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?
The 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
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.