On “Necessity” and Tragic Morality

Discerning Virtue in a Fallen World

When moral and political injustices abound unchallenged, the wronged contemplate violence as a recourse. For Christians who live in such a time, two questions arise: does violence better conform the world to Christ, and is violence committed for righteousness’ sake justified?

French sociologist Jacques Ellul considered these questions at length in a book on the subject several decades ago.1 In the present, this and other books by Ellul have inspired a commentator known as Kryptos to discuss his work and apply it to the current American political landscape. The possible ramifications of Kryptos’s suggested approach to violence and morality—especially as articulated in his article titled “Christian Realism and the ‘Necessity’ of Violence”— are of such singular importance that I felt compelled to offer a response, beginning with a brief overview of how Kryptos, via Ellul, answers the two questions stated above.

The first question—does violence better conform the world to Christ—is plainly answered in the negative. Kryptos writes that violence “is always a thing of evil and those who engage in it are increasing the evil in the world.”2 He adds, employing Ellul’s own words, “To use violence is to be of the world.”3 The second question—is violence committed for righteousness’ sake justified—is also answered in the negative: “[Violence] can never be justified. It can never be made pure.” Therefore, “We must reject all attempts to justify violence on Christian grounds. Any attempt to justify violence is yet another example of the fallen nature of man.”4 On these two questions, Kryptos is in agreement with Ellul, who says that “violence begets violence—nothing else,”5 and “violence can never be justified or acceptable before God.”6

Yet Kryptos also maintains that “we, in sober humility, must do what needs to be done in any given situation.” Lest this be misconstrued as an uncontroversial exhortation to be courageous and resolute in resisting evil, he further alleges that “even though we can never call violence ‘good’ there are times when it is necessary,” such as in the fight against abortion:

We need to begin facing the truth of the way things are and what might be necessary to do in the future, sooner than we think. Our opponents have no problems using political violence or violence against the unborn to achieve their aims. I am afraid we will not be able to keep our hands clean for long, if they ever were clean to begin with.7

In other words, Christians should be prepared to commit violence for the sake of upholding righteousness, with the understanding that “in these times of necessity, we must recognize that our actions are contradictory to the Christian life.” Attempting to remain morally uncompromised is futile and, worse, cowardly:

Should our consciences be clean anyway? Is our non-violence simply a whitewashing of our unwillingness to do what is necessary at the expense of the lives of millions of unborn babies? No one can live in the world of necessity, and we all do, and keep their hands clean.8

Kryptos elaborates elsewhere that his notion of necessity is grounded in the conviction that, living in a fallen world as we do, we are often forced to choose between the lesser of two moral evils:

We live in a world where everything around us is stained by sin and evil. In practice, what this means is that our choices are limited. In a world of sin and evil our decisions are not always between right and wrong, good and evil, or virtue and vice. Very often we face choices that are more along the lines of choosing between the lesser or greater evil.9


A sinful world forces upon us actions which we know are not good, just, righteous, or loving. The world of God’s grace in Christ, the world of radical love and non-violence is the world which Christians are striving to live in and realize. But because we still live in a world where sin and evil abound, sometimes choices are forced upon us, not between good and evil, but between the lesser and the greater evil.10

Kryptos points to Ellul as his inspiration, saying that Ellul develops this notion of necessity “across a number of his works.”11 On Kryptos’s reading of Ellul, “The refusal to use violence in the face of violence, the refusal to use violence in order to protect the oppressed is in fact a form of passive violence.” Violence is “a necessity,”12 Kryptos continues, and Ellul reveals his attitude toward attempted moral purity by quoting these words of Charles Péguy: “People who insist on keeping their hands clean are likely to find themselves without hands.”13 Finally, 

Ellul wants us to acknowledge to ourselves that we do evil. The evils were “necessary,” but still evils. The world that we experience today is not the world God intended, nor is it the world of grace and love that is to come. In this in-between time, hard things must be done, “necessary” things.14

I will say more about Kryptos’s conception of moral “necessity” shortly. First, however, I wish to establish that Kryptos’s sourcing of his own view in the thought of Ellul is insupportable. When Ellul says that “nonviolence is indeed ‘super-violence’ (as it has been called), because the man who in effect acquiesces in the oppression of the poor by violence, is convinced that he is thus keeping his heart pure and his hands clean,” he immediately adds, “So goes the first line of argument that leads Christians to accept the idea of violence and to associate themselves with violent movements.”15 Ellul is evidently describing another point of view here rather than expressing his own. More fundamentally, while Kryptos writes that violence is “a necessity,” Ellul denies this:

