Thursday, January 29, 2009

War and Peace - Part 5 - My Own Evolution

Throughout my posts to date I have been careful (and I hope it shows) to qualify my statements with the perspective that I am not absolutely sure that no Christian can ever use violent means for any reason. I sense that some of the commenters so far (and I am grateful for your input--keep it coming!) probably feel a little more strongly on this than I do. I haven't always been willing to countenance such reservations, and to be honest I'm not entirely sure that I'm not just copping out here. In any event, I hope that a brief summary of how I got where I am might help to tease some of this out, or at least stimulate some good probing questions from the rest of you.

I grew up in Mennonite and Church of the Brethren fellowships, so my early perspective was one of absolute "nonresistance," which was the term we usually used at the time (from Jesus' "do not resist an evildoer" in Matt. 5:39). Not only did I hold then--as I still do--that military service was incompatible with Christian morality, I also held that any use of violence, whether in self-defense or defense of another, was morally unacceptable (of course, that didn't stop some very physical fights with my brothers, but that's another story!). I went to a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college, so in reality I never seriously confronted a different point of view during the first twenty-six years of my life.

It was when I was dating my fiancee (now wife of 19 years) that I first faced my convictions in a new light. She did not grow up Mennonite, but rather several different Evangelical denominations, and many of the men in her family are veterans. I told her very directly during our courtship, that she needed to be OK with the understanding that as much as I loved her, I could never kill even to save her. It's a testimony of how devoted to me she was (is) that she accepted this and married me anyway (for which I remain grateful beyond words).

But that situation forced me to consider a question I had never faced before: It's all well and good to be willing to die for my own convictions, or to save others. But what about letting someone else die for my convictions--in particular someone who doesn't also share them? Suddenly the answer wasn't so obvious. . .and to this day it still isn't, for me anyway. Today, I don't think I could let my wife or kids die or be seriously injured if I had it in my power to stop the attacker, even lethally.

Here the example of Jesus is unfortunately far more murky than we might wish. Living in Roman-Empire-occupied Israel, Jesus certainly encountered violence in progress, but with the exception of those instances where he was himself the target, the only example we have to go on is the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). This is a case where Jesus stopped the violence nonviolently, by shaming the would-be perpetrators. It's a great example of how force of any kind may not be the only response even to a crazed mob. But it's not sufficient to clearly give us a template for all situations. He certainly wasn't averse to some physicality as evidenced by his spectacular cleansing of the temple--though we have no evidence that anyone was injured (and therefore I suspect not) in this event. But what would Jesus have done in the event of a physical attack on an innocent person? The evidence just doesn't tell us.

I remain convinced that warfare is unacceptable for the believer. I don't, in fact, subscribe to the usual interpretations of "Just Warfare," although I continue to maintain that if Christians even took Augustine's criteria seriously we'd have fewer wars than we do. Nevertheless, I cannot in my current thinking, say that it is always, unequivocally, unacceptable for a follower of Jesus to reach for a weapon. At this juncture in my life, I still find myself carving out an exception for those cases where violence is being done to innocents, and in which that violence can be stopped by exerting force--even deadly force--against the perpetrator. This is not an attack on an "enemy" I'm talking about here. It's intervening to stop an attack by one third party on another.

That intervention need not always be deadly. Creative leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others, have demonstrated that even in situations of violent oppression, nonviolence can have spectacular results. I freely grant the contentions of authors like Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne, as well as my fellow blogger Mason over at New Ways Forward, that resorting to violent intervention may be as much a failure of imagination as it is a necessary evil. Boyd, I think, does a great job of crystallizing this dilemma in the final chapter of "Myth of a Christian Nation" (pp. 166-167). Having just stated that Jesus "would choose nonviolence" if his family was attacked, Greg says:

"At the same time, I have to confess that I'm not sure this is what I'd do. I honestly admit that, like most people, I don't yet quite see how it would be moral to do what I believe Jesus would do. Yet I have to assume that my disagreement with Jesus is due to my not having sufficiently cultivated a kingdom heart and mind. If I felt I had to harm or take the life of another to prevent what clearly seemed to be a greater evil, I could not feel righteous or even justified about it. Like Bonhoeffer who, despite his pacifism, plotted to assassinate Hitler, I could only plead for God's mercy.

What we must never do, however, is acquiesce to our worldly condition by rationalizing away Jesus' clear kingdom prescriptions. . ."

