A welcome little text slipped on to the Vatican’s faux-parchment website yesterday — the introduction to a new document by the International Theological Commission that declares, amidst a bevy of reflections on the nature of the Trinity, “the incitement of violence in the name of God as the greatest corruption of religion.” Far more than a negative statement, however, the text begins to articulate a thorough and positive vision for Christian doctrine as a nonviolent ethic:
As Catholic theologians, we then seek to illustrate, on the basis of the truth of Jesus Christ, the relationship between the revelation of God and a non-violent humanism.
The full text is only available in Italian for now, though an English version is forthcoming.
It’s of course nothing new to connect Christianity with nonviolence, or for Christians to denounce violence in the name of God. Recent popes have been persistent critics of war, though in many contexts Catholic leaders have exercised far more political energy in matters of sexual ethics while turning a blind eye to militarism in their midst. (The recent dismissal of WNV Board of Advisors member and peace activist Fr. John Dear from the Jesuit order is only one example.) This new document appears to be highly abstract in tone, and it remains to be seen whether it will affect the priorities of bishops. But it’s a new tool that peace advocates can use to call the Catholic leadership to task.
According to Fr. Drew Christiansen, a professor of ethics at Georgetown University and a veteran of international peace initiatives in the Church, this is a document to be taken seriously. “It does come out with the authorization of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith,” he says, referring to the Vatican’s theological gatekeeper, “and given the international composition of the committee, it may be regarded as a consensus among the world’s theologians.”
Christiansen also sees the document in light of recent statements by Pope Francis who, for instance, recently said that “faith and violence are incompatible.”
“With the increased attention Francis has given to the teaching of the whole Church and to the sensus fidei, I would say it is quite significant.”
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when I talk of the insanity of our gun culture, when I point out the anti-Jesus attitude of defensive gun-owners, the incredible increase of gun-purchases after Sandy Hook, the compliance of the Congress towards the NRA and its money, and the Sermon on the Mount as something so many people do not read and/or dismiss, I am the one considered “insane,” and out of step with everybody else.
It really is quite remarkable how intent our world is to understand Christianity as a violence-loving religion. Of course, that interpretation has had many centuries of practice.
Pope Francis is proactive, of course:
Christians should focus their energies and prayers on refugees. All that wars produce is horrible suffering on defenseless people. (Something like 9 million displaced persons are in need of immediate food assistance in Syria) Shame on American media for ignoring refugees, because they – along with the dead – are the real story of war.
True, but it raises the question of whether Christians should merely pick up the pieces of war or seek to prevent those pieces from falling apart in the first place.
It’s one thing to abstractly denounce violence. It’s quite another to denounce the names of individuals and institutions that purvey and profit from violence. The theoretical denunciation of violence is cold comfort to its victims and the rest of us who suffer from religion’s silence in holding those responsible accountable.
That’s a helpful distinction. Obviously this theological treatise isn’t the time or place for naming names, but it will be interesting to see whether the new church leadership is willing to do so when it counts. Francis has already shown a willingness to embarrass bishops when it needs to happen.
One way or another, though, bishops and popes are only part of the church, and other Catholics can and do take it upon themselves to confront purveyors of violence much more directly, with church teachings like this in hand.
Religion in our culture tends to look at violence as primarily an individual moral issue and treats institutional violence largely from that individual perspective. Most religions, including Christianity, not only condone but sanction state violence. Where war crimes are committed it is the individual not the state that is held accountable. While war, torture and oppression are abstractly condemned and individuals sometimes held responsible, the institutional social structures of violence are too often ignored.
Most violence however, occurs through collective action organized by the state or other institutions. The lone individual’s capacity for violence is limited, unless of course they can amplify it through collective action, i.e. a society that permits, encourages and provides guns and other weapons of mass destruction to individuals. Violence however, exponentially increases when the state and other institutions provide not only the means of violence but an organized structure for collective violence, i.e. the military and police.
The failure of religion to effectively limit violence is largely due to this focus on violence as an individual rather than institutional moral issue. Until religion begins to morally address the institutions, collective-action structures, that produce most violence, it will be waging a losing battle to pick up the pieces of war while vainly struggling to prevent those pieces from falling apart once again.
