A Harm Reduction Approach for America’s Addiction to Violence

Saturday, January 31, 2015

One of the most important projects to me is articulating a practical vision for enemy love. My assumption in doing this is that this needs to be something that can be understood by any thinking and reflective person, based on its merit. That means it needs to address the legitimate concerns that people (including myself) have for the safety of themselves and those they love in a violent world.

It is not about what we don't do (which is why I tend not to use the term "nonviolence" since the term describes a "non" action, rather than describing what we should do instead). It is not about a prohibition where we are not allowed to use violence, but about finding better and more effective ways to solve our problems without violence. I realize that in having this focus I disagree with many of my fellow Christian pacifists who instead stress that we need to renounce violence as Christians regardless of whether or not we can articulate how the way of Jesus actually addresses the problems of violence in our lives and world. I very much think we absolutely do need to address these things, and want to do my part to help articulate what that might look like.

Usually the place where people start when contemplating nonviolence is with the most extreme of cases, questions like "What would you do if Hitler was invading your home?" or "Are you saying we should abolish the military completely?"

What we need to realize is that behind such extreme questions (often presented more as an accusation than an actual question) is a good and very basic human desire to care for the safety of ourselves and those we love in the midst of a violent world. Because this is such a primal human drive (the drive of self-preservation) people often can become quite reactive and triggered, and it's important to realize this in our conversations. Fear is often behind anger, and it's a legitimate fear. I also want to keep my family safe. I think we all do.

The question is, what is the best way to do that?

Let's begin with a reality check: You and I have no power to abolish the military, even if we wanted to. Let's take that up a notch, if President Obama, the most powerful man in the free world, the President of the United States, decided that he wanted to abolish the military, he couldn't either. No President could. That's the reality we need to begin with, and so while abolishing the need for a military might be something we can hope to get to 50 or 100 years from now, if we want to move in that direction, we need to begin by taking a few steps beginning where we are now, and that is as a country completely addicted to and in love with the myth of redemptive violence.

When dealing with addicts, there is a concept known as harm reduction. The idea is that when an addict is not ready to recognize and fight their addiction, the best approach is to reduce harm in their lives as much as possible. This might include things such as providing heroin addicts with clean syringes, etc.

America is similarly addicted to violence. Our media helps us rehearse the popularly held belief that it is the solution to our problems, it's how we fight "bad guys" and what keeps us safe. In violence we trust. Many people cannot imagine any other way. Violence is to them not a last resort, but the only resort, the only solution they know. Either you respond with violence, or you do nothing. That’s the binary they think in.

We live in a country that can't even pass the most reasonable of gun control laws, even in the wake of one mass shooting after another. We live in a country that employs cops who have been assessed by their own police force as psychologically unstable and unfit for duty. When those same cops then go on to kill unarmed civilians at an alarming rate, rather than addressing this problem on a systemic level as needed, the police seek to justify this, villainize anyone who speaks out, and brush the problem under the rug (if that's news to you, Rachel Aviv has an in-depth report you should read).

The sad and sobering reality is we as a country are addicted to violence in a way that surpasses and shocks every other Western country, and like a typical drug addict, one of the characteristics of our addiction to violence is that we are in massive denial about what is so painfully and shockingly obvious to everyone else around us.

One reason I like the idea of "harm reduction" in regards to violence is that it takes the focus away from "just war" arguments that seek to determine when violence is "justified," and instead focuses on asking how we can find ways to reduce violence (including our own).

So what would harm reduction look like when applied to America's addiction to violence, and in particular applied to international conflict? Let me propose the following, and to keep things interesting, let's take the example of ISIS:

One approach is for Christians to refuse to participate in the military. This is a personal choice that we each must make for ourselves as moral adults. I can respect people who make that choice. I made that choice. But it still leaves open the question of how the Kingdom politics of Jesus would be applied here. Is it enough to simply ostracize ourselves from participating in the military without offering any vision of how to address such conflicts in a way that reflects the way of Jesus?

I think we need to do more. A major problem with how the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have played out is that Americans have, for the most part, been able to distance themselves from the war. It was something that someone else's kids were involved in, over there. When kids come back, we often don't talk about it, yet all too often they come back with permanent wounds, both physical and mental.

