Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

When I was a kid, I gave an opposing player some lip on the rugby field and he punched me in the face so hard and so quickly I didn’t even see it coming.

One minute I was trash-talking him and the next minute I was on my butt, my head spinning, watching him run back to join the flow of the game.

It was embarrassing.

I remember how for weeks (months?) later I kept fantasizing about how I could have got back at him. I imagined clobbering him, humiliating him in front of others as he had done to me.

The impulse to respond to violence with violence is primal. It’s almost involuntary.


When we feel personally assailed we want to return fire, to make our attackers suffer as much, or more, than we have. It’s a very human, visceral reaction.

Even when we see horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated in cities like Paris or London or Nairobi, that same impulse rears up. We feel threatened, and we clamor, “Do it back to them. Return violence for violence. If they’re trying to kill us we should kill them.”

Whole nations can become inflamed by this hunger for revenge. After the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US responded by bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq. Whole nations were made to pay for the humiliation and grief experienced by America.

And yet we know that violent reactions to acts of violence not only don’t resolve the issue, they make it much worse. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 exacerbated sectarian divides in that country, which in turn laid the groundwork for the rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups.

As Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach writes, “We rightly respond with dismay and horror to violent actions. But responding with violent actions will not make things right. It will only continue the spiral of violence.”

We can view Donald Trump’s recent decision to bomb targets identified as chemical weapons facilities in Syria in this same light. Of course, Mr Trump made the attacks sound almost reasonable:

“The purpose of this military action was to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian government from using or proliferating chemical weapons.”

But there have been nearly 75 chemical weapons attacks launched in Syria since 2012, ten of them since Mr Trump assumed office. The two occasions the President has ordered the bombing of Syria have both come immediately after the release of heart-wrenching video footage of women and children suffering from the effects of either a chlorine or sarin attack.

Mr Trump’s desire to respond to the violence of the Assad regime seems to have been motivated by the kind of moral outrage I was referring to earlier. When we see or experience a violent attack, our knee-jerk reaction is to inflict violence against the perpetrator.

This impulse is so strong, and considered so reasonable in our society today, that if you question whether this latest round of bombings is justified you get characterized as a leftie or an idealist or a pacifist (as though that’s a dirty word).

For the record I’m a contingent pacifist at best. But what I’m more generally concerned about is our refusal to even question whether responding to violence with more violence is a good thing.

When I posted a comment on Facebook and Twitter recently calling on the US, the UK and France not to bomb Syria, it was met with some resistance. One friend asked me how I’d respond if I saw an old lady being beaten by a thug. Surely, my interlocutor suggested, I would inflict violence on her attacker in order to protect her.

This proposing of overly dramatic scenarios to undermine a call for peace is pretty common. Whenever I raise the issue of gun control I’m often asked whether I’d be willing to shoot an intruder who was raping my wife. It’s like these horrific situations are the first thing people go to. The assumption is that we have to be violent when people are being violent toward us or others.

Leaving aside weird fantasies about shooting your wife’s rapist, even the example of responding to an old lady’s attacker assumes there are no other options than the inflicting of corresponding levels of violence. Can you imagine a world in which we all did that?

As Martin Luther King famously pointed out, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

As a follower of Jesus I can’t ignore his calls for us to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28).

Neither can I overlook his example. When I got punched in the face as a kid I turned scenario after scenario over in my mind as I imagined multiple ways to inflict similar suffering on my attacker. Jesus submitted himself not merely to a punch in the nose, but to hours of abject humiliation and torture. And he still prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they known not what they do.”

Jesus’ extraordinary work involved absorbing hatred and violence and converting them into grace and peace.


And he calls on his followers to do the same, to be peacemakers, not participants in a never-ending spiral of violence. If I followed Jesus’ call to always respond with love, not hate, then I would be concerned for both the old lady and her attacker. It’s true I would want to end the violence immediately, but there must be a number of ways to achieve that without the need to start attacking the attacker.

If I think of what Jesus would do in this scenario, I can’t see him inflicting violence on the attacker. In fact, I can more easily see him stepping in between the old lady and her assailant and absorbing the blows that were intended for her. Why isn’t this the first place Christians go when thinking about responding to violence?

If Mr Trump’s primary concern is for the innocent victims of the civil war in Syria then there must be myriad diplomatic responses that could be made, as well as the offer to provide them safe passage out of Douma and an increase in the US refugee intake from Syria.

Whether it’s a kid on a football field or the President of the United States, the primal response to lash out at those who hurt us or others is understandable. But it never works. Never.


“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King


Share to:

Subscribe to my blog


The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

Latest Blogs

Picturing the Resurrection

The best paintings of the resurrection don’t include Jesus in them. At least it seems that way. Seven years ago (was it really that long??)

The Perfect Ash Wednesday Picture

What an eccentric painting this is. Carl Spitzweg’s 1860 painting Ash Wednesday depicts a clown, dressed presumably for Mardi Gras, languishing in a dark and

The Fierce Mother Heart of God

My three-year-old grandson Jarrah has been unwell recently. Really unwell. He has been seriously ill with what we’ve now discovered was a horrible combination of

8 thoughts on “Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence

  1. Hi Mike, thanks for this. I love how you contrast Jesus examples in responding to violence with our own. It’s helpful and thought provoking. I am wondering, What is a contingent pacifist?

    1. A contingent or conditional pacifist is against war and violence in principle, but accepts reluctantly that there might be circumstances when war will be less bad than the alternative. Absolute pacifists are opposed to violence as a basic moral or spiritual principle, without regard to the results of war or violence. Us contingent pacifists would like to be absolute pacifists but can’t quite get there. Personally, I think if violence is adopted as a strategy it should be done with extreme reluctance, after all other options have been exhausted, and performed with great sadness and regret.

