In the past week, a video has circulated on social media that appears to show Christian author Eric Metaxas punching a protester in the face following President Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on the White House lawn.
This week, Metaxas addressed the incident to World Magazine.
“For context, just so you know, the guy came at me with his bike and was very menacing for a long time,” he said.
Commentary over Metaxas’ action took off during a week in which a 17-year-old vigilante allegedly shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha and a counter-protester was shot and killed in a Portland demonstration. This uptick in civilian violence, which has occurred at protests organized in the aftermath of police brutality, inspired writer Bonnie Kristian’s recent column for The Week, “You Know What Violence Is.”
“The basic, standard definition of violence, that you'll find across the board, has pretty consistent elements,” said Kristian, who is also a columnist for Christianity Today. “One is that it involves the use of physical force; so it can't be purely verbal. And then one is that there's an intent to inflict harm.”
Kristian joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss whether silence is violence, if violence always begets violence, and why people often don’t want to own the actions of their side as violence.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #228
Let's start with one of the initial questions your column gets into: What is violence?
Bonnie Kristian: So recently we're having this sort of dispute about the definition of violence and what is appropriate to label violence. And so what prompted me to write this was to say, we’ve gone over this. Our culture has defined this term and we've defined it for a long time and it's pretty well settled.
The basic, standard definition of violence, that you'll find across the board, has pretty consistent elements. One is that it involves the use of physical force; so it can't be purely verbal. And then one is that there's an intent to inflict harm.
If you get rid of the physical force half, we may still be talking that we might say is forceful, but we are talking about aggression, abuse, manipulation, threats, coercion, exploitation. But they're not violence if there's not that physical force element. On the other side, if we get rid of the intent to inflict harm, we might be dealing with something that might be an accident, it might be a mechanistic, natural force. Or it’s also possible that we're talking about an act of protection. So they are using physical force, but they're not trying to harm that person, they're trying to protect them, and that's not violent.
There seems to be a divide between those who feel violence against property doesn’t count as violence, and others who feel violence is violence and should always be condemned. What’s your reflection on this? For someone who has the desire to affect change, is it important to make this distinction?
Bonnie Kristian: So this is the push that's happening primarily happening on the left—not to say this never happens on the right—right now, this impulse to say the destruction of property is not properly called violence, and that violence is only something that you can do to other people.
I would push back on that and say, there's nothing in the definition of violence—and in the way that the word has been used for centuries—that says violence against property isn't violence. Now that's not to say that burning a building is the same as killing a person. Obviously, it's not. There's a significant difference there.
They're not the same, but they are both violence. And I think we can, we can say that without any sort of inappropriate conflation, simply by recognizing that violence always has degrees within it, right?
Like the example that I gave in my article of the week is that punching someone is not the moral equivalent of beheading them. They are both violent. They are both violent harms to human beings. Similarly, displaying someone's business is not the same as murdering them. But I think they are both violent.
I think that this tidy line that some people want to draw where destruction of property isn't really harmful to people is simply not true. Hurting people's property—especially anything pertaining to their home, their food, their livelihood—that does hurt people, that does destroy lives, and perhaps may even have longer-lasting effects than a physical injury. And so that's not a tidy line that can be drawn.
There's this notion that the only thing really getting hurt is the insurance companies because these businesses all have insurance. That’s not the case in a lot of these small businesses that have been destroyed in Kenosha. Even if you do have insurance, it's not necessarily going to cover everything. And even in a situation where everything is covered, in a situation like Minneapolis, where the primary destruction happened, near the site where coach flood was killed, created a food desert overnight. So people are being harmed in the community, even the people whose possessions weren't harmed are being harmed by the loss of access to that service.
So that neat line of “when property is destroyed, it's not violence because it's not harming people”? That's creating a division that's not real.
In your opinion, why are we having this discussion about the definition of violence right now? Or to say it another way, what's at stake?
Bonnie Kristian: So in America, we have strong norms against violence for political ends—and that's not, of course, to say we've never had it before, obviously in the most extreme case we had the civil war. But generally speaking, we assume that when you have political disagreements, you settled in peacefully. And so no one really wants to concede that people whose political ends that they agree with are doing violence. No one wants that mark on their side.
I think that there are better ways of distinguishing this. I think you can look at some of these protests that then have associated riots, looting, or arson, and you can distinguish that in other ways. Like you can talk about how in the daytime typically what's happening is peaceful, constructive protests and it's only at nighttime and often with an entirely different crowd of people—who have very different, and in some cases don’t even really have, political aims—who are coming out and doing this destruction.
But I think there's an attempt to sort of look at all of what's happening and, in an effort to defend the good and well-intended attempts at political change, want to deny that violence is happening even while buildings are being burned.