Granted, violence is universal. But also, violence is of the order of Necessity. I do not say violence is a necessity, but rather that a man (or a group) subject to the order of Necessity follows the given trends, be these emotional, structural, sociological, or economic.16

The distinction between violence being “a necessity” and “of the order of Necessity” is a subtle but crucial one. The former suggests that the commission of violence is unavoidable for all people, whereas the latter, on Ellul’s account, means that violence is inevitable in the way of the world, but people who are in Jesus Christ can live nonviolently. Thus the aspiration for moral integrity in a violent world is not hopeless, and indeed, Ellul criticizes those who dismiss moral purity as a phantasmic ideal:

The temptation is always to yield to fatality, as Father Maillard does when he takes the extreme positions referred to above. “All life is a struggle,” he says. “Life itself is violent. And it is in struggling that we realize ourselves. Every action is necessarily imperfect and impure…. We are caught in a terrible machine which can thrust us into situations of violence in spite of ourselves. Let us distrust the temptation to purity.” But Father Maillard confuses the situation he perceives so realistically with the will of God.17

In the same vein, although it is true Ellul quotes the words of Péguy cited by Kryptos, he does so in order to repudiate them: “To reject radical [i.e., nonviolent] Christianity in order to plunge into action may be the thing for people who have a passion for action, but it is to reject Christianity itself.”18 The Christian, in contrast, should understand that “biblically, love is the way, not violence.”19 Violence may be “explicable,” as Ellul puts it, but he by no means thinks it is necessary in the sense that all people are forced to engage in it, as Kryptos suggests when he claims Ellul believes “violence is necessary and explicable.”20 Ellul’s statement of his own position could not be clearer: “No matter what the motivation…I am against violence and aggression.”21 Ellul also says that the determination to pursue Christian ends through un-Christian means signifies a loss of faith:

This diminishment of the Wholly Other who has been revealed to us, this recourse to violence and to political and economic methods to express Christianity, is an admission that faith in the possibility of God’s radical intervention, faith in the Holy Spirit, has been lost. Obviously, God intervenes radically only in response to a radical attitude on the part of the believer—radical not in regard to political means but in regard to faith; and the believer who is radical in his faith has rejected all means other than those of faith. The appeal to and use of violence in Christian action increase in exact proportion to the decrease in faith.22

For Ellul, then, violence is never truly “necessary” for those who are in Christ. In fact, according to Ellul, the Ten Commandments “are more a promise than an order. You shall not kill also means that you will not have to kill. God promises that it will be possible not to kill.”23

There are numerous problems with Ellul’s theory of violence, not least his overly expansive definition of “violence” and his belief that Christian political action is unavoidably compromised. But if he gets anything right, it is the fact that the determination to do whatever is “necessary,” without restriction, is spiritual poison: “I repeat once more that the end does not justify the means, that, on the contrary, evil means corrupt good ends.”24 Those who go down the path of “necessity” will become dead men on their feet, their lips uttering words of righteousness triumphant even when the spirit of life has long since departed them. What is more, on Kryptos’s own account they will accomplish nothing, for as he points out, again echoing Ellul, “Violence can never create either liberty or justice.”25 It makes sense for Ellul to affirm this, as he holds out the alternative of radical Christian nonviolence. For Kryptos, on the other hand, to declare the futility of violence even as he says we must be resolved to commit violence yields an approach that is doubly stillborn as an option for Christian action, being not only morally hideous, but logically incoherent. At one point he seems to recognize the incoherency, noting that Ellul “rejects the necessity of violence as a tool for the Christian community” even as he affirms that “violence is necessary and explicable.”26 But in truth, as we have seen, Ellul never says violence is a necessity, so the logical difficulty lies solely in Kryptos’s incorrect reading of Ellul rather than in Ellul himself. In sum, whatever the merits of Kryptos’s concept of moral necessity, Ellul cannot rightly be said to share his approach, and Kryptos’s claims to the contrary are ill-founded. 

