The Monopoly on Violence and the Christian View of the State


There is general agreement within the academic disciplines related to political science that the concept of “the state” is founded upon the idea, most famously recognized by Max Weber, as a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Acemoglu, et al. 2013, 6). This idea is more colloquially known as the “monopoly on violence.” The possession and maintenance of this monopoly is taken to be an essential, even the essential, capacity of the state (Henschke 2021, 145). In other words, if a state is incapable or unwilling to fend off competitors in violence, both within and without its territory or jurisdiction, then it effectively does not exist or, depending on circumstances, exists as a failed state. This makes maintaining its own monopoly on violence and suppressing other, illegitimate instances of violence a normative value of statehood (Newell 2019). The key concept to take notice of in all this is legitimate versus illegitimate uses of force or violence. A state, properly speaking, exists only when two conditions are met: (1) its own employment of coercive force and violence is legitimate, and (2) it is capable of suppressing or eliminating instances of coercive force and violence that are illegitimate.

This observation, of course, raises a further definitional issue: What constitutes a legitimate use of force or violence? What is, in Weber’s terms, “the legitimate use of physical force?”

These are the issues that lie in the background of the book that prompted my reflection here. That book is War, Peace, and Violence: Four Christian Views, edited by Paul Copan. It brings together in dialogue four established perspectives within evangelical Christianity on questions of state-sanctioned violence and whether, and under what circumstances, Christians can support and/or participate in that violence. The four perspectives are: (1) Just War; (2) Nonviolence (Pacifism); (3) Christian Realism; and (4) Church Historical.

My purpose here is not to summarize or recapitulate each of these perspectives. Rather, my purpose is to share my own reflections prompted by the interaction of these perspectives. This is so for several reasons. First, I am not an expert in either ethics or international relations. Although I developed a basic competence in both–ethics primarily in seminary and IR through required coursework in my public policy PhD program–there are nuances within both areas I am not prepared to tackle. Second, if you are the type of person inclined to read semi-academic reflections such as this one, I take it as a given that you are similarly inclined to seek out the source material I rely upon. And more to the point, the issues dealt with in War, Peace, and Violence have a much broader application to topics that are well within my wheelhouse. Specifically, I want to mention three such topics:

  1. The religio-theological nature of politics generally.
  2. The limitations that should be placed on the types of policies governments pursue.
  3. The types of policies that Christians ought to support or pursue.

The Religio-Theological Nature of Politics Generally

As one might expect in a book about Christian attitudes on war, the contributing authors in War, Peace, and Violence plumbed the depths of historical theology to make their cases. One of the patristic sources referred to consistently from within all four perspectives is Tertullian, who took the view that Christians ought to avoid service in the Roman military (Charles 2005, 340; Copan 2022, 30). The reason for this was that he believed service in the Roman army–and service in Roman government generally–“were forms of pagan sacrifice” (Charles 2005, 340). In his footnote to this observation, Charles (ibid.) makes reference to the fact that the higher ranks of the military were required to make sacrifices to the emperor, and even the lower ranks had to be present at these ceremonies. In addition to that, all soldiers were required to swear “allegiance to the emperor, and wore badges that bore the emperor’s effigy” (ibid.). But this is not Tertullian’s only meaning. In On Idolatry, he asks rhetorically: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” This is apparently in reference to Jesus’ admonition to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52). The various perspectives each have their own ways of interpreting these views. Particularly noteworthy is the Just War view’s emphasis on vocation–that soldiering, statecraft, and civil service generally constitute vocations that God can call one to in order to serve common goods (Copan 2022, 15). However, I’m not sure that this answer–however true it may be–fully answers the questions posed by Tertullian.

The overall tone of Tertullian’s argument is that the Christian should avoid behaviors and positions that force one into serving, promoting, or advancing idolatry. Thus, for example, the close links between religion and civic life in Rome meant that civil magistrates were responsible for making sure that the various temples ran efficiently and that public religious festivals took place (c.f., On Idolatry, chapter XVII). One also must consider that the Roman army was also the Roman police force. So, for example, a soldier might be required to maintain order amidst a religious festival that involved pagan sacrifices and immoral sexual practices. One should also take note that low-level soldiers, although not subject to the requirement to make sacrifices to the emperor, were required to obey the orders of officers who had. This raises the issue of what the ultimate cause or purpose one’s service answers to. One can easily see, following Tertullian, how service in Roman government, at every level, served the purposes of pagan idolatry. But we don’t now live in Rome. We live in a (ostensibly) secular republic. What possible lessons can we derive from Tertullian’s observations about pagan idolatry?

