Nearly a century ago the world experienced “the war to end war.” Wars have not ended because the assumption underlying this statement remains unquestioned: violence can rid the world of violence. The most recent evidence of this prevailing ideology is the decision to use violence to stop Gaddafi’s use of violence against Libyan protestors.
Gaddafi’s violence against civilians protesting peacefully rightfully caused moral outrage in world leaders who placed sanctions on the Libyan government. Unsatisfied with the results of diplomacy, the United States, France and Britain initiated a military strike a few days later.
These events recall Soren Kierkegaard’s description of a street fight in which three men were beating up a fourth man. After a few moments, three men from the crowd became morally enraged to the point that they decided to avenge the man being beaten. They grabbed one of the assailants and beat him in the same way he had been beating the initial victim.
Kierkegaard’s thoughts are insightful. “The avengers had…applied precisely the same rules as the offenders…I went up to one of the avengers and tried by argument to explain to him how illogical his behavior was; but it seemed quite impossible for him to discuss the question: he could only repeat that such a rascal richly deserved to have three people against him” (The Present Age).
There is an obvious parallel between what Kierkegaard observed and what happens when nations go to war proclaiming their violence is a “righteous” defense of those suffering “unrighteous” violence. Yet to point out that there is no difference between the violence is to be met with blank stares. Kierkegaard was unable to convince “the avengers” that their actions were no different than the assailants, and advocates of peace are unable to convince their leaders of this today. There remains a sharp division in avengers’ minds between their “righteous” violence and the assailants’ “unrighteous” violence even though the exact same tactics are used.
This raises several questions: Is it possible to distinguish between “righteous” and “unrighteous” violence? Is it possible to use violence to overcome violence without creating more violence?
There’s a series of films from the late 80s and early 90s that explored these questions. The first movie is about a criminal who takes people hostage while trying to steal a large amount of money. The conflict ends when a police officer kills the villain by using the same tactics as the villain, suggesting that “righteous” and “unrighteous” violence are indistinguishable. For a moment “all is calm and all is bright,” until more villains show up in subsequent films; and in the final film the newest villain is the brother of the villain from the first film who is seeking vengeance on the man that killed his brother. In short, even the Die Hard trilogy that promotes the use of violence to defeat and discourage violence cannot fully conceal the failure of violence to bring lasting peace, and leaves the viewer longing for another way to address injustice and evil in our world.
In Matthew 5.38-41, Jesus offers a way of resistance that requires the renunciation of violence. “You have heard it said, if someone harms you, harm them; if someone strikes you, strike them. If someone takes advantage of you, take advantage of them—that’s the only way to survive in this world, after all, so the sooner you join in the better off you’ll be. But I say to you, do not respond in kind, do not respond to violence with violence; instead, respond in love” (my interpretation).
Jesus offers us a way out of the cycle of ever-increasing violence by resisting evil without violence and leaving open the possibility of reconciliation. This raises another question: If Jesus taught and lived an ethic of non-violent resistance, why do so many Christians either remain silent when nations go to war or defend the use of violence by calling it “righteous”?
Non-violence on a personal level is well and good, but when it comes to conflict and war between nations, to suggest that Jesus’ ethic of transformation through non-violence is applicable is met with a roll of the eyes at best. It seems that some find Jesus foolish and idealistic in suggesting that love is more powerful and effective than violence. It seems that some would rather have a Jesus who teaches us how to get to heaven “in the sweet by and by,” rather than a Jesus who teaches us how to pray and to work to bring heaven to earth.
It’s never popular to speak out against violence when it’s veiled in the garb of nationalism or any other version of “righteous” violence. Yet, I believe we must do so if we wish to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and Gaddafi’s belligerent response to the West’s military campaign suggests the need to find another way. Asserting that non-violent, self-giving love can confront and bring an end to violence in Libya will indeed be perceived as foolish, but let us have faith that this path of peace is actually the wisdom and the power of God.