Ted Grimsrud—September 29, 2014
From time to time, I like to return to the core motivation that led me to start this blog. This blog is a place to think and converse about pacifism. I always wish I could find more time and energy to write, because I am thinking about pacifism all the time. But when I look back, I see that I have managed to squeeze out quite a few words over the past nearly four years—and have probably repeated myself numerous times.
To keep my thinking current, I like to write posts when I can where I articulate convictions off the top of my head without going back to what I have written before. This is how I think about pacifism now. The other day, blogger extraordinaire Rachel Held Evans (who I greatly admire) wrote a short comment on Facebook that asked some hard questions about pacifism. These provide a good stimulus for me to take a moment to talk again about Christian pacifism. Is it a serious option for today in the “real world”?
This is what Rachel wrote: “Truth: So I’m a terrible pacifist. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not a true pacifist at all. When I hear people preach about nonviolence, and when I read the Sermon on the Mount and Shane Claiborne, I find myself nodding along – convicted and resolved that we can never overcome evil with evil (or killing with killing) but only overcome evil with good. I dream of a world where there is no more war, no more senseless bloodshed, no more child refugees, no more revenge. But then…life happens. And I have to admit I have a hard time saying that the British, when they were being bombed on a daily basis during WWII, had many other options. I have a hard time saying that the woman getting pummeled by her husband shouldn’t fight back in self-defense. And lately, I’ve been watching all this news about ISIS, and I gotta say, I’ve got mixed feelings about what the U.S. and other nations should do about it. It’s like, on the one hand, I believe non-violence is the posture Christians should cultivate and practice. But on the other, I have a hard time saying non-violence is the right response in every situation. Is this a lack of faith? A lack of understanding? Does anyone else struggle sometimes with ideals and practicality?”
I appreciate Rachel providing this concise statement that raises core issues and has stimulated me to produce a response. [September 30 update: Rachel has linked to this post and elicited a lively conversation in response to what I write here.]
Two complementary strands in Christian pacifism
I find it helpful to think of two types of reasoning in relation to Christian pacifism, two complementary strands that both need to be part of a rigorous account of Christian pacifism: “principled pacifism” and “pragmatic pacifism.”
(1) Principled pacifism—This strand is saying that “pacifism” is, essentially, short hand for Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus is asked about eternal life, elicits the response that it requires loving God and neighbor, and proceeds to illustrate this love by telling a story where the model for neighborliness was a person his listeners would have assumed was their enemy. Pacifism says that love is our most basic human calling—to love God, certainly, but with a love that encompasses love for each human being, friend and foe. That is, pacifism is saying that nothing is as important as love. No value, commitment, or responsibility trumps the call to love each person. One consequence of this belief is that it precludes killing other people—and, as follows, it precludes supporting other people killing human beings and it precludes preparing to kill people or supporting such preparation.
(2) Pragmatic pacifism—This strand is saying that “pacifism” is, essentially, the best way to go through life. It is saying that based on evidence, violence is a bad idea, especially the organized, devastating violence we call war. One way to think of pragmatic pacifism is that it involves the rigorous application of just war criteria with the assumption that when a war does not meet the criteria for being “just” it should be opposed. Then, we realize that when we apply these criteria to war after war, we discover that it is very difficult (impossible?) to find a war that passes muster. We conclude that based on the evidence, you will reach a certain point in examining the justness of particular wars (maybe it would be after ten wars or after one hundred), when you realize that since every actual war you look at is unjust according to a rigorous application of the just war criteria, you are warranted to conclude that there simply can’t be a just war. According to the assumption that one should oppose a just war, at the point you conclude that there can’t be a just war, you have a moral obligation to oppose all imaginable wars (i.e., become a pacifist).
To bring together these two strands, a rigorous Christian pacifist would use the presumption against war as an analytical tool to demand that any attempts to imagine that any particular war might be okay require very strong evidence—and expect that such evidence will not be forthcoming. And, also ask how do we carry out our obligation to love our enemies? These two questions actually reinforce each other. The thing is, it doesn’t take a blind pacifist ideology to see that all particular wars are morally and practically disastrous. I am putting the finishing touches on a book about the moral legacy of World War II from the perspective of the United States. What I do in this book is simply apply just war principles and stated governmental claims to a moral account of that war and its aftermath. There is no pacifist special pleading in the book. At the same time, it strikes me that it may well be that only a pacifist would think to write such a book.
What about when “real life” happens?
I would like to respond to Rachel’s challenging questions from both angles, the principled and the pragmatic.
As a Christian, I think the way to think about principled pacifism is to ask a simple question: How seriously do we take Jesus’s teaching—starting with his response to the lawyer’s question about how to inherit eternal life that is recounted in Luke 10:25-37? Now there are many ways we can lessen seriousness with which we take and apply his teaching here, some surely more defensible than others. But it seems like the text itself means to be taken quite seriously.