So even if I have chosen to be a conscientious objector, I do not want to disassociate myself from those who have been hurt by war. Nor do I want to pretend that excluding myself from participation solves the problem. There is very real evil in the world, and we do need to do something about it. So it's not enough to simply say what we won’t do. We need to articulate what we will do to work towards peace and safety.

So let me propose something that a younger version of myself probably would not have liked. We keep the option of the military on the table, but we also seek other solutions at the same time. Looking at ISIS, as I have outlined previously, we can see rather clearly that a military solution alone will not solve the problem. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. So beyond a solely military response, we also need to do things such as (1) working towards social and economic development, (2) supporting nonviolent civil society resistance movements, (3) ending arms sales to militants and terrorists, (4) employing conflict resolution strategies, and so on. All in all, the point is to work towards long-term solutions that seek to address the deeper issues that lead towards violence.

A corollary problem is that we are so enamored with our military “solution” that our police have become militarized, and are increasingly treating citizens like enemy combatants in an occupation. Now instead of the “enemy” being someone overseas, the “enemy” is us at home if you happen to be a minority, poor, or mentally ill. Here the solutions are clear. (1) Police who have been assessed as dangerous and psychologically unstable should not be on the force, (2) misconduct should have real consequences, and (3) police should be trained how to deescalate volatile situations without immediately resorting to strong-arm tactics and violence – especially when dealing with the mentally ill. To do so would be safer both for police and for those they are sworn to “serve and protect.” The problem is that the corruption apparently runs so deep within some police department cultures that internal affairs, grand juries, and even the DOJ is running into a wall trying to fix it.

Let me stress again that I am not proposing ruling out military action, nor am I proposing disarming the police for that matter. I am however proposing that there are lots of alternatives to gunning down unarmed children with toy guns on a playground or choking people to death. I am saying that there are a host of major problems that military action alone simply cannot address and often makes worse, and finally I am saying that we need to work towards providing means to solve problems without the use of violence – both at home and abroad.

This is, I think, an immensely practical and reasonable proposal. The reason my younger self would not have liked it is because it is a "compromise" to my youthful ideals. I still like that idealistic teen I used to be. He was consequent and committed. But it’s one thing as a teen to make a personal moral choice to wait til marriage to have sex, and quite another to expect all teens to do that. Similarly, I don't think we can expect America to “practice abstinence” when it comes to its deep-seated faith in violence. What I learned as I grew older was that the questions became less “what should be the ideal?” and more “how do you lovingly address people who have fallen short of the ideal?” Harm reduction is about realistically meeting people where they are at, in their brokenness, in their mess. It prioritizes people over ideals. It does not begin with what “should be” but instead seeks to help people where they are at, even if that is imperfect, even if we need to “get dirty” to do so.

So I want to start with practical steps, thinking in terms of harm reduction. I want to start with where we are at, and seek to move forward from there. That entails becoming familiar with the idea that there are ways to effectively address real problems that do not involve killing anyone, and seeking to find practical ways to reduce violence in our world.

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At 5:05 AM, Blogger Chris Hipsher said...

Also, the more you know about the "enemy" hopefully the harder to kill. We need to reach out and learn about cultures, families, ethnicities...we're more alike than maybe realized.

At 6:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, love your stuff.
What does a miraculous solution look like? Jesus fed thousands with a kid's lunch, calmed storms, told the evil (demons) to leave. Heidi Baker introduces at least a million people to Jesus and sees nearly every deaf ear opened. David Hogan brings Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to Mexico and sees over 500 raised from the dead. For something like ISIS, what does that look like? Fun question, right? Yay God!

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

well it certainly is true that caring for the needs of the masses (what I describe above as social and economic development) would go a long way towards stabilizing a region and reducing the conditions that breed crime and terrorism

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Exactly. People's attitudes and prejudices (including those of police and soldiers as well as ours) are changed, not by statistics and studies, but by personal relationships. When you get to know a person, they stop being "them."

Getting to practical application, police have found that when officers actually know the people in the neighborhoods they patrol, establishing relationships with and working together with them. This is known as "community policing" and is much more effective than traditional policing.

Similarly, when guards have respectful relationships with inmates, prison becomes a much safer place for both of them.

