Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving Up On Self-Defense

Say you are a pacifist and the first thing someone will do is throw a hypothetical self-defense or defense of innocents situation at you. "What if a robber broke into your house and threatened to kill your wife and children..."

What this reveals is that for the most part violence is already understood to be illegitimate by most people in most circumstances. Very few are willing to argue in favor of unilateral aggression, or retributive violence. The difference between a pacifist and most people is that a pacifist says, " even in the case of violent threats I choose to refrain from responding violently." So we are not arguing about 99% of violent scenarios. We are arguing about 1%.

I could go into detail about various hypothetical scenarios, or historical scenarios arguing from a pacifist viewpoint. I could point out (as I have in the past) why these scenarios are dishonest, but here I want to make a different point about why it is crucial to give up on self-defense even in that vanishingly rare hypothetical situation. The reason is this: self-defense inevitably becomes a cover for other types of violence.

Think about the wars the US has waged in the past century. Which one of them was not justified on the basis of self-defense? Even in the most extreme cases of obvious unilateral aggression such as the most recent Iraq War the justification was "weapons of mass-destruction", "Iraq-AlQaeda link", "defending Iraqi people from an evil dictator" etc... The doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is just self-defense stretched beyond the breaking point. WWI? Self-defense. WWII? Self-defense. Korean War? Self-defense? Vietnam? Self-defense. We've been defending ourselves from Nazis, communists, and terrorists over and over again by spending billions of dollars to fly overseas and bomb other countries.

In the case of an individual - when am I entitled to defend myself with violence? When someone physically attacks me? When they threaten me with a gun? When they loom over me menacingly? When they verbally abuse me? Is me feeling scared a sufficient justification for violent response? How can I even make a wise decision about proportional response to danger when I am in a state of terror? It seems like begging for a tragedy to me.

As long as we keep self-defense on the table it will continue to be a universal justification for any kind of violence that we can pretend falls under that umbrella. We adamantly refuse to see ourselves as anything other than paragons of nobility and peaceful intentions beset by violent bullies on all sides. If you want peace the only option is to give up the ways of war.

Speaking theologically I think this is a reason we need to cling to some language about Christ that is repugnant to some feminists and liberation theologians. To understand Christ as submitting himself to evil, or as a willing sacrifice may indeed be problematic from the perspective of victims of violence and the oppressed. It certainly has been abused by those in power to encourage passive acceptance of injustice. I understand this critique - but is there anything more urgent for those who walk the corridors of power or for any budding peacemaker to grasp than the truth that we absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, return evil for evil? Is it not close to the heart of the gospel to say that we must endure calamitous injustice rather than lift a finger in retribution? Isn't that what Christ actually does on Good Friday and Easter?


Doug Hagler said...

As is often the case, the Fool is with you here. I've never heard the self-defense argument from someone who actually fought off a mugger or defended their spouse and children. I know it happens, but when? Meanwhile, we spend more on killing than the next 10 countries combined. That is happening right now, and is not self-defense by any stretch of the imagination, nor in the fever-dreams of Augustine.

Doug Hagler said...

I look at it like this - if I am attacked or something, I hope I'll find a clever nonviolent way to get out of it. I accept, however, that I will be flooded with adrenaline and a poor decision-maker at the time, and deep down, I might not have let go of my life the way the gospel instructs. I might end up clinging to it violently. That doesn't mean that if I did lash out, I wouldn't regret it, nor would I try to call it just or good or Christian to do so.

"Nonviolence is ethical/theological frosted mini wheats. The disciple in me loves the chance to exhibit Christ's love even in the midst of an assault on my person. The kid in me loves the chance to prove I'm more creative than violent."

Aric Clark said...

Exactly. None of us knows for certain how we will behave in an actual crisis (excepting those who have gone through it and even they, I suspect can't guarantee they will behave the same every time). But what chance do we have of a nonviolent resolution if we aren't committed to it BEFORE we ever find ourselves terrified out of our wits? I consider pacifism a practice of training myself mentally to to give my life away on the off chance that I am ever actually put in the situation to do so.

james said...