I get the impulse, but I don't think it's intellectually honest.
What type of relationship have American Christians had to violence? You mentioned that you are speaking from a Mennonite perspective, which has extremely strong feelings when it comes to the subject. But I'm curious if we can talk a little bit about this with regards to pacifism, vigilante justice, indifference, or even being victims of violence themselves.
Bonnie Kristian: At a broad level, I would say there are roughly three major views within Christianity on Christian relations to violence.
You have the pacifist, nonviolent perspective in which you find historic peace churches like the Mennonites, the Quakers, and a fair number of the very earliest theologians. And there are degrees within that as well in terms of what's permissible.
Then you would have what we call just war theory. And this, I would say, is the dominant perspective. It's certainly where the vast majority of our political conversations happen, both inside and outside the church. It's just become really the basic language for talking about and judging violence in our culture and in Western culture.
And just war theory basically says, violence is evil but sometimes it's necessary. And so what we have to do is we have to ask questions about what justifies doing violence and what degree of violence we do. And if we can't answer those questions appropriately, then it's wrong for us to do violence. That’s the framework I think that most people are coming to this conversation with. And because as a culture one of the ways we've answered those questions is to say, the political process exists, so it's not legitimate for you to do violence for political ends.
The third perspective is what you could call a “holy war” perspective, which is the idea that sometimes it's not only necessary but actively right and good to use violence to further God's will. I don't think that most people who are being violent in some American cities right now are explicitly operating from this perspective, but I think there are ways that it sort of lingers in our society. It pops up in the way we talk about the war on terror sometimes, particularly back in the George W. Bush administration. I think the word “crusade” was occasionally used. And so that idea that not only is it necessary but right to do violence to some extent has a subconscious Christian background.
But none of those back a vigilante act where someone might think if the police aren't going to do it, then I'm obligated to take up arms.
Bonnie Kristian: So I don't think that this is morally, ethically, or scripturally justified, but I think you can get there with some of these theories.
Just war theory has a very strong notion of self-defense. And so I think someone who believes that they're out there defending their property and their family, friends, or community if they sincerely believe that there’s a threat, certainly from a “holy war” perspective and even from just war theory, some people could convince themselves that what they're doing is right and justified.
From my nonviolent perspective, this is my critique of the just war theory. It's pretty malleable if you're willing to take some shortcuts. People who are looking for an excuse to do what they already want to do will be able to find something and say, here’s an authority that justifies and that authorized me to go do this violence.
When you talk about this desire folks have to look for justification, does that feel different than just having a visceral reaction against the person next to you and screaming at you at that moment?
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, this goes back to what I mentioned earlier about there being other ways, to distinguish between these different types of demonstrations going on that don't require us to try and redefine violence.
For one thing, I think a lot of this is intensified by the pandemic and by the lockdowns. People are frustrated, they're angry. Things are coming out that, under more normal circumstances, some people’s impulses would be more restrained, and people would have healthier ways of dealing with their frustration that wouldn't turn into this.
But I would also say that there are, so there are some people who are accelerationist. They are people who see that there is chaos happening and they want a dramatic change in society. And they see this opportunity to come do violence as a way to accelerate that change. They believe that doing violence will in one way or another scare people, push people, into supporting and enacting what they want. So I think that's some element of what we're seeing, where there's a deliberateness there.
I think there are also some people who what they're doing is premeditated, but it's more about getting some free stuff and maybe they've been unemployed for a month, and so they're out looting.
And then I think there also are people who are just reacting at the moment. They didn't even come out with any intent to do anything violent, but at that moment they feel like their lives are threatened and they react. You may think that's justified—maybe it is—but that is still violent at that moment.
To what extent do you agree with this idea of the cycle of violence or that violence begets more violence? And is that something that you see happening in our country right now?
Bonnie Kristian: I think it often does. But I think the one unfortunate thing about the phrase “the cycle of violence” is it sounds very causal. Like one person commits violence and that forces another person to commit violence or justifies another person committing violence, or they deserve to have violence committed to them in return. And it's not as neat as that. It's not such a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
I think “violence begets violence” is a little better in that the idea of begetting is about reproduction. It communicates that this can be organic. That when violence breaks out, people respond on instinct, especially when it's a very intense, immediate situation. And so I think once violence starts, unless people are somehow able to make a conscious choice not to propagate that—which is a very difficult choice to make—or if they have not cultivated in themselves a way of being that is not an instinct to respond with violence, then I think once violence begins, it often does begin to spread organically.
In my article, I likened it to rot or infestation or contagion. It just sort of happens. And not that people don't have moral culpability and responsibility in that, but it can feel very organic and it can feel very automatic. Especially in the moment.
