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Problematizing Non-Violence

Given that we are so deeply immersed within structures of violence and exploitation and given that our society does not permit us to live non-violently, what are we to make of efforts to practice non-violent resistance?
It seems to me that such efforts end up collapsing in upon themselves — those who will not practice violence against the oppressors end up perpetuating, sustaining, and practicing violence against the oppressed.
What if the choice facing us is not between violence and non-violence, but between two different kinds of violence?  Is it better to ask God’s forgiveness for acting violently against those who crush the poor, or is it better to ask God’s forgiveness for acting violently against the poor?  Really, when we get down to it, is there any other option?

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  1. Is there anything to be said about God judging the violent oppressors of the poor? I’m not convinced God’s good plans will come about through human progression (i.e. humanity taking judgment into their own hands).
    It would seem to me that choosing violence, even against oppressors, would be akin to taking a seat upon the throne of judgment. No?

  2. what has violent social change accomplished in history?
    I find your post confusing. What are you suggesting here? Or asking?

  3. jt:
    Fair enough, although one must immediately point out that the violence we practice against the poor is also a form of judgment — we judge their lives and children as disposable, their resources as our own, and so on. So, we still face the same dilemma — are we merely confronted with two different forms of judgment?
    Well, I reckon that one could argue that violent social change as accomplished at least as much as nonviolent efforts. For example, the creation law itself is premised upon violence (just as the law relies upon violence for its ongoing existence) so that’s something.
    That said, I’m not really suggesting anything here. I’m just trying to ask myself some questions that I previously would have ignored or not taken seriously given my own ideological or theological commitments. So, I’m genuinely trying to listen to challenges against nonviolence.
    I’ve read Exclusion and Embrace (carefully). It’s a damn good book. As I said to Jude, the post above does not reflect a commitment to violence on my part… I am still committed to nonviolence… but I am trying to learn from others and genuinely listen to all sides of the discussion.

  4. I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘violence’ in each instance. If ‘violence against oppressors’ is literal (the use of physical force to harm) and ‘violence against the oppressed’ is metaphorical (by participating in the oppressive system), then these are two very different uses of ‘violence’ (even though they both achieve harm), and correspondingly ‘non-violence’ will have different meanings in reference to both.
    I take it that when people talk of non-violence they typically mean violence of the literal kind and not the metaphorical. If so, metaphorical violence against the oppressed would provide no legitimate objection to non-violence. Why, in refusing to employ force to prevent the oppression of the oppressed, should one be locked into participating in it? Can we not ‘opt-out’ of the system in various ways, If never totally? Can we not find ways of negating the effect of the oppressive systems by sharing our lives and resources with the oppressed?

  5. Eddie:
    I reject your distinction between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ violence(s) inaccurate and ideologically rather dangerous. Granted, violence is expressed in different ways but both the types of violence you describe are real, actual, material, historical, and so on. One cannot describe ‘structural’ violence as metaphorical.
    That said, opting-out is fine (I’ve done quite a bit of that myself, and continue to follow that trajectory) but let’s be clear and honest about how much we actually have opted-out and how much we remain inevitably compromised and violent. In this regard, the language of ‘opting-out’ reminds me a bit of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees — those who view themselves as righteous because they are faithful in tiny little details but entirely unfaithful in the things that actually matter. Most of our ‘opting-out’ (mine included) seems to fall under this criticism.
    Easier said than done. Always good to hear from you!

  6. I suppose the word ‘violence’ now has a very large semantic range, finding a natural home in many contexts. I simply wanted to point out that those who advocate non-violence are usually talking about the use of harmful and destructive physical force, and that even if these same people participate in ‘violent’ societies, this does not make them inconsistent and there stance of non-violence is still honorable and legitimate. But this does not negate your question, about whether we can ever be free from either fighting against oppression or participating in it.
    Again, I believe we can ‘opt-out’ of such participation, but I would like to learn more about the ‘systems’ and ‘structures’ that we participate in, and how they are ‘violent’.
    Ive done little reading on this topic and while i’m not blissfully ignorant of the reality of problems inherent in how our societies are structured (I consider myself suspiciously concerned), I don’t understand the concrete particulars and how im entwined in them, and thus how I can ‘opt-out’ and “fight” against them in ‘non-violent’ ways.
    Could you recommend a good book or two on the topic? Have you written a summary of some of the issues?
    Thanks for the dialogue, Eddie

  7. If you get a chance, try to watch China Blue, a surprisingly sweet little documentary about the production of denim clothes.
    I was expecting something pretty horrid and telling myself that I needed to know anyway so I watched it. It was strange because of the sheer amount of raw love and tenderness it depicted. It follows a young girl as she leaves her village to find work, and follows her through about a year of factory work.
    I think I would have been fairly desensitized to a miserabilist screenplay about capitalist exploitation, but this documentary was just beautiful (I know you will probably retort that I’m just voyeuristic, as in Lilya 4-ever).
    At the end of the day, the protagonist did choose to be there, given the options that she had, and it’s not at all irrational for her to chose that option, because the alternatives are probably even less desirable.
    So while I could theoretically be convinced to use violence to overthrow a capitalist system that badly exploits some and leaves the others to die outside of it (c.f. the Nile Perch in “Darwin’s Nightmare”). I would want to be absolutely certain that I was in a position to set up an alternative that was undeniably better. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep reading stuff, I guess.

