Saturday, September 04, 2010

Willimon, Invoking Jesus, Exposes Moral Bankruptcy of Pacificism

It's presently only in print, not online, but CT's "Village Green" feature for September 2010 is as apt a representation of the vacuity of Christian pacifism that we can imagine.

The question for the symposium-style column is, "Should the US stay militarily involved in Afghanistan?" The contributors are Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethicist from the University of Chicago; Chris Seiple, president of the Institute of Global Engagement; and fabled Methodist pulpiteer and bishop Will Willimon.

Elshtain and Seiple both argue eloquently for the inevitability and moral necessity of ongoing military engagement. Their moral reasoning is clear: not to be engaged is to consign Afghanistan's people and perhaps others to brutal oppression. The victims who would suffer most are those least powerful and most vulnerable.

Willimon, like his Duke Divinity buddies famously influenced by Anabaptists, argues for disengagement, or at least seems to. Asking, "how should American Christians think about this war?" he answers with an anecdote about the late Jerry Falwell, then invokes Jesus, and finally accuses some ill-defined object of having greater loyalty to Caesar than to Christ.

We take his answer to the actual question asked as, "No, because Jesus was a pacifist." We infer that answer from his insistence that we ask "What would Jesus say about this war?"

That we take as a question baiting us to offer a dominical saying as a proof-text that Jesus' disciples can go to war. Surely, Willimon prods tacitly, the Jesus who urged love for enemies and turning the other cheek cannot be invoked to justify all the killing in Afghanistan.

Well, we rise to the challenge. Here, Bishop Willimon, is our proof: Jesus told us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and serve at the cost of our own lives.

It is not love to let my neighbor suffer oppression, whether my neighbor is the family next door whose home is invaded by brigands or a wife abused by her husband or a nation across the world terrorized by totalitarians with a perverse ideology. The fact that I haven't acted until the danger threatens me only heightens my own fallenness; it does not obviate my responsibility. The fact that in trying to do good I may do some harm, even much harm, does not excuse me from making the best effort I can. Choosing not to act--excusing passivity by saying I can't impose my views on others because I am not perfect, despairing of action because I cannot bring about an ideal outcome by acting--does not make me righteous. It does not love my neighbor to turn the other cheek when my neighbor is being victimized.

It isn't even love for my enemy to let him brutalize someone. My shameful recognition of my own fallenness tempers my view of my actions, so I aim as best I can to put a stop to the immediate evil and bring a modicum of peace to the victims, not to satisfy my viscerally distorted view of retribution (though the retributive element always remains in the act of intervention). I intervene with a mournful sense of grim necessity, not a triumphant sense of self-righteousness. But I still intervene, mindful that letting evil operate unchecked does not demonstrate love, even for those who do the evil. They need to be stopped, even with force if force alone will stop them. One did not show love for Pol Pot by letting him massacre fellow Cambodians.

Further, I act knowing full well that it is not the coercive power of "the good" that will transform the evil enemy. Force can only restrain evil. Something else, the self-sacrificial power of the Incarnate Son of God, transforms. Still, I cannot sit by if I have some limited power to liberate, however imperfectly, with the sword that Jesus' apostle Paul spoke of more directly than did the Lord himself.

Bishop Willimon, what do I say to those in my pastoral care who have volunteered to bear arms to liberate Afghanistan? Do I call them dupes of the corrupt, Christless military-industrial complex? Failures in Christian discipleship who have traded their birthright for a mess of patriotic pottage? Or do I affirm what their understanding of the gospel has led them to: that in playing a dangerous part in ending oppression, they are loving their neighbors and their enemies and so should proceed with caution, thought, care--indeed with reluctance and sorrow--but with determination to see the thing through to the best outcome that lies within the power entrusted to them in a fallen world still awaiting the arrival of the New Jerusalem?

Pacificism kills. It doesn't make me pure. Choosing not to act is not the action of love.


The Calvary Youth Guy said...

I wonder whether SWNID ought not divide Christian pacifism into two categories for separate addressing.

One would be the pacifist who thinks no war is justified, and therefore opposes any killing by his state even in defense of its own security. I think we all understand the arguments against this form of pacifism.

The other would be the pacifist who believes in the God-ordained role of the state to bear the sword to protect its people from outside dangers, but finds no role for the state to send soldiers abroad to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states (even brutal, dictatorial ones). Such a pacifist (if that is even the proper term) would oppose the state's role in such a war, but may have no problem going abroad on his own and bearing the sword in defense of his neighbor, as commended by SWNID in this post. S/he finds no Biblical prescription for official intervention by a secular state in matters that ought to be handled by Christians willing to lay down their lives.

Should a Christian bothered by the oppression of his neighbors abroad pack a sword in a suitcase and go, or petition his own state to declare official action and then enlist himself in the cause?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We find no compelling reason to distinguish these. The second position that you lay out is in our view incoherent. Why should the individual Christian be authorized to do something that the state is not? That's a rhetorical question, by the way, laying bare the unjustifiable notion that "secular" states operate in a different ethical realm than "sacred" believers. There's a complexity to the matter of states acting in their self-interest to do what is morally right, but it's not solved by this expedient.

Your closing paragraph captures the issue exactly. The question is whether doing the former alternative expressed there is really loving my neighbor. One could pack his gun and go off to hunt Bin Laden (as some nutjob did recently). Or one could engage in the body politic to get the right thing done. Only the latter is potent enough to be justifiable. Don Quixote may have had a pure heart, but he didn't destroy tyrants.

JB in CA said...

Pacifism is a funny thing. A pacifist is supposed to be one who takes an absolute stand against violence of any kind. But I've never run into a pacifist that is completely consistent in that regard. For example, I once asked a well known Christian pacifist in a Sunday School class what he'd do if someone threatened his child with a knife. He said he'd wrestle the guy to the ground and forcefully take the knife away. (He didn't consider the possibility that the guy might be Rambo.) On another occasion, I heard a well known evangelical tell an audience after a talk that if someone was threatening his child with a gun, he'd shoot the perpetrator in the leg (assuming, of course, there was a gun handy in his pacifistic home). In neither case, did the speaker notice any irony in his response.

Perhaps the reason is that most pacifists aren't really thoroughgoing pacifists. They're what we might call military pacifists. They're opposed to war, especially modern war, in which civilian casualties are virtually guaranteed. But if that's the case, they need to do more than simply assume that killing civilians during wartime is always unjustified. They need to defend it, because it's not self-evidently true.