Answering that question prompts a return to the topic with which I began this post: the monopoly on violence. In the Weberian analysis–which, again, has broad general acceptance in political science and adjacent disciplines–the state is predicated upon and in some sense is constituted by its holding of a monopoly on (legitimate) violence. Stated another way, “the [monopoly on violence] is essential for the existence and survival of states” (Henschke 2021, 147). Therefore, for any government responsible for administering any state, the primary objective in its use of its monopoly on violence must be, by necessity, maintaining its hold on the monopoly of violence. This is true regardless of the particular form of government operating in a state at any given point in time (constitutional monarchy, republic, democracy, autocracy, etc.). This is also true regardless of the particular ideological ends to which any particular government is dedicated (liberalism, communism, socialism, nationalism/ethnocentrism, etc.). Without a monopoly on violence, whatever government there was no longer has a state to administer toward whatever ideological ends it was dedicated. Therefore, the ultimate concern of every state is by definition [i.e., the state is that entity holding the monopoly on violence within its territorial jurisdiction] is itself. It must utilize its monopoly on violence to maintain its monopoly on violence. The state–by its very existence–is a form of idolatry.

That may seem like a pretty bleak conclusion, and it’s hard to disagree. But there is–maybe–a silver lining. That possible silver lining is that the state’s own self-idolatry is a kind of limiting principle.

Limitations That Should Be Placed on Types of Policies Pursued

It probably seems non-sensical, at first glance, to suggest that the state’s obligation to use its monopoly on violence to maintain its monopoly on violence is a limiting principle. “Doesn’t that justify violence for the sake of violence?” you might reasonably ask. You might even be tempted to throw in the obligatory reference to Hitler and the Nazis and suggest that their particularly brutal and wanton use of their monopoly on violence illustrates why my suggestion is ridiculous. And you would be wrong.

Hitler and his collaborators were overly focused on ideological ends. They became consumed with employing their monopoly on violence to achieve ideological ends. In so doing, they employed their monopoly on violence in endeavors that themselves endangered their monopoly on violence. Broadly speaking these endeavors–for both Nazi Germany and states in general–can be categorized as domestic and international. That is that Nazi policies endangered its monopoly on violence by eroding the domestic compliance with the monopoly (seen, e.g., in the proliferation of resistance movements) and threatened the monopoly on violence in other states (e.g., through invasion–particularly that of the Soviet Union).

Stated simply, the most basic limiting principle of the monopoly on violence is that it ought not be employed in such a way that it itself is placed in danger. In terms of legitimacy, this then serves as a foundational definition. The use of physical force by the state is legitimate when its use does not endanger the state itself and its future use of physical force. Few people, at least in the West, would be willing to accept such a definition, as is. There are, of course, other considerations when it comes to the legitimate use of state violence. So, perhaps, the definition should be amended: Absent other moral and ethical considerations, the state’s use of physical force is legitimate when its use does not endanger the state itself and its future use of physical force.

There is some sense in which this definition may comport with the limitation implied in Scripture, for example, in Romans 13:1-7. There, Paul writes that the state and its government has a legitimate function in punishing wickedness. This comports, to some degree, with the modified definition insofar as rampant wickedness is both a sign of existing disorder and can lead to greater disorder. Disorder is a threat to the state and its monopoly, therefore it is in the state’s interest to employ its monopoly on violence to prevent disorder and promote order. Doing so is legitimate, in terms of the modified definition, because it preserves the monopoly on violence.

The only problem is I don’t think that the modified definition is true.