Religions see the moral problem as individual, when in fact it is the social structure that too often requires, even coerces people to act violently. That is what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Unless institutions such as the state are held morally accountable for individuals who act as its agents, violence will thrive in a moral netherworld of social sanction and justification. Violence by the state and other social institutions is not morally self-justified. If religion is to be effective in limiting violence, then it must rigorously challenge all social institutions – including itself – to justify their collective violence.
Excellent commentary, my friend, Ed Lytwak. I almost completely agree–but…!
The state can only act through individuals. There is no such REAL thing as “the state” or “society” or “the Church.” Those things are “legal fictions.” It seems to me that only individuals can be held accountable, although many individuals can hide behind those legal fictions to escape accountability.
Sgt. Smith pushes the button that launches the missile from the drone that kills ten people, including four children under three years of age. Smith is guilty. Captain Jones, Smith’s commander, orders Smith to fire. Jones is guilty. General Halftrack gives Jones the go ahead to fire on the target. Halftrack is guilty. Barack Obama okays the drone attack. Obama is guilty. Ed Lytwak, voted for Mitt Romney but in doing so effectively sanctioned the election of a president who turned out to be Obama. Is Ed guilty? By the principle of the master-servant (agent-principal) relationship, Ed is guilty, for, as the Supreme Court has frequently opined, “in the U.S., the people are sovereign,” and it follows that Lytwak is a principal and Obama is his agent, and a principal is responsible for the actions of his agent taken within the scope of the agent’s responsibilities. Ed is guilty.
How are you going to punish the social structure? How are you ever going to change it without changing individuals? It seems to me you can only deal with individuals.
Mind you, I am not disagreeing with you, only raising questions that occur to me, for which I do not pretend to have answers.
I would disagree that institutions are “legal fictions” Apart from their physical manifestations such as buildings, guns, information systems, the real power of institutions is to organize collective action. In many senses it is the individual – especially as it is mythologized by the neoliberal psyche and media – that is the fictional illusion. Part of the neoliberal mythology is that freedom is rooted in individual actions. On the contrary, real freedom, such as freedom from hunger, fear, or violence is based on collective action. Individual freedom is derived from society, it can only exist in a collective context. It is not, as American Libertarians believe, in opposition to society.
Ed: A philosopher by education and a political junkie by age, I find your comments either over my head, or simply in disagreement. 1) Augustine pointed out some millennia ago that there are two fundamental meanings to freedom…one that is a choice between good and evil (the power of sinning in his world), and another that is the freedom FROM sin (in his world the freedom of any moral choice that one wants to). In both instances, he roots freedom in the individual–the conscience. 2) In the Declaration of Independence and its philosophical forebears, freedom is derived from “being human”–an endowment granted to humans by the nature of creation and seemingly prior to the state–intrinsic as it were. You and I know that the Constitution followed up by accepting “involuntary servitude,” and that this state thereby tried to cancel (and effectively did cancel) political and physical freedom b) Like you, hostile–bitterly hostile–to both the neoliberals and the Randian libertarians, I see a kind of freedom granted by the state, but, understanding both moral heroism such as Jagerstatter in Austria and the lone vote against WWII in Congress and moral independence from the state in the cases of Jesus of Nazareth, Thoreau and Dr. King, I believe in an interior freedom, a sense that the individual can act and feel and be free within a realm independent of the state. He or she may die because of that freedom. But I believe firmly that it exists, and that I enjoy it.
Ed, I hope what follows wont mark me as a neoliberal in your mind. Classical liberal, perhaps, but neo-, never. Part of the mythologized collective(s) “reality” of horizontal, anarcho-syndicalism must be its denial of the logically irrefutable lessons of economics–Austrian economics to be precise. The great thing about the free market is that when force is ruled out, it is what is and that’s all there is. People may collect horizontally or in any other direction within the free market, because that is the point: they are free to do so. That is how laissez faire translates. One ignores or disparages economics at one’s own risk, and economics wont give a hoot because it will go on explaining how and why the world works whether that world is organized horizontally or hierarchically. Freedom from hunger, fear and violence, to the greatest extent possible given the fallible nature of human beings, can be realized, and can only be realized, within a regimen of laissez faire.
