Monday, June 1, 2009

Ethics of Violence

So I was reading Thomas F. Madden's article "Inventing the Crusades" in First Things (June/July 2009, Number 194; pp. 41-44). Curiosity-provoking title, right?

This section on the Christian attitude toward violence intrigued me:
One of the most profound misconceptions about the Crusades is that they represented a perversion of a religion whose founder preached meekness, love of enemies, and nonresistance. Riley-Smith reminds his reader that on the matter of violence Christ was not as clear as pacifists like to think. He praised the faith of the Roman centurion but did not condemn his profession. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, "Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors."

St. Paul said of secular authorities, "He does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer." Several centuries later, St. Augustine articulated a Christian approach to just war, one in which legitimate authorities could use violence to halt or avert a greater evil. It must be a defensive war, in reaction to an act of aggression. For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it. As Riley-Smith notes, the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.

I've been discussing the intrinsic badness of war with a friend lately, so I was particularly interested to see this commentary. Previously, the main reference I had in mind for the topic was from C.S. Lewis's (brilliant) Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon Screwtape's instruction to the junior Wormwood to
get it quite clear in your own mind that this state of falling in love is not, in itself, necessarily favourable either to us or to the other side. It is simply an occasion which we and the Enemy are both trying to exploit. Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.
The line from Ecclesiastes that there is "a time to kill and a time to heal" also supports this idea. I remember being alarmed when I first read both of those lines. The idea of a "time to kill" particularly shocked me. Killing is bad! How could there be a time for it? I thought. As my father pointed out at the time, though, even a doctor sometimes has to kill. I think he used the example of putting a sick animal down. (Of course, euthanasia of humans is a separate controversy in itself!) Or to take an example from science fiction--say you are Captain Picard, fighting the Borg who have invaded your ship, and you see one of your crew members get caught and begin to transform into one of these evil "cybernetic zombies" (Lily's phrasing in "First Contact"). There is no way to save him, and if you just leave him, he will become, against his will, part of the Borg. It is better to shoot and kill him than to leave him to that destiny. There is "a fate worse than death"!

So this perspective does make sense to me. Though it appears at first to imply that morality is purely contextual and therefore relative--obviously problematic for people who believe that moral absolutes exist--the idea that "violence is ethically neutral" or is "raw material" that has its own "time" does not actually say that violence is ever good, but only that it is sometimes right. In a world full of problems, the choice is rarely if ever between a perfect option and an awful option. Rather, we are confronted with the choice amongst an array of imperfect options, each of which is broken in a different way. We have to find the best option, the right choice, but the right and the best are not guaranteed to be unadulteratedly good. So the fact that violence can be the right choice--and, therefore, the effectively good choice--does not mean that violence would be a part of a perfect, unbroken world. That is, violence and war can be intrinsically fallen without being intrinscially evil.

Addendum: C.S. Lewis's term "spiritual raw material" does not clearly convey these ideas when taken out of context, and speaking of the relative and contextual good/evil of an action gets murky as well. None of those terms are defined! In the future, I'm going to keep in mind Madden's succinct phrasing "ethically neutral" instead, since ethics deals with actions and choices, rather than fuzzy inherent properties.

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