The Myth of the Defenseless I

Tony SigI had been dreaming this post up for a while but James’s recent post gave me that extra nudge I needed to start penning it.

One of the classic “What If” questions which arise out of discussions of pacifism is “What of the defense of the defenseless?” This seems to be one of those questions which come up both for theological liberals as well as conservatives.  We should not forget that it is not only ‘conservatives’ who tend to baptize war efforts in Christian clothing.  Traditional American Protestant Liberalism ala Reinhold Niebuhr also saw pragmatic moralism defend war as a means to peaceful ends.

The answer of the pacifist can seem cold.  “You mean you don’t believe in defending the defenseless?”

It is my contention that people who believe that to “defend the defenseless” with violence fail to look deep enough into this phrase.  I am reminded of C. S. Lewis when he wrote “The Problem of Pain” and how he tried to come at the topic theologically and not emotionally.  As a recent comment has shown, these types of situations can be sensitive and I don’t mean to be ignorant of the complexity behind a topic like this; nonetheless I feel compelled to examine the arguments and it will become clear why I come down where I do.

In perhaps truly Zizek’ish style I’m going to use a movie to provide the framework for the discussion.

The 1986 film “The Mission” is truly one of the best films I have ever seen.  Without a doubt it is the best ‘religious’ movie I’ve seen.  Based loosely on a true story, I think this can make the argument even more powerful.  In it, a Spanish Jesuit, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) takes a great risk by attempting to set up a Mission amongst a tribal group who had previously killed another missionary.  He is lucky enough not to have suffered the same fate as his predecessor and his Mission is founded and flourishes.

He eventually receives a young man into the Jesuit order who had killed his brother and been a slave trader.  Rodrigo Mendoza is healed of severe guilt and depression by the grace of the Jesuits, especially Father Gabriel, and becomes a vital part of the Mission.

Meanwhile, Spain cedes land to Portugal which includes the Mission.  The Portuguese are well known for their slave trade and will not allow the Mission to continue.  It is their plan to destroy the Mission and enslave the people there.

Word of this reaches the Mission and there are two options which begin to be pursued.  Both Mendoza and Fr. Gabriel deeply love the Guarani people and are distraught.  Fr. Gabriel decides that it goes against God’s Love to fight with violence.  Mendoza cannot stand to see this injustice go on without resistance.  Mendoza decides to rebel against Fr. Gabriel and begins to fashion weapons, set traps and train those men who are willing to fight.

I think it is of utmost importance to note that both Jesuits see the Guarani people as sitting ducks.  They are, “defenseless” against the weapons and armies of the Portuguese.

The climactic scene of the movie is the attack on the Mission.  As the armies advance, Mendoza and his force do all in their power to secure the safety of the Guarani but they are no match for the Portuguese and Mendoza is shot and his band scattered and killed.

As the army marches past Mendoza they are halted as Fr. Gabriel and those who followed him are singing.  Even still they advance.  As the Portuguese come upon the main square they are met by the Guarani and Fr. Gabriel, dressed all in white, holding the Cross and also the blessed Host.  They begin to walk towards the Portuguese and are slaughtered one by one with a few escaping to the jungle.

Here is the clip:



  1. I promise this is the last time (well, one of the last times) I whine about this, but you all really need to read Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace,” if you have not already. He has a lot of important things to say about reconciliation in the face of evil from the perspective of the “defenseless.” His main contention is that being different (racial, gender, religious, et al) in some fashion is all that some people, tribes, nations, etc. need in order to label the “other” as evil and thusly justify a campaign of hate against it.



  2. Yes, they are singing the Ave Maria. It’s such a touching clip. Dr. Davenport introduced me to this movie, and one of the things he told me was that Father Gabriel chose to carry the monstrance with the Host because by firing in its direction the Catholic Portuguese soldiers were committing sacriledge…well, I won’t go any further with that until I figure out where you intend to go with Part II. Great post!



  3. It is on my list Shawn. I’m trying to get through the review books I was sent, and school starts next week, but it’s one of the first on my ‘after that’ list.