    • Mmm I just realised I should probably qualify my own comment. There is actually no way that China Blue is “sweet” but what I liked about it was the perspective from Jasmine, who just wanted to make money for her parents back in the village. One of her friends works there because she wants to get married and also needs money.
      Eventually, most leave the factory after a couple of years, having saved a ludicrously small amount of money, but if you ask them, they’re pretty pleased to have this job, even if it is massively exploitative by all known standards, and it is. Jeffrey Sachs gets massively criticised for advocating more sweatshops as a first step out of underdevelopment. Some of us stay clear of those clothes because we don’t want to wear the blood of Jasmine on our back, and do a great job of criticising what’s wrong with the system on our blogs (I love the comment by Daniel Imburgia below!) but, in the situation she is in, Jasmine wants her source of income.
      I realise that sweatshop exploitation is only one aspect in which our lifestyle crushes the poor and that there are other ways in which it does. But the extreme exploitation of resources and people for profit is one of the most obvious ones, and countering it the greatest challenge of our time.

  8. I think you’ve enumerated the two options that Zizek poses: the subjective violence of uprising versus the objective, systemic violence that underpins our everyday lives.

  9. prophet, Oh, you were looking for the ‘easy’ answer, no problem, been doing that for years. You see I work down at Cruci Fixes inc. (CFI for short), we do a lot of sub-contract work for the Romans and business is good, even in these hard times demand is on the rise! I’m just a middle manager but i have hopes of moving up soon. I’v been studying “The 7 Spiritual Laws of Conspicuous Consumption and unbridled glee” by pastor Foolwell over at the ecclesius-colossus (we just bought up the old coliseum to fit all the new folks in, and because of the smell and blood-stains we got one heck of a deal! PTL), and, since I’v been applying the ‘7 laws’ things have sure turned around in my life. I Met my third wife at a family-values conference (I was finally able to stuff those pesky thoughts and desires about Rick Warren in a Hawaiian speedo deep into my sub-conscious…for good this time!!). I also got a great deal on a used FEMA travel trailer (the zyklon B model) and we are going traveling this holyday. There is trouble in the east so I reckon we will head towards the newly liberated territories up north (there was some barbarian unrest there but i think the beneficence of our civilization will have been absorbed by the survivors and there should be some bargains to be had. Plus, I will be checking out the virgin forest up there for more product, so, I get to write the whole thing off on my taxes! I mean, I am all for ‘rendering unto Caesar,’ yadda yadda but old Pontius just can’t keep his hands out of my pocket, he needs a good dose of free-market deregulation if you ask me (‘spiritual law #4). As you know, trees are getting scarce hereabouts and we’ve got to import a lot of wood, and its easier just to liberate new forests from the undeserving than grow the darn trees ourselves, (I have had my doubts about this whole new ‘globalization’ thing, but seems to be working out fine, for me, PTL). I’m not sure what the Romans are doing with all those crosses and it’s not really my concern, hey I just sell the stuff! I’v heard rumors but its easy enough just to keep my head down and nose to the grind-stone. Yes, the traffic on the via-dolorosa has gotten terrible so my commute has gotten longer, i have had to add 2 slaves to my sedan chair so they can trade off a get a rest. Sure it costs me more but i figure its the right thing to do and it gives me a chance to share the ‘good news’ with them while their resting (I’v loaned them all copies of the ‘7 laws,’ but they just don’t seem to get it yet). Well, like we always say down at the CFI plant “we all have our crosses to bear,” get it? LOL!! (did you know our P.R. dept. came up with that? We were all hoping it would catch on and stimulate business, but it’s been a bit of a disappointment, not as bad as the disastrous “take up your cross and follow me” debacle back in ’33’ though, what were those guys in P.R. thinking?). Anywhoo, like the elders over at the Ecclesius-Colossus teach about scripture, if it costs you something its a metaphor; if it gives you something its literal. If it feels uncomfortable its an analogy if it makes you feel giddy its literal, exegesis in a nutshell. But, if it blows your mind and makes you weep with soul-crushing guilt and question everything you believe and been taught…well, i don’t know what you call that (a synecdoche?) except it’s time you got holt of a copy of the ‘7 laws’ and head on over to E.C. for some good, Bible based teaching. I will be leading a pro-life rally tonight around 7 so i can meet you at the espresso machine earlier. I will be handing out free samples of our new product line too, miniature crosses you can wear like jewelry!! Brilliant what? and they take a lot less wood than the full-sized models (and that’s good for the environment too, part of our new ‘greener’ image makeover, those guys in P.R. again!) so its a win,win,win, situation. Good for the empire, good for the environment, Good for the bottom-line, (Spiritual Laws #1,#2and #3). hope to see y’all soon, blessings, daniel

  10. I’d like to take a crack at the line that eddie began above, if you don’t mind. like you, dan, I am trying to think through different sides of pacifism, violence, etc, so my thoughts here are, in some ways, searching for an edge to grip.
    I don’t agree with the broad use of the word “violence,” applying it to emotions, systems themselves (instead of to their actions), or even non-lethal action (or restraints as we called them in the home group world). It reminds of the emergent tendency to call everything they do “incarnational evangelism.” I understand why people would like to use the word “violence” to speak about relationships gone bad on a variety of non-physical levels, but it doesn’t work. It has become for me an issue of literature.
    Beyond this even, i’ve read convincing accounts of pacifism which define what it refuses as “causing or intending to cause lethal harm.” For years now, i have to listen to Christians bring me through the “what-if” scenario of the wife and the rape and the bat by the bedstand as if its revelatory, earth shattering polemics. I try to say (nicely), “what makes you think that as a Christian pacifist, i won’t knock that dark shadow of a rapist on his ass? I will, and I am still a pacifist for it!” its not wrong for me to subdue the rapist in a way that doesn’t permanently harm him; its wrong to beat him to death. I am wondering whether one is violence and the other is not.
    What i reject is the stretching of a physical, historical, and political example of non-violence onto emotional and non-lethal action canvases; they don’t fit. The global does not fit on the local (ex. countries represented metaphorically as people in debates about violence are unhelpful – except perhaps to rouse nationalist violence).
    Joel Mason


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