How do we respond to violence?

Christian Piatt

In April 1945, Lutheran pastor and noted pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer was led naked to his execution in the gallows of a Nazi prison camp. He was 39 years old.

Though formal charges against him included trafficking Jews across the border to Switzerland, the ultimate justification for his death was his involvement in plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One of the central tenets of Bonhoeffer’s faith was submission to God’s will. How that is manifest in a world crippled by violence is an ongoing debate.

Bonhoeffer presented what he considered to be a theological dilemma when he said, “Responsible action is how Christians act in accordance with the will of God. The demand for responsible action is one that no Christian can ignore. Christians are, therefore, faced with a dilemma: When assaulted by evil, they must oppose it through direct action. They have no other option. Any failure to act is simply to condone evil.”

This principle of Christian justice raises debate about what constitutes appropriate direct action. To stand by while grave injustices are done is inherently un-Christian, according to Bonhoeffer. However, as arbiters of peace, how can we justify responding to individual or systemic acts of rape, genocide, and other human atrocities with more bloodshed?

I acknowledge an ongoing inner conflict around this issue, with which I have struggled for many years with respect to gun control. As a civil libertarian, I believe the government’s legislation of individual rights often is in opposition to the intent of the founding fathers. As a pacifist, I shudder at the consequence of the constitutional right to bear arms.

One reality of civil liberties is that any permissive system is vulnerable to abuse. Even Bonhoeffer’s dilemma has been co-opted by those who would stand on it to justify acts like the bombing of abortion clinics. The debate, then, comes down to whether the loss of personal liberty outweighs the ability of the greater society to conform human behavior to the majority’s value system.

Those who choose to lean on Bonhoeffer’s dilemma to justify a violent response to grave injustice should heed a word of caution, however. What Bonhoeffer claimed is that, when we recognize transgressions of justice, we must respond by taking action. This is all that he claimed in this statement. To jump to the justification of the use of force is a misappropriation of his point.

It is true that Bonhoeffer called us to action, though he did not say what sort of action is necessary. In the particular context of Hitler, he determined that an assassination attempt was his only option. Even in doing so, he recognized the sinfulness of his choice and submitted to God’s judgment for the consequences of that choice. He felt compelled, but he was anything but divinely justified in his choice.

Reality suggests that a nonviolent response to Hitler’s acts of evil would not have led to the desired change. It was, in fact, on the field of battle that the Nazis ultimately were weakened to the point of submission. One can look back now and easily justify the means by which we achieved a more peaceful end.

I would argue, however, that justifying human behavior based on outcomes is not what we are called to as Christians. Like Christ, we are called to action; but also like Christ, we are called to peace rather than violence. In doing so, we give up much control over the result of our actions, which none of us likes to do.

We jump to justifying the greater good in using force, whether it’s through capital punishment, preemptive strikes in Iraq, or challenging the corrupted government in Sudan. After all, wouldn’t Jesus have been justified in rallying forces against the Roman Empire? Certainly, history would have looked upon a Jewish revolution sympathetically. Even the majority of Christ’s followers expected such an overthrow, right up to Jesus’ final days.

But it never happened.

In the short term, some may have viewed Jesus’ peaceful confrontation of the Roman Empire as a failure. But in the greater context, long after the empirical reign dissolved, Christ’s gospel message endures.

Violence never redeems. It may yield the immediate result we desire; it may even save lives. It is a natural human response to injustice but, in my estimation, it never has been, and never will be, justifiable from a Christian standpoint.

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