This is where I'm at, for now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

War and Peace - Part 4 - Matt. 5 vs?? Rom. 13

I'm tempted in my discussion of war and peace, to start from the top, outline the full Biblical case for nonviolence, and enter into dialog with major objectors to that case. I'm not going to do that--now at least--primarily because I really don't think I've got much to add to what has been said far more eloquently by others. I will rather reiterate a few main points.

First, the case for Christian nonviolence rests primarily with the character, teaching, and demeanor of Jesus himself. Try as one might to say otherwise, we have to confront the reality that Jesus lived a life of peace, taught love for enemies, and explicitly commanded that his followers return good for evil. Never in his entire ministry, did Jesus qualify any of those commands with an exception for when a disciple was working in a state-sanctioned capacity.

The objection is often raised that Jesus' commands (in particular the Sermon on the Mount and its parallels) must be taken in the larger context of God's commanding and/or condoning warfare in the Old Testament (for an insightful struggle with issues of O.T. Violence, I recommend Greg Boyd's occasional blog series on this subject). Indeed this context must be considered, in the same way that ALL of the "You have heard it was said. . .but I say" statements should be seen, as Jesus clarifying, strengthening, and otherwise modifying accepted principles given before. When Jesus made explicit statements addressing an issue, as he did with our behavior toward our enemies, they must be taken as the final word on the issue. Of all the places we CANNOT qualify Jesus' commands on the basis of other Biblical perspectives, those places where he was most explicit seem to me to be the ones we must be most cautious. Simply put, where Jesus speaks, his words trump every other consideration. Otherwise, someone or something else is Lord.

By far the most common objection I hear to this perspective is Romans 13:1-7, which clearly states that governments, who have their authority from God, wield the sword to reward those who do good and to punish those who do evil.. However, we have got to keep in mind that this passage is bookended by commands directly to the believer to live a completely different paradigm marked by love and self-sacrifice. Romans 12:17-21 explicitly commands us to love our enemies, and Romans 13:8-10 reiterates the message about loving our neighbors (don't forget how Jesus defined "neighbors" in Luke 10:29-37). This "bookending" suggests rather strongly that, whatever the state's rights or responsibilities may be vis-a-vis violent force, it is categorically not the acceptable way for followers of Jesus.

Furthermore, the command to submit to earthly authorities has no bearing on our current state in the U.S., where we have a volunteer army, not a compulsory one. Anyone who joins the military today may do so for a variety of reasons, but it is not submitting to the authorities to do so when the authorities have not demanded it. Therefore, even if Romans 13 might mandate submission to a draft (I am not suggesting for a moment that it does), this is a useless argument in favor of military service in America today.

But this brings me to a point that I have not heard discussed in either camps who traditionally advocate nonviolence, nor those who traditionally favor military service. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are repeatedly shown that we are each accountable for our own actions. One of the biggest concerns I have with military service is the fact that the soldier must submit himself to the authority of the military chain of command, and accept the commands to do actions (destruction of lives and property) that would by any definition be immoral except for the context (warfare) in which they are done. The problem is, even Augustine's "Just War" doctrines make it clear by the very things they proscribe, that not all wars, nor all actions within a war, are just. In the chain of command, it is rare that the individual soldier is privy to sufficient information to accurately weigh the justice of the command he has been issued. He is required to trust the intrinsic morality of the chain of command, and on that basis to commit actions that would be sinful in any other circumstance.

This, I submit, is abdication of one's moral responsibility. All the famous hypotheticals about big men breaking into your house and threatening your wife and kids, are personal, intimate pictures where the (ill-founded) presumption is that a clear-cut moral picture is visible. But when an air force pilot is directed to bomb a village in Afghanistan, he must rely on the entire command and intelligence structure to have gotten it "right," that the village or house he's targeting actually contains a combatant or terrorist leader who must be eliminated, and that whatever civilian deaths may accompany this attack are both unavoidable and a sufficient price to pay in order to get our bad guy. The result may indeed be the death of a "bad guy," but it can just as well be the annihilation of a wedding party. Either way, our churches have absolved our pilot of responsibility for the morality of his action. There is absolutely no Scriptural case for this.

To put it as bluntly as I can, I propose that no Christian has the freedom--ever--to yield to another person the right to determine that an otherwise-sinful action is, after all, moral. We are accountable for our own actions, and Romans 13 does not give us a pass when the state commands otherwise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Theodicy in cartoon form

I think Ruben Bolling has come up with a hilarious take on theodicy (the logical dilemma of a good God and evil in the world). Be sure to see the entire "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoon here.

