Christianity has a long history of often heated discussion around violence, from absolute pacifism to the just war tradition and, indeed, some positions that can only be described as ‘warmongering’. There is, however, one aspect of violence which unites many of these differing factions: physical violence committed by the individual in situations other than self-defence. Who, one might justifiably ask, gets to decide what violence is allowed? In recent weeks this has come to the fore once again with the phenomenon known as ‘milkshaking’, where far-right politicians have milkshakes thrown at them by disgruntled members of the public.
As we saw in the previous blogpost, this is an example of ‘extra-parliamentary’ politics, a politics which happens beyond Westminster. Extra-parliamentary politics has often been associated with violence, and violence more potent than a simple milkshaking, so it’s important to take some time to examine this a bit more closely. What is violence? Could it, like politics, be a wider concept than we are often led to believe?
Whilst earlier in his career suggesting that all politics is violent, the philosopher, Michel Foucault, came to believe that the presence of power does not imply the presence of violence, but rather the absence of it. Any struggle against power, he believed, is not actually a struggle against power itself, but rather a struggle against a specific way of wielding power. Similarly, the philosopher, Hannah Arendt, responding to Marxist analyses of violence, argued that violence and power are not only distinct from each other, but opposing forces. For Arendt, the Marxist belief that the ‘state [is] an instrument of suppression in the hands of the ruling class’, is incorrect because violence would not cease with the cessation of the nation state. Instead, human beings have an innate desire to both exercise power and submit to it. Unquestioning obedience can come from violence, but power comes from the consent of the people. That is to say that a society’s institutions and body politic are given power through popular consent which allows for disagreement. Thus for Arendt, power arises from consensus. If there is consensus, there is the power to act. Violence on the other hand, occurs when consensus cannot be reached.
The question, of course, is whether Arendt and Foucault’s definitions of power adequately consider the pervasive influences of the hegemonic ideologies underpinning, for example, state power. Violence still plainly occurs on a massive scale within ostensibly liberal democratic systems based on popular consensus. Indeed, many people support laws that effectively commit violence against themselves, so unless that consensus is constant, absolute, and based on every person being fully informed, it is difficult to see how such a restrictive definition can even offer anything to the discussion. Arendt and Foucault’s definitions unintentionally function to prevent or limit effective critique of power structures in favour of needless semantics. It is very possible, for example, to agree with Arendt that a form of power arises through consensus, whilst also acknowledging that other forms of power exist.
Perhaps the most important thing to discuss is the fact that not all violence is equal. That is to say that we must be careful not to draw false equivalences between different acts of violence with different motivations and outcomes. This is something most of us believe without realising it. For example, one person hitting another to prevent a murder is not the same as the murder itself.
The Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung, identifies three different but coalescent forms of violence: ‘direct violence’, which ‘is visible as behaviour’ manifesting as deliberate, ‘physical and/or verbal’; structural violence, also invisible, but manifesting as ‘repressive, exploitative or alienating’ systems; and cultural violence, which is invisible, but manifests as, amongst other things, heroism, patriotism, and patriarchy. Both direct violence and structural violence are justified by cultural violence, but in the main, structural violence has far wider reaching consequences than direct violence. Galtung gives a number of examples of structural violence, emphasising the violence of political and economic systems, especially capitalism, before going on to also give examples of how cultural violence is used to legitimise systems of power that depend on structural violence. The point is that violence is not unique to extra-parliamentary politics and is arguably more endemic in parliamentary politics through the structural and cultural violence necessary for its existence.
