Is political violence ever justified? And what might the White Rose have to teach today’s antifa, and their detractors?
About this Episode
This time last year, almost everyone was convinced that, here in the USA, we don’t do political violence: we solve our political problems without blood in the street. But since then, on both left and right, “it’s not real violence if the good guys are doing it” has become a common argument. How did this happen, is it wrong to see parallels between the BLM-related riots and the Capitol riot on January 6th, and how can we come back from that? Is it naive to seek to maintain Martin Luther King's nonviolence? Has his stance been overtaken by the seriousness of current problems?
And what about other kinds of political violence? Can we condemn riots and still, in principle, be open to the idea of a just war? Can a Christian ever kill?
Peter and Susannah get into these questions, and then turn to discussing the White Rose, a student movement of German Christians whose leaders were executed in 1943. The White Rose was a nonviolent movement passionately opposed to the Nazi regime, arguably the ancestor of today's antifa movements. But their philosophy and approach were very different. Drawing from the heights of German culture and the political philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas, these young people articulated a vision of opposition to the Nazis based on an embrace of the best of traditional Western, and human, thought. They accused Hitler of being a tyrant, by which they meant something very specific: that he had rejected the values they argued for, which had characterized Germany and the West – learning, discourse, indeed Christianity and “traditional values” – and embraced pure power and barbarism. To be a humanist, for these young people, and to be a Christian, and to be an antifascist: these were all different aspects of the same calling. And they ultimately gave their lives to answer that call. What would it look like to pattern our activism on their lives?
- I. Political violence: Can violence be good? (1:04)
- II. Intermezzo: We share news from the Plough network. (17:14)
- III. The White Rose: Were they the original antifa? (21:42)
- IV. Recommendations: We offer an antifascist reading, and Lenten Dvořák. (29:50)
- Plough Quarterly No. 27: The Violence of Love
- Peter Mommsen, The Case for Meekness
- Jon Baskin, The Unbearable: Toward an Antifascist Aesthetic
- Antonín Dvořák, Stabat Mater (Op. 58)
- Andrea Grosso Ciponte, Freiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel
Susannah: With the taboo against political violence seemingly under assault, what might a truly Christian stance on violence look like?
Peter: How do we maintain moral sanity and resist the danger of the collective “we”? What are the lessons we might learn from the White Rose resistance movement to National Socialism?
Susannah: I'm Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.
Peter: I'm Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough Quarterly. And this is The PloughCast.
Susannah: When we're putting an issue of Plough together, we base it around a theme. This issue theme is the violence of love, violence and nonviolence, justice, and reconciliation.
Peter: So there were some incredible articles in this issue and the purpose of the six-part podcast, which we'll be putting out with every issue of Plough going forward, is to dig deeper into some of these pieces Susannah and I may some find some things we agree about, and we'll definitely find some things we disagree about. We'll also bring on some guests.
Susannah: Make sure to follow us on your podcast service of choice. Look us up as The PloughCast. And with that, let's get to the conversation.
I. Political violence: Can violence be good? (1:04)
Peter: Which will be the issue of political violence – and can violence be good? I suspect, Susannah, you and I have slightly different views about this.
Susannah: We do, although I think that probably the question of political violence properly speaking, which is kind of, what your lead editorial hit on, we probably agree more closely. So what your editorial started to dig into was this thing that has happened in the last, I don't know, ten months or so, where it feels like this time last year, everyone was pretty convinced. And we didn't even need to really talk about it that much, other than a couple of, you know, people on the, mostly on the far left, some on the far right. That political violence, like extra, state, you know riots, as a political tool was not something [pause] that was bad. And we didn't do that in the US – that was sort of something that happened when things had gotten out of hand to a degree that they had not gotten out of hand. And now this time this year, it seems like both on the left and the right that's no longer the case. We no longer have that agreement in our culture.
