From all the losses of the last year, with its countless ordeals and heartbreaks, let’s pick out one that may seem an abstraction. It’s the loss of a once-sturdy taboo. At some point between George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, our culture’s consensus against political violence crumbled. Before 2020, we lived in a society that (except for its left and right fringes) overwhelmingly agreed that using violence for political ends ought to be out of bounds. Now, we know that many of our fellow citizens are sort-of-OK with violence – at least when it’s their own side that is breaking windows and punching police officers.
Like any generalization, this statement needs lots of hedges. Most obviously, the now-broken taboo against political violence was always selectively applied; too often, it was a norm imposed on some but not others, as the history of Jim Crow shows. In addition, it’s not obvious why the violence of a riot should be condemned more harshly than other kinds of violence that, though less dramatic, are more deadly. The US prison system, for example, through its willful negligence in providing medical care, takes far more lives each year than any hotheaded protest; so does the abortion industry. And that is to leave to the side for the moment the matter of foreign wars or of Western complicity in China’s concentration camps for Uighurs.
We also don’t know if the suspension of the taboo against violence will prove to be temporary, just one more passing symptom of the feverish months of the pandemic. Perhaps the anti-violence consensus will reemerge once the order of ordinary life is more or less restored.
Perhaps. Yet even when we’ve made all the necessary hedges, something significant seems to have slipped. The old taboo was bound up with a bundle of ideals: civility in disagreement, respect for the rule of law, peaceful transfers of power. It found expression in the civic religion of Martin Luther King Day, with its irenic “I Have a Dream” universalism. Its emotional power came from a vague but broadly shared conviction that the arc of the universe really does bend toward justice.
It’s hard to see how this old mythology, whose hold had weakened long before 2020, can easily be restored to its former power. This was obvious, for example, during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. While downtown Minneapolis burned, journalists sympathetic to the protests joined in chorus to repeat Reverend King’s line about riots being the “language of the unheard.” But many fell strangely silent when it came to King’s uncompromising belief in nonviolence (and not unrelatedly, his Christianity). In fact, nonviolence seemed to have become a dirty word among certain progressives; even while quoting King, they clearly yearned for Stokely Carmichael, or maybe Frantz Fanon.
On the right, this kind of doublespeak occasioned much hooting about the “mostly peaceful protesters.” But of course the most spectacular recent act of political violence did not come from the left. 2020 was the year when the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and their ilk were ramping up for their own “mostly peaceful” protest in Washington, DC.
Is there any way back to a broad agreement that violence is wrong? Since this is a Christian magazine, it is only right to begin by taking stock of our own house, asking what guilt we Christians bear in political violence, and what counterprogram Christianity ought to be offering. Answering those questions is obviously beyond the scope of this brief article. But two points seem important to touch on.
The first is the rise of so-called Christian nationalism as a conspicuous player in the political violence of the past months, not least in the attack on the US Capitol. This movement combines exhibitionist public prayer and “Jesus 2020” banners with strong elements of White supremacism and a readiness for lethal violence.
All this, it should go without saying, is not Christian, even if this movement historically has deep roots in White American Christian culture. The disconnect shows up most blatantly when so-called Christian nationalists take the symbol of the cross – the sign of an executed Jew who refused to defend himself – and turn it into a badge for a semiautomatic-toting tribalism. It’s hard to imagine anything more alien to the way of the Jesus of the Gospels.
This brings us to the second point: What might a truly Christian stance look like? One place to begin is a text so overfamiliar that it can feel irrelevant: the Beatitudes, with their blessings on the peacemakers, the merciful, and the meek.
Among these Beatitudes, meekness is easily the least popular. But perhaps for just that reason, it’s the most necessary today. It’s hardly coincidental that a society in which political violence is increasing is also a society that despises meekness. Ours is a moment proud of its us-versus-them realism; it delights in shaming enemies and relishes the obliterating smackdown. This habit of mind extends across the left–right spectrum to both critical race theorists and integralist theocons. If what matters is the contest for raw power, then coercion is a necessary tool.
As for meekness, this worldview is pretty well its opposite. Yet the Beatitude must apply even in times of conflict, or it doesn’t apply at all. When read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, Jesus’ call to meekness isn’t merely about being amiable in private life. He plainly intends us to practice meekness in extreme situations, when doing so seems to violate all norms of justice: When someone hits you, turn your face for a second blow. When forced to go one mile, volunteer for a second. When someone demands your coat, give him your shirt as well. Forgive not just forgivable wrongs, but the wrongs that seem unforgivable.
Such meekness goes beyond self-abnegation. It is generous. (Thomas Aquinas highlighted this by linking the virtue of meekness to the virtue of magnanimity.) Without a willingness to yield to others, it’s impossible to give them the benefit of the doubt, grant them a second chance, show them mercy – in short, to love them as oneself.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt. 5:43–45)
This call to love even one’s enemy shows the Christian approach not just to political violence, but to violence in general. If I love my enemy, I cannot harbor rage against him. If I love my enemy, I cannot join a predatory Twitter mob to cancel him (even when I must vocally disagree with him). If I love my enemy, I cannot wish to see him harmed or dead – and I certainly cannot kill him.
While Christians over the centuries have always honored nonviolence, they have often interpreted it as a supernatural ideal. The result is that nonviolence is cast as a special calling that depends on others, the non-nonviolent, to do the dirty work: defending the vulnerable, keeping the public peace, and protecting the nonviolent themselves from the bad guys.
If this were so, nonviolence would amount to the worst spiritual selfishness (as Reinhold Niebuhr and others have charged). But that’s not how the Sermon on the Mount sees it. Here in Christianity’s preeminent teaching, nonviolence is just one prosaic, even obvious, expression of a new way of life. It’s a life that is to be wholly reshaped by the unstinting generosity of perfect love: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
If we take Jesus’ call to nonviolence at face value, we’re left with all kinds of interesting practical questions: What about policing? What about the military? What about participating in government? Some, but by no means all, of these questions are addressed in the pages that follow. It’s not our aim here to propose a neat system of ethical rules about nonviolence – to “set up a new theoretical orthodoxy,” as Eberhard Arnold puts it. Any such attempt would be untrue to the Sermon on the Mount’s own generosity. Instead, this issue of Plough aims only to explore what a life lived according to love rather than violence might look like.
In 1977, the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was locked in confrontation with El Salvador’s oligarchical government after criticizing its bloody repression of popular protests. Romero, in turn, was accused of preaching revolutionary violence. He denied this: “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross.” He returned to this theme in a 1979 address:
The only violence that the gospel admits is violence to oneself. When Christ lets himself be killed, that is violence – letting oneself be killed. Violence to oneself is more effective than violence to others. It is very easy to kill, especially when one has weapons, but how hard it is to let oneself be killed for love of the people!
Romero knew what might well be coming his way. Seven months later, he was shot by a right-wing assassin while saying Mass.
The meekness Romero lived and died for seems nonsensical from a realist point of view. In utilitarian terms, martyrdom will always seem nonsensical. The Beatitudes may promise that the meek will inherit the earth. But human history seems a massive refutation of the idea that the meek will inherit anything at all.
Unless, that is, what the Gospels tell about Easter is true: that a meek victim rose bodily from the dead and now rules as lord of the universe. If that is true, then the answer to violence becomes plain. It begins and ends with the violence of self-sacrificial love.