Now train yourself to give someone else's life away because that is more likely. The Gospel would look different if the "offering of the Son" had been the subjective genitive with Jesus standing by watching Peter's crucifixion.

It feels more noble to speak of your own self-giving, but that isn't the moral problem. We non-pacifists don't mind you pacifists dying it's the other non-willing pacifists you are sacrificing for your purity that bugs us. That's why the question is always posed to you about defending loved ones (or civil society, democracy, human rights etc.,) not yourself.

Aric Clark said...


Pacifism has nothing to do with personal purity or holiness. Your anger is misplaced and sounds more like someone whose conscience is bugging them than with a real point to make.

Even if I wanted to be, I am not in control of another person's fate - or should not be. That prideful stance is what underlies violence in the first place. That is not to make an excuse for inaction. A true pacifist cannot countenance violence and must always oppose it - nonviolently, which incidentally is far more likely to succeed in most circumstances. Those who carry illusions that violence is the only solution to a situation and further that lie with the belief that it can be justified because of defending others are a danger to everyone around them.

Peter, by the way, did die on a cross, and Jesus did not charge in with a sword to save him.

james said...

My conscience is not bugging me but I have had my ass kicked before. It sounds like you haven't or the other person wasn't very effective.

Your pacifist "with benefits" position (and hey! look it actually is more effective) is the position that reflects the bad faith. The argument about effectiveness is a crutch which helps maintain an untested/untenable position (look up studies on forager societies then thank the Lord for coercive state violence).

And really if Peter had died for Jesus' mission and Jesus went on with his "creative non-violent protest movement", then there would be no Christianity. The analogy's focus is on Jesus' behavior not Peter's (who we pretty well know was not a pacifist what with the sword and all).

Aric Clark said...


Don't make assumptions about what I have and haven't experienced. There is also no value in comparing our scars and seeing who has suffered worse. I believe that you have experience of violence.

The effectiveness of nonviolence is not a crutch, it is well-attested. You are right, though, that it is beside the point. Even if it were totally ineffectual it would still be right. Jesus dies without any sign or hope for victory. He is vindicated after-the-fact by God. Christians committed to the Gospel rely on that.

The analogy is on Jesus' behavior primarily, but we know that it is a practical analogy because all of Jesus' disciples lived it in the wake of his resurrection. Most of the original apostles were executed. Peter learned from Jesus how to show God's love through persecution. He DID die for Jesus' mission and Jesus DID go on with his "creative non-violent protest movement" - it's called the church.

So far you have said that I am a self-righteous, inexperienced, faithless, person who happily lets other people die to protect his innocence. Fair enough, we know what you think of me, but you have completely avoided either the gospel, or the point of this article which is that "defense of innocents" is a shabby excuse that has frequently been abused for the committing of horrendous violence. So if you want this conversation to continue try answering some questions:

Does Jesus give his life up for the sake of other or not?

Does he forgive those who persecute him or not?

Does he command us to do likewise or not?

Has "self-defense" or "defense of innocents" historically been used for noble or ignoble purposes? Give me examples.

james said...

Jesus gave up his life but no one else's in the act. And note the significance of that "giving up" is also thereafter interpreted with little regard to the human-political motive of Jesus or the motive of the political authorities. It sort of becomes a 'planned accident' between the grand theological actors God,Son,and world. The mundane implications become a little difficult to read when the contours of the original incident are so unimportant.
I would wager Peter went on to die unintentionally, even incidentally, for these broader theological implications since this is how he speaks of Christ in Acts 2-7. He has no interest in imitation of some mundane political agenda of Jesus towards enemies or Rome. He offers not forgiveness of enemies or "liberation" but the call to repentance that Jesus offered. No talk of peace or non-violence, no condemnation of empire. They are not referencing the cross in the way a politicized pacifist reading would suggest. That is telling.

In any event, Jesus did ask for the forgiveness of his enemies but also had the satisfaction of calling down judgment on the same Jerusalemites in the Olivet discourse. He/Paul commands that we imitate the Son's condescension and self-giving on some interpersonal/spiritual level but again with rather vague political implications (though I know you take a rather more aggressive reading of the political ethic). I do not think the commands contemplated much less forbade coercive violence individually or by the state. John the Baptist gave passing mention to his understanding of the political implications of the kingdom to the soldier 'do your job justly' or something that effect. I don't think the gospel writer was tacitly highlighting John's ignorance.