Peter: It really does feel like the breaking of a taboo. So if you go back and just read accounts of social movements even of anti-police brutality movements from a couple of years ago, there's a completely different tone – what now comes across as a very staid antiviolence tone. And then over the course of the last year, most noticeably of course, over the summer, after the horrible killing of George Floyd, you suddenly heard progressive journalists especially just joining in chorus, in this defense of violence. Of course they didn't necessarily use that word, but many referred to Martin Luther King's one-off line, about riots being the language of the unheard and seemingly very embarrassed though, about his uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. And I would say, not unrelatedly, by his commitment to Christianity. And so that occasioned a lot of jeering by people on the right.
We heard lots of people making fun of the, sort of mostly peaceful protest line that was in mainstream media. And yet of course, on the right, bad things were going on too, and ramping up and culminating and the January six attack on the US Capitol which wasn't defended possibly in the same terms, but there did seem to be a lot more comfort with the idea of groups kind of, violently taking control of public areas on the right, than you would have seen a year or two ago either. So the breaking of the taboo, and I don't think it's necessarily interesting for our podcast today Susannah, to try to say who's more at fault or where's the blame to lie. But what I find really interesting is the mainstreaming of the idea that violence can sometimes be good, especially if it's our side, you know, that's throwing the Molotov cocktails or breaking windows, or even punching police officers.
Susannah: Yeah. and I think that it felt as though it were, you were watching it – or at least I felt as though I was watching it – that change happen in real time and with a kind of speed and confusion, that was just outstandingly, interesting.
Peter: But of course the breaking of this taboo and the passing of it, made me think, you know, maybe we didn't appreciate enough what it meant that our society for a number of decades at least, kind of joined together in this civic, religion of nonviolence, in this, you know, kind of easy-to-mock universalism. The “I have a dream” speech idea that really nonviolent protest appeals to the good and the heart of the other, were kind of the American way at least, post-civil rights movement.
And of course that was always a bit of a fairy tale, but it was a pretty powerful fairy tale. Now that it's fallen apart, I think it's worth looking at what grounded it in the first place and getting back to that. And of course for King, that was the gospel. That was a very specifically Christian vision. And I think it's worth pointing out that with the falling of this taboo it’s actually the falling of a kind of Christian achievement that we're losing or have lost. And maybe that's too pessimistic. Maybe it will come back. But right now it looks like it's teetering.
Susannah: I would say that Dr. King as a kind of avatar of the best of American civil religion, I don't think we appreciated that enough when we had it. And I feel like it has this past year kind of, gone away on a number of levels. And I mean, we can argue about this, but we don't really have a huge legacy of classical political theology that's speaking into American life. Like most of the founders didn't, you know, didn't read Aquinas with the possible exception of James Wilson. But you know, we had in Martin Luther King, a kind of American Thomism – American Augustinianism, but like even the basic idea that an unjust law is no law at all. Or that, you know, the positive law ought to match a kind of higher law, like those two ideas, which are kind of at the core of Christian understanding of law, came to America, came to our kind of contemporary normy “everyone-kind-of-agrees-on-this” vision of what America was, not primarily through Dr. King, but he certainly was the one who articulated it most clearly, and who knew what he was doing when he was articulating it.
Peter: What I've been wondering about, because of course, nonviolence was always based on something deeper in King's vision. And it was based on a willingness to suffer wrong out of love to illustrate through the acceptance of wrong, of injustice you know, whether it's being hosed down while you're marching for voting rights, or beaten over the head while you were desegregating a lunch counter, you're accepting wrong, in order to illustrate that it is wrong. And there's a kind of injustice to that. And you can understand why there'd be a reaction. And there was in his day. And we saw that doubly over the last year, there was a reaction: “we're not going to take that; we shouldn't be expected to love those who are our enemies. It's unfair to expect us to accept abuse.”
