Friday, September 30, 2016

A Christian Understanding of Power (5 of 7)

This is the fifth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

On the whole, this blog series is designed to be an evidence-based case for nonviolence. But as I explained in my last post, our beliefs peace and violence are not only shaped by evidence and experience, but also by deep assumptions that we make about power. Therefore, in this post, I am going to present an alternative understanding of power through an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture. [E1] I realize that this kind of abstract and religiously loaded post risks alienating several of my readers, but I believe, as Thomas Merton said, that “the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God.” Christianity is not the only religion that can provide a metaphysical basis for nonviolence – Gandhi was able to find similar resources in Hinduism, for example – but even if you are not a Christian, I think it is valuable to consider the religious and metaphysical beliefs which shape our everyday feelings about peace and violence.

One of the classic attributes of God, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, is that God is all-powerful. As the One who created and sustained the world, God is the source of all being and all power. On the one hand, this is an inspiring and reassuring doctrine. But on the other hand, the very recognition of God’s power has led to some of the profoundest doubts and most painful feelings of abandonment for Jewish and Christian people. [E2] We wonder: if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God intervene more? Where is God in the midst of all of the evil that occurs in the world? For the ancient Jews, this question came up the most frequently in the context of their national crises: [E3] “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand? Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” This is one of the most pervasive themes – if not the most pervasive theme – in the Older Testament.

God heard these laments and prayers of the people and responded by promising to send a powerful figure to rescue them: the Messiah. [E4] As God’s representative on earth, this Messiah would be an extremely powerful person. The prophets proclaimed that “authority would rest on his shoulders,” and “a stream of fire would issue from his presence.” He would be “triumphant and victorious,” and to him “would be given dominion and glory and kingship.” [E5] But that’s not all the Messiah would do. Although the people only prayed for God to liberate them from their oppressors, this would be “too small a thing” for God’s Messiah. Going further, the Messiah's reign wouldn’t be limited to Israel, but his “dominion shall be from sea to sea,” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He would “establish [God’s kingdom] and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” [E6]

With such a powerful description of a political leader embedded in Israel’s Scriptures, it should not surprise us that many aspiring politicians in Israel claimed that these prophecies applied to them. We know of several military leaders who claimed to be God’s Messiah in order to recruit more people to fight against the Greeks or the Romans. [E7] Most of these aspiring Messiahs were defeated and killed. Even among those who were relatively successful, they couldn’t live up to the bold promises of a Messiah who would create a global and eternal kingdom.

Now here’s the crazy part – are you ready? In the first century, a group of Jews started claiming that their leader was the Messiah after he had been killed. Of course, I am talking about the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this does not shock you, but it should. In order to understand the New Testament, it’s important for us to recognize how audacious this claim was.

It was very clear in the Older Testament that the Messiah would be a national savior who would defeat Israel’s political enemies and restore independence to the people of God. So the question people had to ask when presented with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was this: did Jesus accomplish these political tasks? For most people, the answer is, “Obviously not.” In the first century, the main reason why many of the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah was because the Roman Empire still seemed to be in control after Jesus left the earth. Clearly, he had not obtained political liberation. Unfortunately, some Christians agreed with them. They acknowledged that Jesus did not achieve national/political victory, so they radically redefined the Messiah’s job description in the Older Testament to make it look like God only promised to send a spiritual Messiah, not a political one. [E8]

But the earliest Christians made the counter-intuitive claim that Jesus actually succeeded as the political Messiah as well, and I agree with them. I believe that Jesus literally restored independence to the people of God and defeated Israel’s enemies. If you know anything about Roman history, that probably sounds bizarre to you, given the way that the Romans decimated Israel in the century following Jesus’ life. Even so, I would insist that it is true, and that the reason that we can’t see it is because we reading history with a biased lens. Let’s consider each of these two main claims.

Did Jesus restore the people of God as an independent nation? – One way to interpret Jesus’ earthly ministry is that he was doing the work of nation-building. He went around telling people that the kingdom of God was near and recruiting them to “join” it. Once people joined his kingdom, they were expected to swear allegiance to Jesus and not to Caesar. Jesus gave this community his own laws and policies that were designed to govern their society, and he appointed leaders who had very specific instructions as to how to expand it. [E9] His teachings and ministry were not just a miscellaneous set of good things he did and said: Jesus was systematically creating a political community (the church) within Israel that was independent from Roman rule, and he did it without ever engaging in battle. [E10] Unfortunately, later down the road, the church got pretty entangled with the state, but it always remained a separate institution, one which Jesus founded. If you can accept this claim – that the church is actually an alternative political society – then you can see that Jesus fulfilled even the most ambitious Messianic prophecies: Today, this “kingdom” extends from sea to sea, claiming nearly a third of the earth’s population in its membership, and it has reigned unbroken for 2,000 years.

