Jesus doesn’t care who the Caesar is: part two

The first post with a title such as this is here.

One of my students sent me a Facebook message last night; she wants to come in for a chat about politics and theology. Raised in a conservative Christian (Reformed) household — the sort where Five Point Calvinism is taken seriously — she shocked her parents three weeks ago by coming home with an Obama bumper sticker on her car. Her mother and father tried to convince her, she said, that the “only way a Christian could vote” was against Obama and for the Republican ticket. (To be fair, her parents agonized, she said, as to whether to vote for Alan Keyes, a marginal and comical far-right African-American figure, or to vote for McCain-Palin. They ended up voting for the latter.)

My student’s parents cited abortion and gay marriage as the two most important issues, trumping all others on the ballot. As far as they are concerned, authentic and thoughtful faith can lead to only one possible set of conclusions about God’s intent for sexuality, reproduction, and life itself. “A vote for Obama is a vote against Christ”, my student reports her father saying. She and her parents share the same house, but things have not been the same. Though her parents were relieved and pleased Proposition 8 passed (banning gay marriage), they have been depressed by the rest of the results state and nation-wide, indicating a fairly significant shift towards the political and cultural left. And some of that depression is manifesting in iciness towards their only daughter. She’s pretty unhappy, and in her message last night, asked “Is there anything you can give me that can help me convince my parents it’s possible to be a good Christian and a liberal?”

I don’t know about “convincing” anyone. I’ll give my student the usual bible verses (Micah 6:8, for starters), but with the caveat that getting into a “proof-text war” with one’s nearest and dearest is generally a recipe for disaster: lots of shouting and gesticulating with one hand while clutching one’s preferred translation in the other. This sort of unproductive and unpleasant exchange is familiar to many who have grown up in religious households. And of course, we can make the Scripture say what we want it to say. Lefties like me can find every phrase in the Good Book which emphasizes the central importance of justice, particularly economic justice, as most pleasing to God; righties, like my student’s parents, can find every phrase in that same text which centers sexual righteousnesss in the Christian moral universe. (Call it the “pelvis” versus “pocketbook” wars.)

In the modern world, we can also quote from our favorite websites and pastors. Right-leaning Christians can quote James Dobson, John Macarthur, and Richard Land (or, if they’re inclined to self-parody, Pat Robertson). Liberals can quote Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider. If we’re Catholic and conservative, we’ll quote Ronald George or Richard Neuhaus; if we’re Catholic and left-leaning, we’ll quote Rosemary Ruether or Frances Kissling. Mormons can quote the prophets and the assemblies (or their critics); Catholics can always find a bishop somewhere whose views match up nicely with their own. And Pentecostals? Heck, Pentecostals have the easiest time of all — they already give pride of place to the spirit and to prophecy, which allows for a delicious variety of interpretation of every theological and political issue.

What I will say to my student is this: as much as we pretend that it is the other way around, most of us look to our faith to shore up our preconceived notions about the world. Rather than letting our relationship with God (or even the teachings of the magisteria) shape our world view, we use our religious texts and authorities as buttresses to support our pre-existing notions about politics, sexuality, and the relationship between the individual and the state. This is a conservative habit and a liberal habit; neither side is necessarily more guilty than the other. At its worst, it leads to competing claims about Jesus, as each side claims the imprimatur of Christ Himself for their views on abortion, marriage, the war in Iraq or the proposed bailout of General Motors. Sometimes those claims are based on nothing more than a “gut feeling” that “the Jesus I know would feel this way”; sometimes those claims are based on a long and established history of church teaching. But in the end, the collected wisdom of the magisterium is no more reliable than one’s own intuiting of the Holy Spirit — both lack the authority to offer insight into God’s “real views” on public policy.

The Roman Catholic Church — at least, the teaching magisterium of the Church — has chosen in recent years to elevate abortion to a position of “primacy” among all political issues. Conservative bishops in particular have insisted (to poor effect in the latest election, thank goodness) that a candidate’s position on abortion trumped all other concerns. But Catholics voted for Obama (and Joe Biden, our first-ever Catholic vice-president) by a wider margin than the public at large, apparently choosing the sensible stance that abortion was one issue among many. It’s difficult to find Scriptural support for abortion as the “most important issue”, trumping opposition to war or unjust economic policies. The bishops may find what they regard as the murder of the unborn in the womb to be the only topic that matters, but their flocks — exercising the splendid Catholic notion that an informed conscience trumps even the teaching of a bishop — decided otherwise. The prayerful, the faithful, and the saved can disagree with integrity and with faith about which issues matter most, and which candidate represents the most “Christian” perspective.

And as my Mennonite friends remind me, Christians who vote need to remember that they’re electing the princes of this world. Jesus did not tell his followers to lobby Caesar against violent games; the prince of peace did not preach to Pilate about pacifism. Barack Obama is, in my estimation, a particularly fine choice for the decidedly secular office of president. But in the end, as exemplary a Caesar as he is, that is indeed what he is — a prince elected to run a powerful principality. Christians who become violently exercised about who should or shouldn’t hold that office forget that Christ offered neither support nor condemnation for the policies of Tiberius, the emperor who ruled while He walked the earth.

Of all the questions that will be asked of us when we come to the far side, I am reasonably confident that “Why did you vote for the secular leaders you did?” will not be one of them.

50 thoughts on “Jesus doesn’t care who the Caesar is: part two

  1. I bought an Obama bumper sticker, but I knew that I shouldn’t put it on my car unless I wanted a great deal of grief for it. I had a pin on my backpack, but took it off when I came home. I empathize with your student. In my experience, it has been best just to let my parents have their opinions. There is nothing that I can tell them that will make them think differently. One day, though, I will be out of the house, and be able to flaunt my views all I want.

    I suggest that your student read The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd. He does a great job at discussing the difference between the “power over” versus “power under” approach. As Christians, our job is not to dictate how people live through the law, but rather to serve and love others through Christ. It’s a great book and really helped solidify my positions when considering how to vote on Prop 4 and Prop 8.

