On the Word "Violence" Print
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 17 May 2011
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L'Osservatore Romano for 30 March had this headline: “Let the Weapons Be Silenced in Libya and Let Dialogue Begin.” The implication was that “dialogue” can always take the place of arms. The status quo is better than change. The assumption is that the recourse to arms is not calculated or rational in its own way. Human experience often tells us that before any meaningful discussion takes place arms or violence have to be met with arms or violence. It is an odd reading of human nature and history to imply that all we have to do is lay down arms and “dialogue.” Then, all will be well.  Enemies exist for whom “dialogue” is not a significant category except as an aid to gain their ends without arms.

In a Good Friday interview on Italian Television, Benedict XVI responded to the question of a Muslim woman: “Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties. He (Christ) is thus a strong voice against every type of violence” (ORE, April 27). The papal offices are filled with pleas for peacemakers and non-violence, for dialogues of every sort.

Almost never do we hear discussed the issue of just war or legitimate, indeed obligatory, defense measures. The Holy Father speaks regularly to Italian and Vatican police, to military chaplains, and of course to diplomats. In his Regensburg Address, Benedict did indicate that areas of discussion and dialogue would have to be protected from violence for them to function. This almost unequivocal condemnation of “violence,” however, seems curious to me. It lacks precision. A reasonable case can be made for the need and use of arms that is not simply “violence” in the pejorative sense.  

In thinking about this recent turn in ecclesiastical discourse, which often sounds like pacifism, I recalled the discussion of Yves Simon in which he carefully distinguished between violence and coercion. In his famous Philosophy of Democratic Government, Simon pointed out that the term “violence” is not always simply negative. Just and unjust uses of violence are to be distinguished. “Violence,’ Simon writes, “is sometimes used as a synonym of ‘coercion.’ In this sense the arrest of a burglar by a police officer is an act of violence. Anybody can see that this is loose language, to be prohibited whenever scientific rigor is needed. Not the policeman, but the burglar, is violent.”

Violence and coercion are thus distinguished. Coercion is the use of adequate force according to man-made law, as an application of natural law. Police officers and soldiers are established to bring criminals to justice, to prevent “violence” that is not rooted in justice. This fact does not deny that occasions can occur when private citizens have to defend themselves against criminals in lieu of the immediate aid of law. Much of the “violence” of the present drug “trade” falls into this area. Nor does it mean that the police or military may not act contrary to their own law. But it does mean that the sanctioned use of force should not be called “violence” as if it has no responsible reason or cause.

The underestimation of the ruthlessness of modern criminals or ideologues is a perennial temptation of the religious mind. We see today that many fellow Christians are being killed or persecuted because the local constabulary refuses or is unable to protect them. We also see that many men think that the use of such violence to kill infidels is legitimized by their religion. We are left sputtering to ourselves. We speak of religious freedom to those whose definition of religious freedom is that everyone should be Muslim. We appeal to a standard that is not recognized except, as we like to say, by universal law.

We are often left to accept such killings. They happen far away. We acknowledge that we cannot or will not do anything to prevent them.  In any case, we need a more precise way to distinguish between efforts to prevent unjust violence and the violence itself. They do not fall within the same moral genus. To speak as though they do, it strikes me, leads to a political helplessness that makes matters worse.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
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