We now turn to the substance of Kryptos’s idea that “very often” we must choose between “the lesser and the greater evil,” i.e., that we are often forced to commit sin. Surprising as it may seem to those who are unfamiliar with contemporary work in Christian ethics, this position is well-established in the field, with one scholar defining it as follows:

A popular Christian approach to navigating moral dilemmas is conflicting absolutism, alternatively known as ideal absolutism, tragic morality, or a lesser-evil view of moral conflict. This position holds that there are many universal moral absolutes. As its name implies, this approach teaches that moral norms can and do come into real conflict both in theory and in practice. When such a clash of norms occurs, conflicting absolutism teaches that man must choose sinfully to break one of the moral norms in tension—hope- fully opting for the lesser of two evils—and then repent and seek forgiveness.27

Christian authors who have affirmed conflicting absolutism include Helmut Thielicke, John Warwick Montgomery, J. I. Packer, and Erwin Lutzer.28 The appeal of this position is said to be that it is “in touch with the real world of moral conflicts and borderline cases. Not every decision is neat and clean. Everything is not black or white. There are real moral conflicts.”29 Conflicting absolutism’s “emphasis upon the fallen estate of man, the holiness of God, the unbending nature of moral absolutes, and man’s need to repent when he transgresses the law” has also been cited as part of its appeal.30

Whatever the supposed attractions of conflicting absolutism, it is nonetheless completely at odds with the traditional Christian conception of God. As David W. Jones observes, “Given that there is no conflict within the Godhead (cf. John 17:22), if the law reflects the moral character of God it is difficult to understand how the law could conflict with itself.”31 The typical answer to this objection is that moral conflicts are not the fault of God or His law, but of fallen humanity. This response does not solve the problem, though:

While proponents of conflicting absolutism may appeal to the fallen estate of the created order in support of their view, the fall of man did not ontologically affect God or his law. Only man and the creation were cursed. Moreover, it is also worth noting that God formally gave his law to mankind after the fall. Therefore, in light of divine injunctions to keep the law (cf. John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 John 5:2‒3), it seems reasonable to expect that redeemed man could in fact do so.32

Perhaps worse still than the specter of incoherency, conflicting absolutism posits the horrific notion of a God who commands us to do moral evil. William F. Luck lays out this problem in a passage worth quoting at length:

In a case of supposed moral conflict, each of the conflicting rules is obliging moral evil as well as moral good…. It seems such is the case in every alleged instance of moral conflict. Command A obliges an action that is evil according to command B, and command B obliges an action that is evil in reference to command A. To put it bluntly, in situations of moral conflict, God is obliging one to commit moral evil. It will do no good to evade the issue by running to the condition that enabled or caused the conflict (viz., the fallen state of the world and the sinful choices of men). Nor will it do to run to the fact that each of the commands also commands moral good. Nor will it do to protest that God has made a way to resolve it all by telling us to minimize evil. The fact remains: if there is a true moral conflict, such that one command obliges action that another command prohibits, then God requires moral evil. And any God who requires moral evil is himself a devil and not the God of evangelical and biblical faith.33

In short, upholding an orthodox conception of God’s goodness and integrity requires us to reject the ethical approach of conflicting absolutism—any alleged moral conflicts can be navigated in a way that honors all of God’s commands. As for the question of how such conflicts are to be resolved, accounts differ. Some have taught that moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy where “lower” norms are superseded by “higher” norms when they come into conflict, a position that has variously been termed “graded absolutism,” “ethical hierarchicalism, contextual absolutism, and qualified absolutism.”34 Others maintain that all moral conflicts are only apparent, and that “there will never be a case where moral norms collide, resulting in the need to break one moral norm in order to keep another, or vice-versa.”35 This position, known as “non-conflicting absolutism,” “unqualified absolutism, case analysis, and casuistical divinity,”36 has been identified by David Clyde Jones as “the classical Christian approach to moral conflicts.”37

Graded absolutism appears to be a better approach than conflicting absolutism because it recognizes “the apparent unavoidability of moral conflicts, both in Scripture and in real life,” while also insisting that “there must be a way to navigate real moral conflict without creating a necessity to sin in order to avoid moral paralysis and incoherency of the law.”38 In reality, it suffers from an irresolvable contradiction at its core, namely the notion of a moral absolute that can be superseded. So says Luck:

There simply is no such thing as a non-binding, yet applicable moral rule. Obligation is part of the denotative meaning of a rule or law. A rule is a statement of obligation. Remove the obligation and you are left with a string of words or at most a descriptive sentence, but not a moral rule.39

