The Problem of Third-Party Violence

In Kampen’s latest post she discusses John Milbank’s objection to Christian pacifism, which is raised on the grounds that the pacifist is unjustified in observing a violent action and failing to take action to stop it and/or rectify the situation, using violence if necessary. What I find particularly interesting about this and many other similar objections to pacifism is that the subject of violence is a third party. It is not the pacifist who has initiated the violence, nor is the pacifist the subject of violence. Rather, the pacifist is considered a moral agent independent of the violent act, at least until the pacifist chooses how to respond to the situation.

What is generally implicit in this type of scenario is that the pacifist’s response to violence committed against herself or himself is not likely to problematize pacifism. The pacifist can choose to “sit there and take it” without being implicated in violence, and this choice is generally accepted as legitimate. However, this situation itself problematizes the third-party scenario outlined by Milbank and others. If the subject of violence is pacifist and has chosen to reject retaliation as a response to violence, then the violent intervener, considering himself or herself to be acting justly, acts against the wishes of both the perpetrator and the subject of the initial violence and brings about an outcome neither of the first two parties find desirable. Further complicating matters is that the pacifist may well attempt to stop the aggression (without resort to violence), demonstrating a clear desire for an end to the violence, without necessarily making it clear that the pacifist may oppose the use of counter-violence to end the initial violence. So the presence of violence, and of attempts by the subject of violence to end it, is not a sure indicator that remedial violence would be welcome in the situation.

The third party who sees this situation and must choose a response therefore has no clear and obvious choice in the matter. Violent intervention may well offend both parties involved. The third party might choose violence on some grounds of probability, thinking that it is statistically likely that the victim would appreciate rescue by any means necessary. The third party might choose violence out of a deontological sense of the absolute evil of aggression against those who cannot or will not successfully resist. The first option will necessarily result in undesired actions at least some of the time. The second option puts the third-party intervener in the same ethical situation as the pacifist observer in Milbank’s scenario, where a sense of conviction may result in actions that work against the interests of the subject of violence.

This demonstrates the ethical difficulty in designating wrongdoing implicit in any third-party approach to violence, in which one is implicated in violence only by one’s response to the violent act of one party against another. It is therefore interesting to note that Biblical ethical discourse does not speak the language of the third-party approach to violence. Rather, it is assumed from the beginning that violence against any person is violence against the community of that person. In other words, there are no third parties to violence. If you are associated more closely with the subject of violence, you respond to the aggressor as if you yourself were the subject of violence, whatever your response might be. If you are more closely affiliated with the aggressor, you act as if you yourself committed the violence in question, whether that means supporting it or denouncing it and making amends to the victim.

This ethic leaves no room for the person who would say “I wouldn’t fight for myself, but I would definitely be willing to fight to protect others.” Only the person willing to fight violence with violence to defend her or his own interests exhibits some moral consistency in using violence for the benefit of others. All those who would not defend themselves with violence forego any claim to exercise violence on an aggressor on behalf of the interests of others. And if the pacifist is justified in rejecting the use of violence in self-defence, it therefore follows that the pacifist is justified in refusing to violently intervene in a situation of violence.

Milbank’s objection to Christian pacifism is thus at odds with Jesus’ injunction that his disciples renounce the use of violence in self-defence. Those who will not defend themselves with violence are implicitly excluded from violently fighting for others. Doing so would be at odds with the foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

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4 comments on “The Problem of Third-Party Violence

  1. Kampen says:

    Milbank rejects any notion we have of a pure non-violence. Therefore, for pacifism cannot be a discussion of non-violence (because we are ALWAYS implicated in violence) but rather must be a dialogue and practice of peaceable (not peaceful) activities. Hauerwas gives examples such as raising lemurs, having children, and playing baseball.

    Anyway, to continue with Milbank. He also doesn’t only discuss pacifism in terms of a third party. At one point in his essay he states that “the pacifist outlook seems to assume that where one is presented with acts of violence in real life — either toward others or TO ONESELF–then to retain the stance of onlooker is morally superior to undertaking a defensive counterviolence.” (emphasis is my own)

    There still remains a problem however. There is no room for Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ is the inauguration of a possibility radically different and counter to the violence of the principalities and powers of the world. A theopolitical or peaceable imagination (or whatever you want to call it) is imparted to those willing to receive it. I also think here of the Ascension and the Great Commission.

    • Theophilus says:

      On the matter of the pursuit of three-party scenarios to problematize pacifism rather than two-party scenarios, I appreciate your correction that this is not directly applicable to Milbank. It is applicable to many attempts to problematize pacifism that I’ve encountered, including informal ones. I am curious whether Milbank views the inaction of a subject of violence as equally problematic as the inaction of a witness of violence.

    • John says:

      I don’t see how there’s anyroom for Christ in just sitting back and watching the innocent get slaughtered either. Sure, we should not live by the sword and should always be striving and imagining new and unexpected possibilities for peace. But if the president is about to nuke Russia for no reason, and there’s literally *no way* to stop this other than gunning him down, what are you gonna do? If I’ve kidnapped a few hundred children and am in the middle of a week long process of torturing them all to death, and it’s not even possible to verbally communicate with me or offer some kind of non-violent resistance… all you can do is release a special gas in the area which only kills adults… then again, what are you gonna do? Extreme and rare situation I know, *but the whole point* of Milbank’s posturing is to address what we are to do in extreme situations. Adopting pacifism and non-violence as a general principle is one thing, but to construct another legalistic ‘ism’ out of it with no concern for the consequences – i.e. the torture and murder of thousands of the poor, women and outcasts for whom Christ gave so much and loved so deeply – seems deeply counter to the gospel in my eyes.

      • Kampen says:

        So…we’re only pacifists when we think it will work? i.e. not in extreme situations? i.e. our faithfulness to Christ depends on its gauged effectiveness?

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