I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.
Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.
The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists
I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.
This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x). Continue reading
My friend, Leonard Nolt, wrote a great response to the gun violence discussion on my wife Kathleen’s facebook wall the other day. I wanted to share his thoughts with a (slightly) larger audience.
These are several of his main points: Continue reading
Last month at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings (as I reported), I was challenged again to consider how to think about God in relation to violence. I heard a couple of pacifist Old Testament scholars (a very small population as far as I can tell) in separate settings state explicitly that they believe “God is not a pacifist.” This is a relatively common view in my broader circles among scholars who still often make the point that they themselves are pacifists (a widely cited expression of this view is A. James Reimer, “God is not a pacifist,” Canadian Mennonite [July 26, 1999]; also in A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 486-492).
This viewpoint strikes me as counter-intuitive. Like what I assume would be the case for all pacifists, I believe that violence is a bad thing and that responding to wrongdoing nonviolently is a good thing. I base this belief, in part (again like I would assume all Christian pacifists would), on Jesus’ command: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) I tend to think that pacifism is an aspiration for a high level of ethical rigor that finds its grounding in God’s will and character. So it is a little discordant to hear that “God is not a pacifist” but we should be. Obviously, the people who believe this are bright, sincere, committed to faithful living, and thus to be taken seriously. So I want to try to understand.
Why we would say “God is not a pacifist”
These are some of the ideas I heard expressed that seem to support the belief that God is not a pacifist: Continue reading
Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.
I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).
Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).
For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways. Continue reading
Probably the class I teach that I enjoy the most is Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice. I had an especially good group of students this semester, and I am sorry that our time together is coming to an end. We do a quick run through of the Bible, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelation. We focus on big themes that relate to peace and justice—some of the problematic texts such as the Joshua conquest as well as texts that more directly point toward pacifism and antipathy toward power politics.
The Bible is of course way to big and complex to be covered in just one undergraduate semester-long class. We have to skip a tremendous amount of important material and surely over-generalize as well as over-emphasize some parts in relation to others. But, still, I think many good things happen in this class and it provides students with an interpretive framework that at least in some cases sticks with them and helps them as they do more studying and thinking.
Even though I follow a similar outline each time I teach the class (I think this is the sixteenth time I have taught it—we always read John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, and Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers), I still find each opportunity to do this class a time myself to think new thoughts and make new connections. One huge factor, of course, is the different make up of students who always have questions and observations different than their predecessors. It is also the case, though, that no one can fully master this material. Each time I work through it, I see new things.
I want to write a little here about what I am especially noticing this year. This class is actually listed as a “theology” and not “biblical studies” class (I wish this were not the case) because, I suppose, my main areas of teaching are theology and ethics. Though I think this class should have a BIST rather than THEO prefix, I also recognize that I teach it more as a theologian than a biblical studies scholar. And I can’t help but think about the Bible in relation to what we could call “doctrinal theology” (as I elaborate in my book Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions). What I have realized this semester is that the reason I, as a theologian, care about the Bible so much and do so much of my constructive theology based on the Bible is because the Bible is, we could say, “this-worldly” in a way that later Christianity and Christian theology are not. Continue reading