THE BLOG
08/26/2005 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Re-Imagining Redemptive Violence

I wonder if there is any area in which our imaginations are more tightly bound than with regard to how we feel we have to respond to threats from other countries or groups. What are some of the slogans that are generally taken so for granted as to be considered unassailable "common sense"?

+An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (it's right there in the bible!)
+They (our enemies) are wild animals and you can't reason with wild animals
+They are not like us, do not share our values, and are sub-human
+You never negotiate with those who threaten us, negotiation is "appeasement," and we all know where that leads
+Nobody wants to use violence, but sometime there is just no other choice
+Loss of innocent life is regrettable but, sadly, unavoidable
+They'll get us if we don't get them first
+It is irrelevant whether they have any legitimate complaints
+We can't sit by passively, we must take military action
+We fight them there, to avoid fighting them here
+When our cause is just, we may do whatever we deem necessary

Many of these you have likely heard during the lead up to and the continuing defense of the war in Iraq. Isn't there a basic attractiveness to them? While we shouldn't kill someone who insults us, is it not appropriate to "respond in kind"? Isn't it the case that there are evil persons in the world who are simply set on destruction, and if so, what hope could there be in rational discussion? If our cause is just, doesn't it make sense that we should do whatever it takes to defend it? So, should we not simply accept these axioms as correct and be about doing what we must to protect ourselves? Well, I think the answer to the last question is: no, we should not accept these "axioms." Rather, we should critically engage them and see if there might be reason to think a better way could be imagined. (For brevity, I've omitted assessment of the "axioms" listed above, but have posted it here.

Since I think the "axioms" listed above are at least problematic, you are probably asking what examples might we cite of improved ways of thinking about "redemptive violence." (Again, go here for more detail on these points.)

+First, one could make a pretty strong argument, historically speaking, that the idea that one can use violence to establish lasting peace is a myth. For the most part, the use of violence results in destruction and domination that generally sows the seeds for the next conflict.

+Second, we simply must refuse the temptation to participate in the demonization of the other who is enemy to us. While we ought never to underestimate the reality of evil in the world, it is equally mistaken to overestimate it. Of course there are the bin Ladens and Husseins who are all to happy to engage in terror and destruction, but they cannot be successful if they cannot recruit others to join them. By respecting the dignity of all as having been created in the image of God and by acting accordingly, we begin to undermine the hatred that fuels terrorism.

+Third, we must accept the rule of universalizability, or what one might call the "sauce for the goose" rule. In other words, if "they" engage in some acts that are to be judged as immoral and evil, then we must accept that if "we" engage in the same acts it is still immoral and evil.

+Fourth, let us imagine, if we can, that those who would do us harm do not hate America or "our freedoms." Rather, we must begin to see that many of them simply hate our policies.

+Fifth, we should begin creatively to imagine and deploy non-violent means of resistance. Recall the line from Ghandi in the movie about his life. He was at the table with British authorities, and one chided Ghandi by asking whether he really thought the British would simply walk out. His response was that, in the end, that was exactly what they would do, because even a few 100 thousand British soldiers could not control 300 million Indians who had decided not to cooperate.

+Sixth, as Christians (and other persons of faith who employ similar means of assessment), we should actually learn our tradition's criteria for determining whether the use of force is just or not. Many seem to think that just cause is all that one need before going to war, but things are not nearly so simple. I would recommend here for an outline of the criteria.

+Seventh, the popular way of phrasing the question of using violence is to ask something like: what would you do once Saddam has entered Kuwait? What if we imagined that we could actually be proactive -- that we could be engaged in peacemaking today rather than waiting until the crisis and then asking what to do?

+Eighth and finally, I've saved the simplest, yet most significant until last. Can we imagine what it would be like to go out into the world with a foreign policy that was not first and foremost about American interests or profits, but was about making and serving friends? Within my religious tradition, we are instructed that we are to pray for our enemies? Why do you suppose that is? Because it is really hard to kill someone if you are praying for them.

Oh, I hear those voices already: "hopelessly idealistic," "would never work," "would not show enough strength, looks too weak," etc. The fact that criticisms take this form shows the extent to which we've allowed the initial "axioms" I listed to rule our imaginations. And, as with my comments on re-imagining the economy, I am not suggesting that my list of "new imaginations" is the best. What I am suggesting is that we ought not be bound by the myth of redemptive violence, but rather, we ought to heed the call of many of our religious traditions -- a call to a different way of being that might begin to re-invigorate our imaginations, and ultimately, to change our way of thinking and being.

As usual, a longer, more detailed version is here, and we would be delighted to hear your thoughts on how to re-imagine resisting evil.