Did Jesus defeat Israel’s political enemies? Taking a broad historical view, you can make the claim that Jesus’ “political campaign” did, in the end, defeat the Jews’ political enemies – the pagan Romans. While it’s true that the Romans continued to control Israel immediately after Jesus ascended, Jesus delivered the fatal blow to their dominance while he was still on earth. He took their strongest weapon – the threat of a humiliating death through crucifixion – and showed that it was powerless to stop him. By doing this, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” In other words, he demonstrated to his followers that the violence power of the Roman Empire was actually quite weak. Violence doesn’t have any positive power at all. Its only power is the ability to scare people into cooperating with its own wishes. However, once we decide to stop giving into to those threats, violence itself becomes impotent.

Emboldened by this insight, Jesus’ disciples continued to make converts and extend Jesus’ kingdom, despite great resistance by the Roman Empire. The Romans at first ignored the Christian movement, and then they persecuted it with increasing degrees of severity, but their attempts to threaten or kill off Christianity didn’t work at all. On the contrary, this spiritual-political movement seemed to grow with each martyrdom. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century, when the Emperor issued an empire-wide ban on Christianity and Christian leaders were hunted down and killed. But after about 10 years of exhausting itself by trying to extinguish Christianity, the Roman Empire eventually submitted to the kingdom of God. [E11] Hence, one could claim that Christianity conquered the (pagan) Roman Empire without engaging a single military battle. Therefore, Jesus did what the Messiah was supposed to do: he led a movement that defeated the enemies of the people of God.

Christians believe that Jesus is the revelation of God: he reveals who God is and what God is like. They also believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the powerful one who was sent to redeem the people of Israel. If both of these claims are true and Jesus embodied the power of God, then it follows that God’s power is not violent. The Israelites of the first century and Christians today expect God to rescue us by a show of force. We look for salvation among rulers and generals because we don’t understand what the power that created and sustains the universe is really like. But Jesus showed us in his life, his death, his resurrection, and his victory that that peace is more powerful than violence, love is stronger than fear, and life is greater than death.  That is the metaphysical basis for my pacifism.


End Notes

[E1] “Anabaptist” is the term that people used to describe some of the “radical reformers” in the sixteenth century at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The Mennonite Church, to which I belong, has its roots in the Anabaptist movement. However, I prefer the term Anabaptist to Mennonite here because Anabaptist refers to people who identify with that movement even if they are not associated with the Mennonite Church, such as Neo-Anabaptists.

I should also emphasize that this is an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture, not the Anabaptist interpretation. There are many other Mennonite groups and other groups that wouldn’t read the Bible this way.

[E2] Of course, I am talking about the problem of evil, but I am not going to address that in its philosophical form in this post. However, you could extrapolate some of my comments on this post to get a window into how I understand the problem of evil. A big part of this issue is that we have a misguided idea of what it means to call God “all-powerful”.

[E3] Psalm 74:10-11. For other examples, see Psalm 44, 60, 79, 80, 85, Jeremiah 12, Ezekiel 19, the entire book of Lamentations, etc.

[E4] I am attempting here to give a very brief summary to the story of the Older Testament, and of course, there are many ways to challenge this. For example, one could rightly point out that the concept of the Messiah developed in the Scriptural canon: the earliest references just referred to David or another King of Israel, but by the time we get to Daniel, this figure has divine qualities. I see this diversity as a developing understanding of who God’s Messiah would be. But I realize that this discussion is complicated and needs to be nuanced, especially out of respect for the Jewish people who read the same Scriptures differently.

[E5] Isaiah 9:6, Daniel 7:10, Zechariah 9:9, Daniel 7:14

[E6] Isaiah 49:6, Zechariah 9:10, Daniel 7:14, Isaiah 9:7

[E7] Two of these “failed Messiahs” are mentioned in Acts 5:36-37

[E8] I believe that spiritual liberation and political liberation are interrelated. Unfortunately, this strategy of bifurcating the spiritual from the physical, which is often associated with the heresy of Gnosticism, has done untold damage to Christianity. Most Christians in the world today still believe that Jesus only came to be a spiritual Messiah, and they fail to appreciate the political implications of his work on earth.

