Leithart on Christian Pacifism and the Atonement

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I spent a little time looking at Peter Leithart's Brazos commentary on I & II Kings a couple weeks ago. I'm not a big fan of this series, and I haven't found this volume much better than others I've looked at (despite being told by several people that it's pretty strong on certain things I care about). There's a lot of extremely strange speculation about the significance of the number of times a word is repeated, and I thought a lot of his connections across different texts were very unlikely. He also usually doesn't answer the burning questions I have when I read a text. But Leithart's strength is in critiquing others' views. One instance of his critique of a certain position that got me thinking was his discussion of certain Christian advocates of nonviolence (this was on p.40 for those following along at home). Leithart finds an interested tension between one mode of Christian pacifists' insistence on decrying all violence and a view on the atonement that you do find among some such pacifists.

Some of the Christian pacifists will often speak of non-physical violence, such as various kinds of coercion and systematic oppression. They want to say that various kinds of evils that aren't really violent should count as violence anyway because of what they do on a deeper level. So certain kinds of oppression such as racism, sexism, and poverty (which I note is a category mistake to call oppression) count as violent, even if no physical violence occurs. Leithart notices, however, that some of the people who make this move nevertheless want to resist seeing any violence in the atonement because they want to separate our salvation from having been achieved in a violent way. They thus reduce all combat language about Jesus' victory over the powers of evil as metaphorical for his non-violent methods coming to supremacy and violent ways being reduced. An example of our application would be I Peter's discussion of wives of non-believing husbands submitting to their husbands for subversive reasons, not because they advocate the particular things their husbands want them to do but in order for Christian living to win them over to Christ.

The problem Leithart notes is that this is every bit as coercive and violent as non-violent racism, sexism, and whatever policies causing poverty they might have in mind. That means those who are holding this particular combination of views are just using the word 'violence' in effect to mean "actions that I disagree with". Their opposition to violence then becomes trivial. This does seem to me to be a real abuse of language. If you want to oppose violence but then say that non-violent things are also violence, while saying all violence is wrong, you better be pretty careful about how you assign the term 'violence'. If it's just any kind of manipulative behavior that might influence someone against their preferences, then it's hard to see the very things they do approve of as nonviolent methods escaping their classification, and then the nonviolence they prefer to violence becomes just as bad. That's certainly not what Christian pacifists want to say. Wouldn't it be better just to restrict the term 'violence' to physical violence or to methods that actually destroy in some more significant sense?

2 Comments

Well said. In addition to what you've mentioned, classifying non-violent acts as violence cheapens the true dangers of physical violence.

There is that. But I wouldn't want to rule out such talk absolutely. Coercion isn't the same as violence, especially if it's entirely psychological, but there are things you could do to someone that aren't usually classified as violence that do seem to me to fall under what the term usually means.

For example, abortion seems to me to count as violent killing. Hardly anyone considers it violent. I'm sure there are pro-choice people who are anti-violence when it comes to most things we call violence. Yet they're advocating allowing something that's pretty violent when you really get down to what's happening. So I wouldn't stubbornly resist expanding the set of things we usually treat as violent just because some who do that are wrongly applying the term to things that, even if they're bad, are not really violent.

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