Of course self-defense has as many noble expressions as there have been victims of unjust violence since most have honorably gone down fighting. Examples? Can you really think of no one who defended themselves nobly with violence? Your problem in this case is not ignorance but ideology, so I won't insult you by listing examples.

Just so you know, when I was younger, I was a pure water Yoder-Hauerwasian pacifist. I could write your response for you. I know what I would say (define 'political', Nestorian Christ, yada yada) I got a little cynical I suppose. But I never had such a dismissive attitude as you show here with those who didn't buy into pacifism. I viewed that as entirely natural and unremarkable(biologically rooted, and empirically pacifism doesn't work or depends on the self-restraint and/or enforcement of the violent). Your frustration with them frustrated me and provoked this response. Your pacifism should never become so easy or self-evident.

Statistical note: You say we are not arguing about 99% of scenarios, but only 1%. Self-defense may be 1% of the TYPES of violent roles we can perform, but they constitute conceivably 50% of all ACTIONS involved in violence. In the 99% of the bad violent roles you are harming a person who can justly perform their 1% role. Math is funny like that. That's where I went post-theology.

I will read your response but wish to leave you with a totally un-ironic wish of PEACE.

Aric Clark said...


We obviously read the gospel very differently, though we have this in common - we both think the other is being dismissive.

Jesus explicitly commands his followers to give up their lives. Repeatedly. His followers then demonstrate that they understand this command to have political implications because the behave politically - the preach in a way that challenges the authorities. They civilly disobey. They are arrested and beat, and they rejoice in being persecuted as Christ was persecuted. The early church pattern of martyrdom is not an accident. Martyrdom was explicit imitation of Christ's self-giving.

Jesus called down judgment, but then gave that judgment explicit content - his own death at Calvary. A judgment which is mercifully rendered and the verdict is pardon on Easter morning. The commands most obviously did forbid coercive violence by the individual since it was universally forbidden in the early church, and the state was never contemplated because none of the disciples, least of all Paul ever imagined the Church as a state religion. The state in the New Testament is inherently violent and also therefore inherently inimical to the kingdom.

To call all of this apolitical is a strange reading indeed.

Lets say I accept your description that self-defense has as many noble expressions as ignoble without getting into examples - is an idea which 50% of the time results in horrific tragedy really one worth preserving? If self-defense is a coin-flip as far as when it is actually justified (and I think that is being phenomenally generous) then it is a catastrophe.

Your math at the end is crazy. It assumes there is always an unjust aggressor and a just defender. It simply isn't the case. Almost ever. Who is the just defender between Israel and Palestine? The US and Iraq? It is never that straightforward.

You say that pacifism doesn't work "empirically". I say you don't have the evidence to prove that, and there is much evidence to the contrary. I also thought we gave up talking about efficacy a few comments back since even if it was doomed to failure it would still be the gospel and every faithful Christian relies on the resurrection as their assurance that death itself is no obstacle to God's kingdom being established.

Aric Clark said...

Incidentally, James I bear you no ill-will at all. I'm not perturbed. I enjoy talking about this stuff, since it is about as important a subject as I can imagine. So - peace to you as well.

It seems like this kind of comment can't get made too often on a blog, since everyone seems to interpret whatever anyone else writes in the worst possible manner. The internet reveals that at base we all have very low opinions of other human beings.

Doug Hagler said...

I can't lie and say I experienced this conversation as very elucidating on either side. I still can't pinpoint the source of the distinction between Jesus dying on the cross and not taking others with him. Jesus did in fact 'take others with him', in that his nonviolent sacrifice in resistance to empire and death was part of the cause of the martyrdom of Christians for the next 300 years - though I think that has a lot to do with what Aric talks alot about - the inevitable incompatibility between Christianity and empire.

What I'm wondering is: there is clearly something going on behind the scenes in James' experience which is informing what he is saying and the kinds of challenges he is leveling against pacifism. I think if we understood that, we'd have a better idea of why he is so angrily attributing positions to Aric that Aric is not putting forward.