[E9] There are plenty of Scriptures to back up each of these claims, but you also need a little historical/culture context to appreciate them. For example, Jesus' announcement about the kingdom of God is found in Mark 1:14-15 among other places, but context would reveal that not only the word' "kingdom" but even the word "good news" or "gospel" is politically loaded. There are several references to the powerful phrase, "Jesus is Lord" throughout the NT (e.g. Romans 10:9, Phil 2:11), but it is helpful to know that this phrase was a contrast to the common affirmation, "Caesar is Lord," and Christians were persecuted during the early part of the Roman Empire because they refused to say the latter. The political nature of his community was clear at many points, especially in texts like Luke 22:25-30, during which he finishes up his "ethical teaching" by reminding his disciples "I confer on you a kingdom." Even the fact that Jesus felt compelled to designate his disciples as apostles (Luke 6:13-16) reveals that he was thinking in structural terms about how to carry his movement forward.
[E10] A very important question for Biblical theologians is how the people of God in the Old Testament (Israel: the descendants of Abraham) relate to the people of God in the New Testament (the church: believers in Jesus). For a long time, theologians argued that the Jews failed as God’s people, and so God replaced Israel with the Church. This is called supersessionism, and it is a dangerous theology that has contributed to (if not caused) the persecution of Jews throughout the centuries.

I actually see an unbroken continuity between Israel and the Church. Jesus very intentionally recruited followers from within Israel first, and set them up as the leaders of this new community. Then, at his resurrection, he commissioned them to extend the boundaries of the Jewish community so that it would also include non-Jewish people. This, of course, was always the plan for the nation of Israel – going back to Abraham. So it’s not that the church is a “new Israel,” but we are a continuation of Israel, after it’s membership opened up considerably. This institutional continuity is attested by the fact that Christians still look to the Hebrew Scriptures as their own.

[E11] I am referring here to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, at which time the Roman Empire did not become Christian, but it stopped trying to persecute Christianity, recognizing it as the true way of God. This is a complicated historical claim, which deserves an entire post to itself, and it is actually an odd one for a Mennonite to make. Most progressive Mennonites view Constantine’s conversion as a sad moment in the history of Christianity, and here I am hailing it as victory.

As an Anabaptist, I do have major concerns about the way that the church started getting invested and involved in the running of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think that this happened immediately at Constantine’s conversion, and I believe that the ending of persecution was a good thing. There are plenty of examples of early Christian leaders who refused to cooperate with or submit to emperors in the first couple of centuries after Constantine’s conversion. My favorite story is about Ambrose, the pastor of Emperor Theodosius. Ambrose learned that the emperor massacred 7,000 people in Thessalonica and refused to let him participate in church until he repented for this action. And it worked! Theodosius repented and was careful not to act that way again. I believe that Mennonites today, who live in an Empire that more closely resembles post-Christian Rome than pre-Christian Rome, should spend more time studying the successes and failures of the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Deep Assumptions about Power (4 of 7)

This is the fourth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

We have arrived at the halfway point in my blog series about pacifism. For the first three posts in the series, I argued that violence is ineffective. [E1] I cited a number of studies showing that it is not an effective tool for disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, or overthrowing oppressive governments. I offered an analysis as to why the threat of violence creates moreresistance than cooperation and why individuals and nations cannot seem to eliminate their enemies by killing them.

But that was the easy part of my project. Anyone can point out flaws in people or systems. However, for my blog series to have any value, it has to do more than that. I have to offer constructive alternatives to violence: nonviolent ways of disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, etc. that are plausible and effective alternatives to violence. The goal of this series is not to criticize those who make use of violence, [E2] but to make the case that there is a better way to fight for good in the world. [E3]

Unfortunately, I’m not ready to present these nonviolent alternatives to you yet. Why not? Because I fear they would fall on deaf ears. For those of us who have been immersed in the logic of necessary violence, [E4] every nonviolent solution or proposal initially strikes us as unrealistic. It doesn’t matter such a proposal has statistical support, scholarly backing, or a track record of success. One can always attribute the past successes of nonviolence to something else. The critics of nonviolence are fond of saying, “Just because nonviolence works some or even most of the time doesn’t mean we can rely on it all of the time. And it is in those cases when nonviolence doesn’t work that violence is most needed.” [E5]

