Reflections on coercion, force and violence
Did Jesus practice violence? The fact that some people think he did illustrates our difficulties in defining and visualizing violence. It may be a case like the Supreme Court Justice who famously said about pornography: It is difficult to define but “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, we do not all see the same thing.
One problem is that we do not have a set of words we all understand in the same way to discuss violence. For example, in a Feb. 20, 2007, editorial, Everett Thomas distinguished between violence and force. He suggested that “force” could be used for positive applications of strength and energy, as when a parent resists a willful child or insists it is bedtime, whereas “violence” referred to use of force with intent to “injure or abuse.” I agree with the distinction.
But what if I call the positive acts coercion or compulsion instead of force? Is coercion or compulsion different from force or violence?
A second problem concerns the image in our minds of how these kinds of coercion or force or violence relate to each other. In the church of my boyhood, violence was understood as any act that opposed another person’s will. By that definition, the examples of positive force Thomas suggested would be instances of violence, and so would some actions of Jesus—an idea that never occurred to us. However, I have changed my mind and now agree with making the kind of distinction that Thomas suggested.
But does now seeing force or coercion as acceptable indicate a loosening of our peace church commitment? Does Thomas’ distinction between force and violence start us down a slippery slope toward the acceptance of violence? I think not.
Consider these activities:
- Passive nonresistance that does not assert itself against another.
- Giving an aggressive child a five-minute “time out.”
- Banning the aggressive child from going on play dates with friends for a week.
- Writing a polite letter to the White House to witness against the war in Iraq.
- Using sarcasm in a letter-to-the-editor to depict the hypocrisy of a public figure.
- Engaging in a public protest against the war in Iraq.
- Intervening in a local land-use dispute to urge returning an army ammunition plan to original prairie. (See story on page 16.)
- Working in the criminal justice system as a practitioner of restorative justice.
- African-Americans sitting down and asking to order lunch at a segregated lunch counter.
- Opposing the war in Iraq by occupying a U.S. federal courthouse to protest the indefinite detainment without charges of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and accepting arrest rather than leaving as ordered by police (see Feb. 20, 2007, issue).
- Entering a nuclear weapons plant illegally and pounding on a warhead with hammers to act out turning swords into plowshares.
- Working in the criminal justice system as a police officer with the intent of using a gun as little as possible.
- Joining the National Guard to contribute to national security.
- Joining the military in a noncombatant role, such as medic or chaplain.
- Joining the military to avenge Sept. 11 and to fight terrorism.
- Joining an elite military unit that specializes in political assassinations and other covert activity outside conventional military tactics.
I’ve tried to order these from least force to most force or violence. It’s a succession in which each point is much like its neighbor, but the extremes are clearly different. Arranging things in sequence stems naturally from our desire for order.
But in this case, the principle of arranging things in order can mislead. This natural order has the potential to shape the way we see violence and the distinction Thomas pointed to between force or coercion and violence.
Behind this natural ordering is an assumption—usually unstated—that all the options belong in this ordered lineup. This continuum is measuring least to most violence. Stated another way, all the options are within the same frame of reference since they are on the same continuum. Whether or not it is intended, arranging all the options on one continuum leads us to believe that all the options exert some level of violence. It is a spectrum of violent options. A teacher’s or a parent’s coercion against the will of the child belongs to the same frame of reference as lethal violence by the military. Some defenders of redemptive violence make this application. They argue that since we are already using violence, we should participate in military violence.
Putting all the options on one, violence-measuring continuum makes some actions of Jesus appear violent. The sarcastic letter resembles Jesus’ provocative sarcastic language (Luke 11:40, 44, 52). Healing the withered hand on the Sabbath when he could have waited until the next day (Luke 6:6-11) and traveling through Samaria and accepting a drink from a Samaritan woman were actions proscribed by the purity code. They might parallel a lunch counter sit-in. He staged a vigorous protest in the temple (Luke 19:45-46), which actually provoked his arrest and execution. This protest corresponds to the courthouse occupation or even pounding on a bomb.
Along with defining all activities on the continuum as violent, organizing all actions on one continuum has another serious problem. There is no logical stopping point on the continuum where it passes the point of too much violence. This continuum is in fact a slippery slope. The nonviolent resistance tactics in the middle appear as compromises between absolute nonresistance and effective violence. For each step along the continuum, it offers yet one more compromise step to accomplish even more with just a bit more violence.
From the perspective of a person who accepts the use of lethal force to provide security and promote justice, this continuum constitutes conventional wisdom—claim to use the least violence necessary while retaining violence as the ultimate basis of order. But for the person who professes nonviolence, the continuum invites compromise with violence in the name of the higher good of preserving order or pursuing justice. The question becomes how far the nonviolent Christian can advance along the continuum before surrendering a commitment to nonviolence.
The question is not whether all the options exist, and obviously one can choose to arrange all the options along one continuum. The important questions are how to arrange them in orderly fashion and how to understand the relationship of the options to each other. Is there an organization in which not all options appear violent and that is not a slippery slope toward violence?
We can see another continuum if we look at the options with lenses focused by the nonviolent reign of God. This second continuum emerges from our commitment to witness and live now on the basis of the future reign of God made visible in Jesus. Like the first continuum, the second one has passive nonresistance at one end. But a primary characteristic is that this second continuum contains only options that reject the use of violence. On this continuum, organized by increasing levels of intensity of confrontation, are levels of acceptable compulsion or coercion or force, both mental and physical, as defined by Thomas. In every case, the positions on this continuum reject the idea of inflicting injury, and people are willing to suffer harm rather than abuse or injure others. All but the last five positions above reside on this continuum of nonviolence. The more assertive actions of Jesus reside on this continuum alongside his nonresistant response to crucifixion, and cannot be labeled violent actions as some advocates of redemptive violence argue.
The important point is to see that on this second continuum, nonviolent coercion is not on a slippery slope. Visualizing this continuum enables us to discuss and engage in nonviolent action without considering it a compromise with violent coercion.
Visualizing this second continuum will not solve all our questions about how to define and oppose violence. However, I pray this proposal clarifies our discussions of coercion, force and violence and thus help us as a peace church better understand how to oppose violence.
J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion and the Harry and Jean Yoder Scholar in Bible and Religion of Bluffton (Ohio) University. He is a member of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.