(Not) Defining Violence

James Ensor
Death of Jezebel, 1880
Charcoal on tan wove paper

In view of various types of bombs and military actions, of the ever-increasing militarization of the police forces, and even of the rapacious bloodthirsty-ness of certain Christians and Christian leaders, it strikes me as necessary to address the term “violence.”

The problem is, of course, that unlike Peter Leithart’s assertion in his work on the topic, there are no clear-cut descriptions in the Bible regarding the lines between Violence, that chaos of suffering that humans unleash upon humans, and what Leithart glosses as “godly retribution,” such as when the Lord brings a siege upon Jerusalem such that women are eating their children.

I find this frustrating. In many ways, I wish that the work was a little more clear-cut. Stanley Hauerwas makes, of course, the opposite case (something he articulates directly near the end of this companion video to the one from Leithart, above), staking his ground on the matter that the Christian, no matter how Violence is defined, must not participate in the world’s economies of Violence.

Either way, however, we land in the difficult, indeterminate, terrain of having to define Violence. This, at the end of the day, is what problematizes both Leithart and Hauerwas’s claims. Each defines Violence according to his purposes in order to come out, on the other side, as a Christian, a person who, ideally, eschews Violence. Leithart dances around the discussion by making a simply binary distinction (Violence vs. God-Inflicted Harm), a narrative choice that is not only philosophically questionable (as all the Derridaeans reading this shuddered) but also exegetically unfavorable. It must be worth noting that the word used by the Hebrews to describe God’s judgment and the meaningless common sufferings is the same: ra’, meaning “evil” or “disaster.”

But Hauerwas falls to this same error by casually defining Violence as the sort of thing that happens when someone forces another person to do something via coercion. One of the students in the video asks— and this is a great question — “But what about parents with their children?” It seems clear that Violence is not simply a matter of coercion. Nor is it simply a matter of harm. Nor, should I add, is Violence simply a matter of Life and Death. Whatever the “progressive hermeneutic” we use with regards to Old Testament capital punishment, no interlocutor of the Bible can get away from the problem of stoning, or of execution, generally considered. And, here we get even more complicated, no interlocutor of the New Testament can avoid the problem of excommunication, something that certain readers would claim is a type of Violence of its own.

 

The issue at hand, then, is that Violence is a term easily defined for the sake of the narrative it inhabits. This isn’t just true about the term “Violence”; there are other terms that also can be re-defined to benefit this or that narrative. This is precisely why Christian humanism — in the old Renaissance sense of humanism: constant text translation and engagement with ancient thinkers — is necessary. It is simply all to easy to stake a claim upon an uncritical definition, rather than stake a definition upon a critical exegesis.

Here the Hebrew Scriptures, especially, become more remote to us. It is a strange occurrence. I reflect upon the diversity of discourses in the Old Testament: the Law, the Histories, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Poetry… I run into places where Violence (as we typically understand it) is celebrated, like in Judges 5:24-26 when Deborah rejoices over Jael’s slaughter of Sisera. Then there are moments where Violence (again, as we typically configure it) is neutrally observed, like the scene depicted in the Ensor painting above, with Jehu calling for Jezebel to be thrown down. Some see this moment as a victory for God’s people; but then there’s that odd line in the Prophet Hosea that rebukes Jehu, maybe even for this very moment (cf. II Kings 9:30-37, Hosea 1:4). And there are, of course, moments where Violence (typically understood) is outright condemned (e.g. Exodus 20:13, Leviticus 18:21, etc.).

If Leithart’s distinction could hold up, it would be very useful, for sure. And I certainly find Hauerwas’s suggestions to be helpful for a general Christian ethics. Yet Leithart’s distinctions do not appear to have any thorough exegetical foundations. Hauerwas’ ethics would deny Jael (amid many others) an appropriately hallowed space in the Christian tradition. We are missing something here.

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