Douglass Blvd Christian Church

an open and affirming community of faith

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Violence and the Naïve

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. . . . They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6, 9).

So we Christians do not oppose nuclear weapons because they threaten to destroy ‘mother earth,’ but because the God we serve would not have one life unjustly killed even if such a killing would insure the survival of the human species (Stanley Hauerwas, Sanctify Them in Truth: Holiness Exemplified, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998: 192).

In The Brothers Karamozov, Alyosha Karamozov and his brother, Ivan, have a conversation in which Alyosha, a postulant at the monastery, seeks to understand Ivan’s seemingly entrenched agnosticism. Ivan, in explaining his philosophy turns to the question of theodicy (i.e., the goodness of God put to the question of human suffering) to demonstrate his understanding of the universe as essentially unjust. He cannot get his mind past the very basic question of God’s righteousness in the face of wanton suffering, especially the suffering of children who are presumably innocent.

Ivan gives a series of accounts in which children are the object of profound suffering. One story that is particularly horrifying recounts the tragedy of a five-year-old girl who is tortured by her parents for dirtying her bed. Her mother makes her eat her own excrement and locks her in an outhouse every night, even in the dead of winter. Ivan wonders how the mother can sleep at night while her daughter beats her chest and cries out to “gentle Jesus” for help.

He then puts a question to young Alyosha:

‘Let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it?” Tell me and don’t lie!’

‘No, I would not,’ Alyosha said softly. (The Brothers Karamozov, 296)

In a world that casually assumes the fact of violence as woven into the fabric of the universe, Alyosha’s reticence is puzzling. We think, “If you had a chance to bring happiness and peace and tranquility to all humanity, and all it would cost is the suffering and torture of one innocent creature, and you didn’t do it, you would be stupid.” Of course, we try to limit “civilian casualties” and “collateral damage,” but we all know that peace (progress, democracy, justice, a new world order, etc.) come with a cost. Only the most hopelessly naive think that peace occurs without a few “civilian casualties.” Only the most credulous believe that the happiness of the world can be secured without a little “collateral damage.” No pain, no gain.

And yet, maybe there is something to be said for a guileless vision of the world in which the structures of happiness and peace and tranquility will no longer be built on the back of the suffering caused by our relentless pursuit of peace by violent means. Maybe there exists a way of looking at the world in which no violence, no matter how well intended, can ensure the reconciliation of enemies. Maybe there survives a way of construing the world that depends no longer on the blood of children to make the world a safer place, but insists on relying on God to secure our future.

Nah. You’d have to be pretty stupid to look for a world like that.

Forgive us Christians who are a bit skeptical about the world’s ability to pick and choose which innocents have to die to secure peace. We have a good memory. We remember a time when those in power got together to secure peace by killing an innocent man.

Well, on second thought, maybe you can build a peaceful world on the back of the suffering of one innocent man. I suppose it depends on the man.