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Violence Ever With UsViolence Ever With Us

Violence Ever With Us

University of Lethbridge political theorist John von Heyking reads in Saint Augustine the stark warning that the violent will always bear it away among broken human beings. The good news? That’s the start of peace.

John von Heyking
12 minute read
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Religious traditions offer visions of divine peace that transcend the flawed peace produced by human beings themselves. Augustine characterized peace as the “tranquillity of order.” Different aspects of human existence have their own types of peace – in the household, in the city, in the individual – but only the peace offered by God is genuine and everlasting. The vision of eternal peace offered by religious traditions makes it both resistant to violence and vulnerable to its charms. Resistant because believers learn worldly promises of peace are false and idolatrous. The proximate forms of peace offered by rulers tend to ape the peace of Christ. Better to “turn the other cheek” and break the cycle of violence that plagues humans in their fundamentally sinful condition.

Even so, the very promise of eternal peace can also produce its own deformations when believers think they possess it and can therefore control the instrument to bring it about. Secure in their belief that the ends justify the means, believers can fall into the trap of perpetuating violence infinitely because they convince themselves the ends of peace can best be obtained by further applying violent means. They convince themselves that utilizing violence for good can only produce good results. Peace contains the possibility of its own deformation. As Augustine discovered, evil is not a separate substance but the privation of good: we need to be prepared to view violence as the privation of peace.

The problem of religious violence identified by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can be clarified by Hannah Arendt’s philosophical treatment of violence. Writing in her essay, On Violence, Arendt is at pains to distinguish violence from power:

"Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything…. And what is the end of peace? There is no answer. Peace is an absolute…."

The problem is that violence can sometimes work, at least in the short term. Augustine, whose writings Arendt reflected upon throughout her life, justified using Roman State power to coerce Donatist heretics, and this led to the elimination of their violence against Christians in North Africa. However, his argument to “compel them to enter,” resting on Luke 14:23, was picked up much later during the Inquisition to justify widespread repression. Augustine’s precedent led eminent historian Peter Brown to label Augustine the “first theorist of the Inquisition.”

Arendt explains how violence overwhelms us, religious and non-religious alike. A child might be quieted with a spanking. Peace might be obtained by destroying an enemy. Or maybe not. The problem is that these short-term goals become extended, according to Arendt:

“The danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic.”

It is just too easy for violence, which is instrumental and a means, to overwhelm the ends that it serves. Part of the problem is that “short term” is an unclear standard. Does it consist of a short period of time? What is that short period of time? A period of years? Days? Minutes? Or does it consist of a small number of people targeted? A few combatants? A few civilians offering material and emotional support to combatants? A factory? A city? Once violence is unleashed, we can never be sure where it will end. This is why a limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms.

Modern politics is especially prone to violence because of the ubiquity of instruments of violence. The impossibility of winning a nuclear war is a clear example of this. This is why too many people conflate the meaning of violence with power (which Arendt says is opposite to violence). It is also why too many regard violence as the basis of politics. Sociologist Max Weber’s definition of the State is famous for being representative of the modern view: “the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence.” Weber quotes in this context Leon Trotsky’s remark that every State is based on violence. This is one point where liberalism and radical strains of modernity are in accord. For instance, John Locke’s definition of a commonwealth includes the sovereign’s right “of employing the force of the community,” which medieval scholastic thinkers, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, purposely excluded from their definitions for the reason noted by Arendt – violence is a means and not an end. Thus Locke shows how much he drank from Machiavelli’s poisoned chalice, and we are the inheritors of this approach to violence.

Thus, modern politics creates the illusion that we can fully control violence and easily direct it to the good ends and purposes. This illusion was expressed by California Governor Jerry Brown at the recent Paris climate talks when he told fellow progressivist believers, “never underestimate the coercive power of the central State in the service of the good.” Among the believers present was Alberta Minister of the Environment Shannon Phillips, who claimed Brown’s performance was a “master class in progressive politics.” Indeed it probably was. I guess Trotsky was guilty in underestimating this power to do good when his head was on the receiving end of a pickaxe.

On account of the ease by which violence as means overwhelms ends, it is always worth remembering that one of the means of violens, the Latin root of the term violence, signifies the force and wildness of a rushing river, as when Horace in his Odes sings, “I, born of humble origin, (from where wild Aufidus roars…).” We can no more control the impetuosity of a wild river than control violence. We have power to initiate violence, but we seem impotent to direct it to its precise target and put an end to it.

