This is an edited version of a paper presented at United Theological College’s ‘Things That Make For Peace’ conference on Thursday, 8 March, 2018.
On 21 January 2017, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, white nationalist and alt-right leader, Richard Spencer was struck during a live interview. Video of the punch quickly spread, mostly by way of Twitter. The incident provides a contemporary case study for the question of whether the presence of Nazis influences the acceptability of violence: stated otherwise, ‘is it ok to punch a Nazi?’ For those who would cite theological reasons for answering no, while being otherwise supportive of opposing Nazis, the nonviolent teachings and practices of Jesus will be centred as grounding for the condemnation of any kind of violence.
Although this approach has merit, there is tendency to fall into one or more of the following problems. First, the development of theology (or ethics) in abstraction; this refers to theology which seeks to ignore or deny its particularity in favour of a claim to universality. Second, the conflation of violent act and response, obscuring the hidden violence of an unjust society. Third, the sentimentalising of love, where the loving of an enemy necessitates the forgoing of selfhood. And fourth, the prioritising of the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth over the spirit of the risen Christ in the establishment of an ethical guide.
Against these problems I turn to the work of James H. Cone (the father of Black Theology in the US) to provide four complications to the above problems.
Cone’s theological starting point and commitment is to the oppressed community. His project is an attempt to relate the Christian faith to the struggle for black freedom in a way that bolsters rather than hinders such a pursuit. Cone critiques theological approaches that neglect the concrete situations in which they are written and read, especially those which do so as ‘evidence’ of their universality and neutrality.
Cone’s approach complicates the posing of universal ethical questions which presuppose that there is an answer suitable to all contexts, all communities. For the Christian, the ethical question of violent resistance needs to be shaped by the theological source of the community “that is, what God has done and is doing to liberate the oppressed from slavery and injustice.” Given that God relates differently to the oppressed as God does to oppressors, what it means to respond to the will of God must differ depending on where one finds themselves on that divide.
Whether or not it is OK to punch a Nazi is a question that the oppressed community must be allowed to ask and answer themselves without being beholden to universalised ethical demands, or religious convictions developed outside of their community. Not only are the oppressed community more suitably poised to understand the ethical response most appropriate for their struggle for liberation, they are also better located to perceive the often hidden violence of the state.
When confronted with the footage of Richard Spencer, many viewers see just one moment of violence; the punch. Cone’s theological project assists us in seeing that violence was already present in this scene, due to the very existence of someone sharing a Nazi ideology in a public space.
“There is nowhere we can go without being confronted with blatant manifestations of violence.” Cone makes this observation of black life in a society forged by, and committed to maintaining, white supremacy. Ethical discussions which isolate an incident, such as the punching of Richard Spencer, from the violent fabric of society, will inevitably favour the status quo and demand an account only from those whose violence is more explicit, given its lack of structural forces.
Cone writes, “injustice in any form is violence, and it comes in many manifestations”. Yes, there is violence in the slum, but there is also “the violence of the slum”. Bringing justice to the foreground means that violence is more than a momentary attack on the body; it requires the consideration of violence against personhood. The violation of personhood and culture is a violent act towards the God of Pentecost and the translatability of Christianity, which Lamin Sanneh observes, recognises that all cultures count equally before God. It is also a violence against the work of Christ, which has liberated all people to be a new being. Cone defines the gospel, as the good news that the oppressed do not have to accept their dehumanisation; they can do something about it.
Taking our case study, while the unknown striker’s physical body was not under immediate threat during Spencer’s interview, his personhood was. His act to disrupt the interview and challenge the proliferation of views such as Spencer’s may not be vengeful or thoughtless, rather, these acts of self-defense and resistance are faithful attempts to live into the image of God.
The Christian tradition of nonviolence needs to be interpreted within the community of the oppressed so it does not obscure the violent forces hidden behind the orderliness of the status quo. We must consider that Cone’s challenge, “no one can be non-violent in an unjust society” means that a refusal to punch a Nazi does not mean that violence hasn’t occurred.
God’s love is the impetus behind God’s acts of liberation, both cosmically and concretely. For this reason Cone cannot accept a notion of love that is separated from righteousness and justice. Rather than forsaking a claim to self, to respond appropriately to God’s loving act of divine liberation, the oppressed need to remain a Thou in a society that would make them in It. This is the foremost guide for the development of a Christian ethic: an affirmation of humanity and commitment to liberation. Cone argues that we should not think about this assertion of Thou-hood as anything but the work of sanctification. By refusing to be dehumanised, the oppressed share this love with their oppressors in the hope that they too will encounter the event of divine liberation.
Advocates of Christian non-violence often draw their beliefs, principally, from the earthly life and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Cone, on the other hand, contends that it is to the Spirit of the living Christ, encountered in the oppressed community struggling for freedom that Christian theology and ethics must account.
To use the Jesus of history as an absolute ethical guide for people today is to become enslaved to the past, foreclosing God’s eschatological future and its judgment on the present. It removes the element of risk in ethical decisions and makes people slaves to principles, “for the resurrected Christ is not bound by first-century possibilities”
Ethical questions regarding the appropriateness of modes of resistance, need to be particularly developed within the community of the oppressed, not applied universally from outside. This is not only because the oppressed are the ones most at risk and most attune to the hidden violence of unjust societies, it is because that is where the event of liberation, Jesus Christ, is found today.
Liam Miller is the Uniting Church Chaplain at Macquarie University.