Perhaps I sound defensive here, for I am anticipating negative reactions before I have even presented the argument. I shouldn’t presume to know how you, my reader, will react to what I am about to say, but I’m making an educated guess based on my own gut-reactions. The logic of necessary violence is so widespread in our society that I myself, as a committed pacifist, have a hard time accepting them.  Often times, when I hear a nonviolent solution to crime or oppression or war, I think, “How na├»ve! There’s no way that could work.” Now that I’ve been looking at this for a while, I have come to see that these gut reactions are not based on empirical evidence, sound reasoning, or even philosophical objections. Instead, my distrust of nonviolence is a result of the way I have been taught to think about power.

The deepest reason why most people have a hard time embracing pacifism is because they believe that violence is the ultimate form of power. To them, the call to nonviolence sounds like a call to become weak and helpless in the world, which no one is completely willing to do. After all, all of us seek power. Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I don’t mean for it to be. I’m not suggesting that power is a bad thing, or that everyone seeks power as an end in itself. I realize that not everyone wants to be in charge, and not everyone feels comfortable with power when they get it. Still, I would maintain that everyone seeks power, because power is the ability to influence people or events toward desired outcomes. In order to pursue any goal in the world, we must also seek the power we need to achieve that goal. For example, the kindest and humblest person you know might want nothing more than to make children happy, and so they will pursue training and credentialing that allows and enables them to make children happy. That is still a pursuit of power. Similarly, an Anchorite monk who wants nothing to do with society may run into the wilderness so that no one can disturb him. That is still seeking power – the power to live life undisturbed. Seeking power is not intrinsically good or bad, but it is inherent to the human experience. Consequently, all humans have developed beliefs early in our lives about what power is and how one can acquire it.

In Western society, we have been conditioned to believe that the most powerful force in the universe is violence. [E6] We are taught, in various and subtle ways, that violence created us, [E7] that violence is the glue that holds society together [E8], and that violence is the only weapon strong enough to save us from evil. [E9] [E10] These beliefs are not conclusions that we have deduced after careful study and analysis. They are the assumptions that we begin with. They are what philosophers call mythical beliefs. [E11]

I know that I promised to keep my argument for pacifism grounded in evidence, statistics, research, etc., but no amount of evidence can persuade us to adopt nonviolence so long as we are filtering that evidence through our mythical beliefs about violence. For me to persuade you to be a pacifist without challenging those beliefs would be like trying to purchase a car at a U.S. dealership with Japanese yen. It wouldn’t matter if I have enough wealth to afford the purchase – in the context of mythical violence, my arguments don’t have any currency.

Therefore, in my next post, I will offer an alternative "myth" about what constitutes true power [E12]. To do this, I will draw deeply from another tradition in the West – the Christian tradition – to show how it offers an alternative understanding of power. [E13] Indeed, I think that one way that we can frame the Christian gospel is that it is a revelation about what constitutes true power in the universe. [E14] After laying that foundation, I’ll actually present the nonviolent principles and practices to which I have been referring, and I’ll end the series by considering how Christian pacifists might respond in the face of the most ruthless kind of violence.


End Notes

[E1] – Just for the record, I also believe that the use of violence is “immoral,” but as my ethical philosophy has progressed, I have come to see concepts such as morality and effectiveness as interconnected. Besides that, it is hard to make the case that any action is “immoral” to a general audience in our pluralistic society, so I decided to approach it from the angle of effectiveness.

[E2] – Also for the record, I believe that most citizens of the United States are guilty of “making use of violence,” even if we ourselves aren’t the ones who carry it out. For example, when the general public “calls for blood” in response to a terrorist attack, that puts pressure on government officials to order military officials to launch airstrikes and invasions and other forms of institutionalized violence. Although soldiers often end up being the ones who “pull the trigger,” they don’t usually make the decision to shoot or kill, but are following orders given to them from officials who are elected by the general public. Thus, in a democracy, we all have to share some degree of responsibility for the actions by representatives of the U.S. government.

[E3] – Yes, you heard me correctly. I said there is another way to fight for good in the world. I am not one of those pacifists who avoids using martial or confrontational metaphors because they contain “violent language.” Instead, following the example of the New Testament, I want to appeal to the good impulses that can drive one to engage in warfare (justice, courage, sacrifice, etc.) and employ them in a more appropriate setting.