The question Jesus is asked by the “lawyer” (apparently a term used of those who were recognized in Israel as qualified teachers of the law), meaning that this is a question meant to be taken quite seriously. As it obviously should be. What could be more important than this query (“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”—that is, how might I live in harmony with God?)?
And Jesus does take the question seriously. Here, he turns it back on the questioner. In effect, he says, “I respect your sense of this given your qualifications, what do you say?” And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Jesus responds, indeed, this is exactly right. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40), underscoring just how important this answer to the most important of questions is.
In fact, I believe that we were to boil Jesus’s message down to one statement, this double command may be the best we could do (I have written a book, Theology As If Jesus Matters, that articulates a comprehensive set of Christian convictions centered on the love command). We are called to love God wholeheartedly, but we can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. What makes this story particularly challenging, and relevant to our understanding of pacifism, is that “neighbor” here is defined so broadly. The lawyer accepts Jesus’s affirmation of his answer to his own question about eternal life—but then he adds another question: Just who is my neighbor?
I believe there are two important aspects to this second question. The first is that the lawyer recognizes that love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked. He zeroes right in on the call to love neighbor as the heart of the command. The second is that the lawyer seems to want to limit the application of the call to love neighbor. To ask “who is my neighbor” likely implies that of course there are those who are not.
It is ironic how this story has been used in Christian history as a way to undermine the call to love everyone. Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who probably did more than any other to articulate a non-pacifist theology, argued that the call to love neighbor could actually be seen as a call to use violence when the neighbor is being attacked. He seemed to miss that the story in Luke 10 actually anticipates this attempt to limit the scope of his command. What is the lawyer doing except the same kind of move—surely love of neighbor doesn’t mean love on enemies does it?
Jesus’s story of the Samaritan precisely insists that indeed, love of neighbor does include love of enemy. He makes the point in a powerful way by having the hero, the one who displays what neighborliness means, be a member of the people group Jesus’s kind of Jews would see as enemies—the hated Samaritans. To drive this point home, Jesus forces the lawyer to state this reality explicitly: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy”—that is, the Samaritan (10:36-37).
To emphasize even more how important this call to love the neighbor is in the New Testament, we see it stated explicitly in two other settings that represent entirely different traditions—Paul at Romans 13:9 and John at 1 John 4:21.
This call to love neighbor (a call that includes loving enemies) is the heart of the principled pacifist conviction. And, in response to Rachel’s comment that pacifism is a nice idea until “life happens,” I would suggest that it is precisely when “life happens” that Jesus means for his command to be taken most seriously. The call to love matters most when we have the hardest time loving—we show mercy, forgiving 70 times 7 times, when there is a problem, when there is wrongdoing, when we must go beyond simply loving those who love us to exceed the actions of “tax collectors” and be like God and love our enemies (Matthew 5:46-47).
Contrary to the implication in Rachel’s comments, the call to this radical kind of love that equals pacifism is not a call to passivity. In fact it is an acceptance of the challenge to strive mightily for alternatives to her implied either/or of fighting or doing nothing and allowing evil to go unchecked. Walter Wink’s work, most comprehensively articulated in Engaging the Powers, provides profound guidance. He starts by insisting that our call is to resist evil, but that we must seek ways to resist evil that do not add to the evil (or, the way Nietzsche said it, to fight against monsters without becoming monsters ourselves).
The message of the gospel is at its heart the message of this call to resist evil without adding to evil. In a nutshell, that is the life Jesus lived and the life he called us to. It might well lead to our suffering. This is the meaning of the cross Jesus asks us to take up. The gospel, though, is that Jesus maintained his commitment to the path of love all the way. In doing so he exposes the false gods of nation, religion, and culture that rely on domination even as they claim to represent God. And it is precisely this commitment that God vindicates when God raises Jesus from the dead. (I develop the argument of this paragraph at great length in my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness [Cascade Books, 2013]).
Does pacifism “work”?
In Rachel’s brief comments, she gives three examples of how “real life happens,” with the idea that each of these argue against Christian pacifism. On one level, I believe that the convictions of the principled strand of Christian pacifism I have just described withstand the challenge of those examples. Those possibilities should not cause Christians to weaken their commitment to all-encompassing neighbor love based on the teaching and ministry of Jesus (including cross and vindication through resurrection). However, I also think her use of those examples might be challenged on pragmatic grounds as well.
The first example is the British going to war against the Germans after 1939 in face, she suggests, of Germany bombing Britain daily. The second is the example of an abused wife “fighting back.” And the third, likely the catalyst for her reflections, is the current effort of the U.S. military to retaliate against ISIS through a bombing campaign that will hopefully end the terrible violence of those “terrorists.”
