February 09, 2005
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord

Over at Icthus, Nate Ljilje wrote a lengthy post about America's "ethic of violence." I think that he's half right. I agree, as my pastor pointed out, that Americans have been sold on the idea that liberty demands a price in blood. I think this is because of our own history and our fairly solipsistic view of the world; we all learn about the wars to end colonialism and slavery and to launch democracy, but usually not in the context of the fact that other countries achieved these results with less bloodshed.

But I think Nate goes overboard in treating violence as a peculiarly American vice. "We Americans love hero/villain stories, all of which end with the villain facing a harsh justice," he writes, as if the rest of the world didn't love those stories too. Moreover, focusing on the violence of our times as if it were an aberration disregards the fact that there's been a general decline in the incidence of warfare over the last century. I've heard it said, in fact, that the years between World War II and the outbreak of the Balkan war represented Europe's longest stretch of peace in recorded history.

I bring this up because, in my continuing critique of left-wing utopianism, I think that treating violence as a deviation from the norm is considerably underestimating the opponent. Way back when I was blogging Exodus I described how the Old Testament laws had to be harsh because they were displacing a culture of personal vengeance. Although the article I linked in that post is no longer up, another treatment of the same presentation says:

When a nation goes to war against another nation, it may be merely re-enacting an event as old as humanity itself, according to scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

But, judging from comparisons of rates of combat deaths, modern nation states have not been as war-like as traditional tribal societies, according to Lawrence Keeley, professor of anthropology, University of Illinois, Chicago....

Some researchers argue that war is about 10,000 years old while others contend that it is much older, maybe even millions of years old. Nearly every primitive society ever studied fought wars.

Stephen Beckerman, an associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, noted that war is more frequent among tribal societies than is commonly believed, and most studies find that revenge is probably the single most common motive. The universal impulse to avenge an injury, harkening back to 'an eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth,' is a driving force in human violence.

This is why, as Jared Diamond bluntly put it, one of the first orders of business for any state is to monopolize violence for itself. There is thus a basic division of labor, where the government carries out punishments and the subjects are socialized to be relatively peaceful. I think that the general impression that humans are basically peaceful comes from the fact that we have been so socialized. But would we be able to be, if we weren't under the umbrella of the state's protective violence?

The division of labor has led to a kind of uneasy double standard, where the government and the subjects operate by different moral codes. It demands, in a way, that rulers be fundamentally different from the rest of us, and yet they are not. That uneasiness runs through the Bible, I think. Way back in Exodus, we see in Pharaoh the ultimate expression of the ruler as different: he is a god, so above the law that he even breaks the univeral incest taboo. Yahweh puts him in his place, and intends to rule the newly created Israel himself, but the people demand a king anyway. He gives them Samuel as a punishment. Whether the latter story is true or not, it says something profound about how Israel viewed its kings. The kings, of course, are all too human, and God keeps anointing prophets to tell them so, winding up with Jesus himself.

Jesus' repeated warnings against revenge make sense in this context. But there has been an ongoing dispute in Christendom about whether rulers are still subject to a different law. I've been hearing only one side of the argument for the most part, so out of fairness I recently read a First Things article that not only defends just-war theory but defends a harsh medieval version of it that the author feels has been too diluted by modern liberalism.

This distinction between ruler and subject appears to be the crux of the matter. Augustine apparently read Romans 13 as delineating that distinction, and so concluded that a duly constituted authority has the right, and indeed positive duty, to employ force to punish evil and protect the common good.

Yoder felt differently, of course. But it also occurred to me, as I was reading this, that underlying the ruler/subject distinction is the idea that groups have different moral standards than individuals. A ruler acts on behalf of the group, and, it seems, the group is entitled to look after its self-interest, and fight for its survival, in exactly the manner that Jesus tells individuals not to.

But there's a less-than-clean divide between the individual and the group. Nowadays we all vote, and therefore participate in government, so the ruler/subject division is not so clean. Even before the advent of democracy, one wonders why an officially titled ruler is different from, say the head of a family. Does a father have the right to fight for his children? Does he have an unlimited right to fight for himself, on the grounds that if he dies his family will suffer?

I feel there's a sleight-of-hand going on here, where Jesus' commands to surrender oneself to God and neighbor are converged with the old pagan virtue of surrendering oneself to family and country. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus knew all about dying for a larger cause; the question is, what is that cause?

The article does mention in passing that there has always been one type of Catholic group that has taken pacifism seriously: monastics. And that, I think, is the other major distinction between Catholicism and the peace churches. Catholicism has always recognized that pacifism is holy (which is more than I can say for some denominations), but has traditionally cordoned it off into monastic communities.

Actually, the whole role of monasticism in the Catholic/Protestant debates is not a subject I've seen treated much. Luther the disaffected monk disliked the self-punishing asceticism and the fact that a lot of people got put into those communities against their will, and that seems to have been the continuing attitude among most Protestants. But Mennonites, Quakers and other radical groups actually went in the other direction: they claimed for all believers some of the disciplines that had previously applied only to monastics. Pacifism was one, of course, but so was a certain amount of asceticism (hence the obsession with plainness), the sharing of property, the apartness, and the voluntary nature of the community (hence adult baptism, or in the case of Quakers, no baptism).

