Published January 1, 1987
One of the surest signs of trouble in any resistance movement is when its leaders begin to fudge the definition of “violence.” Such was the case in America during the days of black power and on the woolier fringes of the anti-America-in–Vietnam movement. Such remains the case in Latin America, where liberation theology’s muddying of the moral waters by distinguishing between the “first violence” of poverty and the “second violence” of those who would resist it through armed force in the name of social justice has led, inter alia, to American religious leaders’ support for the repressions of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
A depressingly similar pattern seems underway in South Africa. Father Buti Tlhagale, a black South African theologian, wrote in the newspaper of the Catholic archdiocese of Cape Town that when blacks resort to violence as a means for “redressing the wrongs of an intrinsically violent political system, they perceive this not only as a right to resist in the name of elementary justice, but as a duty to check the repression of the racist regime … What the white community perceives as savagery, as when people associated with apartheid are burned to death, blacks interpret differently … What seems a senseless destruction of life and property, of schools and buses and delivery vehicles, is seen by young blacks as an aggressive statement of radical protest, of self-affirmation; a tactic to compel the government to reckon with their frustrated aspirations.”
The apartheid system has surely contributed its share of obnoxious euphemisms to the century’s Orwellian vocabulary. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s charge that the South African government is “a past master in semantic games” is not without foundation. On the other hand, does Archbishop Tutu add to the semantic (and thus political, and then moral) confusion by his insistence that “the situation here is intrinsically violent, with the violence being basically the violence of apartheid”? The bitter path between this definition and Father Tlhagale’s attempt to morally justify murder as a “tactic to compel the government to reckon with … frustrated aspirations” is quickly and tragically trod. And if not by Archbishop Tutu, whose personal witness for nonviolence has been demonstrated bravely on several occasions, then for many of his followers?
The argument here is not whether there is a theoretical, moral “right to revolution.” But it seems painfully clear that weakening the idea of violence inevitably leads to weakening the sanctions against its use. Archbishop Tutu and Father Tlhagale may decide, if they have not already, that nonviolent resistance will not achieve their ends in South Africa. If they do (or have), they should state that directly, instead of fudging the issue by appeals to “structural violence” as a means for obscuring the violence of certain forms of resistance. The moral and political argument can then be engaged, honestly.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.