[E4] – The logic of necessary violence is my way of referring to all of the public dialogue, private conversation, entertainment and thought that flows from the uncritical assumption that the only way to protect yourself or do good in this world is through the use of violence. Hence, it is the logic of necessary violence. Whenever a presupposition like this is repeated often enough, even if it is implied more often than it is stated, we find ourselves believing it.

[E5] – This is a hypocritical argument, as the critics of nonviolence rarely apply this same principle to the “necessary” use of violence. After all, there are many circumstances in which violence has failed: attempted coups, botched assassinations, friendly fire, etc., and yet none of these failures are taken as evidence that violence only works some of the time. Instead, when violence fails, most people try to understand why it failed so that they can try to use it more effectively the next time. Why can’t this same principle be applied to nonviolence?

[E6] – “Western society” (i.e. the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) is not alone in thinking this way. In fact, I would argue that pretty much all of the nations of the world today are committed to the logic of necessary violence, partially because they have been influenced by the West. But that has not always been the case. Archeologists have discovered some ancient societies such as the Hrappan society in Ancient India and the Norte Chico civilization in ancient South America which seemed to have developed advanced societies without institutionalized violence. Apparently, as their communities sought power, it did not seem imperative to them to seek the power of violence. As it so happens, both of these societies have left written languages that have yet to be decoded, and I hope that we will someday decode them and learn a lot from them.

[E7] It is difficult to trace the exact origins of “Western Civilization,” but most people would identify the Greek city states as one of the places where it emerged. For the Greeks, violence or chaos was the fundamental substance of the world. According to Hesiod, the first substance to exist was Chaos, and out of Chaos came Gaia (the Earth), and from them came everything else. Their children had the Titans and then the gods, whose bloody battles spawned the world order in which we now find ourselves. ( Similar accounts can be found in Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian, and Roman myths.

This may seem like a straw man in my critique of Western civilization today because most Westerners don’t believe in these stories. But I would argue that it still influence us – even after the story itself disappears, the ideas behind it manifest in many ways. For example, the modern account of evolution is often described as creation by violence. I don’t really want to get into an extended conversation about evolution in this post, but I do think that emphasis on violence as creative (via natural selective) rather than on life as the creative force (via mutation and adaptation) reveals something about our Western biases.

However you feel about creation in a big sense, there’s no denying that our national myths all point to violence as the source of our creation. For example, in the United States, we believe that the revolutionary war created our nation. We point to July 4, 1776 as the day that our nation was born, the day when we proclaimed our intent to rebel violently against the English government, and this proclamation is ritually reinforced through the national holiday of Independence Day, in which we shoot fireworks to commemorate warfare and sing battle hymns to the Republic.  

But why is July 4, 1776 considered the beginning of the U.S. nation? I would argue that June 21, 1788 – the day on which our Constitution was ratified and the 13 colonies decided to bind together as one nation in a legal document – would be a better marker of the beginning of the U.S. government. Or if you want to define a nation in terms of the identity of the people living here as Americans rather than British colonists, then you have to go back before the Revolutionary War. What I’m trying to point out is that these claims are not rational but mythical: we look to violence as the creative force that brings nations and perhaps even the human species into being.

[E8] The belief that violence is “the glue that holds society together” has been maintained in the West for a long time. It was perhaps most clearly by Thomas Hobbes in his famous passage from the Leviathan: “Hereby, it is manifest that during the time that men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war as is every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war… In such a condition… the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In other words, if there is not a government with enough power to keep all people too terrified to break the law, chaos would be unleashed and people would indiscriminately kill each other. I think it’s safe to say that this view has been disproven by the existence of several stateless societies in the world that do not devolve into sheer chaos. Even so, we find ourselves with this great fear that if the guns were removed, people would take the opportunity to do great harm to each other. (The Purge movies are a modern expression of this philosophy.)

[E9] Violence is also seen as the only tool that can save us from evil (which our favorite word for other people’s violence). Again, this idea has a long tradition in the west – dating back to the Pax Romana of Augustus at least – but it has manifested in our own time as the theory of deterrence. Thomas Schelling was one of the political scientists who developed the theory of deterrence, the more weapons that we develop (specifically, nuclear weapons), the safer the world will become, as the mutual threat of violence will keep nations from acting violently toward each other. This was an extremely formative philosophy during the 60s and 70s, but the leading political figures of that time – including Henry Kissinger – have since rejected it.

[E10] And so, we see Violence as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Are you picking up on the religious overtones yet?

[E11] By “mythical,” philosophers do not necessarily mean these beliefs are false or even that they are irrational, but that they are “pre-rational” – they are the formative beliefs as the base of all of our other beliefs.

[E12] Remember, I am not using “myth” to mean falsehood here. More like “foundational belief.”

[E13] Although you don’t have to be a Christian in order to be a pacifist, pacifism only makes sense when it is tied to a particular tradition. And so, at this point, I have to abandon my attempt to appeal to a general audience and make the case for my particular version of pacifism, Christian pacifism. Actually, even “Christian pacifism” is not a homogenous ideology. In his book, Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder identifies something like 20 different types of Christian pacifism, and I would only embrace a few of those myself. I mention this because I want to make it clear that I’m not speaking on behalf of all pacifists, or even all Christian pacifists.

[E14] Let me make one more point clear: I don’t think that pacifism (by itself) is the “bottom line” of the gospel. Instead, the bottom line of the gospel is that the world is being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. However, I do believe that nonviolence is one of the implications of the gospel, and there are certain ways to frame the story that bring this to the forefront. If you want to read version of this story, you can see my previous post on the Biblical story of nonviolence here

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Why We Can’t Kill Off the Terrorists... Or Anyone Else (3 of 7)

This is the third post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

Many people believe that the best way to protect ourselves in this world is through the use of force [E1] and therefore that countries with the most powerful military shouldn’t have any trouble keeping their citizens safe. People who hold this view tend to be frustrated and bewildered by the fact that the United States cannot seem to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS. They wonder, what’s the problem? We have a better trained military, superior technology, and far more financial resources at our disposal. By all standards, we are far more powerful than the band of terrorists in Iraq and Syria. So they ask, can’t we just shoot the bad guys, bomb their bases, or nuke the whole area if necessary? For such people, it feels like it shouldn’t be this hard to win this war!

Those who feel this way about ISIS join a great tradition of people in world history who have been shocked and surprised that their superior military have not been able to eliminate seemingly weaker opponents. The United States first experienced this bewilderment when we went to war in Vietnam half a century ago. Although our military was far more powerful than the Viet Cong, we couldn’t seem to defeat them. The British had the same experience about two hundred years earlier, when they couldn’t defeat a meager band of colonists in America, despite the fact that they had the most powerful military in the world at the time. The mighty Romans could never quite eliminate the Germanic “barbarians” (who eventually overtook their empire) [E2]. The ancient Chinese empire could never quite eliminate the steppe peoples to their north (ditto). For whatever reason, every Empire that has at one time held the title, “most powerful in the world” has run into this problem.

Why does this happen? Why can’t powerful nations defeat their enemies by killing them?
In a nutshell: the hydra effect. [E3] In Greek mythology, the hydra was a sea monster with several heads. If you tried to cut off any one of its heads, another two would grow in its place. The “hydra effect” is something that happens when your method for fixing a problem creates more problems while you are fixing the first one. For example, some people claim that the development of pesticides has a “hydra effect,” because while it eliminates some pests from agricultural fields, it makes room for greater and more damaging pests to fill their place. In the same way, extrajudicial killings have a hydra effect. For every person you kill, you create more enemies who weren’t your enemies before.

We see this happening with ISIS. Late last year, four military officers who were engaged in drone warfare wrote to President Obama, asking him to stop sending drone strikes, as this became a major recruitment tool for ISIS. [E4] Notice: This letter did not come from naive, liberal protesters who were opposed to drones for moral reasons, but from on-the-ground military veterans who saw that they were counterproductive to their supposed aims. Here’s what they observed: whenever the United States assassinated someone with a drone, that action enraged the friends, family members, and community members of the assassinated person, some of whom decided to join the fight against the United States (including its civilians) in response.

