Would the Prince of Peace ever counsel violence?

Published March 1, 2001

Eric Beresford

IT MAY BE inevitable that the beginning of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence should be marked by the question of whether it is ever appropriate to use violence to end violence. The moderator of the WCC’s central committee, Catholicos Aram I, posed that question at a recent meeting.

Referring to the situation in Israel he said: “Violence is evil; yet for some, living under conditions of injustice and oppression, where all means of non-violent actions are used up, violence remains an unavoidable alternative, a last resort.”

For some, such a position, from a Christian leader, seems absurd. How can we follow the Prince of Peace down the path of violence? How can we resort to the use of lethal force if we are told to “love our enemies.” Yet others see the pacifism implied in this response as unrealistic, out of touch with the dreadful realities under which many people live and the lack of options they have in the face of political oppression or military occupation.

This is an old debate that reaches back into the early centuries of the church’s existence. At its very beginning, the church was pacifist, believing that resorting to violence was incompatible with the call of the gospel. As the church moved from being a marginal, sectarian group to acceptance as part of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire some argued that the new political freedoms brought with them new responsibilities. For thinkers like Augustine, it was not appropriate to enjoy the benefits of political stability, without showing willingness to share in the costs, including military service.

Augustine’s position is a remarkable one for its time for two reasons. First, he condemns the use of violence in self-defence. Second, although he allows the use of violence to defend the interests of others as an expression of love and concern for the victims of injustice and oppression, he sets out conditions under which it is appropriate to refuse to engage in violence and thus disobey the the state. In his day, this was an extraordinarily subversive possibility.

Augustine’s conditions form the basis of principles usually referred to as the Just War theory, by which Christians have sought to distinguish conflicts that are justified from those which are not. This distinction has always been easier in theory and with hindsight. Since 1930, successive Lambeth Conferences have criticized the resort to violence to resolve economic, cultural, political, or religious disputes. However, in 1988, under pressure not to isolate those in South Africa who believed that only armed conflict would end apartheid, the bishops added that the conference, “understands those who, after exhausting all other ways, choose the way of armed struggle as the only way to justice, whilst drawing attention to the dangers and injustices possible in such action itself.”

This provoked a protest from bishops from Ireland who saw the clause as a possible justification of the use of violence by both Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The statement had earlier condemned terrorism, but the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter has often appeared tenuous.

The statement also recognizes the dangers in the appeal to violence. Thinkers like Jacques Ellul have expressed this in terms of the potential for an upward spiral in which the use of violence to overcome oppression justifies further violence on the part of the oppressor, which demands yet more violence to bring about an end to the situation.

Yet others question whether the pacifism implicit in this position adequately acknowledges the experience of those who suffer oppression or military occupation. It is interesting that the Lambeth statement did not endorse violence itself, but merely acknowledged and expressed sympathy for those who felt they had no other choice.

Clearly, as we enter the Decade to Overcome Violence this month, we must acknowledge with Catholicos Aram that churches have not reached a “common understanding” on the role of violence in combating injustice and overcoming violence. Many do not share his views on how to respond to the situation in Israel, or on the wider question of how we pursue peace with justice. At least a part of the work of this decade must be to seek greater clarity on the things that make for peace. In the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ecojustice Committee is beginning that work with a re-examination of the traditions of peace-making, and the effectiveness of the appeal to Just War theories.

It is important to remember that lack of common understanding at this point can be exaggerated. All parties to this discussion should share a common goal, which is a commitment to the pursuit of what the Old Testament calls shalom. Often translated simply as peace, this word also contains ideals of the justice and wholeness that mark human flourishing.

In light of this, perhaps the real issue is not the negative question of how we end violence, but the more positive task of how we build and model communities of peace. Perhaps we need not simply to teach peace, but to live it.

Canon Eric Beresford is consultant for ethics and interfaith relations for General Synod.


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