Joris, i was trained in philosophy too, some linguistics as was fashionable circa 1970. What is it about linguists and anarcho-syndicalism? Individual humans cannot exist without society and individual freedom exists only in those social relationships. Our human nature is as a social being and only through our social relationships can we achieve true freedom. But these social relationships can be good and bad, hierarchical or horizontal, voluntary or coercive, cooperative or competitive, in solidarity or domination, in love or hate. I think that it is important to make a clear distinction between the “state” and “society” The state is a social structure that is above society, characterized by hierarchical social relationships. It is a system of governance based on representatives making political decisions, rather than people making those decisions directly. In the U.S. and most Western nation states this system of representative republican governance is called neoliberal democracy. A horizontal governance system, aka true or direct democracy, is integrated into society rather than placed above it. People makes decisions together directly at their places of work or in their communities, i.e. general assemblies. In a horizontal democracy, what we would today call government, aka the state, functions to provide coordination, communication and mutual aid.
Ned, there would be no “market” free or otherwise if it were not for force. I’m afraid I would see you as a neoliberal if you think the market is anything other than a hierarchical mechanism for those on top, almost always men, to take the common wealth for their own profit. In the absence of force, i.e. violence, the economy would have nothing to do with commodities, consumers and money. It would be about cooperation, sharing, mutual aid and providing the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, a right livelihood, community and solidarity.
Ed, Lytwak, I forgot one thing:
You said, “Most violence however, occurs through collective action organized by the state or other institutions.”
What other institutions? It is always, or at least almost always, the state that organizes and pays for collective violence on a large scale, and if the scale is truly large, it is only the state that so engages.
Apart from religion – defined as institutionalized spirituality – the nation state is the largest and most power institution. An institution is any organizational structure that creates and maintains the capacity for collective action. The collective action capacity can be coercive or voluntary, hierarchical or horizontal, but maintained over time. We tend to think of institutions in terms of their physical infrastructure but their essence is in their social relationships. They could include everything from a corporation, to a factory, to a farm, to a police department, to an army to an anarcho-syndicalist collective.
Your definitions are interesting, but they truly are just yours. As long as religion is not allied with the state, it has no affective nor effective coercive power over enlightened individuals nor collections of enlightened individuals. Collective action is a bunch of individuals acting together. It is composed of individuals and is helpless–vaporizes–without them. Many enlightened individuals are immune to coercion whether applied horizontally or hierarchically. There is no such thing as “social” relationships. Relationships occur and are between individuals, as few as two or as many as one individual can handle with other individuals. When a cop breaks down your door, it isn’t the state that does it. An individual does that. The state is a myth, a legal fiction. That is the only reality.
Since Pacem in Terris, the Church has been moving slowly away from the moral relativism of the just war theory. While not completely embracing nonviolence, it has indicated that war is no longer an acceptable way of settling differences. The new emphasis seems to be a global community approach where diplomacy and nonviolent means are favored.
Violence begets violence. Violence is far and away the primary cause of violence. The use of force by the state to obtain the funds upon which it depends is the alpha of state violence, organized, institutionalized and indoctrinated as indispensable; war is the omega. In Rome under Constantine the Church conspired with the Empire to maximize tax revenues with its accompanying violence while the two entities shared in the lucre. Today in the U.S. the advantage of tax-deductible contributions to the Church serves the same purpose, and the Catholic Catechism further supports violence by making it sinful not to pay one’s fair share. (Fair being undefined and undefinable, so it won’t hurt you to pay more than what’s fair to ensure we have more wars.) All professions by the Church of nonviolent aspirations is manifest b.s. so long as it maintains its doxology of the violent state and its forcible taxes.
@JORIS HEISE. The state with its unholy police powers executes its laws through force, violence and coercion. Its agents are armed with deadly assault weapons and the latest military armaments. Violence begets violence, it cannot serve to reduce or eliminate it. Those who call upon state violence to reduce gun violence through measures of forcible control of inoffensive people by taking their guns or preventing them from acquiring guns are severely deluded. Efforts to control other people is the cause of more violence and death in this world than all the guns. Control freaks are many times more dangerous than gun nuts. But fear not. You are neither insane nor alone in your opposition to guns, for the president is on you side. And it was mostly thanks to him and his call for gun control rather than the slaughter at Sandy Hook that sent the hordes out to buy guns before they were prevented. I have come to believe that Obama and the congressional gun-control freaks are really agents-provocateurs for the arms and ammo industry, because every time they beat the drums for more control A$A sales and profits soar.
