Violent Political Action: A Christian Approach? Pt. 2 The Catholic Catechism
The second of three pieces written examining whether or not, and when it violent rebellion or insurgency might be justified or even called upon by the Christian community.
This is the second of three pieces in which I attempt to work out for myself, hopefully for your benefit as well, a basic Christian framework for understanding violent revolutionary or insurgency action. Is this something a Christian should embrace? The times in which we live grow more divided and perilous. It is important to wrestle with these questions before circumstances make for the easy justification of evil deeds. In part one – Violent Political Action, a Christian Approach? Pt. 1 Biblical Foundations – I looked at a couple of key New Testament texts and introduced some foundational biblical and theological concepts.
I am by no means the first person to ask this question. It has a long tradition, so much so that it warrants a section of its own in the Catholic Catechism under the larger heading of “The Duty of Citizens.” I will say, for all the smack talk from Catholics about their theological sophistication, I frankly found the Catholic Catechism a little weak. Much of it seemed to me to be warmed over enlightenment liberalism. Let’s examine:
Section 2243 begins this way, leaning on the core Christian teaching of martyrdom and suffering for what is right (as opposed to fighting for what it right. See part 1 of this essay). It begins by stating:
“Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless the all the following conditions are met:”
Overall, what comes next, in my mind, pretty much ensures that a specifically Christian revolutionary action will likely not happen as all five conditions must be fully met for it to be morally defensible. Let’s examine the five criteria. I plan on looking at them, not abstractly, but rather through the lens of the current situation:
There is a certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights.
What is a “fundamental right?” A lot hinges on this. I would argue that even talking about “human rights” is working for the system that the west has built up. The scriptures do not mention human rights anywhere. The idea of a “right” is something inferred from our responsibility to God and to our neighbour. The idea of “human rights” is more of an enlightenment idea than it is a Christian one. We do not have a “right” to liberty, to property and so forth. We have the responsibility to respect the liberty of our neighbour. It is my obligation to God and man not to oppress my neighbour. In my mind, only a wicked person then turns the goodness of the neighbour back on him and demands liberty, telling his neighbour, “You owe me.”
This distinction is important. The first commandment is to love God with all my heart and soul and strength and the second is like it, to love my neighbour as my self. The first command is not to figure out what my rights are and demand them from my neighbour. The ultimate unsustainability of a rights based social compact comes back to this point, this foundation. This is what Deneen and Legutko both articulate in their own way. Eventually, the entity that will be tasked with negotiating competing rights will be an ever growing and encroaching state.
The criteria of the Catechism also seems to envision soldiers ramming their rifle butts into your ribs: the Warsaw Ghetto, political prisoners being rounded up, death camps and so forth. I doubt it envisions the kind of slow, suffocating, life-draining strangling of a death by a thousand small cuts that comes to us through the administrative state, the educational system as well as the media and entertainment complexes. The changes are so slow and incremental that they are almost not noticed. You seem free, but you are not. As much as it is overplayed, the Matrix is an apt analogy. Most people are so hopelessly inured by the system that has grown up around them and are so attached to its reward apparatus that most don’t even realize the degree to which they are oppressed and the degree to which the life is being squeezed out of them.
All other means of redress have been exhausted.
Once again, this favours the system. This is something that both Burnham and Schmitt noted in their own way. Burnham observed that those who control the means of production are not those who own the means of production. It is the managers. Ellul also is good on explaining how impersonal institutions and systems are set up with their attendant systems and policies. Whether it is the policy manual in a company or a series of regulations in a government bureaucracy, there is no one person in control. They system is in control. This is the thing that Schmitt notes in Legality and Legitimacy, that no one is in control of the administrative state. The system runs itself. There is no “sovereign.” The managers populate the system, work within it, tweak it, reform it even, but “the system” has become its own disembodied entity.
At all levels, whether it is a simple policy manual for a small business, the “Walmart way”, or some government agency, what happens is that our personal agency is relinquished to the system. The system is larger than any one of us and will be here after us and dictates the way we do things trying to foresee and account for every possibility. At each implementation of every step, every policy that is written, every process that is developed, every program that is put in place is probably justifiable in and of itself, but cumulatively, the complexity of the system eventually begins squeezing the life out of a society. This is what Tainter observed: that “complexity” is introduced to solve problems and is initially very successful, that social inputs are far smaller than social gains. Somewhere in the 1950’s-1970’s we passed the tipping point where outputs no longer exceed inputs. The system itself is now a drain on the society it governs and regulates.
