Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It Takes a Village Idiot

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:39


The direction from Jesus is pretty clear. One might try and get around it by noting that this is the highest possible response, on the order of "Sell all your goods and give the money to the poor," or "Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." But that might be an evasion. Jesus did say it, and having lived in the same world we inhabit, He presumably knew that this is counterintuitive, unnatural, and difficult.

What we do not have from Jesus, however, is any indication how this applies when it's someone else who is being struck, or what this means for people under our protection. The classic pacifist would immediately apply this to all situations of aggression. By that reading, attacks on your wife, your children, your flocks, fields, or nation would fall under the same command - to never use force in response.

Perhaps so. That is more counterintuitive, unnatural, and difficult, but it is the same sort of difficulty. Certainly Jesus does not say anything here to suggest exceptions for group behavior or protection of others. Maybe we're stuck with it as is: if someone takes your son, give him your daughter as well; if the Mongols burn your fields, deliver your flocks as well, that the tribe might perish, but you all die a witness. Perhaps the Mongols will be stunned by your righteousness and convert. Maybe it will take the righteous capitulation of a dozen Christian nations before they get the message, but it will eventually work. Won't it?

So let's apply this cheek-turning command to other progressive causes. If Caucasians have better jobs than African-Americans, then give them better schools as well. If the state forbids you to have an abortion, give up birth control as well. If your rich neighbor cheats on his taxes, then pay his share and give him one of your cars. If the mills burn too much fossil fuel, let them dumb junk in the river as well.

Hmm. Something seems to be going wrong here. It seems this cheek-turning is being applied selectively. Community action to enforce justice seems to be a good thing when it's taxes or pollution, but a bad thing when it's war. What exactly is the difference between them? Is Jesus's command only for the rich? But he delivered it mainly to the poor. Are Christian progressives to encourage the poor to seek greater oppression, then?

Perhaps the behavior of nations, and the Christians who inhabit them, is too far a jump to make cleanly. Jesus gave an individual command; it just might mean something in the political realm as well. But how are we to make the leap and apply it? Taking Matthew 5 as command for nations and warfare leads us to a terrible contradiction with what the religious left espouses in other areas.

And the contradiction is enormous, almost complete. Not only is the verse only applied to the examples of warfare and redistribution, it is applied in reverse in other areas. Working for justice means confronting the powerful, sending them to jail if they're wrong, making the system give the oppressed what they deserve. And probably rightly. In the history of getting justice for the downtrodden, the confrontative, strong-arm tactics do seem to have worked better. Christians just can't have it both ways. If the community can organize to tax the rich at higher rates because it is just, then it can organize to defend the oppressed of other nations. Just 'cause we wanna, even.

I offer the following explanation. The religious left would like to believe it is against war because they believe it such the way of Christ. They don't mean it. They are not lying to us, but to themselves. What they really believe is that talking works better than war. They see avoidance of war as a tactic, not a principle. They don't perceive this. But there really isn't any escape. They don't believe Christ, they believe Gandhi, and quote Christ in support. They want to be servants of Christ, when you pull off the disguise, it's Gandhi underneath.

That last was a brutal accusation on my part, but I make it with full knowledge of the fact. The religious left does not believe in the principle of returning good for evil - not at the community level - as much as they believe in the principle of nonviolence, which is not the same thing. They embrace pacifism not because they are prepared to apply non-resistance to all injustice, but because they think it will work. (There is one escape I see. They might also believe that military action is only justified when sanctioned by the United Governments, uh, I mean Nations. They believe transnationalism has some innate holiness.) If you have a better explanation, give it a try.

I think there is a way of envisioning these issues in an intermediate step between individual and society at large: imagine a village. Imagine a village of predominantly Christian people, who wish to do well by each other and be an example for Christ. When one woman starts to break into houses and steal, what do they do in response? When one young man begins to rape the women of the village, what should they do? Cast them out? Kill them? Give them more? Try and reason with them? Send for the King's men? - And what would the king's men do?

