What would you do if? Practical nonviolence, home invasion, and Hitler

Saturday, July 12, 2014

 One of the most common objections to nonviolence is the famous "what if" question:

"What if intruders broke into your house with the intent of raping your wife and killing your children?" 

The question is usually framed so that you only have two options:  You can either kill them or do nothing. If you think about it, this is not really a question at all. It is a statement of exasperation. The person who asks this is really saying "Surely there is some point where you would draw the line, isn't there? Wouldn't you at least defend your children or your wife?" It is because of this moral exasperation that this question is often quickly followed by the "what about Hitler?" question, again expressing moral exasperation, essentially saying, "Okay, but what if the person was evil incarnate like Hitler? Wouldn't it at least be justified to kill them?"

Let's consider the dynamics behind these questions and what's going on emotionally for the person asking them: The concern of the person asking these questions is the safety and well-being of themselves and their loved ones. In their mind, the only possible way to deal with such threats is either to kill or to do nothing. They think therefore that people who advocate nonviolence are advocating for tolerating abuse and violence. They think it is about not caring for your own welfare or the welfare of those you love. This drive to preserve our own life and the lives of our kids is one of the most basic and primal instincts we have. So it is understandable that the person asking such questions is feeling desperate and triggered. 

What would a nonviolent response look like?

I think where our response needs to begin is by disarming the one asking the question -- that is, it needs to begin by affirming them in this deep human need, assuring them that we also want to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The question is: What is the best way to do this?

Here I find it is helpful to compare the above what-if questions with the question of divorce. Would it be justified to get a divorce if your spouse was unfaithful? Yes, it would be justifiable. Heck, even Jesus said that, right?

But would a professional marriage counselor automatically recommend divorce? Surprisingly, no. Instead they would work with the couple, giving them the tools and skills to heal their negative interactions (including betrayal) so they can break out of the cycle of hurting and getting hurt they are both caught in. The fact is, unfaithfulness is very common in marriages, but it does not always need to end in divorce. If a couple can learn to work through the crisis, they can come out on the other end with a marriage that is even stronger than before. 

Now, this does not mean that divorce is off the table in the mind of a marriage counselor. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Their goal is to help people to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. In the same way we could also say that it would be justified to shoot an intruder. Our laws see this as an act of self-defense, as justifiable homicide. It is justifiable, but is it the best solution? Is it the best way to keep safe? Do the police recommend for example pulling a gun on burglars as the best way to keep yourself and your family safe? No, they do not. Not because they are pacifists, but simply because it is not the best way to get out of such a situation. It often makes you less safe in fact.

What they do recommend is having a plan of action.  This is very different from what I often hear my fellow pacifists recommending, which to have no plan at all and to instead hope the Holy Spirit will inspire us with some creative solution on the spot. This sounds good in theory, but the reality is, when we are in a dangerous, high-stress situation, our adrenaline rushing, our brain's limbic system in alarm mode, this is when creative thought it just about the last thing we are capable of. That's why we need a plan beforehand when we can think calmly, creatively, and prayerfully.

So consider this: Perhaps instead of asking "is it justifiable?" we should instead ask "What can we do to reduce harm and violence?" Instead of asking "is divorce justifiable?" a better question is "what can we do make marriages better?" In the same way, instead of saying "is it justifiable to shoot an intruder?" or asking the question of "just war" and when it is justifiable as a nation to retaliate, the real question we should be asking together is "how can we reduce violence in our society and in our world?"

The point is not to legalistically forbid divorce or to forbid self-defense. Rather the goal is to educate ourselves of better ways to deal with conflict, better ways to keep ourselves safe. I think we can all agree that violence is not desirable. So what we need to learn are other effective ways to deal with conflict and to reduce violence and harm.

Here we need to listen to the wisdom of people who are working in the many areas that this touches. After all, home invasion is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a multitude of issues that we need to address: international conflict, the problem of crime and our broken prison system, domestic violence, bullying in schools, date rape on campuses, and on and on.

