Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Nonviolent Philosophy of Governance

I am a pacifist. That makes it extremely hard to support any government, because there is not a single government on this Earth right now which is nonviolent. Or even remotely close.

Government is, to put it succinctly, the establishment of order in society by rules backed up by threat of force. Without an army and a police force there is no government.

Since governments are so inextricably bound up with violence it is highly problematic for Christians to be supportive of any government. Even Christians who hold that violence is a necessary evil under extreme circumstances (such as followers of Just War theology), ought to be extremely skeptical of an institution whose existence depends on violence. Paul tells us the Powers are implacably set against God's Kingdom and are doomed for extinction when the fullness of the Kingdom finally arrives. This is because, in the Kingdom 'nation will not lift up sword against nation' - the absence of war means the end of government. It is that simple.

So if I am pushed by my logic toward an anti-government stance (my actual position I'm calling Covenantal Anarchy by Doug's inspiration), then how do I reconcile that with the unavoidable fact that I live in a governed world? Especially since my pacifist beliefs prohibit me from taking up arms against the government. Is there a philosophy of governance available to me that can permit me at least conditional support of certain forms of government with minimum hypocrisy?

Essentially, the question I am asking is - is government necessarily dependent on violence? Is there a way to conceive of government in a nonviolent way? Has anyone attempted it?

I have some thoughts I'll put out in the next few days, but I want to let the question hang for a while to see what you come up with.


Doug Hagler said...

Definitely. The Religious Society of Friends. They're committed to pacifism across the board, and govern themselves collectively through consensus methods. Historically they've had varying degrees of willingness to participate in secular government, since you rightly identify its violent core, but among themselves, they 'govern' essentially without governing.

I got into a healthy argument about this in CPE today with two people who felt that consensus was too easy to abuse. What's missing from their experience is the "covenantal" part of the equation. In brief, it works because everyone is committed to it working and to remaining in community with each other.

What I don't think can happen is any kind of universal, compulsory nonviolent government. By definition, it would not be able to ultimately 'compel' through force, and therefore there would always be people who didn't fit in and didn't want to be part of the covenant, and there's no nonviolent way to drag them in against their will.

That's what's so great about nonviolence, actually. It *necessarily* includes respect for the autonomy/subjectivity of each person. Take violence off the table, and it is a *lot* harder (still possible through manipulation, maybe) to use a person as a means to an end. Without their consent, you almost can't.

I think that this is what it looks like when Torah/The Word is written on every person's heart and no longer has to be heard or taught. It is what truly Holy-Spirit led "governance" looks like - each connected by covenant, each respected, each moved toward the good. And for me, the only way to glimpse that kind of eschatological reality is to seek consensus nonviolently even here, in our messy lives, when it will fail some of the time and break our hearts.

Aric Clark said...

You've definitely jumped right to a bunch of things I wanted to say - though it still leaves me curious about government in the conventional sense. Is it possible to come up with a philosophy of government that deals with all the stuff we think of as governmental responsibilities - infrastructure, economy, law and order, etc.. that is nonviolent?

You're correct that it would lack the element of compulsion so it would have to look very different. And everyone will say that it is idealist and unfeasible... but is it, entirely? Could we imagine a civil servant rising to elected office and attempting to govern with a nonviolent philosophy?

Doug Hagler said...

A big reason why I don't think I'd ever be elected to high office. I'd run on a ticket of small government and tax cuts combined with social programs - but when they learned I'd achieve that by eliminating the military (and encouraging Constitutional militias for state defense) and giving police non-lethal weapons, that'd be the end of that.

I think that, deep down, its *really* scary for people to contemplate not having someone out there who can bust in and rescue them from trouble in a hail of bullets - that they'll have to tackle every problem while still being in relationship with other human beings.

And yes, I think this fear plays into our soteriologies in a deep, deep way.

Jodie said...

Not being a minister and not ever going to be, I'd like to confess my own double standard.

I think the Church has an obligation to the Prince of Peace to keep the dream alive. Every once in a while it comes with a blessing.

And I share the sense that to follow the Prince of Peace means that even "just war" is a cheep compromise.

At the same time, there are occasions when I am going to tell God I am sorry, but right now I have some violence to attend to.

I don't know if it is human nature or lack of faith, but when the towers came down, and it became clear that there were people trying to bring down the America I love, to damage the world I have tried hard to do my part to build, then it was crystal clear in my mind that we needed to kill them.

And I am pissed at the hypocrisy of our government for not killing them.

And when there were riots in my town, I was glad there were armed men that wore badges in my name whose job it was to shoot the people who would try to do harm to me and my family. Shoot them so that I would not have to.

I confess that I have both feelings, and that I am comfortable in this place of contradiction.

The best I can do sometimes is not lie to myself and to others to think that my violence is sanctioned by God. It is not. It is in spite of God. In spite of the Prince of Peace. In spite of the Gospel of Peace, and the Prince's love for me and love for my enemy.

And I hate it when Church representatives lie to me and to the public and tell me that God sanctions my murderous thoughts.

So preach it Bro'!

Aric Clark said...


Awesome comment. Of course, being committed to peace doesn't mean never having murderous thoughts. In fact being a pacifist, as Stanley Hauerwas put it, is often about making loud public commitments so that other people will stop you from someday murdering someone.