(Partial reproduction with cartoonist's permission - Thanks Ruben!)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Observations about Rick Warren's inaugural prayer

Mostly I'm sticking to more directly Scriptural, doctrinal, and church/kingdom life stuff on this blog, but I'm going to veer into current events for a moment. Lots of people made lots of noise over Rick Warren's being asked to deliver the invocation at President Obama's inauguration this morning. As with most such storms, the import of Warren's presence got lost, I think, in the cultural warriors' interpretations.

But I was struck by the actual content of what Rick said this morning. Not only was it a prayer I could heartily say "amen" to in virtually all respects, it was truly inclusive from a man who has been vilified over and over again for not being inclusive enough.

Didn't anyone else notice that Warren invoked God as "the Compassionate, the Merciful?" This comes straight from the opening phrase of every Sura in the Quran ("In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful"), and I am certain it is no accident that in this phrase, Warren included faithful Muslims as they pray to God. Likewise, Warren used the Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish names for Jesus in another bid to be culturally inclusive.

That prayer made no apologies for where he (Warren) stands: how can anyone argue with praying "in the name of the one who changed my life?" But it opened the door for lots of people, and not only Christians, to honestly pray with him.

Good on you, Rick!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

War and Peace - Part 3 - True Lies and Tom Clancy

When I hear many Americans discussing the appropriate contexts for the use of deadly force, I have noticed that there are some pretty key assumptions underlying the discussion that rarely--if ever--get examined. While I don't want to get into the chicken-egg question of which causes which, I would suggest that popular entertainment may give us a useful window onto some important fallacies.

Although I believe in peace as a way of life, I confess that I enjoy a shoot-em-up thriller as much as the next red-blooded American. The 1994 movie "True Lies" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold is a fun, and funny, example of the genre. Although it goes way over the top (come on, even Arnold S. couldn't avoid being sucked into the intakes of a hovering Harrier in the final fight scene), it also presented an interesting window into the popular perception of the violent hero.

For those who haven't seen the movie, the hero (Schwarzenegger) is a secret operative with a computer-salesman cover, and his wife (Curtis) has no clue of his real job till a scene when they are both in the middle of a firefight. Curtis' character is understandably freaked out, and at one point asks her husband "Did you ever kill anyone?" His answer, in that inimitable Terminator accent "Yeah, but they were all bad."

It goes even deeper with the novels of Tom Clancy--undoubtedly one of the best writers of gripping international warfare and subterfuge novels today. From "Hunt for Red October" on, the Jack Ryan series has made a ton of money on paper and film, all the while perpetuating the notion of American clandestine operations that are clearly always in the right and usually close to omnipotent. But the most telling dialog I remember in any of the Ryan series, comes from CIA agent John Clark. I'm sorry I don't remember if this was in "Clear and Present Danger" or "The Sum of All Fears," but I believe it was one of the two. Clark is a gritty character, who is often called upon to do the dirty work. He has no apparent compunctions about his task, and in fact says on several occasions that he does the things others would see as criminal, such as assassinations, kidnappings, dealings with "bad guys," because that is what is necessary to preserve the freedom of the rest of us to care about right and wrong.

This is not a unique feeling--we've heard it countless times from the Bush/Cheney administration over the past eight years in phrases like "taking the gloves off" and "preserving our freedom" in the "War on Terror." (btw, how do you declare war on fear? That name has always been disingenuous in my opinion) Consider this quote from Cheney ("Meet the Press" interview with Tim Russert, September 16, 2001):

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

The vital point that we must recognize is that most discussions defending the use of violence presuppose that "our side" is good, we know who the "enemy" is, that "enemy" is unequivocally "bad," and that the violence being contemplated or defended will either cow the enemy into submission or, by eliminating him, eliminate the problem. How can anyone object to killing "bad" people to "preserve the freedom" of "good" people?

Of course the real world isn't as simple as a Hollywood movie or a suspense-thriller novel. We don't have an omniscient narrator setting up the story of all the evil things we--the readers/viewers--can know which prove how bad the bad guys are. We are actors in the play, and we don't know (completely) who's good, who's bad, and how either will respond to our actions. Furthermore, in the fantasy world of our entertainment, collateral damage and suffering of innocent bystanders only happens when the callous "bad guys" do their thing, never when the "good guys" get the "bad guys."

Yet it is precisely these fantasies that seem to me to propel so much of the popular culture's support for war. . .at least until reality sets in some thousands of casualties later. And the notion that anyone, anywhere in the world, might see us as the "bad" actors, is utterly incomprehensible for far too many.

