Toxic Nonviolence

Over the last few days, I’ve found myself reflecting on the connections between three otherwise disparate figures: John Howard Yoder, Jean Vanier, and Mahatma Gandhi. All three were advocates for nonviolence, and all three -in different ways and to different extents- engaged in behaviour that spanned the spectrum from sexually abusive to (in Gandhi’s case), at least highly unusual. My research question, at this stage, is not much more formulated than, ‘What is it about these guys who write a lot about nonviolence, but who violate sexual boundaries?’

Marie Keenan’s work on clerical sexual abuse of children has got me thinking over the last few weeks about how high ideals and perfectionism can co-exist with, and are even implicated in, sexually abusive behaviour. One of the issues Keenan identifies is the inability of clerical perpetrators of abuse to negotiate their emotional and physical needs for intimacy, which conflict both with their ideals and with the ideals of the institution of the Catholic Church. Another is the issue raised by two studies (Plante, Manuel, O’Brien 1996 and Blanchard, 1991) which identified chronically over-controlled hostility as a factor in abuse, and two studies (Robinson 1994 and Rosetti 1994), which found that clerical perpetrators tend to score higher than a control group on ‘authority concerns’ (Robinson, 1994), and have passive and conforming relationships to authority (Rosetti, 1994).

Although there are significant differences, my mind went to Yoder and Vanier (I’ll bracket out Gandhi, and acknowledge here that the cases of Yoder and Vanier are different too: Vanier was, for most of his life, celibate, and Yoder was married). I wondered about the combination in their cases of high ideals, including about nonviolence, and the resulting need to control radically the very basic urges of sex and anger; the tendency to repress psychological conflict, and the inability to negotiate it in healthy ways. Vanier spoke often about the need to know one’s own capacity for violence, but it remains unclear whether he was genuinely aware of his own.

As I continue to explore Catholic theologies of nonviolence, I am increasingly convinced that, as well as a theory and practice of nonviolence that is good, healthy and alert to its own limits and ambivalence, I think there is also such a thing as toxic nonviolence. Toxic nonviolence is highly idealistic, but alienates, denies, projects or represses knowledge of our own capacity for violence. We believe ourselves to be committed to nonviolence (and we are), but by the same move, violence is pushed outwards as a feature of the other (the military, the institution, the aggressor), or turned inwards on the self (as control, repression, shame). Toxic nonviolence, in practice if not in theory, treats violence and, by extension, the emotion of anger- as inherently negative. This both plays into and emerges from Christian scripts about the importance of gentleness, and the idea of perfection as not even being angry with one’s brother. But the question is this: where does my violence go? Toxic nonviolence is toxic because it is not healthy for self or, ultimately, for others. Ironically, toxic nonviolence, while upholding the idea that there is always a way of negotiating conflict in a nonviolent way, winds up unable to negotiate psychic conflict, and therefore enmeshed in an unhealthy (and even more unhealthy because unacknowledged) project of chronic, idealistically-reinforced violence-to-self.

I don’t want to do too much armchair psychologising here (I’ve probably done way too much already). Instead, I want to draw attention to some of Judith Butler’s work on nonviolence, which I have really enjoyed engaging with in recent months. One of the strengths of Butler’s work is its roots in Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalysis, which gives her work a subtlety that I often find lacking in Christian theologies of nonviolence. The discussion in Frames of War takes off from the recognition that, if violence were not a part of myself, it could not be an ethical imperative. Her more recent work, The Power of Nonviolence, explores this theme of ambivalence in more depth. Just one quote here:

If we could turn to love and simply fan its flames so that it becomes the more powerful force, we would have a solution. But love, as noted above, is defined by its ambivalence, structured by the oscillation between love and hatred. The task appears to be finding a way to live and act with ambivalence –one where ambivalence is understood not as an impasse, but an internal partition that calls for an ethical orientation and practice. For only the ethical practice that knows its own destructive potential will have the chance to resist it. Those for whom destruction is always and only coming from the outside will never be able to acknowledge, or work with, the ethical demand imposed by nonviolence.

Butler, The Force of Nonviolence, 172

Toxic nonviolence results from a nonviolence that is too idealistic, not from a nonviolence that is not nonviolent enough. Over the decade ahead, as Catholic theologies of nonviolence continue to emerge, they need to reckon with the ambivalence and limits of nonviolence, as well as holding it up as an ideal and arguing for its effectiveness. My instinct is that those theologies will mature, not by ‘fanning the flames of love so that it becomes the more powerful force’, but by following Butler’s lead, and engaging with ambivalence in both theory and practice.


Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2016)

Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence (London: Verso, 2020)

Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

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