In each of these, and many others, there are experts we can look to, people who have specialized in these areas who can offer practical ways of dealing with these many situations, working to reduce harm and keep us all safe. Just as a couple in crisis needs the help of a marriage counselor, we need to listen to the wisdom of these experts and specialists so we can move beyond what is "justifiable" and instead seek to do what is good.

In the end, this is something we all need to own and contribute to. Just as in a marriage, the couple is the one that needs to do the real work, and the therapist can only act as a guide and mediator, so too here we all need to be working to find ways to reduce violence in our world. So rather than thinking of how we can justify doing bad things (again no one wants to get a divorce or to take a life), we need to work together to find better ways to deal with the problem of violence--we need to ask how we can practically reduce violence, rather than justifying it.

Now it's your turn: So with that in mind, let me pass the conversation to you: What are some ways you have learned to  deal with issues of safety and violence? Have you had the opportunity to learn from experts in these areas through books, seminars, or other education? What are some of the skills or strategies you have learned?



At 10:45 PM, Blogger Ryan Myers said...

It seems we're operating under the assumption that Jesus' way of nonviolence was an end in itself. As if Jesus commands us to love our enemies simply because violence is bad. But that doesn't mesh with Jesus' teachings in the second half of Matthew 6. Jesus didn't tell his listeners to find alternative strategies to accumulating food and clothing. He told them to put the whole idea of daily provision into the hands of the Father.

And so it is with violence. Jesus doesn't say to turn the other cheek because we need to pursue alternatives to violence. He says to turn the other cheek because the Father will take care of us, one way or the other. Because violence is a lack of faith, a denial of the power of God. And yes, we might die, or worse. Or, we might wither fig trees and move mountains with our faith.

At 1:16 AM, Blogger Jeremiah said...

I don't think it's necessarily about the Father taking care of us, though there might be some aspect of that (you can't assume that he'll keep you from harm, for instance, because, look at Steven in Acts, or any of his disciples). I think more to the point of what Jesus was addressing when giving the list of "turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the inner garment" is 1. to non-violently but directly act to shame the oppressive, wrong acts committed against you and 2. to seek the "shalom" of the oppressor or wrong doer, seeing them ALSO as a victim. Greg Boyd and Herb Montgomery both address these issues. To love our enemy is to respond to them as though they were someone we love, realizing that they are just as much a victim to the systems of this world as their victims are.

I love this post, because it does not ridicule the questions people (including myself) have had regarding Jesus' teaching on non-violence and the implications thereof. They are questions that address the extreme incidents people can think of and, as the post says, are made to test the limits of this non-violent teaching.

This post addresses a good perspective for the personal violence someone may encounter, though not too much. However, it just touches upon the question of state-sponsored violence (war and national aggression) with the reference to what to do with a Hitler. This is not a question to dismiss (not that the post did) and not to address the question with a turning-of-the-tables by replying with a question "well, why was it that the christians that were a part of Hitler's forces decide to go along with it" because that doesn't address the reality that they DID in fact go along with it and people of all creeds historically have and likely always will in the future. So the proper question is "Ok, this situation exists, Hitler exists, and his army full of Christians exist, now what is the best response given Jesus' teachings?" That's the question I'd like to hear more about. I have my own thoughts on it, but it's something that everyone needs to come to terms with through their own journey, learning, and realization of the implications and world view based on what Jesus' taught with his words and actions. The answer cannot come from the Old Testament, it must come from Jesus.

At 1:33 AM, Blogger Jeremiah said...

