Onward, Christian Soldiers?

I was fortunate enough to engage recently with Dean Dettloff, a scholar and cohost of the Left Christian podcast The Magnificast, on the subject of violence. I had asked, somewhat rhetorically, whether or not Christians could ever justify taking up arms in support of violent revolution, and Dettloff was generous enough point me in the direction of a piece he wrote in the wake of the demonstrations in St. Louis following the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a police officer who murdered 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith. The essay sought to address those who condemn violence without seeming to understanding the context of the situation. In the piece, he writes that,

[H]ow would our criticism of violence shift if we took into account the pervasive, structural, and society-building violence of ideologies like white supremacy? Is violence only on the scene when a body meets another body or object in physical space? Or can we call a society itself violent if it habitually treats some bodies as threats simply for being bodies in physical space at all? 

I’m grateful for Dettloff for being willing to discuss this with me, because it’s part of a larger struggle I’ve been having in recent months, namely: can Christians justify violence in the face of oppression and exploitation? I think the answer is no, but that answer is not without a caveat. First, we need to define some terms.

What Is Violence?

Dettloff could not be more right when he says that

The violence [political philosopher Richard Gilman-Opalsky] refers to is the social, material, and political exclusion of people of color that white people benefit from each day. In condemning violence in the streets, critics of riots and protests often sidestep the hard work of understanding why people need to be in the streets in the first place, which in turn prevents them from working to dismantle the conditions that create that need.

Dettloff is, here, echoing David Ansell, who writes that (emphasis added):

There are many different kinds of violence…the dadliest and most thoroughgoing kind of violence is woven into the fabric of American society. It exists when some groups have more acces to goods, resources, and opportunities than other groups, including health and life itself…this type of violence is called structural violence. [1]

Going forward, I will attempt to differentiate between what Ansell calls structural violence (“the cumulative impact of laws and social and economic policies and practices that render some Americans less able to access resources and opportunities than others” [2]) and what I might suggest should be called actualized violence (the actions and words, directed at people or property, that are intended to inflict harm, whether temporary or permanently). I hope I can be extended the courtesy of these (probably arbitrary) definitions.

With our terms (maybe) better understood, I’d like to address the Problem.

The Practical Problem

Dettloff identifies the frustrations and the conventional wisdoms that reside in the interactions between the oppressor and the oppressed, saying that “the onus is on the protesters to keep calm, and while the rage that erupts is understandable, that rage needs to be reined in. Violence begets violence, not change.” But, as he sees it, the lived reality of structural violence means that the actualized violence of the demonstrators should not be the focus of criticism, saying that:

When we expand these questions, condemnations of violence during protests or riots start to appear lopsided. Compared with the daily violence of white supremacy, where nearly every ticket, traffic stop, citation, jaywalking offense, and arrest involves a black citizen in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, throwing a non-lethal bottle at a police officer in riot gear seems quite reasonable, maybe even painfully restrained. That Archbishop Carlson did not see the need to immediately condemn, for example, the racist conditions that caused the outburst following Stockley’s acquittal, nor the excessive use of force on the part of the SLPD who chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they went on an arresting spree, suggests a certain uniquely problematic kind of violence on the part of those fed up with the daily violence they encounter and, generally, put up with.

He then asks the reader to recognize that people like me–who criticise actualized violence without being exposed to structural violence–are participating in and perpetuating structural violence. He quotes Gilman-Opalsky, who writes that:

Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a ‘violence’ that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt.

I don’t disagree with this. What I do disagree with, and what I am afraid Dettloff failed to address in his excellent piece, is the simple fact that, as a problem-solving technique, violence (whether structural or actualized) is rarely the best long-term option.

I am by no means the first person to make this point. Chalmers Johnson introduced me to the notion that violence might, in fact, be the root of an eternal cycle of conflict with the term “blowback,” a “metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.” Johnson was referring to the specific phenomenon in which American covert activity overseas lead to retaliatory strikes on American citizens (in the wy that 9/11 was a response to decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East), which, since the American citizens were unaware of the actions that had prompted the retaliation in the first place, seemed unprompted and spontaneous. Thus, American citizens demand a military response, which causes more violence, which causes more retaliation, which perpetuates the cycle.

More broadly, violence provokes violence in other levels. In the case of the demonstrations in St. Louis (or Ferguson, or Baltimore, or on and on and on), we see clearly that structural violence provokes actualized violence from the oppressed and exploited people who have been suffering under the unequal and unjust arrangements. Dettloff quotes Dr. King, who observed that think “riots do not develop out of thin air…a riot is the language of the unheard.”