We cannot have a rational discussion about the use of force, if our perception of reality has more in common with our entertainment than it does with living, bleeding humanity.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

War and Peace - Part 2 - Life and Death Decisions

Wisdom can be found in many places, not all of them holy. In The Lord of the Rings, the great J.R.R. Tolkien made a profound observation:

"Many live that deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." (Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2)

Perhaps this is part of what Paul meant in Rom 12:19-21:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)

Now, I am not saying that this verse alone is a categorical case for nonviolence in every instance, because that's not the context of what Paul is saying. He is, however, clearly saying in the entire Romans 12 passage, that Christians should be known for their peaceable behavior. He is particularly forbidding the Christ-follower to exercise vengeance or violent retaliation. He is also saying that it is God's job, not ours, to mete out punishment for wrongs committed.

Of course, the King of Kings himself had a few things to say about how we behave toward our enemies too:
  • Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)
  • Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28)
  • But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
Rather than (necessarily) mandating nonviolence in all circumstances, these verses clearly speak to the issue of how we are to behave toward our enemies. There is a bumper sticker "out there" that says it pretty clearly: "When Jesus said 'Love your enemies,' I think he probably meant 'Don't kill them.'" Taken together with Paul's statement, I think it's pretty clear that exacting violent punishment on people because they have done us violence, is unacceptable in the Kingdom of Jesus.

Which is not to say that justice will not be done. Paul's statement, as well as passage after passage throughout the Old Testament, make no bones about the fact that God will, in his time, exact justice (though it may not look like we think). But it is a duty God reserves for himself, not one that we may arrogate to ourselves.

This, interestingly, is the context in which the very next chapter, Romans 13, talks about the power of the State (the "governing authorities" in NRSV and NIV, "the higher powers" in KJV) being God's servant to reward the good and punish the evildoer. This context is ignored by those who claim Paul is saying it's OK for Christians to participate with the state in the meting of punishment. If we are not to return evil for evil, if we are to treat our enemies with love, then we cannot engage in the state's violence upon them.

In fact, the "authorities" section of Romans 13 is bracketed on BOTH sides by commands of loving behavior, for from 13:8-10 Paul repeats the message, concluding "Love does no wrong to a neighbor" (v.10). Remembering how Jesus defined "neighbor," (Luke 10:29-37), that's a pretty broad-brush command.

In summary, in the case of those who we define (or a government defines for us) as "enemies," we have very clear marching orders, and dealing of death is not part of them. There are other issues regarding the use of violence, but they will have to wait for further posts.

Friday, January 9, 2009

War and Peace - Part 1

I have been discussing a lot of different issues related to war and peace with a couple close friends lately, and it's time I get some things in writing. This is going to take a number of posts, but I want to start by laying out a couple of basic challenges that I will flesh out in more detail later.

To put it simply and directly, when a human life is taken, evil is done. There is no way to sanctify or bless the act of human life without flagrantly violating the very character of Jesus.

This is a strong statement, especially for one who says, as I will in future posts, that I believe there are still limited instances where, in the fallen world in which we live, the taking of life may be the only way to address certain extreme circumstances. While I was once an absolute pacifist, I cannot today state that it is always, absolutely, and indisputably wrong for a follower of Christ to use deadly force (though as you will see, my acceptable limits for doing so are pretty narrow). However, even given that there may be times where deadly force is tragically necessary even for the Christ-follower, it must never be glorified, elevated, seen in any light other than a supreme tragedy for which we weep that it must happen at all.

Secondly, and for a variety of reasons that are not simply pacifist reasons, I shall advocate that it is morally unacceptable for a Christ-follower to assume the career of a soldier.

I make this claim even though I freely admit that I have friends who serve or have served in the military. I do not claim that they are "not saved," primarily because I repudiate the saved/unsaved dichotomy as a criterion for judging discipleship. Christ-followers are called to emulate our king because of who he is and what he demands, not because we'll go to hell if we don't.

Finally, I acknowledge at the outset that my thinking is not finalized on all of these issues, despite years of wrestling with them. I am probably internally inconsistent in some of what I'm going to say, and I definitely have room to further refine the positions I'm going to lay out. However, I hope that these thoughts will challenge the readers to re-consider some of their own closely-held positions on this issue, and that perhaps we can take the discussion beyond the usual pacifist-vs-nationalist rhetoric that has so often characterized the debates I have heard.

More to come. . .