What Would You Do?
Book Review by Logan (Mehl-Laituri) Isaac
The following is a restatement of the major points made by John Howard Yoder in his book by the same title (Herald Press, 1983). The stated question is the proverbial challenge to any pacifist, Christian or otherwise. Yoder crafts an excellent expose of the fallibility of many of the arguments that lie within that challenge, with the second half of the book including essays and statements of historic and contemporary pacifists. We hope you will find the book as provocative yet refreshing as we have (Editor’s note: we can only playfully imagine that the title is a thinly veiled pun, playing off the popular “What Would Jesus Do” slogan, but we cannot be entirely sure).
The first dependent assumption we might recognize in such a loaded question is that of determinism on the defender’s (your) part – that you have the only decision to make, and that it is only your decision that will provide resolution. If you do not act, the attacker will kill the victim, and your course of action will end in the death of the attacker. The accuser insists that the attacker is motivated only by pure evil, that there exists no hope of redemption. However, no crime is ever without motive; there is in fact something that will satisfy any attackers’ purpose for violent action (cooperating with their demand for money, safe harbor, etc.). It is simply unreasonable to believe that the only possible course must inevitably lead to death (the victim’s at the hand of the attacker, or the attacker’s at your own hand). No course is predetermined; the only limit to nonviolence is one’s own creativity and commitment.
The second assumption is that of omnipotence, that you somehow have absolute control and that your course of action will undoubtedly result in success. We cannot know for certain, in any instance, that our own decision will unfold without event or unseen consequence. Furthermore, both the victim and the attacker are assumed to be incapable of sentient thought or free will; their reflexes and instincts are considered immaterial to the argument. It is ridiculously optimistic to pretend that any agent, acting in concert with such unpredictable variables as a deranged attacker and a terror-stricken assailant, could enjoy absolute control over any situation, violent or otherwise. Another assumption related to omnipotence is that of omniscience, the idea that you know with absolute certainty how your course of action will unfold. After all, the obligatory conclusion is that of death. You are expected to be able to operate without doubt, a convenience no person in history has ever been able to enjoy in such an event. In any and all situations, we can be sure of only one thing, that we know nothing for certain and must act out of consideration for the unpredictability of the situation.
A third assumption our inquisitor relies upon is individualism, the belief that only my own interests are to be considered relevant. However, the victim’s relationship to me must inform my decision; I should not act outside their interests. If the victim shares my commitment to nonviolence, it would not be their desire that I use lethal force to save them from whatever catastrophe awaits them. If they do not subscribe to nonviolence, Yoder would argue that the desire to use a disproportionate amount of force against one’s attacker would be founded in selfcentrism (on either the part of the victim or the defender), an evil that already must have motivated the attacker. Put simply, true justice has in mind even the interests of the criminal. A defender cannot justify adopting the role of judge, jury, and executioner alone and hope to be protected by the claim of having objectively served justice. Furthermore, when a person is reduced to a possessive object, such as the case when it is assumed that the victim has no capacity to influence what must be exclusively my decision, it becomes an act of self-interest disguised as a virtue.
Stemming from the last issue comes the presumption of righteousness. Your actions are immediately considered ethically superior to those of the attacker. However, you lose any credibility as judge and jury when your own interests and welfare are a part of your decision. Your objectivity is compromised. It is then that people often claim, falsely, that their decision is effectively determined by the actions of the attacker (“they made me do it”). Once the ‘victim card’ is played, your actions become sanctioned by a fabricated sense of moral superiority. Far from being justified, you become the evil you had hoped to conquer. After all, it is violence and hostility that produces the attacker in the first place. Such are products of a culture so misled about true justice that it teaches its members not to murder by murdering murderers. Those who would use violence so readily have seldom been shown the prophetic power of love to destroy fear. The Hitler’s of the world only know hatred and fear precisely because they have never been shown grace and reconciliation. Even if it means sacrificing my own life, I will not become a victim to the myth of redemptive violence.
You can keep up with Logan on his blog at iamLoganMI.org