“Thus hatred and vengeance have no place in the struggle of freedom. Indeed, hatred is a denial of freedom, a usurpation of the liberation struggle. The ethic of liberation arises out of love, for ourselves and for humanity. This is an essential ingredient of liberation without which the struggle turns into a denial of what divine liberation means.” –James Cone
I have changed my view/position on the ethical question of violence (or killing) quite a bit over the years. I wasn’t raised in a church tradition that particularly espoused unconditional non-violence. However, I was raised by a hippie woman (my mother) who was into nature, herbs and esotericism, and who explicitly told me over and over again to never kill anyone, and who sent me to a Quaker pre-school to be indoctrinated by their weird lovey-dovey beliefs.
From an early age I got the message that killing was wrong.
Later in life things got more complicated, as they often do. Human history is certainly filled with bloodshed and most heroes end up killing the “bad guy.” Suffice it to say, I eventually came to dismiss the naive moral instilled in me as a child and, at one point in my life, was fully prepared to kill any human being if they tried to “f*ck with me” (or at least I thought I was).
To make a long story short, after re-embracing a Christian faith, I also eventually re-embraced my childhood value of non-violence, this time in a very John Howard Yoder, Martin Luther King Jr., Anabaptist form. Although constantly weary of fundamentalism, I thought of myself as pretty dogmatic about non-violence.
My views continued to change as I began to study post-colonial theory, femminist theory, and South American and Black liberation theology. I had no choice but to take criticisms of people like James Cone seriously, for instance. I had to agree with him that it is especially problematic for oppressors [including all who benefit from systems of oppression] to urge the oppressed to keep their cool and walk in the nonviolent way of love. I began to understand that my privileged, white, male, American notion of Christian non-violence may actually put limits on the response of oppressed communities.
This was tough to take at first, because I honestly still could not imagine Jesus carrying a gun into any sort of battle like G.I. Joe or something. But then I began to think more precisely about the language being used, and became more philosophically nuanced about the issue.
First, thinking back, the brand of Christian non-violence I was into was never really the one-dimensional aggressively overcompensating “dude bro” kind, in my opinion. It was more closely aligned with nuanced Eastern Buddhist versions of non-violence based on a demonstrative lived life of all accepting love and compassion. A life that doesn’t just see a world of objects but also a world of subjects. A world that’s not individualistic and simplistically divided into “bad guys” and “good guys,” but a world that is mind bogglingly complex and interconnected, filled with people who have all sorts of amazing stories and cultures with deep, rich histories.
Second, beside the fact that I have come to the conclusion that defining myself in the negative is problematic, I also realized that it’s not accurate to say I was ever “non-violent.” If I was to be honest with myself, I had agree with Whitehead that “life is robbery.” For one creature to live, other lives are sacrificed.
I’ve written before about why I’m not currently a vegan (although maybe someday I will be), and I still feel this way. I think we do need to be careful about abstract totalizing moral principles. To say one is “non-violent” or “anti-death” is problematic in my eyes because the idea that one does not have to kill to eat, for instance, is simply naive. Integral Theory helps me here. As much as I have to agree that values are location, culture, generation (etc.) specific, that doesn’t mean we don’t put stakes in the ground. We all draw the line somewhere, and depth dimensions can’t be ignored.
I think there is something to Ken Wilber’s basic moral intuition (BMI) theory. It is the idea that we all intuit the presence of spirit in the world and in each creature, and that we instinctively make decisions of depth all of the time when we make value judgements. All things have an interior/depth dimension. These are vertical levels contained within any thing. For example think about biological and psychological complexity: it could be said that humans would have more parts, more “depth” or complexity than, say, a single-celled organism.
Again, we all draw the line somewhere. Vegans won’t kill highly developed animals, but they will kill plants (who grow in soil partly composed of dead animals). Pescatarians will kill fish. Carnivores will kill highly developed animals, like cows, but they also draw a line; perhaps they won’t kill dolphins or dogs or cats or monkeys, etc…
For me, ethically speaking, when it comes to dire situations I have taken the option of killing human beings to solve problems OFF of the table. I have to draw the line somewhere, and killing a human being is one play I cannot have in my playbook.
Now I must be clear that this is strictly a personal conviction of mine. I base this on my personal religious beliefs and my interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. I am personally pretty convinced that violence begets more violence. I also don’t like the idea of being forced to choose between two wrongs. I think theologian Tripp York has says it well:
“…if Jesus’s death and resurrection did not save us from having to choose between “one bad thing” and “another bad thing” then I’m afraid it didn’t do much at all. If after the cross and resurrection the only option I now have is to do a “little less evil,” then Christianity is fraudulent.”
At this point I will clarify further and say that I’m no longer into “non-violence” (per se). I think self-defense is fine. I completely understand the impulse to want to protect oneself or our loved ones or to defend those who can’t defend themselves. Accordingly, I would never dream of condemning a person who felt they had no choice but to take another human life. If I ever found myself in a “kill or be killed” situation (however un-likely) I would do all I could do to protect my loved ones, there might be violence (and maybe even enjoyment if I got the upper hand), and someone may indeed die. However, the only person I would feel guilty-less about sacrificing is myself. I will die for what I love and believe in, but I cannot kill (again, I must stress that this is just my personal conviction).
At this point I would describe myself in the positive as “pro-compassion” or “pro-mercy.” What I mean by this is that I think the Gospel is pretty amoral in the sense that I feel it instructs us to be a bit oblivious when it comes to morals, and not judge people. Rather we should “sin boldly,” be compassionate, thoughtful, and merciful.
Considering my position up to this point, I personally feel it is the ONLY position I can take to be in complete concordance with the post-colonial, feminist and liberation criticisms that I take so seriously. What I mean is that as a straight, white, privileged, American male who is pretty close to the top of the power hierarchy, I understand that the powerful must relinquish their power willingly and side with the oppressed. White men have done enough killing. So, I feel it is my moral obligation to make myself vulnerable and give up my power to take a human life. This entails (among other things) not keeping deadly weapons around my house, like guns, and not fixate on “prepping” for a home invasion. It also means I attempt to embrace life, and it’s uncertainties, with open arms and try not to live in fear of my fellow humans. It means I actually attempt to get to know and love my neighbor and my enemy. It means I cannot horde wealth at the expense of others. As I wrote above, it means I attempt to actually live a life of compassion, mercy and aggressive peacemaking.
And look, by ‘aggressive peacemaking’ I mean that I’m required to raise holy hell and speak truth to the orders that perpetuate violence. But, for me, having taken the easy solution of killing people to solve problems off the table, it also means that this life requires me to be a creative problem solver and a divergent thinker. So, I’m still all about fighting for justice, but I’m less of the Rambo type, and more of the MacGyver type now.
Painting above by Stephan Balleux