That being said, I DO think the gospel demands of us more than just intellectual acknowledgment that violence is wrong. I feel I am called to practical pacifism - meaning that even when I have murderous thoughts and even when I want there to be police men and soldiers to protect me I have to act against my own wishes (and against, perhaps, my own safety).

Doug Hagler said...

Safety is a dearly-held illusion. I don't buy that you can prolong your life one iota through violence. You are not safe. I can't tell you how many things can kill you right now, or take over your life in such a way that death is inevitable. Eating right will not save you. Exercise will not save you. It might turn things in your favor in the long run, but safety? Nope.

All you have is what you do. That's it. Or at least, that's my thinking right now, sitting in a hospital, thinking of returning to the Intensive Care Unit to try and find ways to provide pastoral care to patients.

What you do (and by extension what you support) will be violent - or not. Safety is a fantasy, and is never worth hurting another person for in my opinion. It could be a mugger today or a bus tomorrow or a stroke in a week or an aneurism in ten years, and you have pretty much no say in the matter.

I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he said that you cannot add to your life through worry. Worrying about safety is included in that list. If you're worried about safety, what you should be worried about is wasting your life while trying to insulate yourself.

At least, that's what I tell my quavering self.

Chip Clark said...

We live in a world of always going one better, one bigger, one stronger. Violent movies get more violent because the same violence that "entertained" us 10 years ago doesn't "entertain" us any more (although, it never entertained me).

This sort of attitude applies to use of force. If we took Doug's suggestion and made police walk around without weapons those that would break the law would do so with a vengeance because they could without the fear of the weapons the police currently have. Unfortunately, this is a spiraling effect. Eventually, someone figures the cost, the pain is worth the crime and so the weapons have to get bigger and stronger until they get so horrific we can't possibly use them (ie., Nuclear missles). We pause for a moment, realize we can't use them and start back with smaller conflicts.

Now, if we DID take Doug's suggestion, the criminals would over run society. Society could fight back, passively, but it would take a large segment of society to be effective - and still maintain any sense of society as we know it. Unfortunately, I don't think we have enough of society willing to take that stand yet - so the result would be the death and elimination of those demanding peace - and another spiral use of force.

The reason Saddam was able to keep Iraq in peace for 10 years was out of fear. The reason Iraq hasn't had peace for 8 years is there is no overwhelming thing (or person) to fear and so there is anarchy. There is no demand for peace, only the demand for power, control, money. People don't want to share; they want to control, to win.

We can demand more of our government to NOT take steps of violence toward other countries, but we have to be aware that sometimes what that is allowing is for others in those countries to commit violence (think Rwanda). There is no good answer, yet - but trying to walk a fine line between the need for peace and the understanding that sometime peace allows violence - and then deciding to accept whichever course has the least violence.

Doug Hagler said...


Love you bud, but couldn't disagree more.

First, I said no *lethal* weapons. There is nothing, except kill someone, that a bullet can do which a pancake round or taser cannot. We can incapacitate long before we need to kill, and there is no excuse for taking the easy way out when human lives are at stake. The great thing about incapacitating without killing is that if you accidentally do it to a kid pulling his wallet out of his pocket, you can apologize afterwards.

We should also note that with our heavily-armed police force, we still have 10 times more murders per capita than the next most dangerous country in the world. So our weapons are failing us entirely as a society. They are not making us safe or bringing peace in any sense of the word.

Second, there was not peace in Iraq for 10 years, there was burgeoning civil war, gassing of Kurds because they were fighting against Saddam's regime (with secret CIA support, as always withdrawn before they could win any ground). There were death threats leveled, and carried out, against families of government workers and soldiers in order to crush them into obedience. That is NOT peace, it is violent repression - any more than lynch-mobs and Jim Crow were "peace" for the United States.

If violence actually led to peace, the (sadly popular) argument you put forward would stand. Given that it does not, never does, and will never do in my view, the argument falls apart. If the goal is peace, then violence is off the table, unless it is the pace of the grave - that is the only pace that violence has ever brought.

Aric Clark said...


Here's the thing, there really haven't been enough actual experiments with nonviolence (particular society-wide nonviolence or official nonviolence on the part of those in power) to make any kind of accurate statements about what would happen in the event of disarmament. Until we actually try nonviolence as a society we can't really say, as you have that criminality would spiral out of control. And until that time scenarios like the one you put forward sound like fear-mongering and aren't helpful toward productive attempts at nonviolence.

Furthermore, there are a number of problematic assumptions behind your hypothetical scenario. #1 No one said we had to jump straight to complete disarmament tomorrow - as if there couldn't be a scaled approach - or as if nonlethal forms of force couldn't be explored as Doug suggests. #2 Violent repression and fear do not prevent violence or crime. Far from it. In fact, the worst violence has always been the state-sponsored variety. The military industrial complex is capable of infinitely more carnage than all the criminals in the world completely uninhibited by law-enforcement would do. Individual criminals would never have come up with the nuclear bomb. #3 You used the word Passivity in there which is the common, but really aggravating mistake people make when talking about nonviolence as if the options were a) violence, and b) doing nothing. In reality the options are a) violence and b) EVERYTHING ELSE THE COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION OF HUMANKIND IS CAPABLE OF DREAMING UP.

Aside from the moral reasons I think there are very persuasive practical arguments that nonviolence is more effective, not less, and leads to greater security and safety, not less. But as I said, it hasn't been tried on a large enough scale yet. We've tried the violent option every single time and look where it has gotten us.