Of course, as a Christian, I know that there are other moral and ethical considerations. But I am an individual human being. I am conscious. I have a psyche and a soul that are capable of comprehending what it means for a particular action to be ethical or moral. I can comprehend that different uses of force or violence are imbued with ethical and moral meaning absent the particular ends to which they are directed (e.g., “enhanced interrogation” directed towards the end or goal of saved lives). States do not have any of this. States, as such, are constituted merely by their possession of a monopoly on violence within a specified territory. For the state, as a state, there can be no higher authority than itself; so long as it is able to apply coercive force in such a way that its monopoly on the use of that force subsists, it answers to no one but itself. This is why, in an ultimate sense, Carl Schmitt could find that all modern concepts of the state rely on secularized theological ideas (2005, 36). The state–all states–are, by self-conceptualization, gods.

The best contemporary example of this fact is China. This is true not because China is blatantly totalitarian (as opposed to the increasing soft totalitarianism in the West), but because it is self-consciously and openly god-like. It also applies the above definition of legitimate state violence with clinical precision. This can be seen in the recent protests over its “zero-Covid” policy. China did not relent because it’s sensitive to the opinions of its citizens. It relented because its exercise of force via “zero Covid” threatened its grip, at least in some places, on the monopoly on violence.

This clinical precision and self-aware, secular apotheosis of the state is also why China is a model to be emulated for the technocratic elite, best exemplified by the World Economic Forum. The progressive, technocratic admiration for China is driven by the same spirit that caused the original technocrats of the Progressive Era to admire Hitler and Mussolini. Fascism, in Mussolini’s essay-length definition, is “[a]nti-individualistic” and a “conception of life [that] stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.” Few nations can make as strong a claim to fulfilling this vision of ideal fascism as China.

With this framing, it’s possible to see how nations like China can, and do, employ the monopoly on violence as a limiting principle to the point of making it a foundational ethic. Mussolini (1932) also wrote that “Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State–a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values–interprets, develops, and potentates the whole life of a people.” When the overall tone and tenor of Mussolini’s defining essay is summarized, the conclusion is that fascism is what comes about when the state is left alone to do that which states exist to do. That is, left alone, the state will tend to subsume everything and everyone through either the actual or the threatened use of its monopoly of force.

What this suggests is that some other ethical framework is necessary, not only to prevent things like fascism and totalitarianism but to inform us why things like fascism and totalitarianism are bad, or evil, or undesirable in the first place. In China, to go with the best contemporary example, behaviors like ethnic reprogramming, virtual slave labor, invasive public surveillance, and the suppression of speech, press, religion, and assembly are all within the normal conduct of policy. I mention this because we’re often tempted to equate bad states with a particular form of government. What we often fail to see is that there’s nothing about a particular form of government that prevents it from forming and implementing good policy or forces it to implement bad policy. China, were it so inclined, could just as well allow for the freedoms of religion, press, speech, and assembly. But it doesn’t. Like other similar regimes of the past, China makes full use of the monopoly on violence in order to preserve its monopoly. China’s state policy is maximally efficient as a state.

To clarify the distinctions necessary to flesh out these issues better, there are three concepts that need to parsed and disambiguated:

  1. State
  2. Government
  3. Policy

As already pointed out above, the state is defined as the entity possessing a monopoly on violence within a specific territorial jurisdiction. The government is the mechanism by which the state exercises its monopoly on violence. Policy is the particular uses of the coercive force of the state as directed by government. To use an analogy: the state is the hardware, the government is the operating system, and policy is the individual pieces of software. Politics–to include things like political theory, political philosophy, political theology, economics, and social theory–broadly describes the discussions and debates over the best operating systems and what software should be developed. It yet remains that the hardware of the state is force. Just like the same computer hardware is capable of running MacOS, Windows, or Linux, the hardware of the state can be used to do many different things. This raises the final topic of deciding what kinds of governments (operating systems) and policies (software) Christians should pursue or support.

Types of Policies Christians Ought to Pursue

It may seem like I’ve drifted far off base from where I started. But I haven’t. The conduct of war is itself a public policy. It just so happens that it is a policy that involves the overt use of violence to achieve its objectives. The overt, and at times horrifying, use of violence in war makes it of particular interest to Christians who want to follow Jesus’ commands to be peacemakers. But what my discussion up to this point is intended to do is make the overarching point that all actions taken by the state are backed by and grounded on the state’s willingness to commit those most horrifying of violent acts. Stated another way, whenever a policy decision is made, implicit in that decision is the willingness to kill in order to bring it about. This is true because the state not only possesses a monopoly on violence–the state is a monopoly on violence.