Although the theological division between ruler and subject isn't hard to follow, I don't really know anything about how monastics became so divided from everyone else. In the Bible there are ascetic holy men, including Jesus himself, but there's no sign that the young church actually recognizes separate communities of them, which operate on different ethical standards.

Of course, holding people to such high standards seems to destine movements to remain small. The multilayered Catholic version of church is more generous in its way than the Mennonite, which defines only one rigorous lifestyle as being truly Christian. But I suppose the answer to my question -- can people live in peace without authorizing on a violent government? -- is basically "Yes, but only by the grace of God." How far that grace extends is a matter of greater dispute.

Posted by Camassia at February 09, 2005 03:00 PM | TrackBack

Nice essay. Another question is whether, under Christianity, the state exists. If we are all children of God, if Jesus calls all nations to be one in him, how can there be a state, especially one with interests that differ from another state? Is a nation-state a legitimate entity, from a Christian (or even Judaeo-Christian, as you point out) perspective? Why did Jesus, King of Kings, not take up arms to protect his people if that is supposedly the sacred duty of leaders? He modelled a leadership, a "kingship," that was completely pacific. How far does the grace of God go? Unto death, even death on a cross.

Posted by: Sylvia on February 9, 2005 06:50 PM

I'm not sure Yoder and Augustine are as far apart as all that. Yoder didn't think, as far as I can tell, that the state was unnecessary to keep order, which involves at least some level of force (though he certainly wanted to limit its violence). I wrote a bit about that here:


And Augustine didn't think that a Christian should personally avenge himself (or even resist an attack on his person), but it might theoretically be possible for a Christian to serve in a just war as an agent of the state's executing justice.

What leaves me unconvinced is the weight that pacifists often put on the injunction against revenge. To use force to restrain aggression (even, in extremis, lethal force) does not strike me as morally equivalent to seeking revenge. Most modern just war proponents base their views on the state's responsibility to protect the innocent, not to punish (though there is an element of that). And this need for a force for restraint certainly jives with your (correct, in my view) strictures against the kind of "left-wing utopianism" that denies that violence is very deeply rooted in human beings. (Of course then we get the "Who will guard the guardians" question and the whole problem of limiting government, but that's a different matter...)

Posted by: Lee on February 10, 2005 07:40 AM

I assumed that Augustine believed that the Christian shouldn't avenge himself, which is why I saw the chief issue as being the difference between the individual and the state. Yoder does say some good things about policing in TPOJ, but basically he seems to think political office is not a Christian job. This would not have been feasible for medieval just-war theorists who lived in an environment where almost everybody was Christian. I think Yoder's focus on a time when Christians were a minority, and the just-warriors' focus on a time when rulers and subjects were neatly divided inherited classes, are making both models difficult to apply to the modern age.

I see a little more than the forbidding of revenge in the calls to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, etc. But perhaps more importantly, it's not always easy to draw the line between vengeance and punishment. The anthropologists I quoted pointed out that revenge has a clear function in letting the world know that such acts against you will not be tolerated, and that is basically the same message that state-sponsored punishment sends. I do think that legal punishment is an improvement because it does not involve as much personal emotion -- as I said in my old Blogspot post, vengeance can get pretty irrational. However, as we see in our own justice system, there's no way for human institutions to really rise above human irrationality. The Bible sends the message over and over that only God is really fit to judge.

Posted by: Camassia on February 10, 2005 08:19 AM

Yoder does say some good things about policing in TPOJ, but basically he seems to think political office is not a Christian job.

This sort of thinking has puzzled me ever since I first encountered it. If police are good, and Christian police are bad, then it's good if not everyone is Christian.

Christian monasticism developed, roughly, from Christian eremitism, and the hermits were those who felt impelled to go out into the desert to achieve a purity of life they did not think they could attain living in the world. You might say that, over time, certain qualitative distinctions became codified into quantitative divisions, but even these divisions were never seen as cutting through the unity of the Church as a whole.

(Incidentally, monasticism itself seems to be a feature of human nature, apart from its specifically Christian realization.)

Finally, I'll just make the stock observation that "The universal impulse to avenge an injury, harkening back to 'an eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth,'" misrepresents the lex talionis, which actually moderates the universal impulse to avenge an injury with a greater injury.

Posted by: Tom on February 10, 2005 08:58 AM

I think that Yoder doesn't think of it simply in terms of good/bad, but in gradations of goodness. Law is better than anarchy, but human law still falls short of the Kingdom, where there is no judge or ruler but God. I think Yoder sees the Christian calling as not just ethical (do good, avoid evil) but as eschatological (live in the Kingdom now). It is the latter point that makes Mennonites somewhat more like monastics than laity, in their emphasis on living in the Kingdom and not in the world.

Posted by: Camassia on February 10, 2005 09:42 AM

Oh, and you're right about the lex talionis thing. The version of the article I quoted in the Blogspot post makes that point, so I think the anthropologist would agree with you.