  4. Tony,
    I am sure you will have a response to this question if Reed hasn’t already answered it somewhere…

    What about those who take advantage of those that wave the flag of non-violence?

    I have seen this during anti-war demonstrations. A group will be picketing with posters stating “No War” or “End the Violence”, and someone will walk into the group to challenge them to a fist fight. Then, he will start beating on one or two of them until they are forced to defend themselves. I saw this take place outside of Dyess Air Force Base during the Viet Nam war. I saw it happen again at the gate to Kirtland Air Force Base during the Gulf War.


  5. Tony, did I missed what your opinion about this non-violence issue is? I too loved the movie, btw.

    I have heard that Gandhi and Buber wrote to each other about non-violence. Buber said, “In your country, non-violence is actually a valued tradition and can work, but here, it is not valued, and if we Jews do not resist, we will be slaughtered.”

    Buber was right.


  6. Sabio,

    I think you make an important point about the debate. Frankly, when we do not act as a community (in the case of Gandhi and Buber, a world-wide community); we lose any ability to stand against violence in a non-violent way. Problematically, it is very feasible to practice non-violence in interpersonal settings, but not so feasible when facing something like a Nazi holocaust. However, until we personally commit to practicing pacifism we will never be able to innovate ways in which a global community can stand against things like genocide non-violently.


    I believe there are numerous ways of restraining an individual that don’t count as violence. Surely a large group of peaceful protestors can restrain an individual acting in the manner you have described?



  7. Sabio,

    The second part is soon to come. I myself identify as “pacifist.” Mostly because I feel the term “violent” can mean so many things it will pass out into an individual subjective realm where “violent” means whatever one wants it to mean. But as it would be normally thought of I am in favor of practicing non-violence.

    Without by any means questioning the unspeakable evil of the Halocaust, I think the question needs to be less about the possibility of death and more what is “right” to do, even if that means one dies for it.

    To be honest, I just don’t know what I would have done in WWII or other analagous situations. There were many Christians who resisted without violence such as the “Confessing Church.” I would like believe in the route taken by those like Bonhoeffer.


    I agree with Shawn that there are non-violent ways to resist such abuse. Though part of the issue is that one might very well suffer for ones belief. I am keenly aware of how this sounds ruminating off a white middle class male who has never been subject to violence in such a way; perhaps one day I will be given the chance to so suffer, I just don’t know.


  8. I was on a maintenance crew at Dyess AFB. I watched an attacker throwing punches at various anti-violence picketers. Anyone that tried to grab him took a beating. Eventually, some of the non-violent group started kicking and punching him. Finally, it turned into a one-on-one fist fight between the attacker and one of the more able-bodied picketers. Interestingly, most of the rest of the picketers were happy enough to cheer for their champion and pat him on the back when everything was settled.

    At Kirtland, there were two different groups picketing outside the gate. One group was anti-violence and the other group was carrying signs that said, “We support our troops.” I just happened to be driving by when an attacker walked into the anti-violence group and started punching them in the face and in the stomach. Some of the guys from the other picketing group supporting the troops ran across the street and grabbed the attacker.


  9. My point was that members of the non-violent group in both cases seemed supportive of some form of violence to stop the personal violence against them. At the time, I remember questioning whether these people were actually non-violent or simply afraid to defend themselves unless pushed into a corner and forced to fight.


  10. Also, you’ll find that in Anti-war demonstrations there is not a homogenous belief concerning violence. I am sure many of the participants identifed as pacifists, but there are plenty of people who were against the Vietnam and Gulf wars, but who were not necessarily against all forms of violence. One of the biggest challenges of really serious pacifists who organize demonstrations is how to keep them peaceful. Mobs are treacherous things.


  11. I have done Aikido for years at several different schools. Aikido can be taught gentle and deadly. Lots of students, depending on the school, come in expecting a peaceful martial art. Those students rarely do well. For in order to be truly gentle, you have to know how to kill.

    OK, it may be a bit strong, but maybe a few of you see my point. If one has the flexibility to muster a violent response, it makes ones choice of peace much more powerful.


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