Friday, November 18, 2005

An Exchange on Pacifism

Yoder: I would like to think that I am a “pure pacifist”, in that I do not feel that I personally could or should myself use violence against anyone, friend or “foe”. (That’s not an absolute guarantee that I would not, of course, since I am obviously a fallen being myself who cannot predict exactly how I would react in all circumstances) I take the NT literally when Jesus asks his disciples to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, etc. My reading of scripture is that we are called to adopt that standard now, even though the Kingdom is not yet present in its fullness, rather than waiting to the latter to happen before we feel called to the former, as the dispensationalists might argue.

Wacome: Mike, thanks for your thoughtful response and the opportunity to try further to articulate and defend my views.

I agree that this is the standard we are called to adopt now. But why think Jesus intends these words to constrain the activities of governments? Aren’t there lots of things Jesus commands his disciples that aren’t plausibly taken as prescriptions directed to secular nation states? Jesus’ words about giving your coat to one who takes your shirt don’t imply that governments should refrain from interfering with, and in fact aid, thieves and robbers. So why think the “turn the other cheek” admonition applies in this political context?

The implicit assumption that the United States is called to “turn the other cheek,” i.e. to eschew the use of military force, seems to me to endorse the civil religion you rightly reject, for it is to suppose that a nation might act upon “Christian principles.” We should insist that every nation state be constrained by moral principles. Possibly, there’s a general moral case to be made against the use of lethal force, and common sense morality is mistaken on this matter, but I have yet to see it.

Jesus tells Mike Yoder and Don Wacome to turn the other cheek, not to resist evil with evil; he doesn’t tell the USA to do so. The interesting question is what’s he telling us now, given our opportunity to advocate, and to vote for, public policies, e.g., for the USA to scrap its military, or for it to repeal its laws against mugging. In general, I want to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Jesus commands, “Do x!” and that means you and I should do x, but it doesn’t mean we should vote for the USA to do x, to make doing x legally required, etc. Indeed, voting for the USA to do x, or to make people do x, might be something we ought to refrain from, in light of the Gospel.

Yoder: However, I respectfully take issue with your characterization of pure pacifism as being inherently anarchistic. No Anabaptist pacifist I know denies the legitimate police function of the state within the nation-state itself. To do so would be to deny Romans 13. The way that Anabaptism has historically dealt with what to outsiders may seem like an inconsistency and/or a double standard is to recognize that “the world” (including government) is not called to the same level of ethical standards as are the true disciples of Christ in a “pure” church (“pure” not because of any inherent goodness on the part of members, but rather only pure to the extent that we are transformed from our inherently sinful human tendencies—including the tendency to strike back at those that strike us—by the sanctifying grace and redemption of Christ). So I see a legitimate (limited) use of force to maintain order and restrain evil in society. I would prefer that the use of that force be kept as minimal as possible, for example, by police refraining from lethal violence and capital punishment against criminals and suspected criminals, opting perhaps for darting fleeing criminal suspects with tranquilizers, much as animals are darted before being moved for their own good by environmentalists. In extreme cases, I could see police shooting persons in the legs or arms to prevent them from firing shots at others, but I could never approve of police shooting to kill. Does that make me an anarchist? I don’t think so. And I would not be so realistic to argue that we could get along without prisons, although I do argue that we use imprisonment far too often in our own society and often in an arbitrary manner biased by race, social class, etc.

Wacome: I don’t see how the claim that Christians are called to a “higher ethical standard” removes the inconsistency. The Anabaptist could consistently claim that this standard applies to him, and that he is required to refrain from violence against both foreign Hitlers and domestic muggers, while denying that it applies to government policies. Or he could claim it applies to government polices too, and accept the anarchist implications. But when he says that the alleged higher standard applies to a government’s foreign policy, but not to its domestic policies, therein lies the prima facie incoherence.

But I don’t share your underlying view that a Christian is, or ought to be, morally superior to other persons: that we are called to a higher ethical standard. Morality’s basic demands are universal. Christian faith has practical implications—what it makes sense to do in light of the Gospel—and these might, on occasion, involve morally supererogatory actions—maybe turning the other cheek is an example—but aren’t they generally either morally obligatory for everyone, Christian or not, or (when unique to Christian practice) morally indifferent?

