Moltmann on Justified vs Unjustified Use of Force

Religion, Revolution and the Future by Jürgen Moltmann. Image Source: PostBarthian
Religion, Revolution and the Future by Jürgen Moltmann. Image Source: PostBarthian

On July 23, 1968, just a few short months after Martin Luther King’s death, Jürgen Moltmann gave the opening lecture at the World Student Christian Federation Conference in Turku, Finland. The title of his lecture was “God in Revolution”, in which Moltmann offers a series of theses (the text of this lecture can be found in Religion, Revolution and the Future).  A while back, The PostBarthian shared an excellent selection from this lecture: Thesis 5, on the dialectic of siding with the oppressed. In that section, Moltmann used Martin Luther King Jr. as a prime example of why Christians are to side with the downtrodden:

Martin Luther King, Jr., sided with the blacks and the poor. He organized protest movements and strikes. These actions were directed against the white racism and the capitalistic society in his country. But at the same time he was constantly concerned about the white people, unredeemed and enslaved by their pride and anxiety. He mobilized the marches of the blacks and the poor, not for revenge against the whites but for the redemption of the black and white alike from their mutual estrangement.

Religion, Revolution and the Future, 142

Below is Thesis 6 from this same speech, which I offer as a supplement to today’s post on James H. Cone’s critique of nonviolence. Moltmann, like Cone, is cautious about urging oppressed people to embrace total nonviolence. Instead, he encourages people to be mindful of justified vs unjustified violence. If the oppressed must take up arms against their oppressors (which has happened so many times in history) they must be very careful lest they become oppressors too! 

Thesis 6: The problem of violence and nonviolence is an illusory problem. There is only the question of justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends.

Those who advocate nonviolence today are usually those who control the police power. Those who embrace revolutionary violence are usually those who have no means of power. This is a paradox. It is fully clear that the transformation of the conditions of power will come only through the use of power and the assumption of authority. The sole problem consists of the fact that power must be justified; else it is nothing but “naked violence.” The use of revolutionary violence must be justified by the human goals of the revolution and the existing power structures unmasked in their inhumanity as “naked violence.” Otherwise, revolutionary violence cannot be made meaningful or appropriate. Unless every possible means is put to use, the revolutionary future is not worth committing oneself to, but if disproportionate means are employed, then the goals of the revolution are betrayed. The criterion for action is the measure of transformation. We need skilled judgment to bring together the opponent, the means, and the end in such a creative tension that the hoped-for effect will come to fruition. It is senseless to encourage the radicalism of the right by short-lived revolutions. There is no power in “waking sleeping dogs” by simply stepping on their tail. It is also senseless to provoke by briefly contrived actions the massive use of counterviolence in the streets only then to announce how evil the opposition is. In the tempo of revolutionary impatience, which presses for ever-new actions, we need the “long-distance” wind of patience and the imagination for encountering ever-new situations. People must be able to combine what they desire with what is objectively possible and with what they can subjectively accomplish. This is a delicate art.

The humane goals of a revolution must not be brought into disrepute by inappropriate means of violence. There is also in the revolutionary movement a revolt of the means against the ends, as was seen in Stalinism. If these means are violence, it is always a question whether the postrevolutionary society can bring the violence under control. Who has ever known a dictator, a secret police, or a bureaucracy to abrogate itself? if the revolutionary goal is a more fully realized humanity, then revolutionaries cannot afford to be inhuman during the so-called transitional period. Already, on the way , we must directly begin with the future and make life truly human during the transitional period. Perhaps we can demonstrate for peace and freedom only by practicing peace and freedom here and now with more determination (W.W. Wolff).

It follows therefore, that a revolution of the present for the benefit of a better and more humane future must not mold itself after the strategies of the world to be overthrown. Only with great restraint can revolutionaries enter the diabolical circle of violence and counterviolence if they are ever to conquer and abolish it as a whole Revolutionary means must constantly be reconciled with humane goals, else the revolution threatens to end in terrorism and resignation. How are we to bring about the kingdom of nonviolence brotherhood with the help of violent actions? This is the inner aporia of revolutionary activity. Those who allow the law of the opposition to prescribe their own course are, in any case, not yet the new humanity. Any means may be appropriate, but they must be different and better than those of the opposition if they are to bewilder the opposition. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke and acted from out of a dimension of truth which was not dependent on political power and the rules of its game. He was to a great extent immune against the anxiety and seduction of power. And precisely for that reason he became more threatening than the prophets of violence to those in positions of power. The atomic powers must be forced into guerrilla warfare; the poker players of power must be compelled into the chess game of reason.

Religion, Revolution and the Future, 143-145

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