One of the phrases that’s often been used, and has especially cranked up with the George Floyd protest, is this idea that silence is violence. What do you think about that? And do you think your journey of becoming more passionate about nonviolence has made you more passionate about being specific about what violence is and is not?
Bonnie Kristian: I think it's a big question for anyone who’s in a generally Anabaptist context. What exactly is violence?
A theologian who has been influential for me and who wrote the forward to my book, Greg Boyd, often gives an example of the classic challenge of what would you do if somebody broke into your house to kill your family? Like, would you let them do it?
And what he likes to do is say, “Let's imagine further and say, what is the person who comes in to kill my family is my son? How would that change my response given that I love him also? And as much as I want to protect my family for their own sake, I also want to protect them for his sake.” So he would say, “I might use force both for his own good and for the rest of the family, but I would never intend to harm him.”
I've thought about that sort of thing as well. What happens if you think about the person who is a threat and if you love them also—as you know, we're supposed to—how would your response to them change and how would your idea of what is appropriate to do to them change? And so, I don't know that it's possible to very comprehensively say this is violence and this is not. We pretty much know what violence is, but when you get down to the minutia, there's always going to be these questions that maybe we'll never be able to settle satisfactorily.
That said, I do think the question of speech or silence being violence is relatively easy to settle. It's not. Violence involves physical force. And so speech and silence can certainly encourage, they can permit, they can excuse, they can incite, and they can command violence, but the act of speaking or being silent is not itself violence.
Words alone or lack of words are not themselves violence, even though they may be in some cases responsible for violence. And I think that distinction matters because we don't always know why someone is speaking or being silent at any given moment. And so to say silence is violence, or even that speech is violence, not only it not true but it's just bulldozing the real reasons that people might have for speaking or being silent.
And sometimes if you're ill-informed, silence may be so far from violence. It may be the prudent and loving thing to do.
Amid the violence that has been occurring across the country, we've seen some politicians call for law and order. To what extent do you think that those types of calls and those line up with Christian values?
Bonnie Kristian: On the surface level, in terms of like the bare words, that's a good thing. I think of the verse in 1 Timothy 2 that says, “Pray for kings and all those in authority that we can live quiet and peaceful lives and godliness and holiness.” And so in that sense, order is a good thing, rule of law is a good thing.
The problem is of course that the phrase “law and order” has historically not simply meant its surface meaning in America. It's often been used as a code word for declining to engage in often necessary reforms of our justice system. It's been used as a euphemism for police brutality and suppression of even peaceful protesters.
And so if only it were so simple as just the surface meaning. I think because of its history, when we hear that phrase, we should approach it with a strong degree of skepticism and look at the context and look at who's saying it, and try to work out what the intent is.
I’m a libertarian politically, so I want radically fewer laws. I think we have to think very, very carefully about what is worth depriving someone of their freedom or potentially their life. I think the question we should ask about every law is, “Is this worth someone potentially losing their life, limb, or livelihood for?” And we don’t ask that.
We have so many laws on the books that apparently the average American unwittingly commits something like three felonies a day. So, thank goodness the police aren’t so on top of it that we experience the consequences for those.
So for the phrase “law and order,” is that one of the definitions of the state is that they have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and violence in society. So, even setting aside the coded language, when we talk about state enforcement of law and order, we’re talking about state use of violence. And. Think that’s something we should have in mind when we consider what the scope of the state should be.
What do you think it would look like for the Church to really be the Church during this time? Is there something that you've seen during this time that feels very distinctly or radically Christian in response to what's happening?
Bonnie Kristian: Maybe this is not accurate and unfair, but it does not seem to me that most of these protests are church-led. Obviously, the destruction is not church-led, but even the daytime events don't seem particularly church-led.
I think one of the defining things that many of people have pointed out about, like the modern Black Lives Matter movement in contrast to the civil rights movement of a half-century ago, is that it's more difficult to identify widely accepted leaders and certainly widely accepted leaders that are coming from a church context or a ministerial background even.
I think that makes it difficult because when there's a movement that already exists on its own, how do you add to that or Christianize a portion of it? How do you do that in a way that is distinctly Christian?
I don't know that I have a really good answer to what it looks like. You can show up and be visibly Christian, of course, you can always do that. Maybe something about your signage or your behavior. But in sort of an organized sense where the church has arrived, I'm not sure that I know exactly what that looks like when the movement already exists on its own and is not a distinctly Christian movement.
But one thing that is necessary for the violence to stop is to take the peaceful protest seriously and deal with them respectfully. Don’t provide the justification to escalate to violence because you refused to hear all the more peaceful and nonviolent attempts.
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