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Before we resort to violence, a checklist

03 May 2017 By John G. Stackhouse Jr.

Second thoughts on discipline in a Christian organization

There is a Christian case for the use of violence, and that case has been made, under the terms of "just war theory," for hundreds of years. But the Church at its best has always remembered what too many people, including Christians, forget – the coercion of others should never be regarded merely as "the continuation of politics by other means" (as Carl von Clausewitz said so blandly), but only ever as a last resort.

It is now sadly commonplace on North American university campuses that a prominent speaker – it doesn’t matter what point of view he or she represents – will be harassed, heckled and even harmed instead of heeded. Violence, verbal or otherwise, will be planned and executed for maximum exposure rather than undertaken only when all other forms of engagement are exhausted.

Vicious and violent snowflakes, however, are everywhere, including our churches.

Christian leaders and their supporters love to cry, "Unity! Unity!" when faced with dissent, let alone criticism. Yet somehow their vision of unity rarely includes the possibility of changing their minds to adopt the recommendations of their opponents. It seems always to be unity on their terms, backed by threats of coercion rather than promises of reflection and even reconsideration.

Even in the face of barbarian invasion, Augustine warned Christians to resort to violence only if they had made sure avoiding it would result in worse evil. Thomas Aquinas, worried about wicked regimes within Christendom and on its borders, nonetheless urged Christians to consider a list of prerequisites before engaging in battle, and in particular demanded we always seek peace, even via war. Reconciliation of relationships and the restoration of shalom must never be lost in a storm of fearful, vengeful selfishness.

Christian leaders also warn their subordinates to keep quiet about problems within organizations for fear of "harming the ministry." ILLUSTRATION: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Across Canada today, alas, it isn’t only nervous politicians and CEOs who seek to muzzle dissent. Christian leaders also warn their subordinates to keep quiet about problems within organizations for fear of "harming the ministry," while pastors and elders try to stifle opposition with accusations of resisting the very will of God.

Leaders are quite right to invoke and emulate Paul’s campaigns against heresy, schism, gossip and defiance of legitimate authority. But they had better be as right as he was about what constitutes truly illegitimate speech among Christians.

And they had better have obeyed his instructions about how to communicate with other Christians, including their critics, before they lower the disciplinary boom – "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), covered in "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12), "so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith" (Ephesians 4:12–13).

In fact, before Christian leaders decide to repress alternative opinions, they might hold each other to account. Did we show obvious compassion? Were we manifestly kind? What evidence is there we have been humble? Would a neutral observer call us gentle? Have we been exemplary in our patience?

Before anyone else defends or complies with such power moves by fuming leaders, let’s resolve together to ask questions like these to make sure (in the same way ethicists apply similar tests to any claim of a "just war") something truly Christian is going on.

John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B., where he is also dean of faculty development. Find more of these columns at