On Violence

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By Jacques Ellul

Unless Christians fulfill their prophetic role, unless they become the advocates and defenders of the truly poor, witness to their misery, then, infallibly, violence will suddenly break out. In one way or other ‘their blood cries to heaven,’ and violence will seem the only way out. It will be too late to try to calm them and create harmony. Martin Luther King probably came ten years too late for the black Americans; the roots of violence had already gone deep. So, instead of listening to the fomenters of violence, Christians ought to repent for having been too late.

…instead of listening to the fomenters of violence, Christians ought to repent for having been too late.

For if the time comes when despair sees violence as the only possible way, it is because Christians were not what they should have been. If violence is unleashed anywhere at all, the Christians are always to blame. This is the criterion, as it were, of the confession of sin. Always, it is because Christians have not been concerned for the poor, have not defended the cause of the poor before the powerful, have not unswervingly fought the fight for justice, that violence breaks out. Once violence is there, it is too late. And then Christians cannot try to redeem themselves and soothe their conscience by participating in violence.

But now let me give a warning. If the Christian cannot demand, cannot even suggest, that non-Christians should act as though they were inspired by the Christian faith, he must take the same attitude toward the revolutionaries and toward the state. To demand that a non-Christian state should refrain from using violence is hypocrisy of the worst sort; for the Christian’s position derives from the faith, and moreover he exercises no responsible political function.

To ask a government not to use the police when revolutionary trouble is afoot, or not to use the army when the international situation is dangerous, is to ask the state to commit hara-kari. A state responsible for maintaining order and defending the nation cannot accede to such a request. The intellectuals can play the game on their own terms; they hold no political office, they are outsiders; so it is easy for them with their high principles to decide what should be done. Christian honesty and Christian humility would prompt the question: “If I really were in that official’s position, what would I risk doing?” And it is a well-known fact that the very intellectuals who criticize power so violently do no better than others once they themselves have arrived in places of power.

In the face of a non-Christian state, all the Christian can do is: not read it a moral lecture, not rail at it and demand the impossible; not these things. All the Christian can do is to remind the state that, though it be secularized and its officials be atheists, it and they are nevertheless servants of the Lord. Whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, they are servants of the Lord: for the good. And they will have to render account to the Lord for the way they did their service. Obviously the Christian’s task is not a very pleasant one. He is ridiculed, he is isolated from other political movements; he cannot howl with the wolves!

Excerpted from Violence: Reflections From a Christian Perspective, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012.

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