Monday, November 05, 2007

Is Violence Effective?

This post originally started as a response to this post on Turn the Clock Forward.

A book a few years back called “Freakonomics” claimed that legalized abortion in America is responsible for decreasing the crime rate. (We aborted future criminals.) Since then much pro-life debate has focused on discrediting this argument. Similarly and more recently in the news the administration has been claiming it needs the ability to torture and hold people indefinitely without charges if it might save American lives. Pacifists and civil libertarians seem only able to counter with the claim that this behavior might be harmful in the long run because it hurts our image in the world. People of conscience seem bound to a debate that judges right and wrong based on utility.

I think we should be careful not to focus our pleas to stop violence on outcomes. Do I believe the argument that abortion lowers crime? While I don't want it to be true, it could be! Could torture prevent a terrorist attack? Quite possibly? Even if certain types of killing and violence does make the US people safer we still must stand against it. We should be committed to non-violence because it is right, even if it isn't always safe.

Even if preemptive wars and bombing civilians saved lives, even if capital punishment prevents crime, even if euthanizing the severely disabled does ease burdens on society, even if racial profiling gets drugs off the streets, even if embryonic stem cells do cure diseases, even if torture prevents terrorist bombings, even if aborting poor babies prevents crimes --these things are inherently wrong; wrong even if done for all the right reasons. Violence is an excellent way of enforcing peace and stability. Violence works even when it is wrong.

Our job (a difficult one) is to show people a better way. Forgiveness and love are better than violence, but people have to seek peace because it is right not because it is effective. (We Americans have a bad habit of mistaking efficiency for rightness.) Some hopeful idealist point out that if everyone practiced non-violence the world would be perfectly and effectively safe. While this is true in theory, there has never been a fully non-violent society this side of heaven, and in this world non-violent people often end up nailed to crosses.

Peaceableness wins the hearts and minds of people not by proving better outcomes, but by living out a truth that people will want to follow despite any danger.


Jen R said...

Great post. You're right to argue that abortion would be wrong even if it did lower the crime rate. I've recently had cause to argue that torture would still be wrong even if it did elicit useful information, and that the death penalty would still be wrong even if it did deter crime. I believe we can, and are obliged to, find better ways to achieve these goals. However, even if all of that were true, I still wouldn't agree that "violence works". Violence can encourage or restrain certain behaviors, at least for a while. And if that's all we're trying to achieve, then sure, I guess violence works.

But if the goal is to build a healthy society, one in which every person is safe and free to live up to his or her fullest potential, then violence is counterproductive. Violence dulls empathy; it is the antithesis of creative problem-solving; it inspires people to cleave to the powerful in the hope of protecting themselves, instead of looking out for the powerless.

Christopher said...

Amen, Jonathan, to your central point. You have eloquently undermined the morally vacuous pragmatism that is, sadly, so prevalent in our time. I must object, though, to your including capital punishment in the list of things that are "inherently wrong". That is a radically unBiblical position to take.

Inherently wrong, you say? Wrong not just for us, now, but for all nations everywhere? Wrong even for ancient Israel?

It's one thing to have a different interpretation of Bible. It's quite another to ignore the Bible altogether. Certain sorts of broadly pacifistic views might be possible for a Bible-believing Christian. But the view that capital punishment is inherently wrong is not one of them. Or if you say it is, I think you owe us an explanation of how you reconcile that with the apparently obvious fact that capital punishment is commanded in the Old Testament.

--Chris McC

JD said...

Thank you, Chris. Perhaps my use of the word “inherent” was not precisely correct. By inherent I meant that the wrongness of these things is found in doing them rather than in any consequences of doing them. As a Christian I must acknowledge that the Levitical Law contains capital punishment, and God's law must be just.

I believe, however, that it would be wrong to justify capital punishment today by those holy laws of ancient Israel. It would be just as wrong as basing our foreign policy on the Israeli conquest of Canaan. The New Testament teaches us the purpose of the Law of Moses is to manifest the holiness of God and the unavoidable guilt of all humans. If the “wages of sin is death” then the holy law of God must contain a death penalty.

