Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Murder, Self-Defense, and Rescue

I'm going to add occasional extensions to the ethics series, and thought the ethics of violence seemed like a timely topic.

To start with the obvious, violence tends to be destructive. This means that it turns to evil uses very easily; we would be foolish to ignore that. If the world were fully good at this time, I expect that violence would be categorically wrong. I'd like to explore what the Scriptures say about violence. This post is the first in what I expect to be a two-part series. In this part we look at the early books of the Bible; in the next, at the teachings of Christ and his followers.

The point of this post is not to sway anyone's opinion on Israel or Palestine or Lebanon or Iraq or Iran or any other conflict that has happened or may yet happen. The point is simply, as we live with more threat of war now than we have for awhile, to generate some thought and discussion about right and wrong when it comes to violence or "the use of force".

Examples from Scripture
Two early examples of violence given in the Scripture are Cain's murder of his brother Abel and Lamech's self-defense killing of Tubal-Cain (both in Genesis 4). It is said that God judged Cain and pronounced punishment, which at that point was short of death. On the other hand, no punishment is mentioned for Lamech's self-defense killing of Tubal-Cain, which is then implied to be in a different moral category than murder. Later, when a code of law is recorded for Israel, the law recognizes different categories of causing a death. Deliberate murder is punished by death and the law does not recognize any place of refuge where a murderer is safe. But those accidentally causing a death are allowed to take refuge from vengeance to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. The law also called for other injuries short of death to be punished. In all this, no punishment or need to flee is ever named for injuries or death that occurred in self-defense.

Another early example of violence given in Scripture is the capture of Lot and his companions after a battle near the Dead Sea. When Abram heard that Lot was a captive, he led an army and rescued Lot and his goods and the other captives, pursuing the defeated armies of the former captors until they were a safe distance away from their homelands and decisively defeated. (This is recounted briefly in Genesis 14.)

Good and Bad Uses of Violence?
What makes Lamech's self-defense killing different than Cain's murder of his brother? Cain wanted to take life, Lamech wanted to defend it. Cain destroyed peace, Lamech wanted to restore it.

And again, what makes Abram's army's attack on Lot's captors any different than that army's original attack? Abram wanted only to free the captives, restore property to the original owners, ensure peace. Lot's original captors were the ones taking property and captives; they created the injustice that Abram wanted to set right.

Holy Violence in Religion?
These days the West has lost perspective on its own culture. So I would like to start with an example of the West looking at another culture. In the old TV series Kung Fu, the monk Kwai Chang Kane was a religious ascetic who trained in the martial arts -- which is to say, fighting -- in a monastery as part of his religious training. The martial arts were honored as a way to defend the weak and defenseless and to protect self and others from unnecessary harm. It was recognized that violence is part of the world; it was also recognized that there was a time to impede or even defeat some particular evil. While nobody underestimated the problem of remaining pure of heart while employing violence to stop evil, this was not seen as a reason to allow evil to win. Neither was any cheap moral equivalence made between those who used violence to destroy the peace and those who used violence to restore peace, between those who used violence to oppress and those who used violence to restore freedom to the oppressed.

None of this is to comment on whether the old TV show Kung Fu was an accurate portrayal of Chinese philosophy and ethics, or its spiritual aspects as they apply to force and violence. It is just that the East and the West have done perspective-checks against each other, and when we look Eastward, we see other cultures wrestling with the same problems that gave rise to knights (and the legends around them!) in our own culture. Many cultures have a tradition of the holy defender of the weak, such as the samurai or the knight.

Reason to be uneasy at the thought of "holy violence"
In case you're uneasy at the thought of "holy violence", you have reason to be. If you're not uneasy, re-read this sometime when you're in a different frame of mind, maybe after checking the world news some night, or after reading a history book that doesn't pull its punches. One problem is that most people assume their own favorite side is holy. Another problem is that most people assume they themselves are the oppressed, not the oppressor. And once people are convinced that what they're doing is holy, they're very difficult to stop, and very difficult to persuade to listen to the opinion that they may not actually be on the right side. That's a good thing if you're the Seven Samurai; it's not a good thing if you're a homicide/suicide bomber. And even the "good guys" can be tempted to cross lines that should be left un-crossed, so even if one side is definitely in the right, we still have to watch for our fallible humanity becoming twisted into something evil along the way.

Here are some warning signs that apply even to the "good guys":
  • If you are eager to kill, that's a bad sign;
  • If the death of the other side is no longer seen as a regrettable necessity, but is now seen as a good end in itself, that's a bad sign;
  • If you are controlled by hatred, bitterness, anger, rage, or malice, that's a bad sign;
  • If you cannot name the good you are trying to restore, that's a bad sign;
  • If you have never given thought to the redemption of the other side, that's a bad sign.
There are a number of other bad signs -- feel free to add your own in the comments box -- but those will do for starters.

To be continued ...
Next ... considering Christ and his disciples


DugALug said...


Man this is deep. I really look forward to hearing more.

God Bless

DugALug said...


Some thoughts I might add here:

Violence is furtive for greater violence.

Case and point: no one is certain who began the war between the Irish and the English, but its long history of violence has been one escelation after the next.

The other thougt is that retaliation cannot motivate a just man's decisions.

I say this thinking about if someone tried to harm a hair on the head of either of my daughters. I beleive that my rationality and tranquility would go right out the window. I must act to protect my children, but it is not my place or position to exact revenge on that individual... this, of course, is far easier said than done.

God Bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey dugalug

I've got Irish and English blood both (and Welsh, and Scottish, while we're on the subject). I could have a whole civil war within myself anytime I wanted.

So once you get into retalation, it may be justice but how do you get back to peace and goodwill?

I wonder if this series is going to end up being longer than 2 posts ... specially since I just finished the second and ended up spending the whole post just on "turn the other cheek". Ooh I can get myself on a roll.

Take care & God bless