  2. There’s an imprimatur of Christ for views on the GM bailout? Wow, guy sure had a lot to say, didn’t he?

  3. I would suggest Doug Muder’s “Red Family, Blue Family” to your student (and to you, if you haven’t read it). It’s available at this link.

    Also, note that one of the advantages of anti-abortion and anti-promiscuity as focuses is that it’s actually pretty clear, from Scripture, tradition, and informed reason, what is right and wrong. (However you weight the first 2, abortion after about 6 weeks, adultery, and male homosexual activity are unacceptable.) That is much less clear on economic issues–would bailing out GM be a godly thing to do or not? How would you decide?

  4. Sam, the very notion that Christians make decisions based on Scripture, tradition, and reason is itself a construct (dear Mr. Hooker’s three-legged stool). Not everyone in the body accepts that particular tool… Scripture is very clear about adultery to the point that no one argues otherwise. But thoughtful Christians do disagree as to what Scripture itself says or implies about abortion, pre-marital sex, and covenanted homosexual relationship.

  5. While I can certainly sign on to a condemnation of overconfidence and rigidness about what policies God supports, to say God doesn’t care what policies are chosen strikes me as an argument against Christianity. Why would I want to worship a being who’s indifferent to the massive suffering that can be inflicted by a bad president?

  6. But thoughtful Christians do disagree as to what Scripture itself says or implies about abortion, pre-marital sex, and covenanted homosexual relationship.

    I don’t entirely disagree. Let me put it this way.

    Christians who accept the authority of Scripture, unmodified by tradition, reason, and experience*, reject promiscuity. (Overwhelmingly, they reject abortion, but that is based more on reason than on direct statement.) Tradition points to some exceptions; reason points to a few more; but the things I mentioned are accepted exclusively on the basis of experience. (As far as I can tell.)

    *I was thinking of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, not Hooker; experience does NOT point in the same direction as the other three on sexual and sacredness-of-life issues.

  7. Sam, I too am very fond of the Wesleyan REST Quad — largely because it admits that vital fourth corner.

    Stentor, suspicion about the ability of any politician to solve human suffering is not the same as an indifference to suffering. God hears the cry of the poor, Christians are told over and over again; whether He then refers them to the government for care is another question altogether.

  8. To probably give to much credit to the cheap canard that all us trads and orthodox Christians care about is what goes on in a hotel room, I’d submit that we’d probably give much less thought to it if ya’ll(liberals) didn’t constantly try to send us the (metaphorical) hotel bill – which includes the clean-up.

  9. I’d like to challenge you a little bit on peacemaking, Hugo. Unlike later Christian tradition, the Gospels speak pretty clearly about peacemaking. They speak of it as an individual obligation (“blessed are the peacemakers”, “turn the other cheek”), but it seems to me that to argue that accepting the obligation to make peace individually sets real limits on our option to make war collectively. And I think that the scriptures say this clearly enough that we have to address the issue clearly on a collective as well as an individual basis.

  10. John Spragge,

    I disagree. Yes, there’s a general presumption that peace is a good thing, but Jesus did not forbid war, and those commandments are clearly meant to forbid individual vengeance, not legitimate violence on the part of the state. As St. Augustine points out, if Jesus condemned violence, then his herald John the Baptist, when the soldiers asked him how they should live, would have told them to lay down their arms. That he didn’t suggests that there can be times when war, revolution, and other forms of political violence are not just permitted, but demanded by justice and charity.

    Hugo,

    It’s possible to make an argument that covenanted homosexual relationships are licit in a Christian sense, although I’m still not convinced. I don’t see a good argument for abortion though. Of course there are sincere Christians who support abortion rights, but I believe that their arguments are logically unsound at best, and at worst rest on premises that, when examined deeply, turn out to be either ontologically or morally incompatible with Christian teaching. You’re welcome to try to convince me, though.

  11. Hector:

    those commandments are clearly meant to forbid individual vengeance, not legitimate violence on the part of the state./blockquote> Where you seem to see clarity, I see only a set of justifications based on uncertainties in the text. Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers”, and I see no corresponding blessing on those who make war, even in a just cause. During Jesus’s Earthly ministry, the only war in His part of the world involved Imperial oppression by Rome, and in response to that, Jesus clearly advocated and practiced non-violence, taking people (including Roman officers) as He found them, and never doing lethal violence, even rebuking the disciple who drew sword to rescue Him in Gethsemane.

    As for St. Augustine’s argument you quote regarding St. John the Baptist, I do not find it compelling, particularly since wars and revolutions involve the mass taking of human lives. The soldiers St. John spoke to almost certainly came from the forces maintained by Herod, and those troops never engaged in combat. Their actual function would probably have resembled that of armed police today, and in that context, St. John’s admonition against corruption makes sense.

  12. John Spragge,

    Jesus forbade St. Peter from defending him because it was necessary for human salvation that he be crucified. His remark to Peter about perishing by the sword was correct, of course, but it doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility for defending the oppressed, by bloodshed if necessary.

    I do find St. Augustine’s argument compelling, and I find the arguments of Christian pacifists through the ages (of which there have been many) fairly uncompelling. Christianity is a big enough faith to include a space for the monk, but also for the soldier. Indeed, the medieval concepts of chivalry and knighthood were essentially Christian in their origin.

    Jesus also did not command the centurion in Luke 7 to lay down his arms, in fact he explicitly said that he had never seen such faith in Israel. St. Paul is explicitly clear in Romans 13 that while private vengeance is forbidden, the state does have the right to use force. In John 18, Jesus concedes that Pilate’s powers to crucify and release have been granted to him from above, which suggests that God bestows the right to use force on the state and its agents. In Luke 14, Jesus says “Compel them to come in”, which implies that compulsion by force can sometimes be a legitimate power of the state. In Luke 19, Jesus implies that it is legitimate to use force against traitors and enemies of the public weal. The Apocalypse of St. John implies that warfare and revolution will be tools used by God to cleanse the world of evil, and if those methods can be justified at the end of the world, then they can also be justified today. Moreover, if war was never justified then don’t you think that God would have mentioned something about this in the Old Testament? On the contrary, He explicitly sanctions uprisings such as those of the Maccabees, calls a conqueror like Cyrus of Persia his “Anointed”, and blesses the actions of war-heroes like Samson.

