“The cycle of violence”

Speaking of a “cycle of violence” presupposes that we have bracketed any discussion of justice or fault: one can’t speak of “stopping the cycle of violence” so far as is thinking that A was unjustly attacked by B. Now bracketing the discussion of fault might be crucial – everyone is aware of times when the disputes over fault have become intractable and so we are forced to seek some conceptual scheme that can allow us to resolve the dispute without assigning fault. “Circle of violence” is just such a conceptual scheme.*

But bracketing off a claim to justice requires a pretty powerful alternate good in its place, but just what is that? Certainly the “cycle of violence” metaphor seems to come with its own built in justification – the fighting is cyclical and so incapable of any final resolution. The metaphor suggests that fighting itself is inherently futile since it is only a moment in a larger cycle that can never resolve anything. But this claim is nonsense, and perhaps even beside the point. Almost none of the wars America has fought can be meaningfully seen as moments in an unending cycle of violence, continuing until now. Where are the Kamikaze pilots? The redcoats? Violence has decisive resolutions all the time, it even seems to have them as a rule. It might make more sense to speak of a circle of violence in the context of a protracted war that has been without resolution for decades, but even wars like these have had decisive resolutions, say in the wars between Rome and Carthage. So the seeming built-in justification for “ending the cycle of violence” can’t be right.

Within the Christian narrative, there is a clear sense to ending the cycle of violence. This is simply mercy and forgiveness, and an acceptance of the mystical value of suffering. We overlook justice for the sake of a much greater good – forgiveness. The Christian has in this the good of conforming to Christ. But can this sort of narrative be played in a secular key?

There are certainly decent secular arguments against war, but arguing against the cycle of violence requires much more than this, namely a greater good than justice. Secular theorists might, like any else, argue that some belligerents are either too weak to reasonable hope to resolve their wars, or that they are unwilling (rightly or wrongly) to do what needs to be done to resolve the war, but this is simply an argument against war as such. They might develop a doctrine of the brotherhood of all persons or the mystical power of but these are also arguments against war altogether, not against forgoing justice.

If we want to hang onto the idea of ending the cycle of violence, we need (1) a recognition that violence is sometimes just, but that (2) there is a good that transcends justice. Christianity has exactly this in mercy, but this doctrine leans heavily on things that are purely of revelation: the redemptive power of suffering, the mystical value of conformity to Christ, the trust in providence for those who follow Christ, etc. There doesn’t seem to be any secular versions of (2), only arguments against the reasonableness or justice of going to war at all, or at least in engaging in some particular war.


*one can also bracket the discussion of justice because he thinks both sides are unjust and doesn’t want to bring it up – say in a dispute between the Hatfields and Mc Coys. But this can’t be assumed universally any time we argue against ending the circle of violence, since thsi is just a way of smuggling in the idea that all war is wrong.

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