Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
Violence is violence, but we are always trying to parse it some other way. We try to divide it into good violence and bad violence. Into good wars and bad wars. Medieval theologians even developed the notion of a just war versus an unjust war. The parsing has always been difficult because we want to see the violence we use as good and the violence of the other side as bad. The winners inevitably see their violence as good, even justified, and actually very heroic. That’s why statues are set up to honor conquering war heroes. The heroic statue makes the violence used good, legitimate, even necessary.
This parsing of violence is intriguing. Theoretically we all agree that violence is bad. But what about self-defense? Well, of course, one can defend oneself when one is being attacked. But how much? How much violence is a proportionable response? Can you shoot to kill the unarmed burglar who invades your house? Once you start splitting hairs, it will not be long until you end up counting angels on the head of pin. Where to stop, where is the line? This is always a much more difficult problem than it first appears.
One way to solve this problem is to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate violence. The government exercises legitimate violence; violence by non-government entities is a crime. When a government kills, the act is presumed to be legitimate. To challenge that legitimacy, the burden of proof is on the one making the claim of illegitimacy. We have seen in many instances how difficult it is to make that case. When a nation goes to war, even under the slimmest of pretenses, for example, the War in Iraq, the majority goes along with the leader. We have seen over and over how difficult it is for a jury to convict a policeman of charges of unnecessary force during an arrest.
When a civilian kills someone, it’s murder and then we sort out the degree, from self-defense to first degree murder. While the accused is presumed innocent from a legal point of view, juries often have a hard time making this assumption. The old canard that where there’s smoke, there’s fire often wins the day. Interestingly Roman law made a presumption of innocence. In the middle ages, in the West guilt was presumed.
Most people and all governments are comfortable with this division and for the most part do not question it. Except when we see a policeman murder a black man on video. Or when peaceful protesters are attacked or provoked by the policing force. Then the whole parsing of violence gets called into question and becomes very controversial.
For the rest of this article go to: Violence
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