In order to develop a personal philosophy about government, one of the first requirements is to come to an understanding of one’s beliefs about violence. When is it OK to use violence and when is it not? This understanding is necessary because at it’s core, all of government is violence. When we vote for mandatory policies, we are voting to use government guns to coerce our fellow citizens’ behaviors, because persuading them is just too hard. If a person disobeys a law, they are subject to fines or imprisonment. If they attempt to refuse that consequence, they are subject to violent capture and even deadly force. As Kevin D. Williamson wrote,
“If you’re not willing to have somebody hauled off at gunpoint over the project, then it’s probably not a legitimate concern of the state.”
In this regard, I am fortunate because I was raised in the faith of the Church of the Brethren. This denomination is found in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and other states in the Mid-Atlantic region. Founded by a group of German immigrants who were fleeing oppression by the German state, the Brethren have three distinguishing characteristics. First, they are pacifists. Second, they don’t believe in child baptism, recognizing only adult baptism by immersion. Third, they practice foot washing, which symbolizes Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper. Foot washing and child baptism aren’t relevant to this essay, so I’ll have little to say on those topics. Although I have drifted away from that faith, my upbringing still influences my own beliefs. I still admire the principled positions that the historical Brethren held in the face of hostility from the German state for their beliefs on baptism, and centuries later from the American government for their pacifist opposition to the draft.
Because of this upbringing, I was conscious of differing beliefs on the use of violence from a very young age. I even learned that my tenth grade biology teacher had been excommunicated from my church because he volunteered to serve in the Navy during WWII. The people I learned to respect in Sunday school classes were often people who were conscientious objectors and were willing to accept the legal consequences of their refusal to kill. As a young child, my simplistic understanding of pacifism was the belief that we were not to initiate violence. As a teen, during membership classes, I learned that the church took Christ’s teaching, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” very seriously. Not only were we not allowed to initiate violence. We were not even supposed to use violence as a means of defense!
I didn’t realize the significance at the time, but it seems to me now that the church’s pacifist doctrine was already being diluted at that time. I recall with amazement that by the 1980s, church members who were also military members even felt comfortable coming to church services in their uniforms.
It turns out that as an adult I don’t agree with the pacifist perspective. My own position on violence now is to follow the principle of non-aggression. Defensive violence is permitted. Aggressive violence is not. While I disagree with the Brethren idea of pacifism, until recently, I still admired the church for it’s principled position. Sadly, I was recently browsing their web page, and I discovered that they have seemingly abandoned their position on pacifism. In their 1989 policy statement on Health Care, they say,
Therefore, we urge government bodies to promote a [health care] program that:
1. Is universal and comprehensive, providing all persons in the United States with access to all necessary health care services.
This church, which calls itself pacifist (or at least, used to), is in fact calling for governments to use their monopoly on the use of violence to require health care providers to provide access to all persons, under threat of fines, imprisonment and deadly force. They are also calling for governments to use their monopolies on the use of violence to compel one group of people to pay for health care services for another; again under threat of fines, imprisonment and deadly force. The use of violence being called for isn’t even defensive!
We have another good example of this confusion here in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Every Saturday, on the street in front of the county court house, members of the American Sheepdogs rally on one corner and members of the Chester County Peace Movement rally on another. The Sheepdogs rally for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and while the rally is non-partisan, it seems that they generally support conservative ideas. The CCPM also claims to be non-partisan and rallies for peace, but the members of that group seem to support liberal, or progressive ideas. Consequently, they exhibit confusion about violence and government. One of the CCPM leaders has acknowledged being a socialist and several members have commented in the local paper in support of nationalized health care. You simply can’t be a socialist and claim to be peaceful at the same time. The only way socialism happens is through the coercive use of government guns! Again, not even defensive, but the aggressive use of violence.
So in summary, there are three positions we can hold on the use of violence. 1.) Pacifism: No violence under any circumstances; 2.) Non-Aggression: Defensive violence is allowed, aggressive violence is not; 3.) The end justifies the means. Aggressive use of violence is allowed, “for the right reasons”.
If we want to hold a logically consistent position, we cannot claim to believe pacifist or non-aggressive ideas towards violence while at the same time advocating for redistributive government policies or for nanny-state policies like the war on drugs. Government policies which threaten people with imprisonment and deadly force are inherently violent and must be recognized as such by any person of conscience.
Steve Palmer is the State Chapter Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center.
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