    It seems that you would have me dismiss centuries of teaching by the Church Fathers and medieval and early modern theologians about just wars and just revolutions, and dismiss an intensely reasoned and intricate body of moral reason as so much nonsense. Unfortunately, I cannot do that. Many of those men were wiser than me, and knew God more intimately than me, and I defer to their judgment in this matter.

  13. …it doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility for defending the oppressed, by bloodshed if necessary.

    Virtually all proponents of Christian non-violence would accept your statement with the caveat “if necessary”. Ghandi famously said that if no alternative to the use of violence existed for overcoming injustice, then a moral necessity to use violence would exist. But in practice, alternatives to violence, based on the sacrificial love of Jesus, work better than violence.

    Jesus also did not command the centurion in Luke 7 to lay down his arms, in fact he explicitly said that he had never seen such faith in Israel.

    I don’t find what Jesus doesn’t say a compelling argument against the things He does say. Jesus praises the Centurion’s faith, not his profession. And for me, that doesn’t come close to contradicting His explicit blessing on those who make peace, His explicit disavowal of violence in Gethsemene and His call for self-giving love over vengeance.

    St. Paul is explicitly clear in Romans 13 that while private vengeance is forbidden, the state does have the right to use force.

    Paul endorses the use of force to uphold the law, not necessarily to make war. While I find that passage troubling on other fronts, I don’t in any case see it as an endorsement of war.

    In John 18, Jesus concedes that Pilate’s powers to crucify and release have been granted to him from above, which suggests that God bestows the right to use force on the state and its agents.

    I see it as an affirmation that Pilate has a role to play in Christ’s necessary passion, the central act in which the Creator makes the labour of closing the circle of creation visible to us. In any case, it amounts to an endorsement of the role of courts and judges, not of war.

    In Luke 14, Jesus says “Compel them to come in”, which implies that compulsion by force can sometimes be a legitimate power of the state. In Luke 19, Jesus implies that it is legitimate to use force against traitors and enemies of the public weal.

    You’ve fallen into all or nothing thinking here; we either endorse the current system of international lawlessness, in which nations may make war on each other with very little to restrain them, or alternatively we reject any use of force whatsoever. Virtually all advocates of Christian non-violence accept some middle ground. In any case, I note that in Luke 19, Jesus weeps for Jerusalem because they reject the Peace He has brought.

    Moreover, if war was never justified then don’t you think that God would have mentioned something about this in the Old Testament?

    Again, I don’t regard this omission as an answer to Jesus’s words in the Greek scriptures. But virtually all the prophets preach a vision of peace, and in 1 Samuel, the Lord warns the people against the militarized state they have chosen.

    It seems that you would have me dismiss centuries of teaching by the Church Fathers and medieval and early modern theologians about just wars and just revolutions, and dismiss an intensely reasoned and intricate body of moral reason as so much nonsense.

    The Bible, and Christian theology, has made allowance for social traditions that the moral thrust of the scriptures recognize as ultimately undesirable. Slavery comes to mind here. I believe that we cannot have both a workable technological society and war; since billions of people would perish without the advanced technology that makes it possible for our society to support them, we have to dispense with war. To the extent that their work has restrained and channeled the human impulse towards violence, the scholars of just war have made a contribution. However, I believe we now face the need to take the next step towards Jesus’s vision of violence overcome not by more violence but by self-giving love, and end war as an institution.

  14. Re: Virtually all proponents of Christian non-violence would accept your statement with the caveat “if necessary”.

    Ah. Well, if you’re going to concede that, I think you’ve already lost the argument. You can make a purely theological argument that violence is never legitimate, even if it were the _only_ way to save the world from tyranny and injustice, and that it would be better to see the world destroyed than to commit any act of violence. I disagree with that viewpoint, but it’s a legitimate viewpoint that has been defended by some brilliant and devout people- Tolstoy among them, also the earliest Church Fathers. But once you grant that the use of force can be justified “if necessary”, you’ve already given away the store.

    Because history shows that it is, very often, necessary. It was necessary at Tours in 732. It was necessary at Constantinople in 1453. It was necessary in England in the 1640s. It was necessary in the United States in the 1860s. It was necessary in the twentieth century against Germany and Japan, and it was necessary in various wars of liberation in places like Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua. While I don’t really support the Iraq war, I do think that the only way to suppress jihadism in Pakistan and Afghanistan is through military force.

    Gandhi’s own cause succeeded largely because the British Empire had been bled white by fighting against the Japanese and the Nazis, and was in no position to use force in India. Had the British Empire been run by harder and sterner men, his cause would also have failed. In this way he was an indirect beneficiary of the greatest bloodshed in human history. Mandela’s cause in South Africa succeeded only because the South Africans and their allies had been beaten (by both guerrilla and battlefield warfare) in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and realized that history was against them. Indeed, it’s very hard to find cases in history where a protest movement won power ENTIRELY nonviolently, with neither the reality nor the _threat_ of force.

  15. Because history shows that it is, very often, necessary. It was necessary at Tours in 732. It was necessary at Constantinople in 1453. It was necessary in England in the 1640s. It was necessary in the United States in the 1860s. It was necessary in the twentieth century against Germany and Japan, and it was necessary in various wars of liberation in places like Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua. While I don’t really support the Iraq war, I do think that the only way to suppress jihadism in Pakistan and Afghanistan is through military force.

    I disagree. That a thing happened does not make it necessary. I apply inductive reasoning to claims of historical inevitability. Humans have the ability to choose; the choices include non-violence; therefore, if non-violence worked in one situation, it will work in all analogous situations. For example, Britain abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1838. They did not require a war or armed conflict of any sort. Therefore, since we can show the possibility of abolition without war, it follows that the Americans of the late 1850s-19860s chose, at some level, to have a civil war. In the same way, we know countries can liberate themselves without undue violence; see Canada, Australia, India, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and so on. Therefore, anti-colonial wars, from the American Revolution to Vietnam and Nicaragua, arise not from inevitability but from choices.

