Toward a theology of violence

Consider this thinking out loud theologically on the subject of violence. I don’t have many certainties on this subject apart my starting point being God as the summum bonum (the highest good) and my ending being us in God as our final and proper end. I define violence completely in those terms, as I hope these scattered thoughts will show why. I thought I’d share some of my convictions along these lines and invite comments and insights.

1) The first and most fundamental conviction of ours is God as summum bonum: the highest good from which all goods derive, the first truth presupposed in all truths, the truest beauty which all things reflect in different degrees, and the worth and delight toward which all desire tends.

We think this the only basis upon which to view violence (or anything else for that matter). For us, violence is defined in light of God’s ontological peace, a peace no violence can negate or falsify, whose existence is its fullest reality not achieved within any history of violence or becoming within the created order. God as summum bonum is the truly non-violent beginning and end of all things.

2) What is violence? Condemnations of it abound. Definitions of a theological nature are more scarce. Consider the following:

First, violence cannot simply be equated with causing physical or psychological pain or discomfort. If I amputate a man’s leg without anesthesia, am I doing him violence? Not if his leg is gangrenous and we’re in a remote location. In this case not to amputate would be to do him violence. We can easily change the circumstances of such an action to make it an obvious act of violence. And the same distinction applies to psychological pain/discomfort.

Second, violence cannot simply be equated as coercive action. The above example holds regardless of the man’s willing cooperation. He may be unwilling to have his leg amputated. Similarly, a person threatening suicide may not wish to be pulled from the ledge against her will, but surely it is no violence to violate her preference in this case. Violating the will of another cannot by itself constitute a violent act.

Third, at the very least violence entails “ill-will” or “the will to harm.” But what sort of harm constitutes violence? Implicit in the notion of harm (as with violence) is some understanding of the ‘end’ or ‘good’ against which an action is measured. We only harm others with respect to this ‘good’.

Fourth, ‘good’ and ‘well-being’ as defined by whom? What constitutes the good which functions as the ‘end’ or ‘measure’ against which actions may be considered violent? As noted above, it cannot be the desires or preferences of the person who is the object of some action. The man may not want his leg amputated. A child may demand a diet exclusively comprised of sugar. And so they may falsely view amputation or having to eat vegetables as a violation of their ‘good’ and thus an act of violence against them. But surely the parent does violence to a child by indulging his/her preferences. Violence cannot be equated in any simplistic way with violating the desires or preferences of another.

What about the end desired or intended by the subject of some act? Is the subject an infallible guide to that good which defines violence? This too is unlikely. If the receiver of some action may falsely perceive her own ‘good’ (previous paragraph), so also may the doer/subject of some action falsely perceive his own good and the good of another toward whom he acts. This implies some transcendent good, some good against which personal preferences are themselves measured. Hence, violence is as relative as the morality informing the perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ used to define actions as violent or not. To the extent morality is relative to individual perceptions and tastes, violence is equally relative. Point is: Violence is (at least) a perspective on behavior viewed relative to one’s understanding of some desired good. However, not all violations of the desired ends of others constitute violence against them. Hence:

some transcendent good has to be assumed for it to be the case that violence even exists (even if no individual can claim to have an infallible perspective on that good), for the very notion of violence against another presumes a relation between subject and object that is embraced by a good which is not reducible to the perspectives of the related individuals but by which they are embraced. And this transcendent good must embrace all that exists since all that exists is related and implicated in the actions of its parts.

3) Can God as transcendent good and proper end of all created being be known infallibly? Perhaps not. But some understanding of ‘the Good’ as transcendent and universally available must be assumed before any notion of violence and well-being can consistently be employed.

4) Christ is the incarnation of the transcendent good and proper end of all things.

5) Christ did no real violence to anyone. He always willed God (and, indeed, himself) as the highest good and proper end of all persons and all things. But given our opening observations, this did not mean he always sought to maximize the physical or psychological comfort of others.

