On Physical Violence

NO violence — even in self-defense.

A few months ago, I mentioned off-handedly that my feelings about violence were close to that of Gandhi and Tolstoy.  Kate Gladstone asked me about this in the comments, mentioning a book called THE RING by Piers Anthony, in which he describes a society in which some people wear a special ring that prevents them from committing any violence at all.  She notes:

“…his conclusions on non-violence in THE RING include, *but* go fascinatingly beyond, the common sentiment that a rule of absolute non-violence makes its followers the inevitable victims of those who haven’t adopted such a rule.

Whether you accept that common sentiment (which the RING definitely expresses), Piers Anthony also makes a case … that a rule of non-violence may actually have some unforeseen *bad* effects (unintended consequences) on the surrounding society, because putting absolutely non-violent people into contact with other people gives the non-pacifists several vast temptations to evil: temptations which the non-pacifists will often give in to (causing the immense worsening of the non-pacifists’ character, *and* sooner or later the immense worsening of the society within which both the pacifists and the non-pacifists move)…

Ring-wearers have immense difficulty in finding and keeping employment, because the people who might employ Ring-wearers (or who might work alongside them) see the Ring-wearers as unacceptable risks to human life and safety…

Ring-wearers therefore also tend to VERY frequently end up bullied (verbally and beyond that)/beaten/raped/mugged — because the folks without Rings know that they can inflict any desired degree of violence on a Ring-wearer and his/her property without fearing even a slap or a stomp on the toes in return. Although the law *theoretically* protects the rights of Ring-wearers like the rights of everyone else, in practice those who don’t wear the Ring have come (for this and other reasons) to see Ring-wearers as entirely legitimate targets. (This, too, contributes to people’s unwillingness to hire/work alongside with/even associate with a Ring-wearer: no matter what his/her other qualifications for the job. Wearers of the Ring swiftly become an underclass: the “right people” to hurt.)”

I gave Kate a brief answer, but I’ve felt for some time that something a lot more in-depth was called for.  In this article, I’ll address physical violence, and why I think it is never necessary and frequently counterproductive, even in self-defense.  In later articles, I’ll talk about emotional violence and intellectual violence.

What is Physical Violence?

plightofbeeThe ultimate source of the word violence is the Latin root vis, which meant “force”, “strength”.  I don’t know where that root came from, though I wonder if it is related to vir, “man”.  Spiritually, the sounds of the word violence suggest energy gathered up and forced through a narrow opening.  It’s a form that’s shared with many words that indicate forceful movement into a new space:  viper, Viking, virus, vine, viaduct…

For this article, I’m going to define violence as intentional infringement of your physical self or possessions.

*  Intentional rules out things like rocks falling on you, tornadoes throwing you into the air, and your pal accidentally running you over with a car.  I’m only going to be talking about intentional violence.

*  Infringement means that the violation is unwelcome.  If you’re a masochist, or abuse your body for religious purposes, this article isn’t about you.

*  Physical self and possessions includes not only your body, but also the physical things you own by law.  So if a thief steals your jewels, that counts as physical violence for the purposes of this article.  I’m including your possessions in this definition because I think the same principles apply.

Why Does Violence Happen?

Most people, I think it’s fair to say, would avoid committing violence if they could; and most people manage to avoid it the vast majority of the time.  However, there are some who enjoy committing violence — either out of a simple sadism, or out of a desire for power and control, or enjoyment of a physical contest, or some combination of these.  There are also those who are unconcerned about violence — they commit violence incidentally on their way to some other end, and they don’t care about the violence itself.

There is also a lot of inconsistency depending on what the target of the violence is.  Someone may be horrified at sadism toward a human being, but relish hunting deer, or enjoy killing house flies, or find peace while weeding a garden.

I am not suggesting that all of these activities are equally abhorrent — on the contrary!  But all of these attitudes toward violence show a lack of compassion, and as such indicate areas where the soul needs to grow.  Universal compassion is, I think, part of the universe’s inexorable flow; and enjoyment of violence, or indifference to it, stands against that goal.  This is the case whether you’re called on to show more compassion to humans, deer, flies, or plants that are not growing exactly where you want them.

Is Violence Ever Justified?

A very common attitude towards violence is that it’s unpleasant and undesirable, but sometimes necessary — either in self-defense, or in defending some other innocent individual, or something like that.  Below, I’ll explain why I think violence is unnecessary or counterproductive in several common situations.