    I believe, based on the Gospel, that Christians have a responsibility to help our societies make the choices that will lead to peace and justice. So I do not see war and injustice as inevitable; rather, I ask how I can ensure they do not happen.

  16. So I do not see war and injustice as inevitable; rather, I ask how I can ensure they do not happen.

    Oh, that’s easy.

    The next time the question is asked, “Is life so dear, and peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of slavery and chains?” all you have to do is simply answer, “Yes.”

    Please only speak for you and yours, though, and I promise I will stand by and not shed a drop of blood in their defense … well, unless the situation is one where the old saying that starts “They came for the trade unionists…” applies.

  17. Please read it again, Gonzman. I wrote war and injustice. Maybe somewhere (outside the realm of stereotype) you can find an activist in Christian non-violence who will accept peace at the price of slavery, but most of us choose death over slavery or dishonor. We’ll die for justice; we believe that we can obtain justice without killing. We believe that because the Bible tells us so; we believe it because of the example of Wilberforce and Ghandi and Martin Luther King; we believe it because we notice that wars have not brought justice.

  18. John Spragge,

    The British ended slavery without a civil war, true, but they certainly did use force when they attempted to end slavery in Africa. Gandhi succeeded in his goal largely because the Second World War had left Britain impoverished, exhausted, and in no position to put down a rebellion. Wars certainly brought justice to black people in the American South, to the Jews in Europe (those who survived- it’s a pity that the US and Russia waited so long to attack Germany), and to the many colonized and oppressed peoples that I mentioned above. The pacifist case is simply unsupportable by history IF you are at all concerned about results.

    Gonzman,

    Actually, under the doctrine of just war we are called to defend ALL innocent human lives, even those of pacifists who would not shed blood in our defence. Just because John Spragge disagrees with you and me about the legitimacy of war, does not mean that we should not defend him and his allies if they were attacked.

  19. John Spragge:

    I assume you are doing everything you can to disarm the local police force.

    Stephen

  20. Hector:

    We’ve gotten away from the roots of Christian non-violence to some extent here. We can argue about whether the US Civil War actually did bring justice to African Americans. Considering that President Lincoln said he did not fight the war to free the slaves, and that decades of terror followed the war, and that Britain managed the same essential reforms with far, far less violence, I would say that a very strong case exists that the war itself did not bring justice to anyone. Likewise, we can argue about the exact role Ghandi’s non-violence played in the liberation of India, or Martin Luther King’s non-violence played in the struggle for liberation. I can point out that although the Second World War ended by liberating the victims of Nazi Germany, they only got to liberate about half the Jewish population of Europe, and the Germans planned and carried out almost all of the actual murders under wartime conditions. I can also observe that the only country in Europe that actually managed to save their Jewish population, Denmark, accomplished this because circumstances made it possible for them to resist non-violently.

    But I do not propose to judge history. I honour and remember all those, including members of my own family, we risked or gave their lives for God King and Country in two wars, believing, at least in the beginning, that their sacrifices advanced a just and righteous cause. I work for peace now, not because I reject what my ancestors did, but because I believe that neither we nor our planet can support continued war, and that we have to find another way.

    But for a Christian, the central point concerns the Gospels, not arguments over interpretations of contemporary history or projections of the effects of advancing technology on war-making and peacemaking. And while I believe that non-violence has an impressive and growing record of making effective and life-giving change, I still see the message of the Bible as clear and central: take no vengeance, do no violence. Make peace, you blessed ones, for by making peace you make yourself the Children of the Creator. The vision of the accomplished relationship with the Creator, of the Kingdom to come always contains a vision of peace, from Isaiah on. Even those who make war concede it as a necessary evil: General Sherman said “war is hell”, not heaven. I believe God commands us to look for something better than hell.

    For that reason, I and most non-violent activists do not ask for anyone to commit violence on our behalf.

    Stephen:

    Christians committed to non-violence have varying attitudes about the role of an armed police force. Certainly, many of us would prefer to reconcile with a person who commits a criminal offence against us, rather than involve police and courts which implement their decisions by force. But I reject the all or nothing thinking that your suggestion implies. A person may consistently use force to implement judgments of a court which follows laws that everyone has a voice in making, and at the same time work to stop war.

  21. But I reject the all or nothing thinking that your suggestion implies.

    But your all or nothing statement is okay?

    Your logic is circular.

  22. John Spragge:

    So, you are committed to non-violence, without qualification or reservation, when it might protect or liberate others but not when it might protect or liberate you.

    Stephen

  23. Re: We’ve gotten away from the roots of Christian non-violence to some extent here.

    Er, you’re the one who brought up history and prudential judgment. I mentioned that you would have been on stronger ground had you stuck to purely theological arguments. I still think you’re wrong on the theology, of course, but as with many theological questions I can’t prove it.

    Yes, you can make a pacifist case based on the Gospels. I think that such a case consists of taking isolated passages out of context, and making them into a self-standing ideology of its own. As I mentioned above, there are many passages from Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John of Patmos which indicate that soldiers, revolutionaries, and armed agents of the state who use force to address injustice and evil can be agents of God. It is very hard to read St. John’s account of the war in heaven, and still hold to a pacifist case. If the Archangel Michael was called to take up the sword, then there are circumstances where we are as well. Jesus said “Compel them to come in”, and He blessed centurions and soldiers alike.

    The Old Testament is full of accounts of warrior heroes who were accounted among the righteous, from Samson to Judas Maccabeus. I would agree with you that the New Testament supersedes the old, and that the Old Testament is not of equal authority. Nevertheless, it must be granted SOME authority, unless you want to go the whole Marcionite route.

    Your argument basically comes down to the idea that if we all behaved as Christ would have us behave, then there would be no need for war. Well, yes- I agree with you. But that isn’t much good in a fallen world in which oppression and injustice are inevitable. It’s fine to tell slaveholders to release their slaves, but what happens when they don’t (and in the fallen world, not all of them will.) The real question is, when faced with serious injustice and oppression, is it always forbidden to resort to the use of force and to shed blood? I say that when read holistically and in context, the message of the New Testament is, “No.”