Given my prior attempts to find a basis upon which to attack the arguments made by Stephen Wolfe in Case for Christian Nationalism, my mind immediately goes in that direction, especially since Wolfe’s whole argument in that book is that the nature of the state and the government of the state are legitimate and useful mechanisms for instantiating or bringing about an instance of there being, in fact, a Christian nation. In the terms developed in this post, that means, by necessity, that Wolfe–and those who agree with him–believe that any instance of there being a “Christian nation” is a product of the proper application of state violence. In its barest, reductive terms, this means some form of coerced conversion. Or, at the very least, some form of coerced outward behavior that looks like, but might not be (and probably isn’t) genuine conversion.

It obviously could go without saying that I am opposed to such a project. There is no biblical mandate for seizing political power and then using that power to bring about ostensibly Christian ends. This is particularly true in the New Testament context where, as the contributors to War, Peace, and Violence point out, Christians had no reasonable expectations of being able to influence how the Roman state, through its various aspects of governance, would employ its monopoly on violence. Wolfe and his cohorts will no doubt respond that I am ignoring important Old Testament contexts, but I am not. I take the Old Testament very seriously–seriously enough that I worship on the seventh-day Sabbath, as commanded in the Fourth Commandment (Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12-15), and I obey the dietary restrictions on clean and unclean foods (Lev 11). That obviously places me in a religious minority, and I respect the fact that there is honest, legitimate disagreement about these issues. Of course, this also means that there is some level of bias in favor of myself and my religious community.

But then again, I am not advocating for the seizure of the state and its government for the purposes of bringing about specifically religious ends originating in my own interpretation of the Christian message.

This leads to a much larger point in my own developing political thought: that all politics are religious.

Another problem with Wolfe’s argument is that it is precisely the kind of argument that can be seized upon by the Progressive Left, and other opponents of a truly free society, and used against Christians generally. You see, everyone who is ideologically motivated to seize power through political means to enact their ideology is engaged in a religious struggle. Wolfe isn’t trying to do anything many of his ostensible political opponents aren’t also trying to do. He’s just doing it for different ideological reasons. That the state–all states–are by nature self-worshiping pagan deities means that a Christian who wants to use the state for “Christian” purposes is committing sins similar to the Roman Catholic Church’s appropriation of pagan deities and christening them a “communion of saints” to whom one’s prayers can be directed. And if the state–all states–are self worshiping pagan deities, then Christians ought to want to limit, not expand, their influence in society. This means the Christian position should resemble something very similar to classical liberalism or libertarianism, where the authority and reach of the state is severely limited so that other social and cultural institutions–like family and church–can flourish.

There’s more that can be and will be written on these topics. But this is as good as a point as any with which to conclude this post.

References

Acemoglu, Daron, James A. Robinson, and Rafael J. Santos. 2013. “The Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Columbia.” Journal of the European Economic Association 11 (S1): 5-44. https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/jrobinson/files/monopoly-of-violence.pdf.

Charles, J. Daryl. 2005. “Presumption against War or Presumption against Injustice?: The Just War Tradition Reconsidered.” Journal of Church and State 47, no. 2 (Spring): 335-369. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcs/47.2.335.

Copan, Paul, ed. 2022. War, Peace, and Violence: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Henschke, Adam. 2021. “Rethinking the Nature of States and Political Violence.” Ethics & International Affairs 35, no. 1 (Spring): 145-158. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679421000125.

Mussolini, Benito. 1932. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” https://sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/2B-HUM/Readings/The-Doctrine-of-Fascism.pdf.

Newell, Michael E. 2019. “How the Normative Resistance of Anarchism Shaped the State Monopoly on Violence.” European Journal of International Relations 25, no. 4 (December): 1236-1260. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066119848037.

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Translated by George Schwab. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Tertullian. n.d. On Idolatry. https://tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-07.htm.

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