tables in the temple, burning records of debt (as later Jewish revolutionaries did), destroying the idols of the village, and so on. The key thing, I think, is not getting hung up on ‘idols’ as exclusively religious and thinking more in terms of Death and that which is death-dealing.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  27. Marvin wrote:

    And I responded to both of you!

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 4:51 am | Permalink
  28. Mike Cantley wrote:

    Good word, Halden. If your game for sharing, I’ll use your “inertial Niebuhrianism” when I teach. It is a powerful current, and you name it concisely. Let’s keep our boots by the bed!
    Mike C.

    Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  29. Dan: Why does overturning money changing tables go into the historical and not the symbolic category on your analysis? I think I see why debt record burning does.

    And if you are speaking historically about the example of Gideon tearing down idols, I don’t think he understood them as “things which represent and perpetuate Death and its reign in the world”. I think he understood them as national infidelity to YHWH.

    [BTW - the "skinny comment strings" are less so when you're looking at the post page and not the main blog page, I just discovered.]

    Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  30. dan wrote:

    Hi Scott,

    (1) I think that Jesus’ action in the Temple fits the ‘historical’ category for a few reasons: (a) Jesus genuinely disrupts both the day-to-day operations of the Temple and the environment of Jerusalem more broadly (engaging in this sort of activity when Passover is nigh and revolutionary hopes were heating up was bound to make the authorities a lot more nervous than just your day-to-day symbolic resistance) so the event operates as a rupture, and creates a space that the authorities do not want to have opened; (b) as far as I can tell, material property was probably damaged in this event and money was also likely lost and/or stolen in the chaos. A think a contemporary example would be doing something like shutting down the NYSE exchange for a day… and doing so on the anniversary of 9/11.

    A further verification of Jesus’ temple action as historical is, IMO, the fact that it caused Jesus to be killed by the authorities. When the powers respond full-on to what we do, then we know that we have moved out of the realm of the symbolic and into the historical (for the powers aren’t usually too bothered by our actions when we remain in the realm of the symbolic). I know the logic on this point isn’t airtight but I think it helps show us the way.

    That said, I don’t think that there are completely rigid boundaries between ‘the historical’ and ‘the symbolic’ so I understand how this is a little more complicated than the binary I have been employing allows.

    (2) I agree that Gideon probably understood ‘the idols’ in a different way than I do (I would also add that this is probably the first time I’ve ever used Gideon as a positive example of anything!). However, I think that if we are going to use the discourse of ‘idols’ and ‘idolatry’ today — and follow the biblical trajectory on this topic — then I think we need to make sense of how that fits into our own time. This is what I am trying to do when I speak of idols in relation to Death (and I think I am being faithful to the trajectory of Scripture when I speak in this way… even if there are various understandings of idols throughout the canon [idols as other gods, idols as dead objects, idols as demons,and so on]).

    Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Wow, I’m glad I checked back in so I could read an absolutely stupid response to my post.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  32. Hill wrote:

    Dude, please adhere to the comment policy and post your replies in the proper place. It is impossible for me to subtly stoke latent flame wars if you fail to do this.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  33. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Sorry, I was referring to Andy Alexis-Baker’s response as absolutely stupid — to the point where I am almost willing to say that in over six years of blogging, it’s the very stupidest response I’ve ever gotten to anything I’ve written, ever.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  34. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Thanks for the complement.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  35. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Reread Adam’s blog post just to be sure I was not unfair. I was not. Nor was my response stupid.

    Would you take into account that oppressors feel good when they oppress? The guards at Abu Ghraib seemed to have had a jolly old time torturing people. That the prisoners in there might have gotten the same enjoyment in turning the tables says absolutely nothing about its rightness or wrongness. Feeling good when doing violence has has nothing to do with whether it is a proper action for a Christian. What *ought* could possible derive from that emotional drive, from the givenness?

    No it is not stupid to point to other things that make you feel good by way of comparison. Drugs make you feel good if you are oppressed. Does that make them any less destructive? No. Again, whether or not something feels good means absolutely nothing in terms of evaluation.

    By the way, what you said was a pale imitation of Fanon, who said similar things decades ago (hence “pop” and “therapeutic” terms in the previous post). Unfortunately, his ideas about violence being necessary for the oppressed to overcome their inferiority complexes, as a psychological and emotional path to liberation, didn’t work out so well in practice. They ended up in glorifying violence for its own sake. Arendt’s critique hits the mark I think.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  36. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    This continues to be a stupid response. I know this will only hurt my reputation as the theology blogosphere’s resident asshole, but I literally don’t know what else to say. More detailed response seems useless — if that’s what you took away from the post, why should I expect you to process what I say in comments defending myself with any degree of accuracy?

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:50 am | Permalink
  37. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    And lest Andy interpret my last line as saying that he’s personally stupid or just a bad reader, I don’t think that — I just think that it’s obvious that his dogmatic pacifism renders him unable to respond fairly to a post like mine. And I don’t think he’s unique in being a smart person with this problem. We all have mental blocks! Lord knows there are topics on which I habitually respond unfairly!

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:56 am | Permalink

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