*  Teaching. Many people (but fewer and fewer in this country, thank goodness) believe that children learn some lessons better if some violence is judiciously applied.  In my personal experience, I can attest that while I remember being spanked a few times, I don’t remember WHY I was spanked.  The violence itself was so traumatic that everything else about the experience was forgotten.

*  Taxation. This falls under my definition above, although most people wouldn’t even consider it theft, much less violence.  And it’s true that if you pay their taxes willingly, seeing them as a necessary price to pay for social justice, then no violence is done.  However, if you disagree with that, and refuse to pay your taxes, you will quickly see conventional physical violence used against you.  Stealing from the rich to give to the poor is still stealing; and the ends cannot justify the means.

*  Self-defense. Nearly everyone agrees that violence is justified in cases of self-defense — that if, for example, someone attacks your person, you are justified in using physical force to defend yourself.  However, some prominent thinkers have disagreed with this view:

5:38 You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a
tooth for a tooth:

5:39 But I say unto you, That you resist not evil: but whosoever shall
smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Jesus goes further:

5:40 And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat,
let him have your cloak also.

(Notice that Jesus is drawing a parallel between theft and physical violence to the body.)

5:41 And whosoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two.

5:42 Give to him that asks you, and from him that would borrow of you
turn you not away.

5:43 You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your
neighbor, and hate your enemy.

5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,
do good to them that hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use
you, and persecute you;

5:45 That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven:
for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends
rain on the just and on the unjust.

5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? do not
even the publicans the same?

5:47 And if you salute your brothers only, what do you more than
others? do not even the publicans so?

5:48 Be you therefore perfect, just as your Father which is in heaven
is perfect.

Jesus is suggesting that if you do not defend yourself, you are more truly a child of God, and approach divine perfection.  He seems to be saying that God doesn’t treat the wicked any different from the virtuous, and we shouldn’t, either.  What kind of nonsense is this?  You won’t hear most Christians spouting this idiocy…

But in my view, Jesus is absolutely right.  I’m not sure what Jesus’s reasoning is, other than that one should be like God, but I think that if you believe in something like reincarnation and karma, you are led to this conclusion inescapably.  Here’s why.

  • The soul is immortal. Physical damage to your body or your possessions is a passing thing, no more than an inconvenience in the grand scale of things.  If your body dies, you’ll get another.
  • But if you are lacking in compassion — if you are the kind of soul who willfully commits violence — then your very soul is stunted; and if nothing is done, if your soul does not grow and develop, it will eternally be less than it could have been.
  • What, then, is the quickest way to develop your soul? What is the best way for you to learn that violence is counterproductive?  What is the quickest way for you to learn compassion?
  • It is NOT to be restrained, or prevented from acting.  This usually does nothing but cause resentment against the restraint.  If a violent criminal is stopped from committing a crime by the police, the criminal generally just gets angry with the police.  If the criminal is stopped by the victim running away, the criminal just gets angry with the victim.
  • The fastest way to learn is to commit the violence. If you really want to be violent, then act out your soul’s desire, so that karma can react against you and teach you its lesson of compassion.  When you act with violence, you will be subjected to violence, and this will teach you compassion for your victims.  You may be a slow learner; it may take you lifetimes to learn this lesson; but you will learn it eventually.

Therefore, if someone offers physical violence against you, the most compassionate action is to allow the violence to occur. The damage to your physical body is temporary, but the assistance you are rendering to the violent soul is an eternal gift.

Not that I could actually do this personally.  I am a very, very long way from being that compassionate…  But that doesn’t mean I can’t hold it as a goal.

Defending the defenseless.

This is an interesting case.  If someone offers violence against a defenseless person, and you are in a position to stop them, should you?  I don’t think there’s a clear answer, actually.  Allowing the attack to occur shows compassion for the violent soul.  Stopping the attack shows compassion for the defenseless soul.  Either action is compassionate.  If time allows, perhaps the best thing is to try and ask Spirit, on a case-by-case basis.

A Meditation on Violence

I am walking in a garden, in the height of summer; the heat is oppressive.  The grass is tall on either side of the path.  Up ahead, around a corner, I hear voices shouting in anger.

I peek round the last tree and see two men in a clearing, both naked, screaming at each other at the top of their lungs.  They are arguing, incensed.  What are they screaming?…

After a moment I can work it out:  I LOVE YOU.  I LOVE YOU.  Louder and louder — but they cannot hear each other…

Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of them has a sword.  He swings it around, straight at the other man’s defenseless naked midsection.  I cannot watch — I look away — I hear a scream of pain.