It's unfair to accept that somebody who's fighting for justice can be put in a situation where they're actually physically being hurt. We should be able to hate in that situation. We should be able to not yield. We should be able to fight back. Those things are like very natural reactions. And that's why you mentioned Aquinas and this kind of natural law classical theology tradition. It was interesting to me to notice that the virtue of meekness is linked by Aquinas with the virtue of magnanimity, both of which kind of have to do with an act of self-restraint, of self-mastery, of self-abnegation. And those are things that are never popular and actually don't make a lot of sense outside of a Christian worldview.
Susannah: And in that sense, the self-control and the kind of trained self-control, there were like elaborate trainings like the kids who desegregated lunch counters went through, to help them not respond with the kind of lashing out that would be natural. That kind of training in self-mastery and self-rule, I think is something that – it's a very different way of understanding meekness than just thinking of it as being wimpy or passive. It's almost the opposite. And I think that, pacifism in the sense that Dr. King advocated, it is something that is so profoundly opposite to passivity and to a kind of weakness. It's a primary strength. And I think that obviously the highest version of this is Christ going to the cross and the nature of the cross as a kind of battle, which is the way that it's been portrayed since the beginning. Jesus won a victory, and it was like, if you want, a quasi-physical victory as a warrior, by controlling himself and by accepting pain, and interposing his body in between us and the danger that we face. The way that a King would on the battlefield. It takes a kind of transformation of the imagination to see nonviolence as something that comes from a place of strength rather than a place of weakness. But I think we kind of need to.
Peter: I have a question Susannah, I'm speaking, you know I come from an Anabaptist tradition where we think nonviolence is the way taught by Jesus, the way he lived, the way his Sermon on the Mount lays out for us. Love your enemy. Accept the second blow, do what you're asked, don't fight back; the way the gospel is incompatible with killing. And that's a pretty bright line for people coming from the Anabaptist tradition, but I'm very aware, that is not the mainstream of Christianity, at least for the last sixteen hundred years. Although I, and we, would argue that that was the mainstream of Christianity for its first few hundred years. And in a way that's kind of uncomfortable for people who want to get away from nonviolence. So I guess my question is, and this is lining up. It seems actually a little arrogant and inconsistent for Christians who have carved out all kinds of exceptions to nonviolence for themselves, to go and ask people fighting for justice, to accept nonviolence in ways that Christians haven't really been consistent about, even for people within the church. And we're asking people who are secular, who don't even believe necessarily that meekness is a good thing, that the beatitudes even are an accurate portrayal of how human beings should be. We're asking them to be nonviolent. How does that work?
Susannah: Thanks for putting me on the spot there Pete.
Peter: Well, you know, that is what we're here for.
Susannah: So I guess there are two ways into this. And one is that as I said at the beginning, I think that political violence as we've seen it in the last year I would distinguish from state use of force. Violence being a word that carries a moral judgment within itself. Like it's a violation. So the argument would be, and I know how to make these arguments, even though I go back and forth in my head as to how convinced I am by them. But the argument would be that the magistrate is given the use of the sword in Romans 13. And he's given the use of the sword for the good of the community, not for its ill. And therefore that would be, you know, one of these areas where Christians have carved out an okay use of violence for themselves that you would criticize. But you know, the sort of response would be, “well, we're told that the magistrate's job here is something that God blesses.” This is like something that if the magistrate weren't doing that job, he would actually be disobeying God's purpose for him in that role. And therefore, how can you say that it would be wrong for a Christian to be a magistrate? If a magistrate can be obeying God by using the sword towards public justice. But that is a different thing than private citizens taking it on themselves to be vigilantes. So there's like a strong distinction between vigilantism and public justice, which we ought to see a kind of perspective, like taste-of, in a weird way, God's own judgment, in the last judgment, even though that's a scary thing to think about.