Ultimately, Luck continues, graded absolutism collapses into either conflicting absolutism or non-conflicting absolutism—one must admit that Christian moral norms are incoherent, or else conclude that apparent moral conflicts are not real conflicts at all.40 Another serious issue with graded absolutism is that while it posits a hierarchy of moral values, it is not at all clear precisely how this hierarchy should be organized.41 Moreover, the very existence of a moral hierarchy in which higher laws can supersede lower laws implies that, in theory, “only one of them [the highest] can be an absolute. And, if they are not absolutes, what are they? Well, at best they are general rules, at worst they are mere maxims.”42 It has also been observed that “this approach seems to have problems dealing with verses in Scripture that specify breaking one point of the moral law makes one guilty of violating the entire law.”43

In light of the considerable difficulties accompanying both conflicting absolutism and graded absolutism, I hold that there is never a situation in which we have no choice but to commit sin. God does not oblige us to break the very laws that are derived from His eternal Being, and those who teach otherwise, however well-intentioned their motives, are laying a grievous millstone on the necks of their listeners. The weight of this world still lies, as it has from time immemorial, on God rather than us. The yoke of moral restraint is easy, and the burden of waiting on God’s providence light, compared to the unbearable load of trusting only in ourselves to do what is “necessary”:

We are told that the Christian cannot take refuge in contemplation or pious prayers, that praying does not mean waiting passively for God to act on our behalf; that, on the contrary, praying means that we too must act. All of which is perfectly true. But then some people go to the other extreme and insist that we must do everything ourselves—“Help yourself (and, possibly, heaven will help you)!” Thus to stress human means—usually including violence—is in effect to stake everything on those means.44

That said, let no one charge me with counseling inaction, save prayer. In fact, I hold that the scope for righteous action is considerably wider than either Ellul or Kryptos grants, supposing as they do that violence is by definition “of the world,” and that such innocuities as economic competition and scientific endeavor qualify as violence. However, given that Kryptos does not specify what exactly it is that may be “necessary” for us to do, so too will I not delineate the precise boundaries for action, beyond which no Christian should dare venture—that is a discussion for another occasion. My present purpose is to maintain that such boundaries exist by God’s eternal ordinance, and we scorn them at our own peril. The necessity placed on us is not to violate these boundaries in the name of righteousness, but to respect them while not wrongly broadening or narrowing them.

