Friday, September 24, 2010

Let's Make Pacifism Sexy Again

The just war position is the official position of mainstream Christianity since Constantine, yet it has never been stated by mainstream Christians in such a way that they can be made accountable for obeying it…There isn’t any standard statement of the just war theory that any non-pacifist can be held accountable for.
John Howard Yoder

In 1971 (with revised editions in '76 and '92), John Howard Yoder wrote a little pamphlet called Nevertheless, his analysis of 29 different forms of pacifism. That's right: twenty-nine. It most certainly is a fascinating study of many overlapping reasons for why individuals and communities are committed to abstaining from and criticizing all forms of war and violence. What, perhaps, is more illuminating is Yoder's short breakdown of non-pacifist thought. Here's his list:

A. The Just-War Tradition--the criteria developed by Christian theologians for Christian political leaders to make "godly" decisions

B. Toothless Just War Talk--the label that Christian political leaders use without really bothering to examine the criteria

C. Governmental Self-Interest--we must invade because we need their resources to continue our way of life

D. Holy War--we must invade because it is God's will for the world

E. Rambo--what a man does to preserve or prove his masculinity: kick ass (this goes for a lot of our Hollywood heroes and it is why the final scene in Gran Torino is so spectacular: he confronts the bad guys and dies for the community...just like Jesus).

For all the bad press that "pacifism" gets in the Christian world ("it's unrealistic"..."what would you do if someone was going to kill your wife?"..."what about Hitler?"), all the rationalizing and justifying of the current American wars and adventures by Christians does not even come close to matching the
care and critical thought put into this issue by Christian leaders over the past 2000 years.

For the first 3 centuries, basically every single follower of Jesus was a pacifist. Period. But then, along came Constantine, the Roman Emperor who embraced Christian faith and sought to unify Western Christianity for his own political gain. This led great theologians--like Augustine in the 5th century and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th--to creatively and stregically explain how Christians could have political power and still faithfully (allegiance to God) and effectively (allegiance to country) defend their land from the bad guys. This is what we now call the Just War Tradition (when and whether to resort to violence, as well as ethical guidelines for the proper conduct of war). As it has developed over the centuries, Christian theologians have come to agree on criteria, although defining these criteria always gets a bit tricky:

1. There must be just cause (to defend innocent parties)
2. There must be right intent (to bring about peace)
3. The war may be waged only by a legitimate authority as a move of last resort
4. There must be probability of success
5. The means of waging war must be proportional to the ends
6. The war must distinguish combatants form noncombatants

Of course, in order to make it to the Just War Tradition, a Christian must get by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48) first:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Duke Divinity School's Richard Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, lists a variety of these strategies, of which Hays discounts all of them. He writes, A careful exegetical consideration of the passage in its broader Matthean context, however, will demonstrate that none of these proposals renders a satisfactory account of Matthew's theological vision:

A. The Impossible Ideal--every religion has it's ideal but God never expected us to follow it perfectly...after all, God is realistic

B. The Interim Ethic--Jesus and the disciples thought the end of the world was imminent

C. A Self-Defense Manual--the Sermon as strategy for success and safety

D. A Convictor of Conscience--the Sermon was designed to make us feel guilty about not being able to live perfectly (a favorite of Luther in the 16th century)

E. Commands for a Specific Context--Jesus' disciples did not have any political Christians have the power and we cannot expect them to follow this same advice

Hays proclaims that the Sermon on the Mount is actually meant to be obeyed by Christians (yes, he advocates for a "literal" interpretation), in regards to decisions made by individuals, communities and nation-states. The Sermon does not vanish when it comes to "political" decisions made by Presidents and Prime Ministers. In other words, the church cannot simply throw up her hands and say, "Well, that's politics and these issues are not as important as our spiritual lives."

What biblical scholars like Hays and N.T. Wright and Ched Myers and Walter Brueggemann adamantly propose is a biblical reading strategy that confronts the Constantinian segregation of politics and religion. The subjugation of "faith" to the private realm ("Jesus in my heart" and "personal salvation") is a counterfeit rendering of what it means to follow Jesus. When Jesus rebuked Peter and called him "Satan," he called him to "take up the cross" which only meant one thing in 1st century Palestine: a bold confrontation with the political and economic powers who were legitimized by the Temple "religious" establishment. Peter, of course, refused to confront those outside of the Temple courtyard during Jesus' trial and throughout the centuries, confessing Christians (in terms of beliefs and doctrines and spiritual lives) have been denying the politics of Jesus ever since.

Myers, in his revolutionary Who Will Roll Away the Stone? (1992), cites the work of husband-wife scholars Nancey Murphy and Jim McClendon who confront the philosophical forces of the Enlightenment (from 1650 to yesterday) which shifted Christian theological concern away from problems of collective character (What is expected of us?) to problems of personal existence (Who am I?) and epistemological doubt (How can I know?). Myers passionately urges us radical disciples to get our groove back by reclaiming and reconstructing the Christian life back to what it was from the very beginning. When it comes to war and violence, pacifism has all the substance. Let's make it sexy again.

--Theological Autopilot

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