Ned Netterville: I like some of what you say, but I fear that I read in your comment a kind of despair, that all societies, all communities–any “state,” whether political, religious, or cultural–coerce via police, taxation, “moral authority,” and anything else that faceless and unstoppable evil can use to control others. The more I read of your piece, the more insane I feel–as well as helpless.
In my version of life, based as much as I can on the Sermon on the Mount, I have acquired a habit of respecting others as my brothers and sisters in creation. In practice, I am quite close to my brothers’ agnosticism in which morality consists of that respect, avoidance of superiority/control and the pursuit of a truth based on disagreements more than agreements (that i alone do not have the truth, but find it in dialogue). Libertarianism, however, is chaos and an anarchy which would destroy humankind. I believe therefore that some coercion is necessary, that a society can and must impose a regulatory framework–banks, as it were, for the current of lives. In a democracy (pace President Reagan) we are the government. and we need to do something about rapists, child abusers, murderers and other (violent) violators of the common welfare, a situation where violence, yes, may be the means to achieve that stoppage. I will ask, with due respect, what you, Ned Nettervlle, would use to contain and, yes, control the abuse of society in these cases.
Hi Joris, thanks for engaging. I want to assure you that despair is not my lot. Joy in being a non-Christian disciple of Jesus is more my speed. The Sermon on the Mount is my mantra. Like Jesus, I’m an anarchist, or as I prefer, a voluntaryist, which, at least in most cases, is a pacifist anarchist. The people of this earth have gradually been moving away from the use of force (violence). A good book on the subject, and the only one of its genre, is THE HISTORY OF FORCE, by James Payne. I credit the wisdom of Jesus, particularly as expounded on the Mount, for us moving in that direction. Consider: we no longer engage in human sacrafices to God (Abraham was about to) or the gods; human bondage has been virtually eliminated in most places; wars, believe it or not, are far fewer than of yore. As we grow in nonviolence, in due course we shall recognize how backwards and uncivilized it is to create a violent state to provide us with security. And how’s that working, I might ask? It appears to be rather counterproductive from my viewpoint.
Joris, you say, “Libertarianism, however, is chaos and an anarchy which would destroy humankind.” Excuse me for being abrupt, but, PROVE IT!
Libertarianism is freedom; anarchy is freedom from state violence. My assertions are no more groundless than yours.
You say, “we need to do something about rapists, child abusers, murderers and other (violent) violators of the common welfare, a situation where violence, yes, may be the means to achieve that stoppage.” So, how is that concept of using organized state violence to reduce violence working out? Have you managed to put an end to child abusers, rapists, murders and other violators of the common welfare? Did it ever enter your mind that when the so-called political leaders of a democratic state embrace violence as a means to obtaining what they deem as necessities the establish a standard and example of violence for vulnerable minds to imitate. Can you connect the dots between Barack Obama authorizing a drone to snuff a bunch of rag heads one week, and the next week a troubled young man killing his mother, twenty first graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary? Violence begets violence, it will never serve to reduce it.
Democracy has been called mob rule. Close, but I don’t buy it. You say you–don’t say we ’cause that would include me–are the government. If that is true, than you are responsible for a whole lot of wanton killing, such as Mai Lai, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Dresden. But the truth of the matter is is that you are not the government–unless you personally are an elected or hired government operative. The ruling class is the ruling class and the ruled are the ruled in a democracy or a monarchy. You have virtually nothing to say about how your rulers rule, unless you are rich enough (like Shell Oil) to buy a few congress critters, but even then you’ll only control their votes on a very limited number of issues pertaining to the oil industry. Meanwhile, those critters can do a lot of damage elsewhere–even to the CEO of Shell Oil. No, you are not the government; you are one of the ruled, and therein lies one of the big problems with democracy. You can say you are the government while shirking responsibility for the wrongs that government does. To put it mildly, that kind of system is satanic.