With these religious and political considerations in mind, it is worthwhile considering Augustine’s own case. His reflections upon, and experience with, violence are instructive.

Let us begin with the moment in Augustine’s career that marks what many take to be his greatest downfall: his justification in 408 of coercing Donatist heretics to join the Catholic Church. In a letter to Roman officials, he compares the compulsion of heretics to Christ’s commanding the apostles to bring others into the house of feast: “Compel them to enter.” This letter, Epistle 93, is seen as the smoking gun by those who see a direct link between Augustine’s religious and political views and his views on coercion and violence. Others think it a tragic exception to his political and religious views. Speaking for the latter, for instance, John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory characterizes Augustine’s justification as a “moment of ‘pure violence,’ externally and arbitrarily related to the end one has in mind.” It is the point where Augustine’s “ontology of peace” tragically collapses.

There is weight to these arguments, though – as I argue in Chapter 7 of my book, Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World – they miss a lot of what Augustine was trying to do in those letters, which was to moderate the violence both of the Donatists and of the Romans who were only too willing to perpetuate it. He was trying to bring their violence under the control of their ends as much as humanly possible.

The Donatists, and especially their thugs, the Circumcellions, who committed violence in their name, were inherently violent. They were the Puritans of their day, who regarded violence as the means of purifying the world of sin. Roman officials, and Augustine who advised them, had to deal with a group for whom the instruments of violence had completely overwhelmed the ends for which they stood. They were moral sadists who believed they were doing others a favour by acting violently toward them. Violence was their way. This remains a fundamental problem for political leaders: How does one protect innocent citizens from such self-righteous violence? Can one confront immoderation with moderation? This was Augustine’s attempted counsel when he advised the Roman officials, and those who think he succumbed to religious violence frequently overlook the specifics of this counsel.

Augustine took a long time coming around to justifying coercion of the Donatist heretics. He opposed it for many years, which is why Epistle 93 in 408 is so important, for it marks a break from his previous rejection of it. Augustine’s hesitation was clearly insufficient if the argument he finally adopted was inherently flawed. Rather, it was nuanced and addressed how the power of coercion could be brought as much as possible under the control of its ends. Most commentators, having noticed that he justifies coercion, overlook how; but it is the how that is very intriguing.

Concerning how he justified coercion, it is remarkable how much he actually restricted the scope of violence, almost to a nullity. Where Roman officials wished to persecute all who called themselves Donatist, Augustine counselled only its leaders be arrested. Where Roman officials wished to apply capital punishment to Donatists, Augustine’s counsel for punishment was downright “soft on crime,” as we would say today. He rejected corporeal punishment except in cases where Donatists (more likely Circumcellions) had committed acts of violence. He counselled exile for the worst offenders, including leaders. Augustine explicitly rejected exile as punishment for followers or for simply belonging to the heretical sect. Exile fit the sin of heresy very well. Heresy was not just an expression of dissent or heterodoxy. It was far more serious than that. It was seen as a fundamental repudiation of the basis of community.

Heresy has frequently been taken as comparable to sedition: Both heretic and rebel wish either to overturn the civil order or to usurp its authority. Of course this reasoning has been used the world over as an excuse to commit the worst forms of atrocity. Labelling someone an “enemy of the State” is, in most cases, the surest sign that any concern for justice has been jettisoned. Assuming there can be cases where heresy (and sedition) can be rightly charged, exile is the one punishment that fits the crime because it recognizes the manner in which the heretic has already removed himself from the community. Exile makes concrete the purpose or end that the heretic has sought. If Augustine is still regarded as extreme on this point, it is worthwhile recalling that Abraham Lincoln told his cabinet he would prefer it if Jefferson Davis, leader of the insurgents (Lincoln refused to call him President of the Confederacy), left the United States.

Making the punishment fit the crime, while simultaneously reducing the scope of violence for the punishments by advocating leniency, was Augustine’s general idea in counselling the Roman officials when dealing with the Donatists. For murderers, he rejected capital punishment and also the usual Roman punishments of stretching criminals on the rack, furrowing their flesh with iron claws, scorching them with flames and beating them with leaden rods.

Instead, Augustine advocated beating convicted murderers with wooden rods. While to modern liberal ears this may still sound brutal, it is worthwhile noting that Augustine viewed this mode of correction as the same used by schoolmasters and parents in chastising children. Indeed, in his Confessions, Augustine indicates how he received this punishment as a schoolboy. While it is commonplace to use the punishments and sadistic practices of one’s schooling as a weapon against enemies (i.e., water boarding was a common frosh ritual at top prep schools such as Wharton in the northeast United States, where that country’s foreign policy elites attended), this is not what Augustine had in mind. Instead, he was trying to place the means of violence in line with its ends, which is the correction of the criminal. In this case, he counselled an incredibly lenient punishment for murderers.