Forgot to add:
On a practical level, I love that Derek addresses the "justifiability" of defensive violence while saying, though not his words, that while in a view and world outside the Kingdom, one would be justified in violently reacting to stop aggression, whether personal or national, for those in the Kingdom, we need to take the NEXT step in going beyond what is justifiable and toward what is RIGHT. Jesus didn't defeat the ruler of this world by fighting back against the systems of this world and the products and victims of it, but by lovingly restraining himself, even unto death. The cycle of violence broke (and breaks) when sacrificial love is employed. It is the ONLY weapon stronger than violence. Violence against violence does NOT produce a change of heart, changed world view, it does not plant the seed of love. The death of Jesus at the hands of the systems of the world demonstrated for us his followers the WAY to defeat violence, redeem the perpetrators of violence (whom we are to see as victims in their own right), and change the hearts of men and women. How else can you explain the incredible growth of Christianity from the birth of the church to the time before Rome co-opted it, especially when Christians were the scapegoats, being killed as often as possible? A non-violent, sacrificial, enemy-loving love is the only thing that has the power to actually DECREASE the sum total of evil and violence in this world, instead of continuing it or increasing it.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Ryan Myers said...

The reason I'm linking nonviolence to the Father's provision of our daily needs is because I think we're in danger of making nonviolence an end in itself. I don't believe the Father looked down from heaven and said, "Look at all that violence. When I send Jesus, he should tell them to stop." I believe the Father sent Jesus to condemn violence (among other things) because it separates us from him. But the way we seem to be addressing the problem of violence in this thread isn't holistic enough. Is it really any different from the way fundamentalist groups address "worldly sins?" I think any attempt to address violence without also directly addressing our relationship to the Father is ultimately fruitless. Leaving that relationship only as an implication is dangerous.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Jeremiah said...

Ryan, I see what you are saying now, and yes I agree with you. Everything needs to be from a relationship with Jesus, not as a "cause" unto itself. And that how to treat others comes that relationship as much as our food and clothes, etc.

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me begin by saying that I certainly appreciate the idea of theology rooted in relationship with God. I've written about this connection in my books and articles (one prominent example is my "An Evangelical Relational Theology" which you can find in the article links above).

However, I do want to insist that nonviolence and love of enemies is indeed an end in itself, and that Jesus wants it to be. It is an end in itself when I love my children, it is an end in itself when I care for the poor, it is an end in itself when I teach someone to read, it is an end in itself when I love my wife. All of these are ends in themselves because they are simply good in and of themselves.

They are all, in various ways, acts of love, and Jesus did come preaching the way of the kingdom which is the way of love. An integral part of that kingdom love is love of enemies. Loving people is not fruitless. Doing good is not fruitless.

In the end this comes down to discipleship, to how we live our lives out, how we love others as Jesus loved us. That is the bottom line. So what I want to ask is: How can we love better? What can we do to resolve conflict? What can we do to sew the seeds of peace? Along those lines I do want to insist that the way of enemy love does indeed provide us with real alternatives for dealing with conflict, and that as disciples of Jesus we need to know what those are so we can practice them.

This is a conversation we desperately need to have, and so what I want most of all is to find ways to let that conversation happen and not to shut it down. Unfortunately, I think many times we pacifists do end up shutting down that conversation because we want to avoid making the argument that nonviolence is effective. I for one am going to make that argument and stand by it: The way of enemy love works, and that is why we should practice it. It should be evaluated on it's own merit. This allows us to have the conversation on the world stage, regardless of whether a person shares my profession of Christ or not. I am convinced enemy love can hold it's own on that stage because truth can hold its own.

If we can agree that it would be good to work out practically how the practice of nonviolence can be applied as a means to resolving conflict, I think a good place to start is to ask: not what is justified, but what is good? And secondly I have found it helpful to begin with applying this to our own practical conflicts and struggles in our daily lives. If we do not know how to walk this out on that small stage we wont be able to on the larger stage either. For example it may be understandable for me to scream at my kids. It may be justifiable. But is it good? Is there a better way that I can deal with things? What would that looks like exactly? What happens when I ask that same question then on a larger stage with, say, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? It is of course larger and more complex, but nevertheless I do think that we need to ask how the kingdom of Jesus can apply not only in our personal lives, but also on the world stage if Jesus truly is Lord.

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