I force myself to look up.  The man weilding the sword is lying on the ground, his own weapon impaling him.  The other man kneels beside him, crying.


12 responses to “On Physical Violence”

  1. I often saw Old Order Mennonite kids get bullied at school, because the bullies knew these kids were not allowed to defend themselves by religious law. This is what generally happened:
    1. More compassionate kids (or even rival bullies) would leap in and defend the Mennonite.
    2. Undefended, the Mennonite would go home to his family all bruised and bloodied, to be praised for being Christlike. The next Sunday in church, rest assured that kid got treated like gold.

    Eventually, however, society became such that the Old Order Mennonites pulled their kids out of public school and put them in private schools. The community is much more insular now, although one could argue that the clothing the people wear is the same as the Ring in the passage you quoted.


  2. Not to be snarky, but if J.C. is right, and taxes are a form of violence comparable to theft, then shouldn’t you be paying even more taxes than the government is asking of you? 😉

    Okay, actually, that’s very obviously being snarky. But I couldn’t resist.

    Also, I’m inclined to agree with you. I think Gandhi also wrote about the concept of “integrity,” and how responding to violence with violence violates our own integrity and demeans both the victim and the perpetrator of violence. I think in light of this concept, it is important not to respond with violence of our own, but also to actively resist violence that is occurring (either directed against us or others) through peaceful, loving means. I do not think that restraint always leads to bitterness (also, I think there is a difference between restraint of, and resistance to, violence), and much damage can be done by simply “allowing violence to happen,” as it demeans those committing violence as well as those who are its victims.

    But responding to violence with integrity and love is a powerful form of resistance that asserts a reality beyond the limits of the violent act and so, in some ways, can transform violence itself, restoring or elevating the violent actor instead of just leaving him alone to act out his tendencies and hope someday he “learns his lesson.” Gandhi did this when, for instance, he befriended his jailers and prosecutors, moving beyond a kind of “laissez-faire” compassion to an active cultivation of positive relationship. I think this is the real reason J.C. talks of giving not only the minimum of what is demanded, but freely giving more. It’s an assertion of the power of loving-kindness over the power of force and might; its inherently subversive to the accepted hierarchy of powerful-over-powerless. Maybe the reasoning is something like: it’s impossible to “commit violence against God,” (because he’s so strong and, well, just so… super) and so to become Godlike means to cultivate the capacity to transform violence into an opportunity for loving-kindness.


  3. Anne, that’s a fascinating case study. Kate mentioned that Piers Anthony had written “The Ring” based in part on his experiences growing up as one of the society of Friends; although it’s a bit of a stretch, since in “The Ring”, the people who wear the ring are convicted criminals. In either case it seems to me that the whole situation is different if you are prevented from defending yourself, as opposed to choosing not to defend yourself.

    Ali, thanks for that extra level of insight! What you’re saying resonates with me strongly. Even trying to bend my mind around living in such a way is a brain-cracking exercise for me, but my heart feels its rightness powerfully.

    As for your snarky tax comment… Well, it’s actually a fair question. On the face of it, yes, one ought to donate as much money to the government as you can. Render unto Caesar… On the other hand, part of the Evil of the state is its facelessness, its machinelike quality. It’s not an individual who is learning Oneness over many lifetimes; nor is it a person who can be conquered by loving kindness; so the turn-the-other-cheek arguments don’t seem to apply. Turning the other cheek to a factory combine isn’t going to do anyone any good.


  4. So fanastic to see this article, which articulates something that is becoming very clear to me through my yoga practice.

    If you break the action down into energy, and see violence as the expulsion from one entity of a concentrated form of energy…

    Then resistence to it equates to throwing up a wall and allowing that energy to bounce back or around.

    Reacting to it means that more energy is exploded out of the other person, and energy being what energy is… it’s not energy plus energy that results, but energy multiplied by energy…

    But if you stand in love and compassion and allow yourself to absorb the explusion of energy and transmute it into light…. well now… isn’t that something amazing!!!!

    And no – it’s not easy. Our attachment to our physical bodies and our innate will to survive is incredibly strong…

    But from an energetic, mathematical, scientific perspective, it totally makes sense to me.

    I’m sure we could even create equations to represent the scenarios I outline above!