  24. Re: We’ve gotten away from the roots of Christian non-violence to some extent here.

    Er, you’re the one who brought up history and prudential judgment. I mentioned that you would have been on stronger ground had you stuck to purely theological arguments. I still think you’re wrong on the theology, of course, but as with many theological questions I can’t prove it.

    Yes, you can make a pacifist case based on the Gospels. I think that such a case consists of taking isolated passages out of context, and making them into a self-standing ideology of its own. As I mentioned above, there are many passages from Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John of Patmos which indicate that soldiers, revolutionaries, and armed agents of the state who use force to address injustice and evil can be agents of God. It is very hard to read St. John’s account of the war in heaven, and still hold to a pacifist case. If the Archangel Michael was called to take up the sword, then there are circumstances where we are as well. Jesus said “Compel them to come in”, and He blessed centurions and soldiers alike.

    The Old Testament is full of accounts of warrior heroes who were accounted among the righteous, from Samson to Judas Maccabeus. I would agree with you that the New Testament supersedes the old, and that the Old Testament is not of equal authority. Nevertheless, it must be granted SOME authority, unless you want to go the whole Marcionite route.

    Your argument basically comes down to the idea that if we all behaved as Christ would have us behave, then there would be no need for war. Well, yes- I agree with you. But that isn’t much good in a fallen world in which oppression and injustice are inevitable. It’s fine to tell slaveholders to release their slaves, but what happens when they don’t (and in the fallen world, not all of them will.) The real question is, when faced with serious injustice and oppression, is it always forbidden to resort to the use of force and to shed blood? I say that when read holistically and in context, the message of the New Testament is, “No.”

  25. John Spragge,

    By the way, if you’ve pegged me as an unthinking knee-jerk “Hawk”, you may want to rethink that. I think that the Vietnam War was monumentally evil, as were most of our military interventions in Central America. I do support the war in Afghanistan, but I have mixed feelings about Iraq- we were deeply wrong to go in, but leaving now would cause the deaths of many innocent people at the hands of Islamic jihadism, including many Iraqi Christians among others.

  26. For that reason, I and most non-violent activists do not ask for anyone to commit violence on our behalf.

    You do, tacitly, by living in a society where armed police commit violence against criminals on your behalf.

    If someone breaks into your house and is going to hurt you or your family, do you call the cops, or do you just attempt to reason with them yourself? If you’re willing to call the cops, you’re asking for someone to commit violence on your behalf.

  27. Hector:

    Most of the people who have committed ourselves to Christian non-violence respect those who feel they cannot avoid violence in a specific situation. I believe, and I think I have a substantial basis from the Bible for believing, that the Creator calls for us to reach and work and struggle toward peace.

    Reaching and working and struggling toward peace in this year of grace 2008 means (to me) a great many things things. First, acknowledge peace as a specific, mandated, Christian moral goal. Too often, many people, including Christians, tacitly accept the premise that of course children (in years or maturity) dream of a world without war, but us grown-ups who see the real world without rose-coloured glasses, understand the impossibility of peace. Such a sneer, as Jonathan Kozol pointed out, contains a great deal of self-contempt, a wholly inappropriate acceptance of limits. We can make peace, and the Creator commands us to make peace. Second, acknowledge that achieving justice does not necessarily entail violence. One of the most effective pro-justice moves the United States could make, for example, would involve mandating, and if necessary subsidizing, the recycling of all cell phones and laptop computers. That doesn’t sound important, but recycling mobile devices would mean recovering a strategic mineral called coltan, and the demand for coltan has helped drive the civil war in the Congo, at a cost of at least a million deaths.

    Just to make a few specific scriptural comments: I do not believe that any context modifies the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus applied one of the basic tenets of radical non-violence and took (and loved) people, including soldiers, as He found them. I do not believe that indicates an approval of violence. Nor do I see St. John the Divine’s account of the struggle in heaven as an endorsement of Earthly warfare, although I do see it as a reminder of the necessity of struggling against radical evil.

    Robert:

    I certainly know people who would welcome anyone who came into their house as a guest, invite them to take anything they wanted, and certainly not use violence against them. But again, I insist on the difference between using force to uphold a law that everyone had had the opportunity to agree with, and the unbridled violence of war.

    Gonzman:

    The application of inductive logic does not constitute all or nothing thinking. Induction says that if you can prove something true for A[i], and prove that its truth for A[i] implies its truth for A[i+1], then you have proved it true for all the set of A. That does not constitute all or nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking, in the context of war, took the form of a deliberately manipulative alternative: unless you accepted total pacifism, where the government defined pacifism as a willingness to do nothing as a German raped your sister, then you obviously had a duty to go fight the German on the Somme. A contemporary analogy in the US might go like this: do you agree that the government should give out free tactical nuclear weapons to drug cartels? Well, if not, then you obviously do not agree with the idea of individuals having weapons. Therefore, you must agree that the government has the ability to confiscate guns from everyone who doesn’t need them (meaning all civilians).

  28. John Spragge,

    Thanks for an enlightening conversation, by the way. You obviously are a sincere, thoughtful and knowledgeable Christian so I appreciate this debate. That said, I still think you’re wrong.

    Jesus didn’t simply ‘take people as he found them’, he also told them what they needed to do to become worthy of God. He was not shy about telling people what they were doing wrong (even if, most of the time, they already knew it.) He told the woman taken in adultery, after he forgave her, “Go and sin no more.” He told the rich young man to give up all his goods. He spoke with authority when he wanted to condemn sin. So did St. John the Baptist. St. John went to his death because he wouldn’t shut up about Herod’s incestuous marriage. Neither Christ nor the Baptist were shy about condemning sin, and they would have condemned the soldiers if they felt that war was always a sin.