Posted by: Camassia on February 10, 2005 10:18 AM

Tom ponders the thought, "If police are good, and Christian police are bad, then it's good that not everyone is a Christian."

Obviously it is not good, from a Christian point of view, that not everyone is a Christian. It's also true that, in this country, most police would probably call themselves Christians. Can they be "good" Christians, and also "good" police, would seem to be the real question. The answer to that might be: if everyone were a "good" Christian, no police would be necessary. This is not the case. It may be true, in any event, that a "good" Christian would not choose that line of work.
If state violence has evolved to replace personal violence, I think it's a bad trade-off. It not only results in much greater violence (even if less frequent), in the course of which many more innocent non-combatants are killed than would be killed in personal vendettas and clan feuds. State violence also demonstrates the failure of religion, to the extent that vengeance belongs to the Lord, and only to the Lord.
America is demonstrably the most violent of the Western nations. Europe may have had no wars between WWII and the Balkan conflict, but America has seldom been without one: Korea, Vietnam, various minor incursions in support of the Monroe Doctrine, and then two wars in the Middle East. In each of those wars, America has been the aggressor, operating far from her own shores, without having been directly attacked, in pursuit of dubious goals.
It seems to me that Christians should have no part in this.

Posted by: Rob on February 10, 2005 10:33 AM

"This is why, as Jared Diamond bluntly put it, one of the first orders of business for any state is to monopolize violence for itself."

And often, with Christians who find themselves complicit with the state, these same Christians try to monopolize violence to their own religion. I've read and heard countless pieces about how Islam is somehow "inherrently violent," so therefore, it "must be dealt with," and they imply, violently so. Then, in the next breath, these same Christians will go to great lengths to justify all the accounts of violence in the Old Testament and argue that we should still be violent as Christians today. So, it might seem that they're arguing that only Christians should be the violent ones around the world, policing the world as we see fit (and often, in my view, completely disregarding the non-violent example of Jesus).

It seems like the wrong question entirely, though. Wouldn't it be a better question as to whether we should be using violence at all?

"If police are good, and Christian police are bad, then it's good if not everyone is Christian."

I only want to address the "if police are good" part here (I don't have the capacity to address the entire point made just now). Why are police always "good?" I think this is something too often assumed because we acknowledge, even us Christian pacifists, that police might very well be necessary for the keeping of order, but that doesn't exactly make them good. I think it's this confusion that allows many Christians to accept that violence used by the police, let alone lethal force, must be "good," so therefore, because we accept it at this small level in stopping/resisting evil, then why not make the leap to supporting lethal force on a state-wide and state-sanctioned level against other nations and groups of people?

Yoder, in his essay "What Would You Do If...?" addresses some of these questions in that [il]logical leap, and whether or not we should really be engaging in such judgement and vengeance in the first place.

Note: Tom, I take no issue with you here, I'm just addressing that one part of the assumption that I find many Christians repeating in various contexts. But, if you have something to add, feel free! :)

Posted by: Eric Lee on February 10, 2005 03:54 PM

"I think this is something too often assumed because we acknowledge, even us Christian pacifists, that police might very well be necessary for the keeping of order, but that doesn't exactly make them good."

If policing is both necessary for the keeping of order and evil, then the choice is between doing without order and doing evil that good may result.

Posted by: Tom on February 11, 2005 06:25 AM

I think that, in reality, the police do more mopping up after order has broken down, than actual "keeping of order". While this may be a socially necessary function, it is not necessary that each able-bodied American take a turn as a policeman in rotation, or anything like that; therefore, any Christian who cannot reconcile violence with his faith in order to do the kinds of things that police are expected to be willing to do in the line of duty, can avoid doing so. (And also avoid answering Tom's question.)
It might also be questioned whether, or not, good results from the police keeping order in repressive states. Does order trump justice?

Posted by: Rob on February 11, 2005 08:45 AM

"If policing is both necessary for the keeping of order and evil, then the choice is between doing without order and doing evil that good may result."

No, I see where you're going with that, but it wasn't my point.

My point was that why must the police go about doing what they do in evil ways? Why must they use such lethal force all the time? This is what is assumed to be necessary most times, but I'm saying that for the function of the state to keep order, merely their presence is what is necessary.

Most often what I hear is just a blind support for not only the police (okay, fine), but also a blind support for how they go about keeping order (not always fine).

My point was in the how the state police go about doing things. You can still have police and have them keep order in moral ways (i.e. non-lethal weapons used to incapacitate, as opposed to just pointing guns at everybody with the intent to kill).

Posted by: Eric Lee on February 11, 2005 11:29 AM

Real quick, just so that I'm not misread, I mean more than "merely their presence is what is necessary," when referring to the police. I don't mean, "as long as they stand around, that makes things okay." I mean, "for the state to keep order, they need to be there and function, but do it in moral, non-lethal ways."

When I re-read my post, I realized that I didn't even make sense to myself.

Posted by: Eric Lee on February 11, 2005 11:39 AM
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