6) Violence is born in a failure to see one’s self in the other and the other in one’s self (Cain’s first error) and then in the failure to ground one’s own value in that which grounds the value of the other. Hence, all violence begins with a failure to embrace a transcendent good that embraces all things but is not reducible to the perspective of any one thing. Every individual’s value is an equal share in the value of the entire universe. This unity in the shared (transcendent) good grounds all values and is itself the presupposition of true empathy. It is the “as” which unites ‘self’ and ‘other’ in every version of the Golden Rule that directs us to do unto others “as” we would have them to unto us. Willing violence, we might then say, is willing something other than God (or whatever name one gives to the transcendent Good that grounds all beings) as another’s end. Doing violence would be to seek to bring another to some end other than his/her fullness in this Good.

7) Whole vs Part | Individual vs Communal.

First, might there be cases when the truest/ultimate good of the one is in conflict with the truest/ultimate good of the whole? We think not. For no individual’s good in God can be threatened by another individual’s good in God or by a community’s shared/experienced good in God. God would not be the transcendent summum bonum if the ‘good in God’ of any one was threatened by the ‘good in God’ of any other(s).

Second, what may be are cases in which the physical or psychological comfort/discomfort of one is temporarily jeopardized by their own good or the good of another. Violence can only be conceived as failing to intend another’s good in God, but this good cannot be collapsed into the other’s material or psychological comfort or pleasure.

Third, since God as summum bonum alone is the highest good of all things, no human being can stand between a person (even one’s own self) and his/her ultimate good in God. That is, no human being can do ultimate violence to another since it cannot lie within the powers of any person to determine another person’s ultimate relationship to God. All violence within this world can be viewed in terms of its limited, finite consequences. All violence is constrained by fundamental metaphysics. God’s being the ground of all things and the highest good and final end of human beings insures human beings have only limited, temporary influence over how others come to see themselves as grounded in God as their highest good and truest end.

8) The greatest violence one can do to another, then, is to direct his/her desires toward some good other than God. The second greatest violence is to foster in another the belief that one’s good in God is equivalent to one’s material/psychological comfort in this world. (Some failure to appreciate this seems to us to be behind Greg Boyd’s work with respect to non-violence. It seems to us that Greg often conflates our “good in God” with our “present comfort” and only then defines violence accordingly.)

9) Causing another physical and psychological pain may or may not be consistent with willing that person’s highest good in God and directing their desires and affections toward God. How might this influence how we approach more benign examples (i.e., non-genocidal OT texts) of violence in the NT? Take two common examples: Ananias & Sapphira’s deaths in Acts 5 and the blinding of Elymas in Acts 13. (Greg Boyd, for example, suggests that Peter and Paul each retain a power to bring such judgments to pass as unloving, violent alternatives to God’s love. God, being love, would not, indeed, could not, bring about a person’s blindness or take someone’s life from them. Indeed, Greg holds that God was doing all God could do given the constraints of creaturely agency to convince Peter and Paul not to pronounce these judgments since they are violent. We have to say, for example, that Peter was simply guilty of murder. But both Peter and Paul were operating either within their own inherent spiritual capacities independently of God or were empowered by malevolent spiritual/demonic forces.)

But must a ‘divine ontology of peace’ or ‘willing another’s participation in God as his/her highest good’ (i.e., ‘loving’ another) require us to dissociate God as empowering the death and blindness that occur in these examples? Does willing the highest good of Ananias and Sapphira preclude their deaths as compatible with their highest good? Does willing the highest good of Elymas preclude rendering him blind? I don’t see why we must answer ‘yes’ in these cases (as the above points show).

10) Divine intention and the accomplishing of divine judgment. Granting the compatibility of divine judgment (as in the examples above) accomplished by divine agency, it doesn’t follow that that every instance of death, plague or genocide attributed to God in the Bible is in fact accomplished by God. But neither does it mean God is directly behind none of any of the instances of judgement attributed to him in the Bible.

11) Lastly, and more pastoral, what relationship might there be between God experienced as summum bonum and the enduring of violence? Can there be a peace which is infinite regard for the other, a place of participation in the immeasurable peace of God as the summum bonum, where all measurable losses are comparably meaningless? (Rom 8) What would this have to do with overcoming violence?

(Picture here.)


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