Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Judgment, Force and Violence: Some Crucial Distinctions

If I were to re-write my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, I would employ some careful distinctions between the concepts of judgment, force and violence. Having seen what people like J. Denny Weaver do with the idea of violence (eg. in his The Nonviolent Atonement) I think that a great deal of mischief arises from the failure to distinguish adequately between the three concepts.

Judgment is properly and primarily applied to God alone, although there is such a thing as a pale imitation of it among humans. The paleness of the imitation is the result of original sin; we may try to judge righteously, but we often fail completely and never get it perfectly right. God, on the other hand, is presented in Scripture as "the righteous Judge" (eg. Ps. 96) who judges in a perfectly eqitable, just and fair manner at all times. God is holy, so he hates sin and God is righteous, so he must punish sin. Therefore: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who supress the truth by their wickedness" (Rom. 1:18 NIV) There is nothing in the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament as a whole that contradicts this essentially Jewish, Old Testament teaching about the nature of God. The whole concept of human government, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is built, as Oliver O'Donovan points out, on the function of right judgment.

Force is the use of disciplinary, police or military means to make laws effective and stop evil. It can also be used to shape character. Force is different from violence in that it is 1) constrained by law, 2) limited in scope and 3) rationally deployed. Force consists of various grades up to and including lethal force. But force always operates within rationally determined limits; if it exceeds those limits it turns into violence and this is a constant threat. The difference between God's wrath and human force is that God's wrath is always an exact reflection of his perfectly righteous judgment, whereas human force is, at best, an approximation and, at worst, a demonic mockery of God's perfectly righteous judgment. An example of disciplinary force would be parental punishment of children or expulsion from school by the school authorities. An example of police force would be policemen arresting murderers or thieves. An example of military force would be just war, but not total war, crusades or nuclear holocaust.

Violence then can be defined as the human use of force when it is unconstrained by law, unlimited in scope and irrational. Force may turn into violence at any moment; it lives on the boundary between law and lawlessness. Parental discipline can become violent if parents are not self-controlled. In certain situations, large scale use of force almost inevitably morphs into violence, as for example in a large scale war in which irrational powers such as nationalism or racism come into play and take over the whole enterprise. This is one of the most troubling problems with the actualy deployment of just war theory in the real world, yet it is inescapable in the fallen human condition.

In liberal Protestant theology, Divine judgment, divine wrath, human force and violence are all collapsed into one category and rejected as a package. The resulting nonviolent stance then becomes a rational principle by which all ethics and theology are revised. Most of the 16th century Anabaptists did collapse force and violence into each other, (with the exception of people like Hubmaier), but many contemporary Mennonites are going further in collapsing Divine judgment into the same package as well. This is not really an Anabaptist move; it is a liberal Protestant one. Ironically, people like Ted Grimsrud and Denny Weaver often criticize Mennonites who follow the 16th century tradition for being influenced by Evangelical Protestantism, even as they themselves embrace liberal Protestantism and re-interpret their Anabaptist heritage in terms of it. To deny Dvine judgment is to embrace Pelagianism and to reject the whole idea of salvation from the penalty of sin. It is to turn the Gospel into a message that God already accepts; all we have to do is accept our acceptance. We are fine just we are; no repentance is required and ammendment of life is unnecessary so long as we become non-judgmental of others.

To regard God's judgment of sin as violence and to redefine God as nonviolent is to reject the God of the Bible and to fashion an idol in His place. This idol is a mythical symbol of the rational principle of nonviolence, which is derived from modern liberal political philosophy, from which also comes the notion of freedom from constraint and tolerance as the highest goods. To be nonviolent means essentiallly to be tolerant and to exalt individual freedom as the absolute.

This philosophy is incoherent and impossible to implement in the real world, but it destroys the rational morality of the Enlightenment out of which it sprang and the revealed morality of biblical law against which the Enlightenment rebelled. The end result is that when tolerance and individualism break down in the face of a challenge from determined enemies, for example in the event of 9/11, liberals find it difficult to distinguish between responding with force and responding with violence. This explains why civil rights and prohibitions of torture crumbled so quickly in the panic of 9/11. It also explains why Pope Benedict XVI was right in his Regensburg Address to suggest that our dilemma is that certain strains of both Islam and the modern West have cut themselves off from rational traditions of metaphysics which could provide the basis for fruitful dialogue between cultures and have embraced a voluntarism that can lead only to nihilistic violence. As Benedict XVI said, God is rational and His judgments are not violence; the world is governed by the Logos and we humans are created in God's image. Theology and philosophy that fail to recognize these truths are leading us off the cliff of nihilism and are dangerous to the future of world peace.

Western political philosophy and liberal theology are dead ends for the future of world civilization because they teach individualism in politics, relativism in ethics and atheism/idolatry in theology, i.e. a false view of freedom rooted in a false anthropology and a false doctrine of God. Only a revival of Christian metaphysics rooted in revelation has a hope of beginning a dialogue with the rational and religious elements of Islam, which would have the potential to lead to peaceful co-existence on the basis of a shared moral foundation. Crucial to such a metaphysics are fundamental distinctions between judgment, force and violence.

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