  2. […] Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence at Mike Frost’s blog – Provides an important Christological analysis and how the Crucified One can be the antidote to a world marred by violence. […]

  3. All right.

    Your provoking your competitor with words, which led to his punching you in the face, was definitely wrong of him. And your wanting revenge wasn’t primal, as if you were in mere beast mode, it was human. As in, the desire for justice. Eye for an eye was actually a just legal standard Israel brought to the world, evolving from gross murderous vindication, i.e. unjust retaliation. Jesus’ mentioning it was to add forgiveness and even love for our enemies instead of going hog wild further than what justice calls for. He was building on the principle. Not negating violence. Think dangerous and disciplined martial artist who can and will use violence if the situation calls for it. Including getting punched in the face in sports.

    Blaming our Middle East involvement as exacerbating their sectarian divisions and conflict is backwards. We can debate whether we should have gone at all, and there are solid reasons why it was good to be proactive ( not reactive ) rather than passively enabling injustice, but to blame the U.S. contributing to greater violence is missing the macro view.

    Conflating Jesus’ suffering with our day-to-day struggles and conflicts, between people, between countries, is overly simplistic. He was on a singular mission. Hate to break it to you, but I’m thinking you are not on that mission. If it helps, I am not, either. We have to deal with injustices in a completely different context. You conveniently left out Paul’s mentioning that the soldier is an Agent of God’s Wrath. Romans 13.

    Christian pacifists seem to majorly forget, perhaps because they haven’t read all of the NT, or lie to themselves about the harder things of God: anger; wrath; judgment. How about how violent Jesus was in turning over tables and cracking the whip all the while proclaiming harsh, offensive judgments on the folks at the Temple. In today’s PC Progressive Christian mindset, if intellectually honest ( “Do not lie”), He would be viewed with disdain, as “in sin”, and needing to “be all about Love”. How offensive He was! He didn’t “turn the other cheek” on that one. Maybe because it isn’t all about physically turning the other cheek so that someone can punch our lights out. Maybe there’s more to it.

    Your friend bringing up “overly dramatic” examples of criminal, disgusting violence is reality that people actually HAVE to deal with. You merely “turning aside” those examples is the stuff that makes us moral-contingent-pacifists ( EX: just wars ) shake our dang heads. It all sounds like Utopia can be reached if people just don’t commit evil anymore. No more violence. It also isn’t too helpful, rather condescending. We can actually disagree while attempting to listen and gain broader and deeper perspective on life. Real life.

    We can get better, and to live in Revengeland is futile, but to speak against returning violence with violence is just irresponsible and lacking nuance. And dangerous in a bad way.

    If you actually ever get punched again, I would hope you extend love to yourself to give yourself the room to entertain the possibility of returning violence as a way of an “eye for an eye”, to defend yourself, to speak to the dignity of your humanity, or at least someone else who needs defending. That is another way to bring safety, protection, justice and peace, to someone else’s life when they are the victim of violence. A version of laying down your life, risking it and its comfort, to serve another. It’s why soldiers defending our country can be among the most noble among us in being willing to die for another. Sounds pretty Christ-like.

    We can at least agree on one thing: not questioning and examining our responses is where things can go haywire. “Can”. Pushing back on countries can actually quiet them down. There are cultures, it seems, that respond to Power and Violence as deterrent. Japan in WWII. In the spirit of your article: Returning Violence served our nation, the world, Justice and Peace. Back to your point: the scene in “Tombstone” where the lynch mob wants to enact their reactive “justice” at the jail, and Wyatt basically tells the crowd to knock it off and shut the hell up and go home, willing to actually die for that instruction (!), is an example of how cooler heads need to prevail in due process and justice.

    To that degree, I respect your call to reflect upon a wide range of possibilities regarding violence. It appears you are not willing to entertain the wisdom and spirit of “other” possibilities as well.

    1. Thanks for all your advice on punching people who punch me and all, but I think I might defer to a higher wisdom – that of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. I don’t mind if you disagree with me on American foreign policy but suggesting that an eye for an eye is “pretty Christlike” is kinda wacky when you consider it was actually Jesus who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” [Mt5:38-39]

      1. Thanks for your superficial reply couched in Christ-like love, of course. I spent too much time fleshing out concepts beyond mere verse citations. You repeated yourself without engaging in a more thoughtful response. I tried, but it feels like pearls before swine at this point. Sorry. Jesus said that. Take it up with Him.

        1. Well said Carl

  4. Following your view, Hitler would still be killing Jews. The USA south would still be trafficking in slavery. Japan would still be aggressively oppressing much of Asia. The USA would still be under British rule. Scotland would still be under British rule. Israel would not exist as a nation.
    It saddens me to see how some misapply Jesus words to interpret that God’s design for people is to be a doormat, a vacancy sign for physical abuse and powerless and impotent to protect oneself or family.
    If a man would approach you and demand your possessions do you give it to them? What if a man demanded to molest your children? Would you attempt to stop them? What if a man demanded to rape and assault your spouse? Would you enable them to? Would you try to prevent it with force? Thought Jesus said not to resist another?
    Taking a phrase out of its entire setting and forming a doctrine is misleading. When the USA was attacked, unprovoked, we responded by eliminating a threat. We saved more lives, especially innocent lives. Terrorists bomb civilians, children and women. The Military engages threats on the battlefield not blowing up children on public buses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *