“what would you do if someone broke into your home…?”: responding to a common objection to nonviolence

On life.remixed I’ve often addressed questions and concerns about peace and violence. Recently I interviewed a friend and anti-war activist, Simon Moyle, and there was much in the way of fruitful (and passionate) discussion in the aftermath.

One of the most common objections to nonviolence is a question which normally goes something like, “What would you do if, say, someone broke into your home with a gun to kill your wife/partner/child?”

The challenger often uses this question as a way of demonstrating that the pacifist’s conviction about violence is inconsistent, and that the existence of violence is necessary. It is often posed in such a way that if the pacifist cannot give a satisfactory answer then violence is apparently vindicated, even in terms of warfare, despite the fact that the analogy between personal and collective violence is flawed.

Theologian John Howard Yoder suggests that the question suffers from a number of debilitating assumptions that are almost always unconscious to the challenger. Yoder posits that since there is no such thing as a self-interpreting situation we must understand the questioner’s assumptions before we can even try to answer the question.

Yoder lists a number of key assumptions implied by the question:

1. Determinism
The questioner assumes that I alone have a decision to make. My relationship to the perpetrator or the victim is supposed to be one which unfolds mechanically. The attacker is assumed to be wanting to inflict the maximum amount of evil as possible. The victim is assumed to be completely at the mercy of my decision, which will apparently decide the entire outcome of the situation.
In the end this assumption is unrealistic. There are not simply two paths on which this situation can move, nor are my decisions the sole basis of the outcome.
Granted, if I only believe there to be two outcomes then the assumption becomes self-fulfilling – I am not creative enough to bring about a positive result. This is not a problem with the situation, but with my mind.

2. Control
The questioner assumes that I am in control of the situation, that I am omnipotent. It assumes that if I want to stop the attacker, I can. This might be true, but in the event of a considered and serious attack, especially with a weapon, it is unlikely. In the event that I mount a failed attempt at a violent counterattack I have caused even greater suffering than what was originally threatened.

3. Knowledge
The questioner assumes, if not my omniscience, at least full and reliable information. It assumes events will unfold in an inevitable way – if I do not kill/overwhelm the attacker he will definitely kill/rape my wife/partner/child or whatever, or if I do attempt a counterattack I will be successful.
This logic is questionable since the outcome of any conflict is unpredictable, both in personal or collective forms of violence. There are in reality multiple people making multiple decisions, and the outcome cannot necessarily be accurately predicted.

4. Individualism
The questioner assumes that the decisions and outcome are individual matters. It ignores the fact that the victim (wife/partner/child etc.) is a responsible being and is part of my decision-making process. They may hold certain values, and may not want me to act toward the attacker in a way that contravenes those values (e.g. they may not want to be protected by lethal violence). Perhaps they feel the same way about me as I do about them – they do not want me to put myself in harm’s way.

5. Righteousness
The questioner assumes that, in the hypothetical situation, I am righteous. That is, I am able to calculate what would bring about the best outcome, and also that I am qualified to be judge, jury and executioner (and to perform all those roles in one second). It assumes I have what it takes to be honest about this decision, that I am fully objective. This is never the case, particularly in anything like the situation hypothesised.

6. Alternatives
The questioner assumes that the attacker is acting in a way I perceive to be wrong without good reason for doing so. There is no room for the possibility that the offender is Jean Valjean, or an oppressed person rising to destroy a symbol of domination. Conversely, the assumption is that I have not acted with evil in any way toward this person.

In addition, Yoder considers some emotional factors, since the question is not merely logical; it plays on the fears inherent in our connections and bonds of love with family: 

7. Identity
The question includes an unspoken cultural suggestion that if I do not act then I am not a man. Inherent in the challenge is a question about my virility to defend those entrusted to me. This is of course irrelevant to a discussion about violence, but the challenger makes the most of it anyway.

8. Sexism
The questioner assumes that the victim is a dependent being, typically a woman, who needs the protection of a stronger male. She is simply prey, an object.

9. Egoism
There is an implied question – “Perhaps as a Christian you do have the right to sacrifice your own welfare to be loving toward an attacker, but do you have the right to sacrifice the welfare of others for whom you are responsible?” This appears to have a very altruistic core about it. However it is simply egoism (and possibly sexism) – I must defend my wife or my child precisely because they are mine. Indeed, there is an assumption that I act this way not because they are my neighbours, but because they are mine. There is no suggestion that I have the same responsibly to defend the children of Afghans or Iranians, or indeed the children of the attacker.
This is an act of selfishness; though covered with a halo of altruism it is self-oriented in structure.
This is not to say that self-interest is all bad; a certain amount of self-love is necessary. However egotism as the basis for all responses in all situations is hardly a Christian approach. In fact Christianity relativises the value of self and affirms the dignity of the enemy – I am to love them, they are also my neighbour.


* The material in this post is based on John Howard Yoder’s What Would You Do? (Scotdale: Herald Press, 1992), 12-20.

Posted on March 12, 2012, in Conflict and Nonviolence and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt, I think Yoder has some great points here and highlights to me that no situation is ever as simple as 1 + 1 = 2, I get that.

    I am a little concerned with the way in the last subsection that it appears (read appears to me) that you suggest that stepping up to defend is merely egoism / altruism

    I quote…. “Perhaps as a Christian you do have the right to sacrifice your own welfare to be loving toward an attacker, but do you have the right to sacrifice the welfare of others for whom you are responsible?”

    Is the verse “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another” not relevant in this situation? If in the situation (and we’ve already agreed that no situation is ever totally clearcut) you make a spur of the moment call as to what your response will be, and you do make a response to defend, suppress, or resolve, can this be classed as the response of love, even greater love for the sake of family,their ultimate welfare.

    Furthermore, Doesn’t Ephesians 5:25 suggest that husbands are to love their wives, even if it means laying down their lives for them? I have to admit i’m confused… egoism or Paul’s instruction for spiritual headship of a family?

  2. I’d say that all the assuming here has been done by Yoder, and not by the posers of such questions….
    I understand that hypothetical ‘what if’ posers can sound simplistic and even presumptuous, but they don’t make any of the assumptions they are accused of making – they are based on the simple, reasonable, and I would say logically undeniable idea that you MAY, at some unknown time and under some unknown circumstance, be put in a position where you have to choose between forcibly defending someone else, or letting harm be done to them.

    It is certainly very unlikely, but absolutely possible. Simple as that. It may be a spouse or child, and if you think it’s sexist you’re simply ignoring the reality that men are generally more physically powerful than women. Not sexist. Just true.
    I (and I think most reasonable, peace-loving people) would agree that it’s an extreme and unlikely example, and that violence should be avoided wherever possible… but there are still problems here that need dealing with, that you, and Yoder, seem unwilling to deal with.

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