This post is part of a series.
One common error that frustrates public debate is the lack of clear definition of terms. Often, such distinctions are lost in a lazy commingling, if not conflation of ideas that fails to move discussions forward.
One such conflation has to do with the the relationship between free speech and violence, and how they are (or are not) responsible for effecting violence. In order to make this discussion more profitable, I offer these three distinct terms; rhetoric, incitement, and violence.
The least agyres dive method of affecting public sentiment is rhetoric, defined as:
The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.
One of the controversial methods of rhetoric being attacked by contemporary liberals is the conservative use of the rhetoric of war and killing. Whether it’s the “war on Christmas” or “murdering babies in abortion clinics,” many blame any public violence against those promoting secularism or abortion on the rhetoric of war used by their opponents. But this evokes the question – is the use of such rhetoric unethical? Can it be used freely, with caution, or not at all?
An illustration may prove helpful. Paul the Apostle used warlike rhetoric a few times in scripture. Philippians 2:25 and Philemon 1:2 describe fellow Christians as “fellow soldiers.” The image of a soldier is also used in 2 Timothy 2:3–4 as a metaphor for hard work and dedication. Fuller metaphors are used in the passages below:
Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:11-14 NET)
We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. And after you have become fully obedient, we will punish everyone who remains disobedient. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6 NLT)
If this “rhetoric of war” is not inciting people to violence, what keeps it from bleeding into such a misunderstanding? It is certain that the uninformed and devious might want to read violence into such passages if we use them uncarefully, and for that reason, I think we need to be careful about using such language, but not necessarily ban its use in public discourse. Paul exercises at least three obvious cautions when using such language.
a. Paul is speaking to an internal audience, not external
Paul is speaking to Christians, and not to those outside of the fold. And while fault finders might take issue with us using warlike language inside our walls, but more sedate metaphors outside, we must remember that the unredeemed have little or no sense of what spiritual battle entails, and will certainly have little experiential grounds upon which to “spiritualize” such a message.
It may be unwise to use warfare verbiage in public policy discourse (though not prohibited by this principle, as we shall see). However, using Paul’s multiple examples, the Christian must develop a theology that sees the usefulness, even necessity of using such mortality- and evil-oriented descriptors in giving proper perspective, caution, and urgency to the work of the Church.
b. Paul is careful to give an explicit caveat nearly every time
Perhaps knowing the ease with which even the redeemed can justify actual violence, Paul is clear that our enemies are not people, but bad ideas that hurt people. He does not leave it to chance that the hearers will properly understand. This clarification, in part, allows us to use the rhetoric of war without the effect of violence against persons.
The Absence of Reprisals Against Muslims
This clear distinction if often missed, for example, when we condemn Islam for being evil. Liberals are always expecting some great backlash against Muslims after every Muslim terror event, in part due to the rhetoric of war, but it never comes. They are surprised that conservatives who use warlike language don’t go on their own killing sprees after the latest jihad. But this general lack of violent reprisals is due in large part to the Christian distinction regarding who and what our enemies are (Satan and evil ideologies and philosophies), and the fact that, unlike Islam itself, we have been commanded by Jesus to actually LOVE our enemies.
Jihad in Islam
Another possible confusion with regard to warlike rhetoric is that Islam uses similar metaphors for the spiritual jihad, or “struggle.” If Christians use the same verbiage, are they any different? The answer is “Yes” because in Islam, the struggle is both against one’s own demons, as well as people – it is not ONLY about ideas, but also unrepentant unbelievers.
In Islam, one struggles inwardly and with spiritual forces, but one ALSO struggles in a warlike and mortal battle against people who reject or malign God and their prophet. In Christianity, there are both struggles, but the outer is clearly defined as with demonic forces and ideas, not our human opponents.
c. Paul makes no ad hominem attacks
Because people are not the enemy, Paul does not make any attacks. This does not mean, however, that he does not call out individuals who oppose the truth or the gospel by name. Also, we see that Jesus himself abused the religious (in his own house) with namecalling and even physical intimidation on one occaision, wrecking their personal property and driving them out of the Temple with a whip. 1
So again, we see that harsh language regarding those who are outside of the house of God is atypical in both Paul’s and Jesus’ approach to spiritual warfare.
Sidebar: Murdering Babies and Slaves
Though infrequent, the number of attacks on abortion clinics (only 11 dead since 1993, or one every two years) 2 are perhaps significant enough to raise the question, “Is the rhetoric of ‘murdered babies’ responsible for such murders, and should that language be seen as indirect incitement to violence, or mere misunderstood rhetoric?”
I do not think that this discussion falls into the class of rhetoric because those opposed to abortion are not speaking metaphorically or hyperbolically, but are making a claim about the actual real ending of human lives in abortion clinics. You might argue that such language may incite some to justify murdering doctors to prevent the taking of innocent lives, and quite honestly, unless we give a clear call to NOT do so, the logic seems compelling.
Would you feel justified in killing a Nazi who was about to kill a Jewish child who was a non-person? Would you kill a man who was beating his own slave to death in the antebellum south? Or would you wait for the legal declaration of war in order to forego the sin of vigilantism?
(Please, don’t whine about these cases not being analogous, they are so analogous that if these are excluded, no analogies could ever be used at all. We are talking about humans being considered non-persons, and being abused, sold, and killed. There is no closer analogy anywhere.)
My point is, however, that even though such language is not merely rhetoric, it must still be accompanied by the Biblical caveats that (a) we don’t kill people in vigilante justice, and (b) we push for legal solutions, which may eventually include war if the murdering parties are unrepentant and as a people we deem such activities inhuman and illegal.
Warlike rhetoric, per se, is not unethical or unChristian. The Apostle Paul made great use of such language. However, he exercised caution, using it only in-house, with caveats about not seeing people as our enemies or the targets of our warfare, and he didn’t attack individuals or groups (Cretins excepted, cf. Titus 1:12), but rather, ideas as falsehoods.
These principles, I believe, kept Paul clear of falling into the next level of aggression, that of incitement.
- Whom would Jesus whip? (wholereason.com) ↩
- A Brief History of Deadly Attacks on Abortion Providers (New York Times, 11.29.15) ↩