  5. Hi Jeff,

    Yourpoint of view is really interesting, but I would like to know how you integrate the concept of absolute non-violence with necessarily violent acts, such as eating (which kills animals ans/or plants, directly and indirectly), and can hardly be avoided.

    It seems your logic would dictate that everyone should just voluntarily starve to death (reductio ad absurdum).

    Also, what do think about animals killing each other? Is it fundamentally different from a human killing an animal, or not?



  6. KL — your interpretation certainly has the flavor of a Newtonian F = ma type of thing! It’s a neat way of thinking about it. I wonder what color the energies would be?

    Vitor — in fact you don’t have to commit violence against plants if you take only their fruit. Many plants, such as blueberries, actually design their fruit so that animals will eat them; when the seeds exit the animal again, they are ‘processed’ in such a way that they have an easier time growing, and / or are distributed far away from the original plant.

    Can people survive just on fruit, nuts, berries, and other nonessential parts of plants? Well, there are those who think you can. Check this out to read about someone who has eaten mostly fruits for about twenty years, and is an athlete and trainer. And consider that our closest relatives, the great apes, survive mostly on fruit — they certainly don’t hunt much, or cook anything. Why should we be different?

    However, there’s another way around the violence inherent in eating meat or essential parts of plants. Notice that it is not violence if it is consensual, i.e. if you ask permission. You may or may not believe that animals and plants would give you permission to eat them, but many very ancient hunting traditions involve asking the spirits of the animals for permission, and giving thanks when permission is granted.

    As for animals eating animals: I really don’t think I can speak to that. I mean, I’ve never even had a pet. 🙂 But I think it depends on your opinion of the spiritual status of animals. For example, if you think they don’t have free will in the same way that we do, then they cannot really decide whether or not to commit violence, and so they are not culpable. On the other hand, maybe animals are closely bound to Spirit, and in fact no animal kills another without ‘asking’ permission first. Or maybe they’re all building up terrible karma… Or maybe I’m just wrong. 🙂 What feels right to you?


  7. I think that NVC (nonviolent communication) offers a great way to respond with compassion to even the ones who want to commit violent actions.

    I’m not a Jesus follower but I think he’s a great teacher. Still I would not want to turn my other cheek to anyone. That’s because I wouldn’t be able to do that without blaming the other one for hurting me. And blaming them is a violent action from my side.

    I think that violent actions come from blaming someone else from your bad feelings which come from unmet (and often unrecognized) needs. If I can help the person to recognize their needs and work for meeting them I feel that it’s more compassionate than letting them commit the violent act because they often would not be willing to do it if they were in contact with their needs.


  8. Jeff,

    When I see one animal hunting another, on some level I feel that both of them completely accept the parts they play and the fact that their physical energies are in a continual state of transformation, merging into one another, transcending the (from our perception negative) states of death and destruction, enabling perpetual life and creation.

    It feels like a dance, the unfolding of a scene with two actors utterly committed to their roles, giving the gifts of life, balance and rebirth to one another.

    In this context of divine reinvention, what seems like violence on the surface becomes a breathtaking spectacle of beauty, grace and power.

    In this sense, I can strongly relate to the hunting traditions you mention, which may ultimately be about integrating this same utter devotion to life into one’s own being.



  9. […] article is a sequel to On Physical Violence, and carries forward a lot of its themes.  However, I think a lot of the issues around emotional […]


  10. Re:

    > In either case it seems to me >that the whole situation is >different if you are prevented >from defending yourself, as >opposed to choosing not to >defend yourself.

    To this I’d add something that (in my opinion and experience) tends to escape the notice of those seeking to create an absolutely non-violent society and/or religion: once such a society/religion arises, growing up in such a society may mean that one loses the opportunity to CHOOSE avoiding violence (including the opportunity to choose between defending and not defending oneself) — simply because growing up in/getting enculturated by/living within an entirely non-violent society (and abiding by its governance) amounts *by* *definition* to “being [socially] prevented from” violence.

    If you spend your whole life (from womb to tomb) in a place where violence never gets to happen (because the whole social set-up operates against allowing any temptation/opportunity/motivation for violence), just when and where in that lifetime do you have any opportunity to do the “karmic learning” that Jeff postulates (the chance to experience for yourself the consequences of committing/allowing violence?)


  11. In my previous message, please change the non-word “dl” to the word “do” (and please accept my apology for the typo).


  12. Kate, I think I agree. It’s a good thing that we have multiple lifetimes; there is no way a single lifetime would be anywhere near enough time to learn everything. 🙂


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