Peter: It just still seems to me that for Christians to wring their hands and say, “oh terrible protestors acting in rage.” When we ourselves essentially have gutted the Sermon on the Mount, when it comes to questions of the use of force, seems strange. I suspect though, and we're not gonna figure this out right now, right? But over the course of this series of six podcasts, we're going to return to some of these questions of pacifism, of the use of force, the role of the state participating in policing, participating in the military self-defense. Because I think these things really are connected. And I think what's amazing as you get back to Martin Luther King, is that he really did have a vision of a kind of nonviolence that went beyond that. It was so generous. You know, thinking of meekness as a kind of mirror of magnanimity, nonviolence that was so generous that it embraced everyone. And that's really what allows the beloved community to come into being. And of course, King as a kind of theological liberal is really seeing this as a society-wide thing, not as something that's happening in some narrow Christian sectarian group, right? The beloved community is not tiny. The beloved community is expansive and it’s for everyone.
II. Intermezzo: We share news from the Plough network (17:14)
In between the two segments of our podcasts. We're thinking we're going to do a little intermezzo so to speak, where we talk a little bit about our lives and the communities that we're part of. From my side, I'm part of the Fox Hill Bruderhof community in upstate New York and Susannah, you're downstate from me.
Susannah: I'm downstate, don't hold it against me.
Peter: And what are the things that you do Susannah; you kind of help hold together the wider Plough community. So all the different organizations and people and contributors and writers and doers, that are somehow part of the living network that we kinda aim to help build and nurture through this magazine.
Susannah: Normally, the way that I do that is by hanging out with people. And now that we can't really do that I've found myself on Twitter, maybe even a little more than I had normally been on Twitter, which was already kind of a lot. And one thing that happened yesterday, I will say in the broader Plough community, because there's no reason not to say that, is that Zena Hitz , who's a teacher at St. John's College, the Great Books college in Annapolis. Who's a sort of friend-of-the-pod Zena Hitz, I will say, or at least she's not an enemy of the pod. And she will be a friend of the pod, has gotten into this strange Twitter friendship with MC Hammer who has, you know, in maybe over COVID started getting really interested in philosophy. Zena Hitz is a philosophy professor.
So Zena and MC Hammer have been going back and forth on Twitter, sort of delving into various questions about the proper use of science, whether science is a more adequate way of describing reality than philosophy, or whether they're complimentary. And apparently – I found this out yesterday – Zena and MC Hammer are going to be co-hosting a Clubhouse hangout in a Clubhouse room, this new social media app Clubhouse on Friday at 10:00 PM Eastern. So while I normally would, like, go into Manhattan and hang out with friends, I am going to be sort of clubhousing in, I just downloaded this app, to hang out with MC Hammer and Zena to talk about philosophy on Friday. Now you guys can't do that because this will have already happened by the time we put this podcast out. But presumably, you know, here's hoping it will be the first of several Zena-Hitz-MC Hammer-crossover-like moments of bizarreness. And Pete and I are going to, once I convince Pete to get an iPhone, be doing Clubhouse hangouts of our own. So keep your eyes open for that.
Peter: Yeah. That's going to be fun. You know, that thing with Zena and MC Hammer is just going to be great. And I can't wait to hear about it. I'm trying to resist the you-can't-touch-this kind of joke at this point.
Susannah: There's so many, there've been so many.
Peter: The place where I live in Walden, New York is Foxhill Bruderhof. So imagine a village of about two hundred fifty people with a furniture factory and a school and a medical clinic and a Plough Publishing House, which is where we're based out of. We all live together. We share everything in common and it's been great having you, Susannah up here very often, and many of our Plough friends and contributors come up here. We can't wait until we can do more of that in-person stuff. What I want to talk about today though has to do with an article from the issue. So one of the articles that we'll be talking about in a later segment of this podcast is on the story of the Bruderhof and conscientious objection. And it focuses on the life of one guy, Jakob Gneiting, and he happened to be a neighbor, my neighbor, and how he kind of lived through this whole story of conscientious objection and the Bruderhof, but that's not what I'm talking about now. Jakob and his wife Juliana is this wonderful, wonderful woman – a Paraguayan he married down there, they are going to be celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary. And tonight we're going to get together and we're going to do two things that Bruderhof people like to do a lot. We're going to sing German folk songs, German love songs, and we're going to do a Feuerzangbole which Susannah, I think you're familiar with. Well, now we should get on to the topic that we're really here to talk about in the second half of our podcast. Let's talk about the White Rose. Susannah how did you first hear about the White Rose?
