A few days ago, a video surfaced in which conservative radio host Eric Metaxas confronts a protester on the streets of DC after attending the RNC. Its hard to tell, but there was at least a punch or a take down of some sort. It seemed unprovoked — other than the vulgar chants of the protester — but Metaxas appears to be taking some sort of self-defense stance. There are lots of links to sort through, but John Fea has been reporting on this and you’ll find all the relevant links here.
Without further accounts or video coverage, we are left to draw our own conclusions about whether his actions were justified or not and Metaxas is left to explain the events to his audiences in whatever way he wants. I find it interesting how the incident seems to have turned into a theological discussion, or rather a critique of pacifism. First, let’s be clear that “pacifism” is not a monolith even though those who belittle it usually treat it as such. Most within the peace tradition work hard to apply their convictions in the real world and some find justification for actions that others would not. We know that Bonhoeffer, whom Metaxas has written about, was a pacifist who came to justify a plot to assassinate Hitler. But assuming the word has some utility, we can at least say Metaxas is no pacifist and neither is John Zmirak, the radical right-wing guest who sometimes appears on his show. According to Fea, in fact, they essentially dismiss pacifism – calling it “childish.”
The notion that pacifists are simpletons who fail to take seriously the morally complicated realities of the world is a well-worn critique and those who take this rhetorical path betray at least some ignorance of the peace tradition and its thinkers. In my reading of those within nonviolent circles, I would say these thinkers and theologians are anything but simpletons. In fact, those in the peace tradition do not hold their convictions in spite of moral complexity, but rather because of them – and because situations often spiral toward precisely the sort of moral quandary into which Metaxas has stepped.
Much of the larger debate over looters, violent agitators, and vigilante justice has devolved into partisan opinions about when violence is justified and when it is not. Zmirack, in fact, seems to be arguing in one post that its not worth extending the lives of criminals, thugs, and other morally undesirable people because their lives matter less than those he considers innocent, such as vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse.
All of this is, in fact, a microcosm of the larger debate over Christian participation in war. The pacifist critique of Just War Theory is that it is human nature to believe that one’s causes are always just and therefore Just War Theory will never really serve as a check on violence. So we can at least say that it is not surprising that Metaxas’ own bad behavior has turned into a discussion about justifications for violence and it is equally unsurprising that Metaxas and company would dismiss pacifism and then claim that his violent action was righteous and just. I say this not because Metaxas is somehow unique in this, but because it is human nature. This is precisely the point, nonviolent theologians would say. Whether to garner support for war, incite revolutions, or angrily throw a punch at an obnoxious protester, moral justifications for violence will usually reflect merely the interests and definitions of justice of those who find they want or need to commit such acts.