This fall I’ve been reading The Rebirthing of God by John Phillip Newell with a church small group. The chapter we read most recently is one where Newell argues for a reclaiming of non-violence as central to Christian faith. Here’s the problem: I don’t agree with an absolute proscription on violence. I’ll explain why below.
First, let me make clear that my objection is to an absolute proscription on violence–I do endorse wholeheartedly violence only as a last resort. Let’s look at a case study to see why an absolute proscription is objectionable.
Consider this scenario: you’re walking home at night when suddenly you hear someone screaming for help. You investigate, of course, and see a person clearly assaulting another. What do you do in this situation?
I’m going to guess most people would answer: either a) intervene or b) call the cops. Here’s the rub: there is NO difference between those two if you subscribe to an absolute proscription on violence from the Christian perspective. The God of Christianity is very demanding when it comes to moral responsibility–you don’t get to call the cops, whose effectiveness stems from the authorized and legal use of violence, and say you practiced non-violence. And if you think you can intervene without practicing violence, while it is certainly worth the attempt, if you really want to help the person being assaulted you must be prepared to use violence rather than be taken out of the fight and unable to help them any longer. If, on the other hand, your answer was that you’d leave the situation be I’d have to ask whether you think that is morally better than intervening with violence to end violence.
Hopefully you get the point: it’s all well and good to say that we won’t practice violence, but the practical reality is that sometimes it is the only thing we can do morally. It is also worth nothing that most Western liberal democracies are as peaceful as they are because they have effective and reasonably honest police forces. As I mentioned above, it is is hypocritical and not at all honest to condemn violence on one hand, while relying on police forces to keep the peace with the other.
Now, what is certain is that we should be wary of using violence first, thinking with the gun or the sword. We should be conscience of our tendency towards violence, and do our best to use it only as a last resort. We should work in dynamic and creative ways to solve as many problems as possible without violence. Yet we should also acknowledge that sometimes violence is necessary.
Here, I turn to my Tai Chi practice. Tai Chi has taught me valuable skills for self-defense and for the defense of others. Yet Tai Chi also stresses, borrowing from the Taoist philosophy, a sorrow when using violence. Tai Chi also trains to act on feeling and intuition, rather than thought, because if you think you move too slow and end up dead. It is, in fact, very like the Jedi of Star Wars.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis ridicules the idea of fighting only with sorrow, because he found immense brotherhood fighting in World War I. I disagree with Lewis: in keeping with violence only as a last resort, we should be sorrowful when it proves necessary to use it–otherwise we run the risk of finding violence addictive and glorifying it as a result.
Finally, I will say that in my own experience, my Tai Chi training has given me a confidence I didn’t have before–that I CAN protect myself and others if I need to. Paradoxically, that very confidence and knowledge makes me determined to find other ways to resolve situations and rely on violence only as a last resort.