Galtung’s model of violence has been highly influential, and there are many who have posited models along similar lines. Slavoj Žižek, for example, differentiates between objective and subjective violence, with objective violence further divided into systemic and symbolic violence. Systemic violence is the violence inherent to the systems and authorities that govern us and sustain the lifestyle of the ‘haute bourgeoisie’. Both capitalist laws, which insist that a person has no right to food or shelter, as well as the police’s use and threat of violence to uphold them, are systemic violence. Symbolic violence, on the other hand, is violence that affects a person’s social construction. For example, anti-immigrant hate speech has the capacity to shape the way a local community views and responds to its foreign members. This in turn affects the way foreign people feel they must present themselves, so the violence is in the removal of the victims’ self-determination and self-expression. Žižek even suggests that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler not only because Gandhi was attempting radical social change whilst Hitler was attempting ‘to prevent real social change’, but also because Gandhi’s ‘actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer’. The broad point for Žižek is that, as with Gandhi, so called ‘non-violence’ can in fact be more violent because it yields more violent results. This is an important point. At the most fundamental level, the question of whether it is okay to use physical violence should centre around what it is responding to and what its results are likely to be. The milkshaking of fascists is a response to the building of fascism, and unfortunate as this may be, physical violence has a fairly consistent record of preventing fascism in a way that reasoned debate simply does not. Through these lenses, milkshaking a fascist could be viewed not only as less violent than the fascist’s actions, but a moral response to them. Further, it is perhaps more moral because it doesn’t actually hurt the fascist, except with public humiliation and a dry-cleaning bill.
Nonetheless, you might say, Christianity has a long tradition of pacifism in the face of oppression. How can we simply overturn that? There is a deep truth to this: Jesus’ life and ministry appear to reject, at the very least, lethal physical violence (Matthew 5:9, Matthew 5:38-39, Matthew 5:43-48, Matthew 26:52, Luke 6:27-28), and the church of the post-apostolic period appears to have interpreted this to be the case. This is evident from Tertullian (c.160-c.220CE), who frames Jesus’ rebuke of the use of the sword to defend him from arrest (Matthew 26:52) as a general prohibition, to Hippolytus of Rome (170-235CE) who proscribes not only the taking of human life, but the holding of any office which may include the duty to hand down a death sentence. Many more examples could be given, but the point is that as Christians we must take as our ethic an essentially non-violent stance. Nevertheless, the fact remains that not all violence is created equal. The violence of the state in administering capitalism is far greater than that of the antifascist throwing a milkshake, and what’s more is directed against groups of whom Jesus explicitly commands us take special care: the refugee, the homeless, the child.
The answer, I think, is to be found in the Cleansing of the Temple. This episode, found in all four gospels, gives a rare glimpse of Jesus using violence in a careful and targeted way:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mark 11:15–19)
Jesus does not revel in violence, but it’s very difficult to deny that he uses it, with some scholars even suggesting that he did not act alone, but had help from his disciples, since the area would have been too large for one man to clear. Further to this, Jesus seems to have been driven at least in part by a sense of justice, that the poor required defence against the rich. The Temple Mount, at that time, was controlled by a small number of rich families, who would have been far from happy to see their profits being thrown away by some itinerant preacher railing against the marketplace. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus was crucified a week later.
For some, the idea that the Prince of Peace used violence, encouraged his disciples to do likewise, and set a precedent for Christians to do so when required, is understandably contradictory, or even intolerable, and this is before one considers how such violence is to be prevented from turning to chaos. The Cleansing of the Temple, though, is considered by most scholars to be one of the best attested stories of Jesus. Most agree that it happened. Clearly, it seems, both violence and nonviolence can be legitimate tactics when used with extreme caution. All any of us have is our own sense of moral reasoning. Choosing to trust the just dispersal of violence to state actors such as the police is as much an individual moral decision as throwing a milkshake at a fascist. When the police have proven time and again that they will side with fascists to “protect free speech”, there can be only one response. The key to this response, though, is to remember always, that no matter who we are dealing with, they are deeply loved by God. Dehumanisation can never be allowed to become a component of our actions.
 Michel Foucault. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 781.
 Hannah Arendt. “Reflections on Violence.” Journal of International Affairs 23, no. 1 (1969): 11-12.
 Slavoj Žižek, Violence, (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2009), 9-11.
 George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 119-120.