God's requirement that the rulers of ancient Israel carry out this inflexible and harsh law without mercy cannot be assumed to be God's will for government in general. As Christians look at spiritual law we have to acknowledge that the death punishment for human rebellion against God was taken once and for all with the death of Jesus. While this argument doesn't prove the death penalty wrong from scripture, it certainly seems to remove any obligation that Christians support a death penalty today.

A holy, loving, and perfect God can do quite a few things righteously that we would not want humans doing to each other. He hunts, enslaves, takes away belongings and pleasures, harms, and even kills humans without acting wrongly –in fact all this is done with love. I certainly think it would be wrong for me to do any of these things to my neighbor, even if I tried to do them with right motives. While they may not be “inherently” wrong because God has done them through human agents in ancient scriptures, I certainly cannot justify doing them now from those ancient texts that have their fulfillment in Christ.

JD said...

Perhaps an illuminating example of something that is wrong (inherently?) in a Christian moral system would be slavery.

Slavery was quite widespread in Biblical times. The scriptures use the analogy of a slave to illustrate the Christian's service to God. While the Bible doesn't outright condemn slavery it does warn slave owners that they must treat their slaves well because in Christ “there is no slave or free.” Looking at human interactions through the “mind of Christ” and wishing to act with agape love (brotherly love that sees the other as more deserving than one's self) Christians over the centuries concluded (I believe rightly) that owning another human being as property is inconsistent with the love of Christ. Slavery is now banned almost everywhere in the world, much of this due to the work of Christians.

There are other things not directly addressed in scripture that Christians can argue to be wrong from agape love and the character of Christ. Examples of such could include abortion, torture, racism, capital punishment, profiteering, and warmongering. Perhaps they were not directly discussed by the authors of the New Testament because at that time Christians were a small and persecuted sect without significant social or civil influence. We can be quite certain from scripture that such things are wrong within the church, but often we say these un-loving things are somehow permissible for civil society (especially if they have some pragmatic value).

I find it sad when many non-believers are calling for ending certain violence in our society in the name of brotherly love (much of this no doubt due to the effect of the Christian values on secular thought) often Christians are outspoken in defending this violence. Is it not the penalty of death from which we ourselves have received pardon? (I am not trying to equate spiritual pardon with civil pardon, but I am implying it is not inconsistent for we who have received spiritual amnesty to be willing to support civil amnesty from the punishment of destroying the criminal's life.)

Christopher said...

A lot of the things you said don't directly respond to what I wrote, so I'm not quite sure how to take them. For instance, you point out that one can't infer the authority of modern nations to execute capital punnishment merely from the fact that God commanded Israel to do that. That, you say, would be a bad argument. I agree. Which is why I didn't make that argument. As far as I can tell, the one thing you did that was a direct response to my comment was this: you conceded the only point I was trying to establish there: Capital punishment is not inherently wrong.

At least, I think you've done that. But there is a bit of muddiness I'd like to clarify. When we ask whether capital punishment is inherently wrong what act are we asking about? I take it to be the act of a human government executing a criminal duly convicted of a capital offense, in accordance with the rule of law. So, God's authority to give life and take it away is not an example of that sort of thing because a difference in agents makes for a difference in acts. (This even works in the "other direction", so to speak: a tiger killing a man isn't murder either.)

You say, A holy, loving, and perfect God can do quite a few things righteously that we would not want humans doing to each other. He hunts, enslaves, takes away belongings and pleasures, harms, and even kills humans without acting wrongly –in fact all this is done with love. I certainly think it would be wrong for me to do any of these things to my neighbor, even if I tried to do them with right motives. While they may not be “inherently” wrong because God has done them through human agents in ancient scriptures ...

But I'm saying that for human beings to do those things IS inherently wrong. And I'm saying that the wrongness that you and I both agree is there when humans do those things -- inherent wrongness I would call it -- is not there when it comes to human governments executing criminals for a capital offense.

If you concede that, then it may still be an open question whether it would be wrong for any particular nation. Perhaps no modern state has that kind of authority. Just because it isn't inherently wrong doesn't mean that any particular instance of capital punishment is justified. But before I address that further question, I want to see if you agree with my clarification.