For many evangelicals, when they speak of their commitment to nonviolence, this is understood primarily in terms of something you abstain from; it is a prohibition. On the other side of this are those who argue that violence is, at least at times, justified and even an expression of justice. This debate often takes the form of “what-if” questions which present an emotionally-laden hypothetical worst-case-scenario involving a home invasion and asking, “Wouldn’t you use violence to protect your loved ones then?”
I’d like to propose that instead of asking, “Is violence ever justified?” we should instead ask, “What can we do here to reduce violence?” and “How can we reduce harm and work for good?” This changes the focus from prohibition to peacemaking, and allows us to begin to take steps, however small and modest, towards that goal.
Here a useful parallel to the issue of violence can be found in looking at divorce. One could easily take Jesus’ words to say that divorce is categorically forbidden. On a low moral level we ask questions of permission and prohibition. So the question becomes, “Am I allowed to get a divorce or not?” But the deeper and more important question to ask is, “What do we need to do to have a good and healthy marriage?” and more specifically, “How can we break out of our patterns of hurt and conflict, and restore trust and closeness in our relationship again?” That doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy marriage, it means working to make the marriage healthy and loving.
Similarly with violence, if the question is, “Can it ever be justified,” I will answer: “Yes, it can. So can divorce.” So we can stop with all those hypothetical what-if scenarios. Let’s move beyond that, and instead all agree that even if divorce and violence can both be justified, we’d all nevertheless like to live in a world with less divorce and with less violence. Not only that, we’d all like to live in a world with happy loving marriages, and with people living in security and freedom. In order to get to that, the kinds of questions we need to be asking are therefore: How can we work to mend broken relationships? How can we work to resolve conflict? How can we work to bring about social justice? How can we promote safety? How can we reduce harm? How can we become ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers in the world?