    As for the account of the war in heaven, it stands as a rebuke to a pacifist account of history. If war was necessary to oppose angelic evil, then I don’t see why it may not also be necessary to oppose human evil. Likewise with the Old Testament. If Samson, David, Cyrus and Judas Maccabeus were called by the Lord to take up arms, then I fail to see why war suddenly became categorically forbidden starting in 1 AD.

    I do agree that it would be good to try to create circumstances where war is less likely. I would support efforts to recycle cell phones and things like that. But we are told that the peace of God passeth all understanding, which means that until the end of the world, we will never know perfect peace. The forces of injustice, oppression and evil- “radical evil” as you say- will be around in some form or another until the second coming, and as long as that is so it will sometimes be necessary to take up arms to oppose them.

  29. Hector:

    Your argument about what Jesus doesn’t say has a single obvious problem: it would apply equally to slavery. Jesus doesn’t ask masters to free their slaves; the rest of the Bible contains passages that accept and regulate slavery, and yet when we reject slavery today, we understand our rejection of it in the context of the Gospel imperatives.

    I would argue that the same holds for war, but even more so, because Jesus said explicitly “blessed are the peacemakers”. Not only that, but the whole moral thrust of the Bible, from start to finish, reject bloodshed and war. In Samuel, the Lord explicitly warns the people against the perils of the kingly state before accepting their request for a king. The prophets, no less than Jesus, spoke of the Creator’s Kingdom as a Kingdom of peace. The images in Revelation, images of things we cannot in principle even hope to understand, do not change that.

  30. As I mentioned above, there are many passages from Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John of Patmos which indicate that soldiers, revolutionaries, and armed agents of the state who use force to address injustice and evil can be agents of God.

    Sorry to interject, I just want to comment on this line. It’s obviously true, but there’s a difference between “agents of God” and “Christian”. There are other passages in which God is perfectly content to use disasters, famines, and plagues as his agents–surely Christians are not supposed to emulate those. Romans 13 isn’t asking Christians to emulate secular powers, but to submit to them, seemingly without condition. St. Paul is telling pacifist Christians how to live under a non-pacifist, non-Christian ruler.

    The key wrinkle in any argument that Jesus forbids only individual retribution while permitting defense of a state is what happens when the state is either Christian or democratic. Once a Christian takes responsibility for the actions of Caesar (either by becoming Caesar or voting for him), then the peacemaker-ish quotes apply to Caesar as well.

  31. Consumatopia,

    Angels are morally perfect by definition. If Michael pursued war against the rebel angels then it follows that war is not intrinsically evil and it must be legitimate in some circumstances for us as well.

    A Christian state is, first and foremost, a state, and therefolre has not only the right but the duty to take up the sword in the defence of justice and charity. The reason that neither Jesus nor Paul explicilty counseled us to take up the sword is that at that time, the existing Roman state was non-Christian and opposed to the Christians. That was changed when Christianity became the state religion of first Armenia and then Rome.

    Pacifism is a persistent misinterpretation of the Christian message, but it just that, a misinterpretation (and a grave one). When God revealed Himself to Constantine, or to St. Joan of Arc, or to so many other military leaders throughout history, He did not counsel them to lay down their arms. I believe that in this matter, the medievals were wiser than you or me, and therefore I choose to listen to the way that the historic churches have interpreted Christian doctrine on the use of force.

    There are some forms of violence that are intrinsically evil. Genocide, abortion, infanticide, weapons of mass destruction, knowing execution of innocent people fall into this category. Just war, just revolution, and the execution of guilty criminals do not.

  32. Hector, you accept God’s appearance to Constantine as on par with the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles? Constantinianism is a far greater heresy than Pacifism, as John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” makes clear…

  33. Hugo,

    Forget Constantine if you want. The private revelations to Joan of Arc were recognized as valid by the Catholic Church when they canonized her. Though I’m an Anglican I have no reason to doubt that when they canonized her they made the right decision. And the revelations to St. Joan explicitly sanctioned war.

    St. Augustine explicitly said, in his anti-Donatist writings, explicitly said that the pacifist sayings were meant for a world in which there was no Christian state, and that war became legitimate when Christianity became the religion of the empire.

  34. For those of us who aren’t Catholics, Hector, Augustine (or Joan) cannot trump Paul or Jesus — Matthew 5 describes how Christians are to treat others, irrespective of whether they do so as private parties or agents of governments. Augustine, Aquinas, and Niebuhr have all done their best to construct tortured (deliberately chosen word) explanations as to how a war can be “just”, but they run into a some significant textual problems.

    The Mennonites get it right on this one.

  35. If Michael pursued war against the rebel angels then it follows that war is not intrinsically evil and it must be legitimate in some circumstances for us as well.

    This seems like the serpent’s logic in the garden. What’s okay for gods and angels is not necessarily okay for all.

    It is not that violence itself is intrinsically evil. It’s part of nature, it’s part of the plan. But violence and war are reserved for those who are either completely ignorant of the existence of God’s plan or those who know God’s plan in full. For the heathens or for the angels. Not for those following Jesus’s teachings.

    A Christian state is, first and foremost, a state, and therefolre has not only the right but the duty to take up the sword in the defence of justice and charity.

    If this is the case, states should be left for those not following Jesus’s teachings on violence.

    Just war, just revolution, and the execution of guilty criminals do not.

    Since you brought up Romans 13, how do you square that with “just revolution”? The Powers that Be are ordained by God.

  36. Consumatopia,

    St. Thomas Aquinas put this well. Romans 13 refers to states that are reasonably just and do not indulge in oppression. A regime that violates natural law, like the Nazis or the Confederates, is unjust and can be overthrown. Also, St. Paul was a man of his time, and condiioned by his context and the (mistaken) assumption that the end of the world was just around the corner. What he said may not be appropriate when we know that the end of the world is NOT around the corner.

    As for just revolution, I invoke the example of the Maccabees. The Church is not a suicide pact.

    This debate has devolved into me making flat assertions and you making flat counter-assertions. Perhaps we’ve reached an impasse. I would just point out that in this debate you guys are making the (rightly) much maligned ‘Sola Scriptura’ argument, and I’m invoking the other four legs of Wesley’s formula.

