What do you do with those who ask what to do with a bully?

I recently heard again a speaker raise as a central ethical question for pacifists the issue, as the speaker put it, of what do you do about a bully? This is one version of a standard question, usually asked by those who reject pacifism, of how a pacifist proposes to deal with the evil-doer (the background assumption generally being that only violence can effectively take care of the problem).

Now, I am a bit disconcerted to hear this question raised by a Mennonite who professes to be a pacifist (it is important to state right off that I am good friends with this speaker, I respect him greatly, and know that he is indeed a deeply committed pacifist Christian—but in some ways this all heightens my concern with his question).

As part of the question the speaker stated that the story of the Good Samaritan is a great story for Mennonites in that it valorizes service, picking up the pieces after violent deeds, and going the second mile in helping victims out. But, what if the Good Samaritan had come along in the midst of the mugging? If this Samaritan were a pacifist, what would he do? Again, the implication here is that the only choices would seem to be to attack the attacker violently in order to stop the mugging or to stand by helplessly.

I first encountered this particular hypothetical in the writings of Paul Ramsey, a prominent Christian ethicist who wrote prolifically against pacifism. For Ramsey, at least, this hypothetical was used directly as a refutation of pacifism (not merely as a way to raise questions). Ramsey drew heavily on Augustine, who—as far as I know—was the first to use that argument that violence can indeed be something done out of love. That is, Augustine (and Ramsey), took seriously Jesus’ call to love (in this sense, they took a different approach from more natural law oriented views that see Jesus’ commands as secondary to pragmatic concerns such as self-defense and providing for social order in the “real” world).

The problem as Augustine saw it was that the call to love could lead to contradictions, where out of love for my neighbor I may be required to use violence against the “bully” who is attacking my neighbor. That is, I can’t always love both the neighbor and the bully. The effect of this argument, it is assumed, is to undermine that pacifist claim that the love command leads to pacifism.

These are long-standing debates that surely will never be resolved—partly, I think, because the issue of the use of violence is most deeply not just an issue of logic or rationality but of belief, of ideology, even of metaphysics. Our use of violence actually has most of all to do with what kind of world we believe we live in and how, in this kind of world, one deals with conflict.

However, I still think there is value in logic and rationality. So I want to think a bit about the speaker’s hypothetical about the bully and the Good Samaritan.

My first thought is to express distaste with this kind of use of hypotheticals as a basis for constructing ethics. I believe we are much better off using actual cases that have happened in real life. Certainly, those can also be utilized to further particular agendas, but if you are talking about real life cases you can always ask to look closer and become more aware of complexities. Hypotheticals tend to be too narrow, full of stereotyped characters, functioning in a closed universe. If you care talking about actual cases, you know that they are limited and particular in their application and that in each actual case, the variables will be different—again, leading to a better awareness of complexity and the problems that arise when we try to draw universal principles from particular cases.

So, it simply is not helpful to address the question of how pacifists might respond to wrong-doing by using the kind of hypothetical my speaker used. This hypothetical implicitly locks us into a closed universe and ahead of time defines out of the realm of possibility the various options that would be part of a real life case.

A second thought is that turning Jesus’ Good Samaritan story into a hypothetical raises a situation that he didn’t speak to. By doing so, we actually miss the point of what he actual did say, and we come close to turning his story on its head. Jesus’ concern is with expanding the definition of “neighbor” to include the enemy. For Paul Ramsey, the concern in his hypothetical where the Samaritan encounters the mugging in process is to narrow the definition of neighbor—the Samaritan must choose which neighbor to side with and in making that choice will most likely exclude the enemy, treating the mugger as a person to be dealt with violently.

Even the language of “bully” in the hypothetical is deeply problematic. When we use that label, we are creating an artificial type in place of an actual human being. We know ahead of time what bullies do and, even, what they will do—which is my we must rely on violence. Since this is a bully, we know he won’t respond to any kind of appeal to his humanity or other creative action to defuse the situation. By labeling him as a bully, we are severely limiting what he could possibly do. Again, this use of “bully” in a way that in effect denies the humanity of the mugger we turn the actual point Jesus is making on its head. Jesus purposely chooses a Samaritan as the model for neighbor here because for his listeners, “Samaritan” would function in a way similar to “bully” in the hypothetical: a reductionist stereotype rather than a full human being. This reductionism is what Jesus rejects.