First, the British war against Germany in the 1940s. Did they have “other options”? My forthcoming World War II book tries to address this question mainly by suggesting that the path the British (and, more to the point in the book, the Americans) took was a terrible moral disaster that has not served the cause of peace. In the conclusion (excerpted here) I speculate a little how things could have been different—that is, what other options there were.
I’ll just say here that one big “option” specifically for the British would have been to abandon their empire. The conflict between Britain and Germany actually was mostly initiated by the British through their treaty with Poland that required them to go to war if Germany tried to take Poland by force. This treaty did not originate in Britain’s commitment to humane, democratic values (ask Indians and Kenyans during the colonial era about those values), but in the fear that the on-going viability of the Empire required it. Germany did not attack Britain because the Nazis wanted to conquer Britain and make the British Empire part of the Third Reich. The Nazis hoped the British would be their allies in a fight against the Soviet Union, and only attacked Britain through the air (with no intention of trying a ground invasion) to buy time until they turned east for the Soviet war.
The second example, of the abused wife “fighting back” against her violent husband, is certainly emotionally evocative. However, the implied advice given her seems pretty problematic. To encourage someone in this situation to “fight back” with violence (which is what I understand Rachel to be hinting at) might be to encourage her greatly to increase the likelihood of even more severe injury by escalating the violence.
The best options seem more likely to be to find nonviolent alternatives—escape, developing skills at de-escalating conflict, learning better to detect danger signs that could prevent the violence from happening. Christian pacifism properly understood, I would argue, is precisely a call to learn how to resist evil (but through creative nonviolent tactics), not a call to do nothing in the face of violence as Rachel seems to imply.
The real issue
I could be misreading Rachel, but my sense is that this third example is what triggered her sharing her thoughts: What should we as Christians do about ISIS?
This is obviously a terrible situation. The horrors of the violence happening right now are almost overwhelming. It seems right to be morally aghast and to have a visceral reaction that, yes, something must be done. But the automatic move by American Christians that we think in terms of American military actions seems profoundly problematic.
Why would a Christian, even in understandable frustration at the seemingly unchecked atrocities occurring in Iraq and Syria, think that American military action could possibly be part of the solution? In my World War II book, I recount a litany of American military actions since 1945 that have virtually always been enormously destructive and taken the side of unjust tyrants, often against more humane and relatively just forces (just to mention a few of the most obvious: the overthrown of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile that ushered in generation-long vicious dictatorships; the massive and utterly illegal wars against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq that left millions dead; and the nuclear arms race that has continued apace even after our main rival quit).
It is difficult to see any reason for any one who cares for humane values to see the U.S. military as a possible agent for the furthering of those values. It’s almost as if American Christians think, well maybe in all these other examples the U.S. military took the side of injustice, but because it is our country it must be possible that this time will be different.
I’m a big fan of the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn. His early career took an overtly Christian bent. His religious convictions have become more ambiguous over the years, but he has continued to be a voice for justice and shalom in the world. Thirty-some years ago, he released a powerful song, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (here’s the official video he put out of the song). He expresses here some of what I imagine Rachel to be feeling when she wrote her comments. Anger at terrible injustice and a desire that there be retaliation.
The differences, though, are instructive. The operative word in the song is “if.” The fact is that Cockburn doesn’t have a rocket launcher—and likely never will. He is angry (in his case, based on first-hand observation of the violence the American empire was visiting on Central American refugees in the early 1980s wars), but he does not call for the violent intervention of a more powerful military force. Rather, as the video hints, he sees his “weapon” to be his guitar and his words.
Cockburn’s response seems much more Christian. Sure, feel the anger and cry out in protest. Maybe even seek nonviolent responses that could help things. But don’t let that anger make you vulnerable to manipulation by forces of empire to offer your support for an escalation of terror. Of all people, Christians should stand against such manipulation.
The call to love God wholeheartedly, especially when understood in the broader biblical context, includes a call to resist all other “gods” that make claims for our loyalty. For example, in our contemporary context, to “love God” should mean, among many other things, that we operate with a moral framework that applies a rigorous definition of terrorism that repudiates all expresses of terrorist tactics—and recognizes that U.S. bombing that inevitably is, to a significant degree, indiscriminate and aims to intimidate entire populations is one of the worst forms of terrorism.
The biblical message includes, from start to finish, a call to “question authority,” especially the authority claimed by empires and their top leaders. I don’t think one needs to be a pacifist to heed this call, but I do think it helps. When we allow for violence, we become much more vulnerable to the siren call of nationalism and manipulation by the profoundly powerful propaganda machine of empire.
The biblical call to “question authority” is the flip side of the call to love God wholeheartedly. Jesus makes it clear that that call to love extends to the call to love even enemies. Saying yes to that call is the best antidote to temptations to accept the necessity of imperial violence. As such, it seems like a marvelous resource for understanding and responding in life-enhancing ways when “life happens.”