The reverse of this is also true: it is much easier to kill someone when they are just a fuzzy blip on a screen of the drone you are using to bomb some building or a target at the end of a sniper scope. Humans have a natural aversion to killing, and so when face to face, the military found that most soldiers will not kill. So they need to work to desensitize soldiers, so see the "enemy" as inhuman, as a target in a game. This is done by a process that really only can be described as brain washing. Soldiers thus are re-conditioned by army training to lose their natural human resistance to kill, severing that part of their humanity and making them into "killing machines." In my mind that is a very abusive thing to do to a human. Kids often come back from combat as shells of who they formally were.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I really like what you are saying Derek and. I was very involved with babysitting nuclear weapons during the cold war. You talk of phasing out the millitary in 50 to 100 years. Is that likely unless we are talking about Christianised government? Christendom in UK and in USA does not have a good record and just last week Jay Pathak said to a Vineyard conference that it is something we shouldnt be chasing, but rather to be subversive in our society and governments. What do you think?

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I can't even get good, smart people to open up to your lucid suggestions about harm reduction, never mind ending the military industrial complex. But they're all in the 40-80 year old range seeing the Bible through the lenses they were given, frightened by the very idea of looking through a new lense. God bless the imaginations of the coming generations.

At 6:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Don't take my statement of "Phasing out the military" as a prediction or plan, so much as it is simply reflective of a wish or hope that we are currently so far away from that it seems almost inconceivable. So we need to start where we are at now and move forward from here.

I also think it would be really important to define what is meant by the idea of a "Christianized government." If one means that everyone should be a Christian then, looking at history, we can see that this led to lots of horrible violence. The reason we have the first amendment rights in the USA is a reaction against this history of violence.

On the other hand if one means taking the ideas Jesus had and applying them to our lives, both individually and as a society, then I think that would be great. For example I think it would be good for everyone to learn to see others with empathy, and it would be good to do so regardless of what religion one professes (or does not profess). In other words, the ideas need to stand on their own merit on the world stage. I want to articulate the politics of Jesus in a way that can stand on it's own merit, in a way that can be recognized and demonstrated as true and good.

I discuss this in my book, drawing on the idea that Jesus taught us to "look at the fruits" evaluating the real-life effects in people's lives.

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

haha I'm in that geezer age range too I'm afraid. Some of us old dogs can learn new tricks.

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Indeed! Thankfully, cause l didn't see it till l was in my fifties.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes Derek thats a good point that it makes sense whether you are Christian or not. Talking of age, I only came to this thinking in the last year and I am 51. I think there are a lot of people who get a bit reflective as they get a bit older and it gets easier to consider these things. at 25 I was many miles away from this type of thinking and I was missing what Jesus was saying about non violence. It seems obvious to me when you say it now!

At 7:18 AM, Blogger gingoro said...


He makes some of the same disparaging points you do about viewing things from a legal/forensic point of view. But even though I have almost finished reading both your books I am not convinced that the legal framework should be totally dispensed with as I see it as a both/and situation not either/or.

By the way it would be nice if you added Disqus to your site as it means that one can get notifications via email when someone replies to a comment without having to check back and tends to enable conversations and not monologs.
"Adding Disqus to your site turns comments into a community. Comments are no longer a costly burden, they’re an active asset to your site."
And yes it works with Blogger which is what I think you are using.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

When you comment there is a "notify me" checkbox on the bottom right that will send you an email notification.

I don't think we should dispense with the law, I am saying that law is a lower level of moral development and that we need to move towards a higher level based on love. It's what I think Jesus means when he says our "righteousness should surpass that of the Pharisees."

At 8:20 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

I read you in effect saying to totally get rid of the penal-substitution view of the atonement and (as I understand) you tend to denigrate the OT which to me sounds like dispensing with the law. I can't tell which parts of the OT you think are sound and which are kpotentially uninspired midrash and can therefore be ignored or questioned. For a long time I have held to the actual language used by the gospel writers or by Paul to a much greater extent than the systematizing done by theologians and preachers especially for the atonement.

The notify button does not seem to work under Firefox 35.0.01. The button does not indicate that it is checked. Disqus also gives one finer options but I can live with Notify under the Chrome browser. Thanks

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, I do think penal substitution is wrong in every way: unbiblical, immoral, illogical, harmful. I attempt in Healing the Gospel to outline what I see as a biblical and healthy understanding of the cross.

As to the OT, have you read my second book Disarming Scripture? I think that would address your question.


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