This is hard for us to understand when imagine the world as being divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Many of us picture the Middle East as having essentially two kinds of people: terrorists and dictators who do evil and cause harm, and innocent people who want nothing to do with the violence but are trapped there. [E5] But the truth is there is much more of a range. On one end of the continuum, there are people who openly support the United States, but when a drone strike occurs in their community, they go from being outspoken supporters to silent supporters, for fear of offending a community in grief. Next down the line, there were people who were already silent supporters of the United States, and a drone strike might move them into a position of neutrality, believing that both the U.S. and ISIS are evil, since both are involved in the business of killing. Drone strikes can turn people who are neutral into people who believe that the U.S. is worse, and ISIS is the lesser evil of the two. It can turn people who believe that ISIS is the lesser evil into people who believe that ISIS is justified. It can take people who believe that ISIS is justified and convince them to join ISIS. Et cetera. Every act of violence tends to move people one down one more rung on the anti-U.S. scale. And this range of positions exists not only in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS is centered, but to a lesser degree in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and less still in Turkey and India, and to a small extent in the United States and Europe. The entire human community is interconnected, so when you attack one group of people, the negative response ripples outwards across the whole world.

The same thing happens on an individual level. Let’s say that someone murdered my father and got away with it. Out of anger at the injustice, I decide to take matters in my own hands, so I hunted that person down and killed them. That makes it even, right? One murder for one murder. Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Because I didn’t just kill a person, I killed someone else’s son, brother, father, neighbor, etc. So that person will then make it their mission to hunt me down and kill me. This is the well-known cycle of violence that Mahatma Gandhi referred to when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” [E6] Violence, in attempting to eliminate one problem, always creates more.

And this is only one dimension of “the Hydra Effect” – the effect it has on your enemies. But let’s say that somehow, you are able to completely eradicate your enemy. You kill off everyone who poses a threat so that no one is out there seeking vengeance against you. Even in this unrealistic situation, you will still feel the effects of the Hydra Effect, because you created a standard in your own community that establishes violence as the key to power. Thus, if you don’t create enemies out of the friends of your enemies, you create enemies out of your own friends. This is what happened with the empires of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, those rare historical examples of people who seemed untouchable, who defeated everyone they came in contact with. Even in those cases, the Hydra Effect eventually destroyed their empires because their own people – in dedicating themselves to violent power – turned on each other.

We have not learned the lessons of history. The United States is right on track to be the next great empire that collapses under the weight of its own violence. [E7] And yet some people suggest that what we need is to invest more heavily in our military, despite the fact that we are already the world’s premier military power – by far!!! [E8] This blind addiction to violence resembles the gambling addict, who despite being in the lead, feels compelled to make more and more aggressive bets, until she loses everything she has. Our only hope for breaking this pattern is to “cash in” on the goodwill that still exists in the world and walk away from the cycle of violence. History teaches us that violence does not work over the long haul, and that you cannot eliminate the threats to individuals or nations by killing or incapacitating your enemies.

End Notes

[E1] I think the very phrase, “use of force,” is revealing. It is a euphemism for the appeal to violence. But people are uncomfortable saying that they appeal to violence, so they abstract it and call it “force” instead.

But “force” is much broader than violence, and there are many nonviolent types of force. Economic boycotts and sanctions are a force, peer pressure is a force, argument and persuasion are forces. The great pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for the use of “soul force.” Pacifists get ourselves in trouble when we accept the premise that “the use of force” is a bad thing, because it is often necessary and appropriate to use force. Instead, we should challenge the equivocation that people make between force and violence.

[E2] Technically, the Germanic invaders took over the Western portion of the Roman Empire, while the Roman state continued to exist (as the Byzantine Empire) until 1453. But I digress…


[E5] Dividing the world into good guys and bad guys is one of the fundamental myths that justifies the use of violence. More on this later.

[E6] There is some debate about whether Gandhi himself actually said this or whether the quote originated from one of his biographers, Louis Fischer. Either way, it reflects Gandhi’s belief system well.

[E7] World War II is typically identified as the turning point when the United States emerged on the global scene as the world’s foremost superpower. We have been mired in war almost constantly since that war, and I think it can be attributed to the Hydra effect. Think about it: We defeated the Axis Powers in WWII in part due to our development of the atom bomb. But then one of our allies, the Soviet Union, acquired atomic technology and we entered the Cold War. After many decades of the Cold War, we eventually “defeated” the Soviet Union, partially through our proxy wars (such as the war in Afghanistan) and our espionage training and technological development. But these very resources equipped people like Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to engage in terrorist warfare against us. Then, in our struggle against Al-Qaeda, we have fought Middle Eastern regimes that offered them safe haven and made alliances with other groups (such as ISIS) that could help us gain power over those regions. Yet again, we find that our partners use the very violence that we equipped them with against us once the immediate threat is removed. We can’t seem to learn the lesson.