Love, Power and Violence in Hannah Arendt and Paul

Hannah Arendt arrives at a Christian insight that many Christians might find more believable or even recognizable from a political scientist and social theorist. A central teaching of the Bible, that the greatest power is the power of community, of communication, or of love, is easily passed over as a religious pablum which has to be acknowledged but without any real consequence. We all “know” that those who have the most weapons or the most material resources, are the real power brokers in society. Afterall, what is power except power over other people, the power of exploitation, the power of the master over his employees or slaves.

 “Power,” said Voltaire, “consists in making others act as I choose.” According to Max Weber, power is present wherever I have the chance “to assert my own will against the resistance” of others. He defines the power of war as “an act of violence to compel the opponent to do as we wish.” Robert Strausz-Hupe claims bluntly, power signifies “the power of man over man.”  C. Wright Mills equates violence, politics and power: “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.” Mao Tse-tung maintained, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Marx noted that power is “the organization of violence.” Bertrand de Jouvenel claims that the power of death or the power to make war is the very essence of the power of the state: “To him who contemplates the unfolding of the ages war presents itself as an activity of States which pertains to their essence.” As he describes it, “a man feels himself more of a man when he is imposing himself and making others the instruments of his will,” and this gives him “incomparable pleasure.” Elsewhere he says, “To command and to be obeyed: without that, there is no Power – with it no other attribute is needed for it to be …. The thing without which it cannot be: that essence is command.” Arendt concludes, that if the essence of power is the effectiveness of command, then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and it would be difficult to say in “which way the order given by a policeman is different from that given by a gunman.”[1]

In short, power is the power of death and the one who controls and can mete out coercion and violent death, in this understanding, is the one with power. War and the capacity to make war is a primary ordering structure such that “war itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire,” such that “economic systems, political philosophies, and corpora juris serve and extend the war system, not vice versa.” In this understanding, it is not just diplomacy and politics that are war by other means, but peace itself is war by other means.[2]  The peace of the cold war reckons with the reality that deterrence, larger and more powerful weapons of war ensure the peace, such that mutually assured destruction, or the constant threat of total war and annihilation is the only realistic peace.

It is not just the violence of war which ensures peace, but at a personal level there is a similar sort of subjection to the inevitable nature of struggle, chaos, and coercion. Humans seem to be born with an instinct of domination and aggressiveness. According to John Stuart Mill, there are two competing forces in the individual, “the desire to exercise power over others” and the “disinclination to have power exercised over themselves.” As Arendt, points out though, the will to power and the will to submission seem to be interconnected.[3] The security of slavery in Egypt is a very real temptation, certainly present in my experience in Japan, but present to some degree in every society. But perhaps the lengths to which the tyrant will go to maintain rule is the clearest marker of the limits of violence.

The Stalinist regime demonstrated that total domination based on terror cannot afford support, as the supporters and friends of totalitarianism threaten through the most subtle form of power; namely support and friendship. In the end it was the friends and supporters of Stalin who he saw as posing the greatest threat. “The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.”[4] Thus Arendt reaches her conclusion:

To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.[5] 

Nonviolence or the capacity for peace as means and end, is the very definition of power. The power of community, the power of communion, the power of consensus, the power of love, the power of democracy, all stand over and against the notion that violence is power. Violence contains no possibility of communion, other than the communion of the scapegoat, or the contradictory notion that the common enemy is the means of cohesion. Rene Girard’s depiction of the lie surrounding the scapegoat, or Peter Berger’s depiction of the social construction of reality, illustrates Arendt’s and the biblical point, that the deception surrounding death is the universal lie.  The fear of death, or the imagined capacity to manipulate and control death is the singular lie exposed by Christ.

Paul names this lie directly, and counters it with the truth of community: “Therefore, shedding the lie, let each one of you speak the truth to his neighbor, because we are one another’s corporal members” (Eph. 4:25, DBH). Dispelling the lie with the truth gets at the prime reality that we are “corporal members” of one another. This is the missing fact in the notion of equating power and violence. True power builds on the reality of mutual interdependence. Violence may gain a certain control but at the cost of this prime reality. The lie here is singular and seemingly universal in its import so that all of the darkness and deception may be tied to this singular deception. Paul ties it to the hostility or enmity unleashed by the Jewish law as expressed, first in Jewish and Gentile hostility, but then in a “futility” of mind which he equates with a hardened heart and darkened understanding (Eph. 4:17-19).

 As a result of the Gospel, “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph 4:14–15). The cure points to the heart of the problem: “speaking the truth in love” displaces the lie (the deceitful scheming and the trickery of men) which serves dis-communion, hostility, and enmity. Paul continually links deception and alienation while also linking truth and love: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). Being members of another is a truth, that by definition should result in the putting away of violent falsehood.

Another way of getting at this same truth is in Girard’s and Paul’s deployment of mimesis. Girard inadvertently displaces the primacy of mutual membership in one another (mimetic desire), and pictures it first of all as built upon a necessary violence and rivalry. If one person imitates another person’s desire, then their desire for the same thing results in rivalry and violence. Girard comes to his theory of the scapegoat beginning with violence, rivalry and sacrifice, and it is only later that he realizes in Christ there is a positive mimesis, and even in the development of his theory he explains mimesis in the context of rivalry and violence. Much like political theorists or social scientists who begin with the presumption of an original chaos and violence, here too the presumption on an individual level is that rivalry and violence are originary. But what if we were to reverse engineer what Girard is doing and put mimesis front and center not simply as a negative force, but as the shaping force in our lives.

Paul has his own theory of imitation and community which locates reality, not in violent rivalry but in the necessity of relationship and love. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1-2). To the rivalry prone lovers of hierarchy and false power in Corinth, Paul has a singular recommendation and resolution: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). The passage in full reads: “Give no offense [do not become a scandal] to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1). Paul understands the scandal and violence of mimetic rivalry, but this mechanism is undone in his recommendation: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage.” Domination and coercion are set aside and with it the violence producing rivalry that is damnation itself. To be saved, is to imitate and commune in love.  

Paul warns against a “whoring acquisitiveness” (5:3) and likens the acquisitive man to an idolater (5:5), as one who has been deceived by “empty words” (5:5) and who lives in darkness (5:8). These things that are “hidden” are exposed by the light of Christ and now life reigns in place of death (5:14).

The conclusion of the chapter is a displacement of the mystery of sins alienating violence through a mutual submission to one another in one body: “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:31-32). This communion and participation in a singular body is the power of peace that counters the lie of violence as power.


[1] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1969) 35-37.

[2] Arendt, 9.

[3] Arendt, 39-40.

[4] Arendt, 55.

[5] Arendt, 56.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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