Consistent with this method, Augustine counselled fines for Donatist leaders who committed acts of violence that were of a lesser magnitude than murder (e.g., attacks on Christians causing injury and the vandalizing of Christian churches). Again, he restricted fines for leaders large enough to hinder their ability to draw a following, which typically was a lower amount than those prescribed by Roman law. Augustine justified fines in terms of making the means of punishment fit the purpose, or having the punishment fit the crime. Leaders were to be deprived of “their silver, with which they constructed those images of their false gods.”

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Despite Augustine’s attempts to leverage the means of violence to fit the purposes of correcting violent criminals and Donatist leaders, violence in North Africa in the early part of the fifth century was persistent and intractable. This was due in large part to the decline of Roman power in the wake of the Visigoth invasions of the Italian peninsula, including the Sack of Rome in 410.

The Sack of Rome, which produced a refugee crisis in North Africa, where Augustine was bishop, prompted him to write his magisterial City of God. As bishop, he had to counsel refugees who had lost their homes and whose “eternal Rome” had collapsed. In writing City of God, he confronted the question of why evil things happen to just and unjust alike, and he had to respond to charges among Roman intellectuals and leaders that the acceptance of Christianity had brought this disaster about.

Because of this, City of God contains Augustine’s most extended reflections on the nature of politics and political authority, and on what moral basis, if any, they rest. This question was central to him, as it was for numerous Christian thinkers starting about a hundred years previously (including his teacher, Ambrose, who recognized that the commandment to love one’s neighbour has implications for how human beings conduct themselves politically). Remaining apolitical and pacifist was no longer an option, and not only because Emperor Constantine had established Christianity as Rome’s official religion in 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica.

Augustine and other early Christian thinkers thought Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” did not cover the responsibilities rulers had to care for their citizens. Political rule is a form of care, and one failed in one’s responsibility for care if one failed to protect the innocent from attack. Rulers therefore have a duty to exercise violence, but the scope and purpose of that duty was unclear.

At the forefront of Augustine’s mind while writing City of God was the propensity of political rulers to exaggerate their duty to use violence. Human beings have a tendency to make idols of political authority. This was true when the Romans regarded their emperors as gods, and it is true today when the voice of the people is deemed the voice of history, as when Jerry Brown counsels fellow believers, “never underestimate the coercive power of the central State in the service of the good.”

To counter this propensity to exaggerate the magnitude of political authority, Augustine exaggerated how small and restricted political authority is. This has given him a reputation for regarding politics as nothing more than the activity of the sinful, which Christians are best off avoiding. However misplaced this reading is, it is difficult to determine where Augustine sits between these exaggerations.

Augustine’s reputation as a political minimalist is best seen in his apparent endorsement of an anecdote, a kind of meme in the ancient world, of Alexander the Great capturing a pirate. Alexander chastises the pirate for terrorizing the seas. The pirate is said to have responded: “The same as you when you molest the world! But I do it with a little ship, and I am called a thief; you do it with a great fleet and are called an emperor.” Augustine comments: “And justice removed, what are kingdoms except great robberies?”

The problem with reading Augustine as a political minimalist here is the conditional at the start of his response: “And justice removed.” Is justice ever removed, or ever fully removed? Are all political regimes “great robberies” or are some better than others? Is the gang of thugs calling themselves Islamic State morally equivalent to the nations trying to destroy it? Or does having a basic commitment to justice, say in the form of constitutional rule of law and a moderate political culture that prizes basic decency and care for others, change it to something better?

Augustine’s basic answer to the last question is yes. As deficient as the political societies are that human beings organize themselves into, and as monumentally difficult (if not impossible) it is for human beings to get control of the instruments of violence, Augustine did acknowledge that the small differences among regimes (small in comparison to their justice to that of the city of God) were significant enough to warrant appreciating the better ones.

Augustine understood the profound difficulty of practising justice. Too often we overreach and too often we overestimate our ability to practise justice. He understood the significance of this weakness when considering the challenges of wielding violence, and he also understood its significance when one thinks one can escape these challenges by repudiating violence. It seems violence is neither for us to wield nor to repudiate. Thus is the misery of our condition and brokenness, the starting point of our journey to genuine peace.

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