So structural violence creates the conditions that make actualized violence inevitable. But, and I think this is the crucial point, actualized violnce creates the conditions for more structural violence.

When demonstrators and protestors break windows, burn trashcans, flip over cars, and throw bottles, they encourage a disproportionate response from those in power. Actualized violence causes the same kind of blowback that covert military action does; when (usually brown, usually poor) people threaten the perceived safety and stability of a (usually white, usually wealthy) community, the citizens of that neighborhood demand a crackdown. The state responds with a more brutally overwhelming structural regime, which encourages the oppressed to respond with more actualized violence. Nothing changes until the actualized violence is so extreme, it becomes an attempt to fight the oppressive state on its own terms.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that there is no violent revolution that has a chance of success in America. Even if a group could organize on the premise of armed insurrection, their communications would be intercepted by the partnership of the surveillance state and Big Data. Even if they could find a way to obtain the materiel and training necessary to actually be an effective fighting force, the financial resources required would be prohibitive. Finally, any attempt to fight the militarized police on their own terms would be a bloodbath. 

We’ve seen what kind of carnage motivated psychopaths can inflict with civilian-legal weaponry. A truck or a “modern sporting rifle” from any sporting-goods store can cause staggering amounts of destruction against soft targets like concertgoers. But it’s nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the armored vehicles available to the police that confronted protestors in Ferguson. It’s nothing compared to a thermal-equipped drone’s Hellfire missiles.

In the simplest terms: armed revolution is guaranteed to end in a mass slaughter.

Obviously, armed revolution is a few degrees removed from throwing a bottle. But I think the point stands: violence is impractical BECAUSE it will only lead to more suffering; the people who are most likely to suffer are the people who are already suffering; therefore, violence is not an acceptable method of political change.

The Christian Approach

Dettloff comes at this issue as a Christian, so I’d like to try and address this from that point of view as well. Christianity, for the entirety of its existence, has been (in rhetoric if not in practice–oh, hello Crusades!) a faith of radical pacifiscm. Jesus of Nazareth famously said that His followers had “heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” [3] He told them, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [4] It seems self-evident that a Christian would by necessity reject actualized violence, even as a response to structural violence.

But the teachings of Jesus are 2,000 years old. He did not speak about Stingray scanning devices and PMCs stalking the Standing Rock protestors. The times have changed. Should His lessons?

No. Jesus of Nazareth was a revolutionary preacher in an occupied territory; he would immediately recognize the plight of African-Americans in mid-century Birmingham or Palestinians in Gaza today. I don’t think it’s fair to say (and I don’t think Dettloff says this) that Jesus would have different advice for his followers if He were alive today; the oppression of the Jews under the Roman Empire is functionally the same as the oppression of the poor and marginalized people of modern America. [5]

Could it be that Jesus’ famed pacifism was not the result of a religious ideology, but rather the recognition of the facts on the ground, which were that any attempt by the oppressed to fight their oppressors on their own terms was doomed to failure? We know that Jesus’ teachings were not passive; not in the language he used to address the Pharisees or in the fury with which he drove out the money lenders in the Temple. I believe that Jesus recognized an important point: a violent revolution was not just spiritually incompatible with His vision of a communitarian, egalitarian society, but was also an obstacle to its realization.

In the Garden of Gethsemene, he admonishes one of his disciples that the man who lives by the sword will die by the sword. I believe that Jesus’ advice was practical, not theoretical; if the Jews took up arms against the Romans, they would die. This propositon was proven true after the First Jewish-Roman War, which resulted in countless deaths and the destruction of the Temple.

The Caveat

There are, as I see it, two reasons that everything I just wrote should be completely discarded–I’m talking “yes, but”s on a geological scale. The first is the simple fact that an oppressive state, one that was preoccupied with holding on to power at all costs, would not require violence to restrict civil liberties. An unjust state that prioritized power, as all States do, would use any excuse (or no excuse at all) to ratchet down freedoms and press its boots a little harder against the necks of the oppressed. Structural violence may be a precondition for actualized violence, but actualized violence is NOT a precondition for structural violence. Given this, the argument I made regarding the predictable response to violent demonstrations seems far weaker.

