The Myth of Redemptive Violence

That’s the title of a HuffPo article by Shane Claiborne who suggests that it is time “we declare that violence is evil, everywhere — period.” But I’m not interested in what Claiborne has to say, and am more interested in the slogan used to title his piece: the myth of redemptive violence. That’s the sort of thing you here people say they don’t believe in. But what does it mean, exactly?

One way of answering the question is that violence is the means by which the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished or that salvation comes through exacting vengeance on those who threaten it. Thus to deny “redemptive violence” is to deny that violence is the means by which peace, shalom, utopia, or the kingdom of God is brought about. If taken in this ultimate sense, then I can agree.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be committed to “redemptive violence” to believe in “protective violence.” It seems to be an obvious truth that there is a moral difference between:

  • [A] Those who use violence towards others for violence’s sake.


  • [B] Those who use violence to protect others from those who use violence towards others for violence’s sake.

A pacifist who thinks violence is always and everywhere evil fails to make this distinction, which has always been problematic for their position. If A and B are not on the same moral plane, then some contrived “dirty hands” ethic is invoked to save appearances. But how plausible is that when trying to distinguish between a rapist and one who physically subdues and restrains the rapist? The pacifist is, at least, committed to the claim that he or she inhabits some moral plane (the plane of non-violence?) that is supposedly over and the above the rapist AND the one who restrains the rapist, but that’s just absurd. What can be said in favor of such a position, I do not know.

Perhaps the pacifist will make a distinction between the use of “force” and the use of “violence,” and argue that the one who restrains the rapist doesn’t really engage in violence. But this has always struck me as a distinction without difference, especially if violence is just a name we give to a set of actions that are used to harm others. Even if “force” is just a name for a subset actions that harm others to a lesser degree, they are still such that they harm others. And such actions, we are told, are always evil? I find that hard to believe.