III. The White Rose: Were they the original Antifa? (21:42)
Susannah: I think that I did not know about them before I started working for Plough. And then I think probably maybe the first time I went up and visited, I don’t know, Sam was probably like, “go look on the shelves and grab any books that look interesting to you.” We have – I don't think that I have a copy of it right near my desk, but we have one of the older books, I don't know when it was originally published, I guess, not that long ago, like three years ago or something like that. At the Heart of the White Rose is a book that sort of uses letters and diary entries and various other documents to tell the story of this Christian student group, that ended up sort of creating as Pete said, I think of them as the original Antifa or Antifa or however you want to pronounce it, except that if you know about them, it's like bizarre to think of them that way, but it is entirely accurate.
They were a student group who organized themselves under basically under student leadership, although they had this one professor who is helping them out to distribute, to compose and distribute pamphlets arguing against Nazism and calling for passive resistance and various kinds of non-cooperation. And I've found them to be, for various reasons, just an incredible inspiration. And actually when Anna and I were first talking about starting the breaking ground project the original conversation that we had had about, like I think the original conversation that Anna and I ever had was about the White Rose, because I was so obsessed with them and I kind of still am. I mean, I definitely still am. It's a little bit annoying to my friends. I'm sure. Anyway, so yeah, you should all get very excited for the graphic novel version of the White Rose story that we are releasing any minute now. It's called Freiheit! i.e. “Freedom.”
Peter: There’ve been some great reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal and so forth about the book. So we really are excited about it. You know one thing about the White Rose and of course, this doesn't really come out with a graphic novel. It's just how deeply grounded they were as students in the spiritual and humanist traditions of the West basically. And how that nourished their courage in a way that I think is easy to miss nowadays, when you think of anti-fascism, you don't necessarily think of people who quote Schiller, right?
Susannah: Yeah. And Goethe. Yeah, that's kind of one of the things that really strikes me about them because they thoroughly knew what they were doing in terms of – they didn't just have a kind of inchoate or even traditional liberal democratic idea of why what Hitler was doing was wrong. They had this very deep love of Germany, and they felt like – there's one of the pamphlets in particular actually, I think it's the first one, which is the one where they quote Schiller and Goethe. It's really like they're calling Germany back to itself, where they – “we are your bad conscience. We will not let you rest.” And it's in that basis that they are opposing Hitler, who they see is like, you know, basically a parasite on this country that they love so much. And then the other pamphlet three, which is you know, the one that I kind of have been more obsessed with. You know, I've actually got a quote here. If I can find it, they're just extremely aware of the arguments they're making against Hitler. Well, okay. I'm just going to read this. It starts out “Salus Publica Suprema lex” so that “the public health is the highest law.” The public good is the highest law, and they start out:
“All ideal forms of government are utopias. A state cannot be designed strictly theoretically; it must grow mature just as an individual person will. However, we may not forget that at the beginning of every civilization a prototype of the form of government existed, the family is so old, old as mankind itself, that out of this initial communal being the logic and doubt, or it would be logos and doubt, man created a state whose foundation would be justice. Whose greatest law, the good of all. The state represents an analogy of the divine order. The greatest of all utopias, the civitas Dei, is the model that it seeks to emulate. We do not wish to pass judgment on all the various forms of government democracy, constitutional monarchy, monarchy, et cetera. However, one thing should be accentuated clearly and plainly: every individual human being has the right to a useful and just state that guarantees the freedom of the individual, as well as the common good. For mankind must be able to attain his natural goal, his temporal happiness in self-reliance and autonomy. This pursuit of happiness should take place free and unencumbered in association and in collaboration with the national community in accordance with God's will.”