A third thought is that when this hypothetical is used in conversations about pacifism, is misses the reality that there are other, much bigger dangers that arise in relation to these questions. Probably the biggest danger is what is most likely to happen in the real world should we follow Paul Ramsey and reject pacifism and support the use of violence against “bullies.” That is, we would succumb to the danger Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of when he wrote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process they do not become monsters themselves” (Beyond Good and Evil). I have been especially sensitized to this danger through my current project on the moral legacy of World War II. Certainly, we can all agree that in 1941, Germany and Japan were “bullies” par excellence. The story of that war and its aftermath, though, is a story (I believe) of the people who fought against those monsters becoming monsters themselves.

The issue with the decision to use violence is never simply an issue of the narrow, specific situation one faces. There are always rippling effects. Unlike with hypotheticals, in the actual world we live in the violence always has a pre-history and post-history and always affects the one using it, and always triggers other events. There are no such things as “surgical strikes” in the real life use of violence. And we never know what will happen once we enter into violence.

Historian Gabriel Kolko’s book, Century of War, makes the powerful and persuasive point that in every major war of the 20th century, the belligerents entered under the assumption that their military action would be short and sweet—and ended up in drawn out conflicts that always led to much greater damage than anticipated. And usually the conflicts led to unforeseen, often disastrous consequences (examples abound, but just to name a couple: Russia entered World War I little expecting that the Czar’s government would collapse and the communists would take over; Germany attacked the Soviets and Japan attacked the Americans in World War II with the expectation of quick satisfaction instead of devastating defeat; the United States went to war in Vietnam and Iraq expecting quick results instead of debilitating quagmires).

This hypothetical related to what to do about a bully is not illuminating but instead muddies the waters. It makes creativity impossible, closing windows instead of opening them.

As is so often the case, the “radical,” “idealistic,” and “other-worldly” concerns of Jesus actually are anchored in real life and provide excellent resources for creative responses to life’s difficult and complex ethical concerns. Jesus gives a simple challenge in his parable: how might we be neighbors to those we label as “enemies”? Taking this challenge seriously surely provides the best path to dealing creatively with “bullies”—first of all, by requiring us to drop the label “bully” and to think of the mugger(s) first of all as human beings.

The basic challenge Jesus presents us with is this, I would suggest: how do we act in face of conflicts when we always insist on holding together as absolutes our commitment to pacifism and our commitment to active engagement in loving our neighbors (a category that without compromise includes enemies)? I go into more detail on the theological grounding for this challenge in my article, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism.”

What’s left is to reflect more on concrete cases and more on how we train ourselves ahead of time in ways that will heighten our ability to respond creatively to the actual cases that arise in real life….

4 thoughts on “What do you do with those who ask what to do with a bully?

  1. To ask the question another way, “what do you do when you see a tank bearing down on a set of Palistinian homes, the Christian Peacemaker Team answer is “you get in the way”. See: http://philsclips.blogspot.com/2003/01/art-gish-staring-down-tank.html Exactly what that means with a bully certainly depends on the situation and the faith that God gives me..

    Assuming the question really means, what does a Christian who has taken up the Cross in his own life do when he sees violence being done to another. I/We need to have an answer. I remember when I was younger walking a girl to the “L” in Chicago’s violent inner city, she asked me what would I do if she was attacked. I stammered and stuttered, I didn’t have an answer. I need to have an answer, we Christians following Jesus teachings need to have an answer, the best answer I have seen is “we get in the way”. I take action that may get me hurt, I won’t try to hurt the attacker, but I will need to “get in the way”.

    I’m now retired, with limited energy, but I still to get in the way myself by writing emails to public figures and supporting others who are able more directly to spread Jesus Gospel and by Jesus leading: “get in the way”.

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