Does Jesus admonish us not to resort to violent force even when doing so is necessary to save an innocent third party from grievous harm? I see no reason to think so. It’s one thing to turn your other cheek, quite another to stand by when someone is slapping a child around. If this is what Jesus’ commands, then he’s plainly telling us to do what’s morally wrong, not calling us to a higher moral standard. I have no a priori objection to the possibility of the Christian being called to do what’s morally wrong, but I do object to calling it morally right, let alone better. And I think the burden of proof falls to anyone who claims that morally wrong conduct actually accords with the Gospel.

Yoder: I would point out that I see no scriptural mandate for one earthly nation or kingdom, whether the Roman one of Christ’s time or the American empire currently trying to dominate the world, to “police” the entire globe or even a major region or continent. (Even though I grant that historically the “Pax Romana” may have been an improvement over what preceded it and succeeded it in the Roman world) It is up to whatever nation(s) rule in those parts of the world to police their own peoples, hopefully in a just way. I see no scriptural mandate for armed revolution, even against a tyrannical government. Thus I hope, had I been alive at the time of the American revolution, that I would not have joined or supported it. As a modern American, I am rather enamored of representative democracy, but I see no scriptural promise of that system of government. I find it both amusing and tragic that so many American “conservatives” fall into the trap of American civil religion, believing that somehow the U.S. as a “Christian” nation (the “new Israel”) is commissioned to work God’s will in the world. That’s why I find the support of the Christian right for the war in Iraq, among others, so scary and unbiblical. And in an attempt to be consistent, I also am unable to support the “revolutionary violence” of liberation theology on the extreme left.

Wacome: It’s morally required that we employ the minimum degree of violence necessary to interdict violent evildoers, and thus that whenever possible we should use means that are not potentially lethal. (Capital punishment for this reason is morally wrong, since we can only execute someone we have already rendered harmless.) But no government can exist without the at least implicit appeal to the threat of decisive force, and with current technology, that means force that is potentially lethal. This is obvious if for no other reason than that criminals are themselves sometimes equipped with the means to inflict death and will do so, unless they are stopped. Ultimately, if the government doesn’t have the means to kill and threaten to use it, those who do will become the de facto government. A morally decent civilization depends upon the willingness of good persons to use violence, because there are evil persons who will if they don’t.

If a gang of sociopaths takes over a house on Central Avenue, and begins to torture and murder the people in it, and the only way we can put a stop to the atrocities is by going in with guns blazing, that’s what morality requires. Were that house enlarged to the size of a country, removed to another continent, and proclaimed a nation state by its rulers, this would make no essential moral difference.

The idea of a “Christian nation” is, I agree, absurd. However, no conclusion about moral equivalence follows from this. Some schemes of social organization (e.g. capitalism, and when it’s properly constitutionally constrained, representative democracy) clearly are morally superior to others. Historically, all nation states, including the United States, are morally bad actors and deserve to be criticized as such. However, this does not imply that some states might not be so bad that it is morally permissible, or even obligatory, for other states militarily to intervene.

However, I find it hard to resist the conclusion that, even though the Scriptures endorse no particular form of government or social organization, some cohere better with the Christian faith than others. For some respect and care for the human individual better than others and are for that reason more consonant with what God cares about than others. Here it seems to me that to a first approximation what’s to be preferred morally is also to be preferred from the perspective of Christian faith. Whether any Christian might be called to act on that preference in a particular way is, of course, a further issue.

I admit to being appalled at the idea that, e.g. North Korea, must be allowed to do as it pleases with its citizenry and that we are obligated merely to hope for the best. Persons, not nations, have rights, and no nation’s rulers have the right to terrorize, torture and enslave human beings. If we could use a “bunker buster” to change regimes there, it might be morally obligatory to do so, though there might be compelling practical reasons not to do so. To regard the state as entitled to do evil to human individuals without decisive interference is to regard it as sacred; it’s the essence of idolatry to treat something other than a human being as of more ultimate importance than human beings. To me, this is at bottom the same idolatry we see in the Christian Right’s nonsense about “one nation under God.”

I take the Christian Right’s reasons for supporting the war in Iraq to be as ill-conceived as the Left’s—and the Christian Left’s—reasons for opposing it, and that the unsavory spectacle of the former does nothing to justify the latter.


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