Once you've answered that set of difficulties, go on to a harder one. What if the next village is stealing your sheep, or not letting you get to the market town to trade? Pretend you are a simple Christian villager, even the Village Idiot, and determine what should be done.

17 comments:

dilys said...

I know a preternaturally wise woman who, regarding, for instance, convicted prisoners, says, sincerely I believe, that if she noticed she had a tendency to endanger others (murder, rape, theft, etc.), she would want to be locked up to keep her from hurting them, and thus herself, any more.

In clear cases, an interesting application of the Golden Rule: "I want, for my own sake, to be impeded in doing wrong." Only easy in "clear cases...," but as in so much of life, good guesses can frequently be made.

As to "give him your cloak," without the stories I tell myself of "respect" and "humiliation" and "needing that cloak tomorrow," I can see how faith and hope suggest tomorrow's need will be provided, and love dictate that if the person thinks he needs the coat, I want to give it to him, and more.

I don't think any of this is susceptible to imposition of group policy, which should probably rest on our best shot at predictable justice (Elements of Justice by Schmidtz is an excellent discussion); but in certain states of soul this more carefree attitude Jesus recommends is plausible to the individual convinced Christian, don't you think? I don't believe it generalizes to "Take my wife. Please!" though...

bs king said...

AVI- about once a month, I read a post of yours that makes me go "Wow, I will be quoting that for months if not years" This is one of those. That argument against the war had always bothered me, and I never put my finger on why. Thanks for doing it for me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A Francis of Assissi approach, which applied the command to all categories, is at least consistent, and perhaps the Jesus Way. It just can't be both ways.

dicentra63 said...

I always imagined that the command to turn the other cheek was a commandment to eschew "righteous revenge," which may have been an especially prevalent method of dealing with wrongs in those days. If someone "dissed" you, the culture may have permitted or even expected you to visit hellfire on that person's head and household until your honor was satisfied.

But defending your property against thieves, defending your country against conquerers, punishing those who violate the rule of law... is this revenge? Hardly. The injunction against revenge therefore does not apply.

copithorne said...

You are conducting an abstract conversation about a purely theoretical subject with an unnamed interlocutor from the "religious left."

Given the times and the context, it seems reasonable to understand that you are reconsidering questions about starting a war in Iraq. Starting the war in Iraq was opposed not by the "religious left" but by religion: nearly every Christian denomination opposed it including my Roman Catholic Church.

If you descend from the airy realm of theoretical abstraction the questions are not as hard as you make them out to be.

Is it moral to kill thousands of people? Is it moral to steal hundreds of billions of dollars from future generations? Is it moral to torture? These questions are actually very simple. They don't require a PhD in Theology to answer. They just require a willingness to make contact with a living conscience.

Jonathan Wyman said...

Is it moral to allow someone else to kill thousands of people?

Jonathan Wyman said...

"Starting the war in Iraq was opposed not by the 'religious left' but by religion: nearly every Christian denomination opposed it including my Roman Catholic Church."

I fail to see how the statements of a denomination's leaders (not the denomination as a whole) apply to the true intent of Christ's words. If half the denominations oppose abortion and half support it, that doesn't tell us anything about what Christ would say.

Jonathan Wyman said...

an unnamed interlocutor from the "religious left."

I'll name him- Anthony Auer, Oliver Thomas, Lelia Nadir, Michael Lerner, Maddis Senner. I'd lump Tony Campolo, Bart Campolo, and probably Jim Wallis in there as well. Though they haven't specifically said it that I've seen, their comments on the war are shaped by that interpretation.

Heck, even William Sloane Coffin and Walter Wink line up more with AVI than with some of the people above on this topic.

copithorne said...

Every tradition of moral reasoning with which I am familiar holds that we are responsible for our own conduct and choices. We do not have control or responsibility over other people's conduct and choices. A belief that it is acceptable to commit evil because other people are worse is not moral reasoning. It is making excuses.

The statements of the Churches are expressions of contemporary religion. Contemporary religion opposed the war in Iraq. Certainly the Churches are capable of being wrong. They are not identical to Jesus Christ. But the Catholic Church is not the "religious left." It is just religion.

Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God." I find this post by AVI to telescope out to a place in which it is impossible to draw any inference on the meaning of Jesus' words. 'Does blessed are the peacemakers mean blessed are the peacemakers? Or does it mean blessed are the war makers? Who can say? That's a real noodle-scratcher.'

That's called sophistry.

I am not a pacifist myself so I can't really speak for your perception of the list of people you identify as pure religious pacifists. Without a single quote, I don't have much reason to have confidence that you are reading those writers accurately. Regardless, I just want to confirm that such a conversation has little bearing on the political opposition to the war in Iraq.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Rather than repeat myself copithorne, what did you say when I gave you copious quotes last time?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Addendum: "Blessed are the peacemakers..." What do we do then, when our actions invite more war? If appeasement causes aggression, then it is not peacemaking.

You might argue that it is our current actions which have invited more war. Separate argument, which I addressed in the original post: that is regarding nonviolent actions as a tactic. We might well argue about which course of actions is more likely to provoke aggression, and you might prove me wrong. My point is to note that the action which looks peaceful may bring the greater violence upon the innocent.

As to the institutional churches: some church headquarters issued statements condemning or cautioning against this war. The professing laity voted overwhelmingly for the candidate who favored it. Which is The Church? I have argued in other places that church hierarchies are unduly influenced by academia, which distorts their view of Jesus's teaching. I could make the argument that the laity is the better representative of the Church Visible. Either way, to make the blanket statement that religion opposed this war because the hierarchies did is not warranted.

I am postmodernist enough to note that your belief in what is simple and obvious about the teachings of Jesus is laden with unexamined assumptions, which Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Calvin, Luther, et al would not share.

copithorne said...

I'm sure I said something to the effect of:

You've taken these quotes out of context. What is it exactly you disagree with here?

Then you didn't answer.

It is very very difficult for you to state direct disagreement with someone. My understanding is that would be caused by identifying your self with your beliefs.

I'll ask you. By "the religious left" do you mean popes John Paul II, Benedict and the US and European Bishops? Is their direct opposition to the war in Iraq being referred to in this post? Are those people following Gandhi rather than Jesus Christ?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "direct" opposition. The two popes mentioned were both on record as opposing the invasion of Iraq. Neither condemned it, however. So "direct" opposition, in your case, seems to mean "recorded." Or something. "Direct" is, at any rate, an oversell.

As to the US and European bishops following Gandhi rather than Christ - some, yeah. More in Europe. There would certainly be many in both groups who would qualify as the religious left. The headquarters and seminaries of the mainstream Protestant denominations would fit that description better, though.

I know you would like it to be that there was some near-universal, or at least large majority, of religions against the war. No, it's the opposite. Not that majority is any indicator of rightness, of course. Other than the non-pastoral clergy, observant Christians were largely supportive of the president who brought us into the war, and supported him again in the next election.

copithorne said...

You are talking as though Christianity is something that exists only in America.

An overwhelming majority of Christians opposed America starting a war in Iraq. 80%? 90%?

It may be true what you say that a preponderance of observant American Christians supported George Bush in starting a war.

But let's not have any mor lectures about 'cafeteria christianity' or insufficient respect for orthodoxy!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Actually, no. Nothing remotely like that. In Australia, India, England, France, Germany, South Korea - just about everywhere - the support for OIF was concentrated in the Christian laity.

It sounds like you have a template in place, copithorne, which no facts or reasoning can dent. I'm still guessing that you live in an area in which that template is so common that contrary ideas can be safely disregarded.

Bugs said...

We tend to forget that Christ's purpose was not to give us handy hints on solving our political problems and making the world a happier place to live. It was to provide us with a spiritual regimen by which each of us - through God's grace - can attain a blissful afterlife.

Personally, I haven't met anyone who's travelled far enough on Jesus' path that he's qualified to give the rest of the world directions.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

well said, bugs, and both the left and right should attend to that idea.