This article is an integrated expansion of two shorter articles that were originally published at The North American Anglican.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 44 footnotes
  1. Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, trans. Cecelia Gaul Kings (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969).
  2. Kryptos, “Christian Realism and the ‘Necessity’ of Violence,” Seeking the Hidden Thing, 9 May 2022, https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  3. Ellul, Violence, 129.
  4. Kryptos, “Christian Realism,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  5. Ellul, Violence, 100, italics original.
  6. Ellul, Violence, 138.
  7. Kryptos, “Christian Realism,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  8. Kryptos, “Christian Realism,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  9. Kryptos, “Towards a Theology of NETTR,” Seeking the Hidden Thing, 13 September 2023, https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/towards-a-theology-of-nettr.
  10. Kryptos, “Anarchy and Christianity,” Seeking the Hidden Thing, 10 November 2023, https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/anarchy-and-christianity.
  11. Kryptos, “Anarchy and Christianity,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/anarchy-and-christianity.
  12. Kryptos, “Christian Realism,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity.
  13. Ellul, Violence, 147.
  14. Kryptos, “Anarchy and Christianity,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/anarchy-and-christianity.
  15. Ellul, Violence, 35.
  16. Ellul, Violence, 91, italics original.
  17. Ellul, Violence, 129.
  18. Ellul, Violence, 148.
  19. Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 13.
  20. Kryptos, “Anarchy and Christianity,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/anarchy-and-christianity.
  21. Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, 12.
  22. Ellul, Violence, 149.
  23. Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, 40.
  24. Ellul, Violence, 102.
  25. Kryptos, “Christian Realism,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/christian-realism-and-the-necessity. Compare Ellul, Violence, 102.
  26. Kryptos, “Anarchy and Christianity,” https://www.seekingthehiddenthing.com/p/anarchy-and-christianity.
  27. David W. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab: The Evangelical Discussion on Conflicting Moral Absolutes,” Southeastern Theological Review 7, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 25, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. See also William F. Luck, “Moral Conflicts and Evangelical Ethics: A Second Look at the Salvaging Operations,” Grace Theological Journal 8, no. 1 (1987): 27, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf; John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 29‒30; David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 130; and Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 83.
  28. For discussion of Thielicke’s views, see Geisler, Christian Ethics, 84‒86. For more on Montgomery, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 131, and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 25‒26, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. On Packer, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 130‒31. On Lutzer, see Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 27, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf. These brief, secondary-level discussions cite the following sources: Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), vol. 1; John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1970); John Warwick Montgomery, in Situation Ethics: True or False: A Dialogue between Joseph Fletcher and John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1972); J. I. Packer, “Situations and Principles,” in Law, Morality, and the Bible, ed. Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978); and Erwin Lutzer, The Morality Gap: An Evangelical Response to Situation Ethics (Chicago: Moody, 1972). It should be noted that according to Luck, “Lutzer has since, privately, abandoned this position” (21n7).
  29. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 88. Compare Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  30. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 27, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. Compare Geisler, Christian Ethics, 88.
  31. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 28, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. Compare Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 28, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf, and Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  32. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 28, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf, italics original. Compare Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 28‒29, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf, and Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 132.
  33. Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 29, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf. Compare Geisler, Christian Ethics, 90.
  34. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 29, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. See also Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 29‒33; Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 21‒26, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf; Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics, 30; Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 133‒36; and Geisler, Christian Ethics, 97‒115.
  35. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 34, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf. Compare Feinberg and Feinberg, Ethics, 29.
  36. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 33, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  37. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 140. For further discussion of non-conflicting absolutism, see Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 138‒51; Geisler, Christian Ethics, 66‒82; and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 33‒37, 41‒42, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  38. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 31, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  39. Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 22, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf. Compare Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 134‒35, and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 32‒33, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  40. Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 23, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf.
  41. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 136, and Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 31‒32, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  42. Luck, “Moral Conflicts,” 25, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gtj/08-1_019.pdf.
  43. Jones, “Rescuing Rahab,” 33, https://www.sebts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/STRIssue71-Jones.pdf.
  44. Ellul, Violence, 149‒50, italics original.
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James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Journal of Classical Theology, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.

7 thoughts on “On “Necessity” and Tragic Morality

  1. Reading this reminds me of the “Only One Kingdom for Christians in a Two Kingdom World” positions historically advocated by “radical Christians” (seemingly advocated by Mr. Clark) such as the Anabaptists and the writers/editors long associated with Sojourner Magazine.

    May not ‘the powers that be’ act as ‘magistrates serving God’ (even if non-Christian and doing so inadvertently) and use ‘the sword’ accordingly to maintain a semblance of order and punish evil?

    Going beyond the issue of violence, what about lying (or ‘deception’ if you insist), as exemplified by Rahab the Prostitute in Joshua and later praised in James? My local congregation was instructed on this very case not two weeks ago … and the teacher DID NOT take the position seemingly advocated by Mr. Clark.

    I certainly do not advocate ‘guerilla violence’ but instead see a role for ‘ordered violence’ committed by Christians under the authority of ‘the powers that be’. Is not the Old Testament FULL of examples of this? Further, if a Christian or his neighbor is faced with a lethal (or otherwise catastrophic), morally-unlawful threat and flight or non-violent defense is impossible, the Christian should use any means necessary in self-defense or in defense of his neighbor. There are many more examples you can easily imagine.

    I scratch my head after reading this in American Reformer, given all the excellent essays written on matters of political theology by Mr. Cline and others. If Mr. Clark is focused ONLY on ‘abortion clinic assaults’, he should have been much more clear in his essay.

    Failure to recognize and explicitly discuss ‘Two Kingdoms, in both of which Christians have a role to play’ (sometimes involving violence … and other things proscribed in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.) seems a glaring weakness in this essay. How a Christian should deal with personal enemies and affronts MUST NOT be conflated with how a Christian should deal with public enemies and affronts, acting as an agent of a magistrate.

    1. I agree that violence rightfully exercised by magistrates is legitimate. It is Kryptos and Ellul who think all violence is inherently sinful. I also agree that deception is not always sinful in all circumstances whatsoever. My article argues that Kryptos is doubly incorrect, not only in wrongly saying that violence is inherently sinful, but also that we must be willing to sin in order to accomplish political goals.

      1. OK. I obviously missed your intent. That’s why I was hoping to see some discussion of Two Kingdoms, magistrates, etc. when such topics are being addressed.

