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When violence is the option

When is violence excusable and when is it necessary?

By Jeff Mewhinney | Contributor

Photograph provided by Nathan Kiern.

Photograph provided by Nathan Kiern.

Many of us have been raised looking up to nonviolent protest leaders, and that is not a bad thing. We learn quite a bit of long-suffering from the likes of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. We must not forget their lessons. Nonviolence should always be our first approach in affecting change, but it is not our only choice. Before we can talk effectively about violence in certain contexts, we need to recognize that occasions exist when violence should be allowed and even encouraged.

On the surface, violence flies in the face of everything we learned as children about “turning the other cheek.” However, Matthew 5:39 seems to contradict the vignettes in the Bible that depict violence as a good and even righteous act God anoints his servants to perform (Joshua 6:21, Judges 16:26-30, Isaiah 1:17). That indicates a boundary line between necessary violence and preferable peace—violence seems to be acceptable in certain situations. Where does this line exist when we consider real life circumstances?

In areas of Sudan and what is now South Sudan, aid workers have found it impossible to rescue children from forced service in militias without using violence. Sam Childers, “the machine gun preacher,” publicly discusses his experiences of using violence to free child soldiers. This raises an ethical dilemma for Christians: is it enough to simply voice objections? Objections and even martyrs won’t stop the atrocity. Activists need violence to rescue the endangered children.

Here’s another ethical dilemma involving violence: mugging. Necessarily, those who witness someone being mugged face a choice: will they allow the crime to be committed or stand in the way with force? Here is a significant issue for those who claim violence is not an option for Christians. In certain situations, people need to take a stand. That stand could be violent. I believe preservation of innocent life is a good reason to violently resist those who attempt to take it.

This brings us to the crux of this issue: when should we allow protests to become violent? I believe the answer leans on situations when force is required and effective to save innocent lives. In some situations, violent protests are certainly understandable and defensible but will not actually accomplish anything. In those instances, I believe violence is pointless and unnecessary. However, when someone is taking or subjugating innocent lives, violence on the part of protectors is morally defensible.

Even when an injustice may be corrected without the use of violence, violence may still be excusable. Perhaps a situation can be remedied without violence, but violence is the only way for those who’ve suffered injustice to find peace. Rightful application of violence inherently depends upon context. I cannot definitively state rules for all situations.

It’s worth emphasizing that nonviolence always affects the most long-lasting and restorative changes. We should always consider peaceful protests before resorting to violence, but we must not use that as an excuse to back down from necessary action. In summary: just because violence is excusable in many situations does not mean it’s automatically the most useful method of solving problems. However, even when it isn’t the most useful, it can still be excusable.

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