To accept what is manifestly inevitable and to strive to modify its inherent iniquities is one thing. To pronounce as inevitable something that is only problematically so is quite another. He who does the latter contributes to its occurrence and participates in its evils. The thoughtful person who seeks to understand current pronouncements of religious bodies on the subject of public disorder can scarcely fail to be perplexed. Are the architects of tomorrow’s Church attempting to formulate an actual Theology of Violence?
We read in the proceedings of the Zagorsk Consultation: “Some Christians find themselves in situations where they must, in all responsibility, participate fully in the revolution with its inevitable violence?” (We wonder, incidentally, whether Patriarch Alexis and Metropolitan Nikodim would thus counsel Christians in Czechoslovakia during the past August.) Or, one notes a quotation attributed to the General Secretary of the WCC: “There are times when a Christian ought to break the law, any law.”
Scarcely more reassuring is an excerpt from the report of the Commission on Theology of the Lutheran World Federation held in Geneva earlier this year: “The use of violence to carry out a revolution with the goal of bringing about a more just legal structure presents an exceptional situation. There are cases in which Christians can conceivably approve of the use of violence and in fact participate in violence.” Such quotations could easily be multiplied.
One wonders what lies behind this tacit approval of violence upon the part of ecclesiastical leaders. There are several possible explanations. The first to suggest itself is that, in the event of revolution (read violence), the Church may avoid the fate of churches in the U.S.S.R. if she “dissociates herself from the oppressor” and acquiesces in what occurs. This would be a skin-saving procedure—if it should work.
Another possible explanation is that the Church views the coming of violence on a broad, perhaps world, scale as inevitable, and hopes by nodding approval now to be able later to modify that approval. One is reminded of the Church’s futile attempts to set boundaries to violence through the Peace of God instituted slowly within the chaos prevailing in the Carolingian empire at the time of the accession of the Capetian dynasty (ca. 987). No more successful was the institution of the Truce of God, beginning with the Council of Toulouges (Elne) in 1027, which sought to impose temporal limits upon violence.
Whatever parallels might be found between medieval times and our own, it is instructive that when the civil powers could no longer maintain order, the Church felt justified in drafting a type of Theology of Violence. The situation was, of course, one in which the Church tried to assume responsibility for the socio-economic order. One wonders whether today’s “involved” Church is prepared to assume such a Constantinian role.
A third possible interpretation is, that in giving at least a limited assent to the legitimacy of violence, the Church hopes to have a hand in shaping the forms which will come out of violent revolutionary movement. While this might be making a virtue out of necessity, one wonders whether her leaders realize in any profound degree the doctrine of the “Phases of Revolution” to which the revolutionary militants are committed.
Churchmen may well be warned against any romantic views of violence, against any easy assumptions that the revolutionary elite intend to share with any religious organization or movement the “honor” of building the post-violence world. Their evident eliteism is not altruistic, and their literature makes it clear that those who direct the overthrow of the old order fully intend to rebuild the new on their own terms.
Much is being made of the ambiguity said to be implicit in violence and in violent action. We are assured that social and economic systems which lead to inequities and to poverty are “violent” in an implicit and covert sense. This appears to be a juggling of words. In a proper sense of the terms, such systems are unjust; violent they are not.
One wonders at the words of Jürgen Moltmann, spoken at Tarku, Finland: “The problem of the use of violence and non-violence is an illusory problem. There is only the question of justified and unjustified use of violence and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends.” True, there are systemic or built-in structures of injustice; but it is unhelpful to regard them as being, in more than a very loose sense, structures of violence.
Those who are deeply concerned with the war in Viet Nam may be tempted at this point to say, “A plague on both your houses,” and to insist that as long as the United States is engaged in a violent war there, there is little point in attempting to condemn or curb violence at home. It goes without saying that the question of whether there is a proper distinction between what is done by the soldier in combat, and the proper conduct of the citizen at home or in the street, is too complex to discuss here. What is noteworthy is that while the left is profoundly moved to oppose the expenditure of lives in war for the purpose of containing Red expansionism, no one from this point in the political spectrum has been especially concerned with the loss of two and one-quarter million Allied lives (excluding Russian losses) to contain the expansion and dominance of Nazism.
Church leaders who propose a permissive rationale for violence may well remember that militants are selective in their decision of what forms of violence are licit and which are “inhuman.” It is standard for them to mention with horror the six million who were killed by Hitler’s government. Seldom do the same persons manifest a parallel regret at the fate of the “other six million,” the Kulaks who were starved, shot, or clubbed to death, or deported to die of cold and malnutrition in Siberia. Nor is more than the most cursory mention made by leftists of the uncalculated millions more who died unnatural deaths during the Lenin-Stalin era.
It must be said in fairness that the overt position at Uppsala was that violence should be “a last resort.” At the same time, the opinion gained status that violence may be a legitimate tool if change does not come quickly.
In the last analysis, the resort to violence represents impatience with the orderly processes of democratic government. It may be wondered whether the Church, in addition to lending her influence to the reduction of pressures for violence at home and abroad, should not let her influence fall upon personal and corporate discipline within our citizenry. In place of producing mass opinions, she might well consider the alternative of a ministry which produces regenerate individuals in whom Christ the Lord has engendered a disposition which removes the occasions and dispositions to violence.
The words of Benedict XV, spoken at the end of World War I, may be meaningful today: “Nothing abiding can be erected upon the ruins of charity.”
HAROLD B. KUHN
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