        Thanks for the clarifying response.

  2. James, I think you’re missing two fairly major issues here.

    First, you seem to be conflating “evil” and “sinful” in ways that neither Ellul nor Kryptos do. The distinction they seem to observe there seems, as I understand it, to completely avoid the “conflicting absolutes” problem you spend so much time on.

    My understanding of Kryptos’ take on Ellul is that sometimes obeying the law requires doing “violence” (about which see below), particularly for magistrates. Violence is always terrible and inconsistent with God’s ultimate design. It is never good. For example, executing murderers is, I think they would argue, an “evil.” It certainly won’t be something that happens in the New Jerusalem.

    But that’s because the law itself won’t be necessary, because there won’t be any murderers. Not because executing them was sinful. Terrible, yes. Even, arguably, an evil. But not sinful. Not a violation of God’s law.

    Second, you seem to be missing how broad a definition Ellul and Kryptos have for “violence.” Their definition is expansive enough to include propaganda and, I think, even institutional dishonesty (which are not co-extensive!), not just the application of physical force to human bodies. It also extends to resisting the imposition of “violence” in kind.

    Hence, saying that everyone, not just magistrates, may need to be prepared to engage in violence is not a call to guerilla warfare. It’s rather a call to bear up under pressure, recognize when “violence” is being deployed against us, and be ready to firmly resist it.

    None of which are sinful. But all of which will likely involve doing unpleasant things of the sort that will not need to happen in the New Jerusalem.

    The point seems to be articulating an argument in favor of the judicious application of “violence” without valorizing or glorifying it, recognizing and grieving its terrible necessity.

    1. 1. I realize there is a distinction between moral evils and physical evils. Violence of any kind is indeed a physical evil made necessary by the Fall, and I agree that capital punishment and other legitimate forms of violence are not sinful. However, the way that both Ellul and Kryptos talk about violence does not indicate that they see it as merely a physical evil. Ellul says that “the Christian who accepts violence…has abdicated from Christianity as a way of life” (Violence, 70). Kryptos echoes this statement when he says violent actions “are contradictory to the Christian life” (“Christian Realism and the ‘Necessity’ of Violence”). This kind of language from both Ellul and Kryptos does not suggest they think violence (however “violence” is defined) is merely a physical evil, yet not sinful. To have “abdicated from Christianity,” to live in a way that is “contradictory to the Christian life” – this is the result of living in sin, not merely performing physical evils that are nonetheless not sinful. To say one is living “contradictory to the Christian life” but in a way that does not involve sin is borderline nonsensical.

      2. I understand that the category of “violence” as used by Ellul and Kryptos encompasses far more than just physical violence. However, this does not change the fact that Kryptos has suggested that he thinks violence of any kind is a sin. For him to say that “violence can never create either liberty or justice” (again, in echo of Ellul) undermines the notion that he sees some kinds of violence, e.g., capital punishment, as merely a physical evil, for capital punishment as ordained by God is indeed just. If capital punishment or any other kind of violence is in fact unjust, then it is a sin. Moreover, Kryptos has said that Christians will be forced to do things that are “not good, just, righteous, or loving” (“Anarchy and Christianity”). The implication here is that if these hypothetical actions are “not good, just, righteous, or loving,” then they will be bad, unjust, unrighteous, and unloving. These qualities characterize actions that are outright sinful, not merely actions that yield physical evils that are nonetheless not sinful.

      Having said all this, I completely agree with your point that some forms of violence are necessary and not sinful. I also agree that in order to resist evil we have to do things that are unpleasant yet not sinful. My argument is that this is not what Kryptos has been saying. He has not simply argued that we have to do things that are “unpleasant”: his language suggests he thinks we are compelled to commit actions that are positively sinful. If this is not what he has been saying, then I would welcome clarification from him.

      1. I guess I’ll have to let him decide to offer that clarification then. I’m convinced you’ve misunderstood him, but only he can really say whether I’m right about that.

        Still, would you grant that if I am correct, the thesis of your article is misguided?

        1. If it were the case that Kryptos was saying all along that Christians will be forced to commit “evils” only in the limited sense of physical evils rather than moral (sinful) evils, then yes, I would grant that my argument was misguided. Even if he offered a clarification to that effect, however, I would still maintain that the language he has used misleading language up to this point in characterizing violence and other things it is “necessary” for us to do.

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