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When is violence the answer?

When is violence the answer?

In part 5 of our Religion & violence blog series Ben Ryan reflects on whether sometimes, real change can only be brought about by violence. 30/07/18

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This blog series has concerned itself with the question of whether religion is violent, and what can be done about religious violence. Perhaps the question we should have asked is not whether religion is violent but whether it ought to be?

Most Christian teaching today has come to emphasize non–violence as the only authentically Christian response to provocation, threat and injustice. Just the other day, for example, Steve Chalke, one of the UK’s more prominent Christian leaders tweeted:


Chalke is probably right up to a point. But throughout the history of Christian theology the circumstances that would qualify a conflict as a “just war” have been debated at length, most famously by St Thomas Aquinas. Most branches of Christianity accept, at least in principle, the possibility that war can be justifiable under particular circumstances. Violence may not necessarily solve violence, but the principle that war can serve a just cause to avoid a greater evil is well established.

The more interesting question, so far as I can see, is not whether war can be permitted, but whether the principle that violence can legitimately serve a just cause could not be more broadly applied.

Last year, for example, the Austrian economic historian Walter Scheidel wrote The Great Leveller in which he argued that throughout history (and his scope and data are wide) economic inequality has only ever been reduced by one of the “four horsemen”; war, revolution, state collapse and natural disaster/pandemic. The normal course of human society is that those who have wealth accumulate more and squeeze those that do not. Only one of the four horsemen breaks the cycle; radical change to social structures comes through violent upheaval.

Comfortably ensconced in the West this may seem an unhealthy and dangerous proposition. Democratic structures and checks and balances have been established for the express purpose of managing social and political change (a change of government, or redistribution of wealth, for example) without the use of violence. This may be complacent, given that as Scheidel has shown no such peaceful democratic measure has seemed able to check mounting inequality, and the checks and balances (courts for example) are coming under a sustained attack in many parts of the developed world (Hungary and Poland come to mind, but others are on a worrying trajectory too).

Peaceful resistance is admirable – and can take huge bravery in the face of provocation. Western Christians today (arguably rather less so at the time) are proud to recall the example of Martin Luther King – the US Catholic Bishops conference even called for him to be recognised as a martyr in 2000, despite him not being a Catholic. Yet King’s example should not be viewed as being that of a simply pacific talker who convinced people by the force of his logic. A better warning in his words might be: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.”

A rather sanitized vision of the civil rights movement has proliferated today (superbly critiqued in this New York Times piece), in which nice black people convinced nice white people by peaceful force of argument, high–flying rhetoric, and refusing to give up seats on buses of the righteousness of their cause. Even if we accept that vision of history it still raises difficult questions. The civil rights battle was, and is, a long, painful and unfinished process, and one that has claimed the lives of many of its advocates, including King. This in the USA, one of the world’s most advanced democracies, the founding document (the Declaration of Independence) for which famously begins “we hold these truths to be self–evident; that all men are created equal”. 

If such struggles can happen in a prominent democracy, how much more severe is the context in other parts of the world? The context, for example, that led to Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest whose liberation theology and disgust at the rampant corruption and systematic (often violent) oppression of the poor led to joining a guerrilla army. Colombia is one of the world’s most unequal countries, with land near monopolized by a tiny cadre of landowners whose record on treating the peasant population goes a long way to explaining the proliferation of guerrilla paramilitary resistance over many decades. Or alternatively the context that led to Oliver Tambo, who was on the verge of becoming an Anglican priest before the extremities of Apartheid South Africa drove him to take the leadership of the ANC – including through armed struggle.

Glib condemnation of violence in such circumstances accomplishes little. If Scheidel is right, and there are times when only violence accomplishes real change then what we need is a more sophisticated critique of the circumstances that would entail “just violence” – just as Aquinas once did for “just war”. 

Image by Tymoshevskyi, available under a Shutterstock license.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 30 July 2018

Activism, Extremism, Religion, Terrorism


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