The second caveat is something I have tried, in recent days, to be more sensitive to. As a straight white dude with a mortgage and good credit score, it is far less likely that I will be a victim of any violence, whether structural or actualized, than a more marginalized individual in this country. Examples

What this means is that I am not likely to face the consequences of these recommendations. If I admonish demonstrators to meet the police, not with bottles and bricks, but with passive nonviolence, I will not be the one who feels the boots and batons. And on the other hand, if there is any possibility that I am wrong, and that actualized violence might lead to improved living conditions, then by advocating against it, I am, in effect, advocating for the structural violence to continue. Finally, the fact that I am not the victim of structural violence means that I have no moral authority to instruct those who live in a different reality to behave differently.

My convictions are my own, for good or ill. We all come to these questions from different angles, and I can only come to them from mine.

[1] Ansell, David. The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, 2017. Pages 7-8.

[2] Ibid., page 8.

See, for example, Mark 13:9-13.


[2] Matthew 5:38-40, NRSV.

[3] Matthew 5:43-4, NRSV.

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for engaging with the piece! Here are some thoughts in reply that I hope are of interest.

    I basically have two main points. First, I was happy to extend the courtesy of your definition of violence for the duration of the post, but I can’t say I’m convinced that the distinction between “structural” and “actualized” violence holds up. In your definition of actualized violence, structural violence seems to curiously fit the criteria. Capitalism, white supremacy, and other oppressive structures definitely fit the bill for “actions and words, directed at people or property, that are intended to inflict harm, whether temporary or permanently.” White supremacy, for example, is a discursive phenomenon that names some people as objects of harm and inferiority (it also has named them as property), and it aims, through direct actions and words, to keep things that way. So I’m still unsatisfied with respect to a categorically “bad violence” here, though I do appreciate that we agree that violence needs more, not less, qualifications when it comes to talking it through.

    This is why I prefer to talk about strategy rather than violence, which is the second point (and one that I didn’t articulate in the Ground Motive piece). The point isn’t whether violence, but which violence and when. Isn’t there something profoundly violent about Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus? Can’t we see Jesus’s denouncement of his opponents as whitewashed tombs as a violent moment? Aren’t some forms of structural violence good, like enforcing laws that oppose hate crimes or regulating industries? Isn’t the violence of a victim against an abuser an acceptable form of interpersonal violence (or what you’re getting at when you talk about “actualized” violence)? Was it okay for the Cantonsville Nine to steal and burn Viet Nam draft documents, the property of the US government? It seems to me these questions reveal something more complicated than blanket denouncements of “violence” are capable of talking about.

    Saying violence is complicated and that there are reasons not to jump to criticizing certain manifestations of it is not a license for any and all violence against an oppressive situation. It only means that when someone says “violence” is bad, we should ask what they’re really saying, and whether that’s obscuring other interests (it certainly does in cases like St. Louis this summer). In terms of a prescriptive relationship to violence, it’s better to ask what kind of violence is wise or strategically useful at this or that point–and to be willing to assume this is a difficult question without an a priori answer.

    Moreover, it is simply not the case that violence only leads to more violence, or that structural violence is impervious to smaller flares of violence as resistance. There are a lot of historical examples, though your point is well-taken about today’s technological state. Still, I doubt the Department of Justice would have investigated the Ferguson Police Department without the Ferguson Revolt–hardly a massive change, but also not nothing. There’s also a much more complicated relationship between nonviolent movements and the threat of concurrent violent movements, especially in the cases of figures like Gandhi and MLK. You seem to note this in part in your first caveat, so maybe I’m just leaning into that a little.

    Lastly, as it relates to Christianity, pacifism is by no means a majority opinion within the Christian tradition. Christians were violent long before and after the Crusades, and still are today, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In some parts of the world, Christians have participated in successful violent revolutions (America being one obvious case, places like Nicaragua being more important and just cases). It’s also not clear that Jesus was a pacifist, and still less clear what Jesus would think about opposing a political economy that is as globally entrenched and as ruthlessly destructive as capitalism; here I disagree with you suggestion that first century Jews were in the same boat as 21st century peasants or workers. At least, it’s no more obvious that Jesus was a pacifist than Colombian priest Camillo Torres’ suggestion that if Jesus were alive today he would be a guerrilla. I suppose all I mean to say is that the question of violence for Christians can’t be solved, I don’t think, by extrapolating from Jesus’s ministry. I’m also very influenced by Herbert McCabe’s essay “The Class Struggle and Christian Love” on the issue of Christians and revolutionary violence, if you’re looking for more thoughtful treatments than a blog comment.

    Well, that’s a long-winded reply and I apologize for taking so much time! But I thought your welcome engagement deserved a response. Great to keep thinking with you!

    Liked by 1 person

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