Joris, with all due respect I will answer your question, recognizing up front that your violent means have failed to achieve stoppage of the criminal types you mention, so I have a very low bar to leap over. On a daily basis, I would seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of the material security I need would be given to me. I would love God and my neighbor as myself, doing to them only what I would want them to do to me. And, yes, I would turn the other cheek to violence, in confidence based on experience that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he addressed those folks like you and me in his Sermon on the Mount, and God would keep me from all harm as he always has.
Ned, Good comments. We are on the same page in fundamentals. (My own “religion” is akin to yours, for example.” We disagree respectfully and I LOVE that.
I need to keep it short here. Actually I do take responsibility for the crimes you mention, for the terrible drone usage, etc. Dostoyevsky, who has been for me what Ayn Rand was for Paul Ryan, once said that we are all responsible for all, and in his various books–the Idiot, the Devils, the Brothers Karamazov and of course Crime & Punishment, he illustrates that sense of responsibility we have for one another, for living in a violent world. As Jesus once remarked that what you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me, I feel that, yes, I am part of all of that governmental evil (and the Inquisition as my heritage is Roman Catholic), not to mention some of the upside-down usages of Scripture. I will not separate myself from Rand’s “collective.”
finally–I am being too brief–your comments about the improved world (which I agree with–I too have heard about the peaceful 20th century) suggest that your other comments “How has that worked out?” suggest a paradox, if not contradiction. the first part suggests “it” (some necessary coercion) IS working out, maybe as much as Natural Evolution, and all the many mysterious factors that go into shaping our world into a better place.
Great comment Ed. We share the same heritage. Just want to say that I don’t think it was coercion that has brought about a reduction in violence, for that would negate what I believe to be a logically indisputable axiom: violence begets violence. Rather I believe it is in large attributable to the principles of nonviolence Jesus (and others) proclaimed seeping in, plus a growing understanding of the futility of resorting to force for any purpose.
Ed said, “Ned, there would be no “market” free or otherwise if it were not for force. I’m afraid I would see you as a neoliberal if you think the market is anything other than a hierarchical mechanism for those on top, almost always men, to take the common wealth for their own profit. In the absence of force, i.e. violence, the economy would have nothing to do with commodities, consumers and money. It would be about cooperation, sharing, mutual aid and providing the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, a right livelihood, community and solidarity.”
Ed, You offer no logical grounds for your unsupported assertions as to what would transpire in the absence of violence. Marx was notorious for doing the same and claiming it was the inevitable consequence of historical development, which only he could clearly divine.
What good is there in providing the basic necessities of life if there are no individual consumers to consume them? Good luck on changing human nature. What the heck is “a right livelihood?” Community and solidarity are attributes of individuals working in cooperation, which is something free markets foster.. I would have thought your views of the market disappearing in the absence of force were closer to neoliberalism than my voluntaryist views, but to be frank, I see your position as neo-socialist, or neo-marxist, with much of the baggage those old “theories” carried, but dressed out with a language using some newly coined words or old words given different meanings. And I suspect that your neo-marxist-socialist constuct is as certain to sink in the sea of economic reality as did its predecessors.
My logic is the Zapatista movement. Fortunately the people that are creating a new nonviolent world, sans market mythology have little concern for the political and economic ideologies of the past. They live in the present for the future. But, some of us are want to learn and take advantage of the rich intellectual heritage of anarcho-syndicalism. If you must have a label, then just call me an anarcho eco-pagan. Transformational change begins in the micro-economy, that of the household and local community. It begins at the bottom and works up.
Good idea! Don’t be bothered by logic. And don’t worry, when WE achieve a nonviolent world built on the free market and the profound intellectual heritage that deciphered and explained it, ya’all will be warmly welcome, particularly if your ideas failed to pan out and ya’all are hungry.
Have you ever read Mises analysis of anarcho-syndicalism?
Anarcho eco-pagan? Hey, I like that. May I presume that eco is not short for economics?
Before transformational change can take hold in a household, one of the individual members of the household need be transformed. Otherwise, it is unlikely to occur spontaneously.
Ah, but we–you and I–may be descending into semantics once again.