That is like, that is the wildest collection of classical ideas and kind of gestures towards 20th century, more liberal democratic 20th century ideas, that I have ever like, I love that passage because they are doing something there that is so kind of, they're doing exactly what they need to be doing in making the argument against what Hitler is doing. And they go on in that pamphlet and we'll link to it in the show notes to make the case that Hitler is a classical tyrant, and he should be overthrown as a tyrant for reasons that Aquinas would recognize.
Peter: And of course, you know, these weren't just interesting arguments that they were making, which would have been fascinating in and of itself given how many others – how few others – I should say, thought as they did in their generation and in their milieu, right? It was, it took a kind of tremendous intellectual courage and willingness to be kind of lonely. If you think of the kind of enthusiasm for Hitler's regime that, you know, really was pretty widespread among their university fellows. So they not only kind of stood apart in that way, but they were literally willing to die for it. And I think that's a kind of level of anti-fascism, eventually love for the others in one’s society that maybe brings us a little bit back to the first theme we were talking about, of what does it mean truly to love our enemies, our neighbors. So check out the book, super-moving, and what we're really hoping for this book is that like any graphic novel, it actually serves as a gateway to getting as passionate about the White Rose as Susannah is.
Susannah: The pamphlets are actually reprinted at the end. So just FYI, if you're looking to get your hands on the White Rose pamphlets, there they are.
IV. Recommendations: We offer an antifascist reading, and Lenten Dvořák. (29:50)
Peter: At the conclusion of this episode of The PloughCast. We're going to give you some recommendations. Susannah, do you want to start?
Susannah: Sure. So what I am recommending is an article by Jon Baskin, friend of the pod, Jon Baskin, who's also the editor of The Point magazine.
Peter: Great magazine.
Susannah: This is an article in The New York Review of Books called The Unbearable: Toward an Antifascist Aesthetic. It covers Karl Ove Knausgaard’s – which I have no idea if I pronounce that right – six-volume sort of detailed, strange novelistic autobiography called My Struggle and also the Terrence Malick movie A Hidden Life. And he's talking about, it ties into the questions that we've been talking about, about the White Rose. He attempts to look at what the appeal of, the aesthetic appeal of National Socialism was and what we should be rejecting when we reject Nazism and what we shouldn't be rejecting. So, for example, is it in fact fascist to love small German villages. And Baskin is kind of going to make the case that, no, they're actually beautiful things that were stolen and appropriated and misused by the Nazi regime, even the sort of aesthetic tools of Nazism, that we should not allow to remain stolen, but we should take back.
Peter: It's a great article and well worth reading. And it certainly inspired me to finally watch that Terrence Malick film about Franz Jägerstätter, the Catholic martyr who died because he refused to serve in Hitler's army. So I want to also kind of go to that part of the world to small villages in Czechia, where Dvořák the composer – Antonín Dvořák – wrote his Stabat Mater. So we're in the middle of Lent. And the Stabat Mater is probably one of my favorite pieces of music definitely at this time of year, this 20 stanza medieval Franciscan poem, imagining the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross Dvořák wrote his, I think the longest setting of it in classical music between the ages of 35 and 37 during which time he lost first, a little baby, and then his oldest daughter who died of poisoning, and then a month later, his three-year-old son, of smallpox. And so you can imagine that sounds extremely grim, but I assure you that this piece is anything but, and it's one of the most gorgeous ways to prepare for this time of Lent and Holy week. We're going to put a link to one of my favorite recordings into the notes.
Thanks for listening, and we sure hope you'll be back for our next episode, which will appear next week and our six-part series on the violence of love, violence, and nonviolence. We'll then be talking about, “should Christians be pacifists,” and we'll be talking about Antifa and the violence we saw in Portland, with some on-the- ground reporting from Patrick Tomassi. See you next week.