At some point, one must ask, is it possible to reform the system? I would argue that it is not. The large interconnected complex technical system that we have put in place is what it is. If you are working to reform the system, you are working for the ends of the system itself. Marshall McLuhan is helpful here. His famous dictum, “The medium is the message” is an important and often misunderstood idea. What McLuhan means is that the introduction of any technology or technical system will have effects regardless of the “content” of the technology or the system. For example, the fact that you make things by means of an assembly line is far more significant than any particular product made on the assembly line. The television itself is more important than any one show. The fact of a professional government bureaucracy is more important than any one policy implemented through that bureaucracy. You cannot change television by only producing good shows. You cannot change Twitter only by producing “good” tweets. The very use of Twitter will have effects, both good and bad and many unintended. The mobility of an automobile and its reliance on fossil fuels is far more important than the content of any one particular trip. The technical administrative state cannot be reformed. Not so much because it is irredeemable, but rather because it is what it is. It has its own logic, its own purpose, its own ends that are tied to its very use. The medium is the message.
How do you seek redress against “the system” itself? How do you seek redress against your television for its negative effects? Your automobile? Tainter argues, and I think correctly, that eventually the demands of the “complex system” needed to maintain it become unsustainable. Anything that can’t go on forever, won’t. Eventually the system recedes, fractures or collapses all together.
Part of the problem is the scale of our society. The drive for a global economy is driven by economies of scale. At each level of size and complexity the rewards increase. Greater influence. Greater monetary reward. Greater complexity demanding more “sophisticated” management techniques. This is the dynamic that tends to push all problems up to the largest level of scale and has us looking for solutions at the national and international level. It is this dynamic that has caused our elites to betray their obligations to place and community. We destroyed the “suffocating” unspoken authority of local communities and institutions for the personal freedom and anonymity of the city, the nation and the globe; but the price was living under the auspices of “the system.” But the system requires managers. “The system” cannot be reformed, because reforming the system is to work for the system. Removing the oppressive nature of the system means devolving power, authority and scale back to the local level and that would mean largely dismantling the state, national and international system of business and government.
Recognizing this, that the current conditions will not get better through systemic reform, are we past the point where the phrase “All other means of redress” have any meaning at all?
“Such resistance will not provoke worse disorders.”
This is the big unknown. Of course, resistance will likely make things worse in the short term. And it has been demonstrated again and again that utopian promises for getting rid of “the system” to usher in some new utopian paradise is a fool’s game. At best they might be able to offer a fresh start. But even that is not true, because once you have eaten the apple, there is no going back. Now that you have technical knowledge, it will be used again. At this point the best you might be able to hope for is a crack up where multiple regions begin establishing control over local areas. The message here from the Catholic Catechism is that you must acquiesce to the system for fear of making things worse. This is not a very hopeful message.
There is a well-founded hope of success.
This is the point that bothers me the most. We only resist if we think it will work? Really? If we turn to fiction, this is the point that Tolkien made in The Lord of the Rings: that evil must be resisted because it is evil, even if the battle seems hopeless, you must resist evil. We fight the good fight because it is the good fight. Mordor must be resisted because it is Mordor. The all-seeing eye exercising control and building its all-consuming machine must be resisted. And, as Tolkien argued, you cannot use the power of the ring for good. You cannot use the machine for good. To try is to be consumed by the machine.
It is impossible to reasonably foresee any better solution.
Is it impossible to think that we in the west will be able to restrain ourselves and resist the lure of the machine, the lure of its logic and necessity: the drive to control and manage everything that can be managed? I suppose I could conceive of that world, but is it realistic? No. Are we at the tipping point yet? Probably not, but we hurl ourselves closer every day. I suppose a peaceful solution to the technical society and the managerial machine could be conceived of, but will the managers let go of their managerial power willingly? They are true believers in the power of the system to usher in a techno-managerial utopia. One suspects that their hand will have to be forced. This is the problem that we face with techno-managerialism: there is always someone ready with a “plan” to reform the system. There is always someone there who can convince us that we need to put off a more direct opposition to the system. It is always possible to believe that a non-violent solution might work. This is the problem that the Catholic Catechism presents us. While it gives us criterion for armed rebellion, these very criteria seem to close this door, leaving only the option of martyrdom open to us. They hint of necessity, but the necessary conditions never arrive.
Part 3: John Calvin and concluding remarks.
This is a very good series; I'd comment on Twitter but I'm staying away! I went over a similar analysis a few years back in my "On Rebellion" piece, which also refers to Aquinas--though mine is a far from authoritative analysis.