Friday, January 13, 2012

The Law of Violence

I just finished the classic ethical book by French theologian Jacques Ellul, Violence. It was a powerful read, to say the least. I really appreciated his honest approach of acknowledging that the world will use violence, Christians will succumb to the temptation but in order to stay faithful to the message of Jesus, Christians must refuse to use violence.

Here is Ellul's realistic approach to the violence that exists in our world.

The Law of Violence
I am not saying that violence is an expression of human nature. I am saying, for one thing, that violence is the general rule for the existence of societies – including the societies that call themselves civilized but have only camouflaged violence by explaining and justifying it and putting a good face on it.
All of this amounts to an acknowledgment of violence as necessity. And indeed violence is not only the means the poor use to claim their rights; it is also the sole means available to those in places of power. Jesus Christ told us what the order of this world is like: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them’ (Matthew 20:25). And Jesus did not protest against this situation. Let us be clear about this: the text from Matthew refers not only to the chiefs of a legally established government or the controllers of wealth but to all who come into positions of leadership. And there is no way for them to keep their power except by violence. All of them are subject to the same necessity: to tyrannize over and use others; that is, they are subject to the order of violence, which is a necessity. But ‘necessity’ means ‘law.’ There is a law of violence.

1) The first law of violence is continuity. Once you start using violence, you cannot get away from it. Violence expresses the habit of simplification of situations; political, social, or human. And a habit cannot quickly be broken. Once a man has begun to use violence he will never stop using it, for it is so much easier and more practical than any other method. It simplifies relations with the other completely by denying that the other exists.

2) The second law of violence is reciprocity. It is stated in Jesus’ famous word, ‘ALL who take the sword will perish by the sword’ (Matthew 26:52). Let me stress two points in connection with this passage. There is the insistence on ‘all.’ There is no distinction between a good and a bad use of the sword. The sheer fact of using the sword entails this result. The law of the sword is a total law. Then, Jesus is in no sense making a moral valuation or announcing a divine intervention or a coming judgment; he simply describes the reality of what is happening. He states one of the laws of violence. Violence creates violence, begets and procreates violence.
The man who in whatever way uses violence should realize that he is entering in to a reciprocal kind of relation capable of being renewed indefinitely.

3) The third law of violence is sameness. Here I shall only say that it is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence, between violence that liberates and violence that enslaves. The psychological violence all countries employ is absolutely the worst of violence, because it lays hold of the whole man, and, without his knowing it, gelds him.
When a nation – as all European nations do – trains its young men in the most extreme kinds of violence in order to prepare them for battle (parachutists, etc.), the result is bound to be that the whole nation imitates this violence.

4) Violence begets violence – nothing else. This is the fourth law of violence. Violence is par excellence the method of falsehood. ‘We have in view admirable ends and objectives. Unfortunately, to attain them we have to use a bit of violence. But once we are the government, you will see how society develops, how the living standard rises and cultural values improve. If we revolutionaries are only allowed to use a little violence (you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs), you’ll see the reign of justice, liberty, and equality.’ That kind of thing is repeated again and again, and it sounds logical enough. But it is a lie. I am not making a moral judgment here, but a factual experimental judgment based on experience. Whenever a violent movement has seized power, it has made violence the law of power. The only thing that has changed is the person who exercises violence. No government established by violence has given the people either liberty or justice – only a show of liberty (for those who supported the government) and a show of justice (which consists in plundering the erstwhile ‘haves’).

Violence can never realize a nobale aim, can never create liberty or justice. I repeat once more that the end does not justify the means, that, on the contrary, evil means corrupt good ends. But I repeat also: ‘Let the man who wants to use violence, do so; let the man who thinks there is no other way, use it; but let him know what he is doing.’ That is all the Christian can ask of this man – that he be aware that violence will never establish a just society…. ‘Violence never attains the objectives it sets up.’

5) Finally, the fifth law of violence is this: the man who uses violence always tries to justify both it and himself. Violence is so unappealing that every user of it has produced lengthy apologies to demonstrate to the people that it is just and morally warranted. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Nasser, the guerillas, the French ‘paras’ of the Algerian war – all tried to vindicate themselves. The plain fact is that violence is never ‘pure.’ Always violence and hatred go together. I spoke above of the rather useless piece of advice once given Christians: that they should make war without hatred. Today it is utterly clear that violence is an expression of hatred, has its source in hatred and signifies hatred. It is absolutely essential for us to realize that there is an unbreakable link between violence and hatred.
The head of the government can keep on declaring his good will, his objectivity, his freedom from hate, for he is not directly engaged in the military action. He can keep on pretending to pray and professing to love humanity. He can praise nonviolence, as President Johnson did when Martin Luther King was assassinated. But all that is fa├žade. A ruler has to save face and show that he is a well-disposed man; he has to justify himself! But this means becoming part of the system characteristic of violence, which tries to justify itself.

These are the laws of violence, unchanging and inescapable. We must understand them clearly if we are to know what we are doing when we damn violence.

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