A central argument of Christians who argue for principled nonviolence, like Sean Finnegan, is that Jesus’s command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) precludes violence. It’s not loving to punch a man in the face – or kill him – so if we are to love our enemies, then we are forbidden from engaging in any violence against them. Most folks with healthy instincts revolt at such an absolutization of this text, immediately asserting that some qualification to this principle is necessary to account for cases (e.g.) where our loved ones’ lives are at stake. Notwithstanding this apparent need to account for the complexity inherent in such moral situations, absolutist proponents of nonviolence will scoff that these are pretended “exemptions” to Jesus’s plain and simple commandments. Here is a plain and simple argument against their absolutist reading.
One can be sinfully unloving in the commission of violent acts, but one can also easily be unloving in a sin of omission. Suppose you see a small boulder tumbling towards your daughter. Any decision to refrain from physically stopping that boulder would be unloving, since you have an obligation of love to protect her from physical dangers, obviously. But now suppose it’s an unwitting cyclist. Notwithstanding the possibility of unintended harm to the cyclist, your obligation to your daughter compels you to physically protect her by stopping the cyclist. The fact that the cyclist is not an inanimate object doesn’t change this one bit. But now suppose it’s an approaching assailant, intending violence against your daughter. In this latter case, abstention from violence would be unloving towards one’s daughter, while violent deterrence would be (we can easily grant) unloving towards the criminal. But which course of action should you take? According to the absolutist pacifist, one is sinfully unloving either way; such a scenario is, quite literally, “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Since sin cannot be inevitable in this strong sense, this shows how an absolutist pacifist simply cannot adjudicate the situation, and therefore that his absolute moral principle against nonviolence cannot possibly be true. He must therefore suppose that Christ commanded something else, or allowed for implicit and circumstantial qualifications, in Matthew 5:44.
The truth, of course, is that violence is completely consistent with this command. Jesus delivered his sermon in a high-context environment, so it would be foolish to absolutize it as applying to situations requiring one to be unloving towards one’s own family…or one’s own people.
Future posts will address other facets of this question.