Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:
Though it should have been obvious with Ferguson, Baltimore has now proven that we – even and especially the liberal whites of the East Coast – ignore the recent spate of not exclusively but predominantly black deaths at the hands of policemen in the United States at our own peril. We have an urgent need to restore a language of common interest and common good with the people who are even now protesting – some peacefully, some less so – in the streets of Baltimore. This need cannot, and will not, be encompassed by a simple unilateral demand for one side to lay down its arms and submit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his piece for The Atlantic: ‘When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.’ He goes on to ask, rhetorically, where the calls for restraint were when the actual instances of police brutality were happening.
Coates doesn’t quote Chesterton, but indeed here he might well have been able to. ‘They preach,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘that if you see a man flogging a woman to death you must not hit him. I would much sooner let a leper come near a little boy than a man who preached such a thing.’ What so galled Chesterton about the preachers of nonviolence of his day, was precisely that their hypocritical moralising served as cover for an utter lack of sympathy for the weak when they are bullied by the strong. That is precisely what galls Coates here and now about the preachers of nonviolence in Baltimore. As the best representatives of the pacifist tradition will tell you, though – and this includes disciples of Chesterton such as Mohandas Gandhi – it isn’t enough simply to insist on peace as a negative ideal, let alone a self-serving one. ‘Violence is any day preferable to impotence,’ wrote the Mahatma. And here Gandhi was speaking in concert with the Church Fathers and the sainted Greek authors of the Philokalia, who interpret anger as a dog capable equally of biting wolves and sheep. The dog needs to be trained upon vice and wickedness, and must not be led to attack the weak, the innocent and the good – ‘be angry and not sin’; or as S. Isaiah the Solitary put it, ‘without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.’
Where Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers all tend to agree, is that anger, the root of violence, must be directed against injustice; and that a pacifism that ignores the weak, that is deaf to the demands of justice, is in actuality not opposed to violence but is actually a form of impotence, a moral sloth. It is frankly impossible to speak intelligibly about violence or the evils thereof, in Baltimore or elsewhere, without first having and using the grammar of justice. It is impossible to read the writings of Chesterton, Gandhi or the Church Fathers as atomised individual practice; in fact, they make no sense if they do not apply equally to individuals and to societies.
But what has all this theorising to do with Baltimore?
Simply put, the state’s right purpose is justice. The ruler is the minister of God for good, and a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil – so says S. Paul. It is the job of the Christian to uphold the law and to support the state in its capacity, as the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov put it, as ‘collectively organised pity’. But what do we do when this ‘collectively organised pity’ becomes indolent, indifferent to suffering, and indeed pitiless to the weak, as here and now, in Baltimore? What do we do when another Freddie Gray dies? What do we do when the agents of the state overstep or wilfully ignore their right purpose?
As Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers would have it, anger is not only an understandable reaction when one encounters a wrong – it is a necessary one. But revolutionary violence and the untutored anger it enshrines always has been, and is still, a feral dog which bites wolves and sheep alike. The right reaction to events like those in Baltimore falls somewhere in between. Those who preach nonviolence selectively at the powerless fall directly under Chesterton’s condemnation, and rightly so. Freddie Gray is dead, like a dozen other black men throughout the country, with no sense or reason behind his death. This must be answered somehow, and will be. But likewise, those who use acts of injustice to undermine the authority of the state and indulge anarchistic rebellion against even the right use of authority are clearly also wrong. There can be no excuse for rioting, arson and banditry, because even if those are directed against the powerful, the weak will still be made to suffer for it. The residents of Baltimore themselves, in fact, are indeed struggling to channel their anger into more spiritually-useful directions, peaceably, and against the state’s injustice rather than against the state itself. But they appear to be doing so not because of the hypocritical pacifistic moralising being levelled at them, but rather in spite of it.
Pretty much every Christian tradition – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – has historically emphasised that, as a rule, we have to obey our secular civil governments. But no Christian tradition worthy of the name will say that a blind eye must be turned to injustices when we see them, and especially not those injustices in which we ourselves are complicit. Even those who are angry at the injustices they see, and allow their anger to escape untamed are, in fact, better off than those who have grown passive and indolent, and allowed their anger to be choked off at its root by impotence.