Violence and Justice: Religious Violence as a Means for Achieving Justice

Is Religious Violence Caused by the Pursuit of Religious Justice?

Healing Violent Men
Healing Violent Men: A Model for Christian Communities.

It's often said that violence doesn't achieve anything, but if that's true why do so many people use violence in order to achieve various goals? To be more specific, it appears that even when violence is being employed senselessly, more often than not that those employing it are doing so because they think it is as justified means for achieving some specific goal: justice. If we understand why people engage in violence, we have a better chance of preventing it.

This may help explain why violence so frequently occurs in the context of and even in the name of religions which otherwise espouse the virtues of peace. Some atheist critics of religion may regard these religions as being perverse or contradictory, but that's not quite true. These same religions also espouse just as vociferously the importance of justice and, when they support the use of violence or warfare, it's frequently in the pursuit of justice and/or the elimination of injustice. It's difficult to find fault with such a position: it's legitimate, not contradictory, to promote peace but also sometimes also promote violence when it appears to be necessary for justice.

This means that adherents of an otherwise peaceful religion can be drawn into violent behavior if they can be convinced that there exist great injustices which God hates, that these injustices can only be eliminated through the use of violent actions, and that God has sanctioned the use of violence for the purpose of combatting such injustices.

In fact, this is precisely what leaders of violent religious movements often do.

In Healing Violent Men: A Model for Christian Communities, David J. Livingston quotes James Giligan, a psychiatrist who has worked with violent men:

The first lesson that tragedy teaches (and that the morality play misses) is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, for himself or for whoever it is on whose behalf he is acting. ... Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.

I don’t think that Giligan had in mind men who commit violence in the course of other crimes, like robbery, although I suppose his comments here may be relevant to a few such incidents. Giligan’s focus is men who are abusive towards others in their lives, including children, spouses, siblings, parents, and more. Remember that these are the people who such violent men supposedly love, so their violent behavior is just as "inexplicable" as the violent behavior of adherents of supposedly "peaceful" religions. Such violence can be a real problem and, if Giligan is correct, then it can’t be addressed without also addressing this root cause — again, just as is the case with religious violence.

Obviously any man who beats his wife in the pursuit of justice must have a very warped sense of reality, not to mention of justice, but that’s the point: their perception and understanding are so far out of whack that they need serious help in getting straightened out. It’s unlikely that their urges to cause harm to others will be lessened until they understand better and less violent ways of achieving justice. This is probably one of those cases where seeking to understand the violent offender, rather than merely punishing them, is a necessary prerequisite for dealing with them effectively.

To what extent is the same true with those who advocate violence in the name of religion? It's arguable that their sense of reality is also warped, but very often the injustices which they claim they need to correct really do exist — at least in some sense. Thus whereas violent men might need to be convinced that the injustices they see aren't true examples of injustice, when it comes religious violence that won't work. Instead, it will be necessary to focus on convincing violent fanatics that the injustices they see can be overcome through other, less violent means.

Recognizing that religious violence is at least partially caused by perceived injustice and a quest to establish justice helps us understand it. Atheist critics of religion and religious violence won't be able to offer substantive criticisms without such an understanding, so we need to learn how this principle might be applied in individual cases.

Someone advocating violence in the name of religion and in a fight against injustice won't be dissuaded by mere arguments against violence, but must instead be convinced to find other means to fight injustice.

One problem which this observation does not and cannot address is the difficulty of reaching any sort of compromise in the context of religiously motivated demands. In secular political disputes, people may be convinced to compromise with their opponents and thus reach a settlement which doesn't give everyone everything they want, but which still gives them enough to live with. In religious disputes, people frequently believe that they are fighting on behalf of their God's wishes — and who is willing to compromise on what God has told them to take? Who is willing to "give in" to some of the demands of opponents who are necessarily opposing God, therefore, fighting for evil?