  37. I want to point out that the reason I apologized earlier for interjecting is that my position may or may not be the same as that of Hugo or John Spragee–I’m not asserting that violence is always evil, just that it’s not part of the special, unique, radical path revealed by Jesus. Invoking examples of pre-Christians does not good.

    The scriptures, especially the Old Testament, are full of instances in which seemingly evil, unjust, oppresive acts by nonbelievers are actually the tools of God’s plan.

    What’s appropriate when we know the end of the world is not around the corner is irrelevant: “of that day and hour knoweth no man…”

    There’s a common thread that runs through many of Jesus’s teachings–that we should surrender judgment and just rely upon faith and love–exactly what we failed to do in the Garden. Judge not, take no thought for the morrow, turn the other cheek, etc.

    By making scriptural passages on violence and submission contingent on “natural law”, we would be cutting this common thread, and remaking the first mistake.

    What experience and reason have shown us, repeatedly, is how little we know–how frighteningly unable we are to predict the results of our actions, how inadequate our wisdom when it comes to judging those results. The world is overflowing with people who think they know what is Good and what is Evil, and are willing to use violence to make their judgments reality. What I sometimes ask myself, though I still haven’t decided upon an answer, is, does it need one more?

  38. Oh, I’m happy to invoke reason and experience too, as well as the tradition of the pre-Constaninian church! The old saw that “violence is necessary” is so often a self-fulfilling prophecy — as the whole concept of peacemaking makes clear, pacifism isn’t passive acquiescence to injustice. It’s the active use of non-lethal means to achieve peace.

    One of the ways in which Jesus is most radical, the Anabaptist tradition points out, is in his recognition that in God’s economy — and ours, as we are called to live it — means and ends must be radically congruent. You can only achieve result X by living according to principle X. Which means peace can only be attained through peaceful means.

  39. Hugo,

    Yes, but I’m not an Anabaptist, and in fact the foundational document of the Anglican communion (the 39 Articles) explicitly anathematizes the Anabaptists. (In my opinion the 39 Articles were much too critical of Catholicism, and not critical enough of the Anabaptists and other hardline Protestants, but set that apart). Your reason and experience tells you different things than mine. Mine tells me that pacifism has rarely, if ever, worked, and that the use of force by armies, states, and partisans is usually necessary to achieve justice. The much-cited example of Gandhi doesn’t count, as he would never have been successful if it wasn’t for the context of World War II which broke the back of England.

    Consumatopia,

    By “doesn’t need one more” you mean yourself? Have at it. I don’t want anyone who believes (mistakenly, IMO) in pacifism to have to violate their principles. I would fight to the death to secure the right to conscientious objection for you and people who share your beliefs. The world needs its monks, just as it needs its knights. By the same token, howver, I would prefer not to see people with your views in charge of governments and political movements, and it’s unlikely I would vote for you for office.

  40. I think Gandhi’s importance is less in scaring the British out (I agree, it was more fatigue than fear), then in uniting Indians against the British and making it impossible for Brits to play one faction against another. (The factions still hate each other, but they’d wait until the Raj was ending to start the killing.) If the world needs both monks and knights, well, the British could have stayed in India getting rich playing knights against each other until the end of time.

    What I find looking through the lists of wars that in nearly all of them at least one side would have been better off yielding to the other rather than fighting, and in more than half of them either side would have been better off if they had simply yielded to the other.

    On the abstract question of whether violence is _ever_ a good idea, the world is sufficiently mysterious to me that I’m open to either answer. But on the other, if you had opposed every war ever, if you had called for nonviolence in each every instance, I think you’d end up being vindicated in retrospect 90% of the time–most wars tend to be mistakes. At worst, opposing all war is like forecasting a bright sunny day in Phoenix without bothering to check your barometer–at least you’ll usually be right.

    And I think world would benefit from having a greater number of people who forswore all violence–as they can sometimes succeed in negotiations and appeals to public morality where someone who keeps violence as a last resort will fail.

    I don’t know whether Jesus, like Gandhi, believed that violence was always immoral for all people. But it does seem that Jesus was telling people to be monks rather than knights. Maybe this is only because He knew we be seduced by the temptations of earthly power and He wanted to push back against that tendency.

  41. Sorry, that post was not only a day late, but un-proofread. Let me try again:

    I think Gandhi’s importance was less in scaring the British out (I agree, it was more fatigue than fear), then in uniting Indians against the British and making it impossible for Brits to play one faction against another. (The factions still hate each other, but they’d wait until the Raj was ending to start the killing.) If the world needs both monks and knights, well, the British could have stayed in India getting rich playing knights against each other until the end of time.

    Looking through the lists of wars, I find that in nearly all of them at least one side would have been better off yielding rather than fighting, and in more than half of them either side would have been better off yielding. Simply put, most wars are mutual mistakes.

    On the abstract question of whether violence is ever a good idea, the world is so mysterious to me that I’m open to either answer. However, if you had opposed every war ever, if you had called for nonviolence in every instance, I think you’d end up being vindicated 90% of the time–-most wars tend to be regretted. At worst, opposing all war is like forecasting a bright sunny day in Phoenix without bothering to check your barometer: you’ll usually be right.

    And I think world would benefit from having a greater number of people who forswore all violence–as they can sometimes succeed in negotiations and appeals to public morality where someone who keeps violence as a last resort will fail.

    I don’t know whether Jesus, like Gandhi, believed that violence was always immoral for all people. But it does seem that Jesus was telling people to be monks rather than knights. Maybe this is only because He knew we would be seduced by the temptations of earthly power and He wanted to push back against that tendency.

  42. Hector, I have three comments:

    1) On Ghandi
    Your comment illustrates a habit that has replaced the cruder forms of reality control (Orwellian doublethink), particularly among conservatives. I speak, of course, of the assumed counterfactual. Would Ghandian non-violence have worked if the British had not exhausted themselves? I regard the question as irrelevant on all points. We can assume the British would have exhausted themselves because all imperial states break down. One way or another, India would have achieved independence. Ghandi’s great achievement lay in convincing the Indians to forgive the British for two centuries of plunder, and convincing the British to free themselves, at least partly, of the evil ideology of racism and “white” supremacy that went with empire. That achievement led to the success of Martin Luther King, and through him to Barack Obama. You cannot invalidate it by constructing a fantasy world in which World War II did not exhaust the British.

    2) On anathema
    Of all parts of my tradition, I have the least respect for the filthy little outbreaks of intolerance that claimed lives over petty theological points that later generations would (and do) concede without a second thought. Where the Anabaptists got it right, I honour them for it. If my ancestors lacked the tolerance to see past their disagreements, shame on them. I have seen the face of religious intolerance too clearly in all its guises: the IRA/para masked gunman, the hate-crazed jihadists (and their Christian counterparts) and the persecutors of First Nations religions. At best, religious intolerance puts a stumbling block in our way, and I see no honour at all in giving into it.

    3) Fighting to the death
    You seem concerned to preserve a military tradition. Exactly what aspects of that tradition does it concern you to preserve, and why?

  43. “…pacifism isn’t passive acquiescence to injustice.”

    I agree with this sentiment. I would also not hesitate to call the police if an intruder forced themselves into my home, so I gather from the comments above that I am not a pacifist. I also have little faith in trying to reconcile with a person, espeically a violent one, who commits a criminal offence against me. I would prefer to involve the police and courts, since I feel that violent offenders typically don’t observe rules of society. I have little faith that violent criminals, since I believe aggressive predatory personalities are relaively unihibited and lack conscience, can be talked out of ignoring the rights of others. By their nature they thrive on exploiting and abusing others and they are uninhibited by the threat of punishment or pangs of conscience.

    Likewise, I am not opposed to preserving a military given the aggressive nature that I believe is part of the human condition. I’m all for working towards peace and the active use of non-lethal means to achieve peace and I’m all for working to stop war. However, I have little faith that war will cease. We may enter periods of peace, but I doubtful, given the nature of people, that peace will be maintained.

    “There’s a common thread that runs through many of Jesus’s teachings–that we should surrender judgment and just rely upon faith and love–exactly what we failed to do in the Garden. Judge not, take no thought for the morrow, turn the other cheek, etc.”

    I’ve met too many cons and criminals and just everyday manipulators who routinely quote and abuse scripture, “turn the other cheek,” being a particular favorite, to impress and deceive others, or advance their political/personal agendas. I believe this is a contributing cause as to why some people stop believing and lose their faith.

    I grew up in a faith-based Christian household and due to experential experiences I now believe that religion is not to be trusted and more so people who are religious, both are based on humanity and error is synonymous with anything human.

  44. I’ve met too many cons and criminals and just everyday manipulators who routinely quote and abuse scripture, “turn the other cheek,” being a particular favorite, to impress and deceive others, or advance their political/personal agendas. I believe this is a contributing cause as to why some people stop believing and lose their faith.

    But Karen, cons and criminals are perfectly capable of relying on secular reason and logic as well. Look at Wall Street–all the CDOs, the over-leveraged bets and NINJA loans. They all had crazy, super complicated math to prove that they were safe, responsible investments. The people making them all the best credentials and their plans had market-beating returns on investment. Or look at all the experts and analysts and Serious people who thought the war in Iraq was a great idea. I don’t expect you to become a Christian, but you at least owe it to yourself to consider whether religion is the only thing to be skeptical of. See Nassim Taleb here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/taleb05/taleb05_index.html

  45. Consumatopia,

    I can assure you my skepticism is broad based encompassing equal opportunity and not limited to those adept at quoting and abusing scriptures for their own gain or profit. Read again what I stated previously….

    I believe that aggression (covert and overt) is part of human nature and imperfection is part of the human condition. Hence, that is why I said that “…error is synonymous with anything human”.

    In my eyes the Wall Street types you speak of are merely savvy and sophisticated cons and criminals so exceptionally skilled at their craft that they don’t need our help in pulling the wool over our eyes. All the best credentials? Says who? Serious people? What a joke! Surely you jest. I am not influenced nor impressed by the credentials of the current crop of self-annointed experts. I would suggest that the current state of affairs provides ample proof that mediocrity flourishes in government institutions and bureaucracies.

    I did grow up in a faith-based Christian household and do remember some parables, specifically the one where Jesus says “by the fruits you shall know them” (or, “if it walks and talks like a duck,…”)

    I like this quote on skepticism:

    “Skepticism: the mark and even the pose of the educated mind”
    John Dewey

  46. Serious people? What a joke! Surely you jest.

    Correct. Capital-S Serious was intended ironically.

    In my eyes the Wall Street types you speak of are merely savvy and sophisticated cons and criminals so exceptionally skilled at their craft that they don’t need our help in pulling the wool over our eyes.

    Someone who causes you to believe something false always needs your help, and in this case I think Wall Street’s helper was the investor’s greed. The investor wanted to believe. I think if you were to compare the number of people who fooled by greed, ego, anger or fear, it would astronomically dwarf the number fooled by forgiveness and mercy.

  47. Yes, I would agree about investor’s greed. I would also add that I believe the mortgage crisis was helped by the greed of people who refinanced. That doesn’t mean I don’t find fault with predatory lender practices. I do feel that people need to take some responsibility for living beyond their means. I know many people who refinanced and used their home equity as a bank to fund new cars, trips, clothes and a lifestyle that is well beyond their means. And now these people face dropping real estate prices, foreclosures, etc. I asked a friend if it didn’t concern her that she would have to repay the loans, credit cards, etc….She blamed her X, although I know it is not the whole story for her financial woes….she is filing bankruptcy for not only the refinance, but other outstanding credit card debt, car loans, medical expenses here and there, etc….and she does have health insurance. Her issues for debt were not due to health/medical issues, just very poor choices about money management.

    As for people fooled by forgiveness and mercy…I really wouldn’t know. Scriptures about forgiveness are routinely abused as well. It’s good to see a number of websites and books that deal with spiritual abuse….In my eyes and experience there is far too much of spiritual abuse that occurs.

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