Sunday, July 02, 2017

Pacifism, Militarism, and Jesus.

I dislike the Fourth of July sermon about religious freedom that is preached every year, though today's was better than others.  While we should cultivate gratitude for any good thing which comes into our lives, individually or corporately, Americans, especially evangelicals, too easily equate freedom of religion with the gospel. It has been going on for decades, maybe centuries, and I see no way to undo it.

The opposite error, that Jesus was rather obviously pacifist and nationalism an especial danger irritates me as well, and I have discussed it here before.

Rather than just taking potshots at other people's ideas, however, I think I should make some statement about what the real Christian doctrine is.  It is always easier to criticise others than it is to craft a postion oneself, which then becomes subject to analysis by others.

Today's text was from Psalm 144
Praise be to the Lord my Rock,
    who trains my hands for war,
    my fingers for battle.
He is my loving God and my fortress,
    my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield, in whom I take refuge,
    who subdues peoples under me.

Yet Jesus said to turn the other cheek. We could multiply examples on both sides.  We often quote the verse about beating swords into plowshares in our current thinking.  Yet there is also a verse about beating plowshares into swords. (Joel 3:10) The issue is not simple - reality seldom is - neither historically nor theologically.

I believe that the Gospel is pushed forward in the long run by the counter-intuitive, self-sacrificing aspect of Christian teaching. However, that may only be in the longest of long runs, and in a fallen world we should not assume that God has left that open to us in every situation.  And especially, we should not assume that those who do not take that route are less pleasing to God.

Which pacifists do, as you may have noticed. Even more, those whose god is internationalism are very prone to disdain for those who defend nations. That may be a deeper darkness and hypocrisy.

War is a holding action, in terms of the gospel.  It does not advance the faith, except in a superficial sense.  But it can prevent the faith from being overrun in the short term.  We all live in the short term, after all.  If I seem to be damning militarism with faint praise by calling it a neutral, a stop-gap, a Plan B or C, understand that medicine is also a holding action.  Firemen, mechanics, policemen, nurses, EMT's, counselors, occupational therapists, and editors all fix things rather than build them, and are analogous to those who go to war to prevent evils from growing.

This is not pure, certainly. Surgeons deal with pathology, obstetricians help life come along; there are plumbers who fix and plumbers who build; military special forces try to win hearts and minds but are prepared to destroy things. Fixing fairly often means destroying before building. Still, while there is a distinction between fixers and builders, both are worthy. God does not seem to have forbidden any type of fixer, even if destruction is part of their deal.  Nor does He seem to have singled out builders for especial praise.  Educators, engineers, artists, parents, inventors - these are not described as closer to God.  St Paul does tell us that some parts of the body have greater honor than others, but is a bit vague about exactly which those are.

When we picture soldiering as one of the fixing professions, we see that even aggressive military action might be justified, or even commanded by God. Modern Christians tend to shrink from this idea. Doubly so since our opponents might possibly be socialists. If Communism is essentially a Christian (or possibly Jewish) heresy, it is revealing that some Christians are quite sure we must be wrong if we want to fight them.  As the old criticism goes, perhaps they are not really neutral, but just on the other side. (Ron Radosh on Pete Seeger.)

I believe that religious freedom ultimately doesn't get us anywhere, if no one is there to preach about Jesus.  Being free to believe mostly-untrue religions does no man good.  In the short term of our 80-year lives, I suppose it's better to have freedom than not, but it's ultimately for nothing. Nor is an American Christianity likely to be less of a heresy than German Christianity was, if allowed to go where it pleases. We started higher and closer, perhaps, but our fall would therefore be greater and more tragic.  I believe that the message of the martyr is ultimately more powerful, and earnestly to be desired. Yet not in all times and all places.  It is good to preserve good, and evil to throw goodness away unnecessarily, for an idolatry of martyrdom rather than the cause of Christ Himself.

God may call one person to war, and another to forego war, even in the same household.


james said...

Was Jesus speaking metaphorically or literally when he said to sell your cloak and buy a sword? If literally, then one should take his next reply literally also, and conclude that 1/6 of Christians being armed should be adequate. Both/and, with a cap.

jaed said...

In the short term of our 80-year lives, I suppose it's better to have freedom than not, but it's ultimately for nothing.

I take sort of the opposite perspective. "Not having religious freedom" is just another way of saying "Insincere religious profession is being forced on people", and that strikes me as a positive evil. It's a worse violation than rape, and preventing or at least strongly discouraging it—avoiding having such-and-such number of people becoming morally worse than rapists—is a good thing, not neutral.

Christopher B said...

Your thoughts have an interesting intersection with a repost from Donald Sensing today on the way Jesus created an intensely personal religion, totally unmoored from the bonds of family or tribe (something you've touched on too). I think this intensely personal focus makes it hard to translate Christian teaching into corporate action once you get beyond actual hands-on group activity.

Grim said...

Chesterton remarked that he was fine with learning that Christianity was responsible for making Richard the Lionheart into a bloody Crusader, until he learned that it was also supposed to bear the blame for making Edward Confessor into a bloodless man incapable of defending his country.

That piece, among others, is mentioned here:

Texan99 said...

My pastor gave a good talk about Sts. Peter and Paul, who differed vigorously about many things, especially whether Christians must first be Judaized, but who didn't degenerate into hateful conflict. His overall point was that we will never inhabit a world without serious conflict, and shouldn't wish for one. It's our job to try to resolve differences with as little personal spite as possible, trying to find areas of agreement.

But what if we really can't find them? I've never known what to think about Christ and pacifism. He certainly forbade His followers to fight to save Him from the centurions sent to make an arrest, and what could have been a better cause than that? Does it matter that He knew He had to die to fulfill His purpose? In other circumstances is it our duty to cut the ear off the arresting officer? Darned if I know. I do know that most pacifism is bollocks, amounting to no more than a fastidious desire to avoid costly conflict when the conflict doesn't happen to be goring our own ox. When Christ countermanded violence, He was Himself planning to pay the price of nonaggression.

Retriever said...

To continue Grim's point, most European kings who were labelled "the Pious" or some such were actually weak and useless. One tried to come up with something good to say about a person who could not rule with strength and vigor in difficult and dangerous times.

I am NOT trying to rationalise the murderous behaviour of some of the rulers many of us grew up admiring. My spouse, for example, takes pride in being descended from Charlemagne, and I tease him back that half of Europe claims the same, and that Charlemagne was a bloody butcher of Germans.

I remember how, during the Boy's early adolescence, when he teetered on the brink of dismissing the faith (from having been an exceptionally devout kid) he devoured the Heliand Saxon gospel which was a retelling of the New Testament designed to convert the Scandinavians and Germans. Jesus as the leader of a warrior band. As someone who loves "Onward Christian Soldiers" myself, I find parts of this version very appealing also...

In addition, I well remember a staggering conversation with my most beloved friend in which said friend exclaimed "I don't think we really needed to go to war with Hitler". I had to grit my teeth and clench my fists, because I grew up in England, where my school had had half the building sheered off by a German bomb (the outlines of the sheered off rooms and fireplaces opening onto the air were still visible a quarter century later). My grandmother had been the driver for the Polish government in exile. French friends had hidden in haystacks and the father had been bayonetted by a Nazi soldier poking the haystack while they were looking for them (he had kept quiet lest they all be discovered and shot). Relatives of my spouse and mine were interned in German concnetration camps as prisoners of war and enemy aliens (tho they survived). I was (at the time this was said) visiting an elderly couple where the man had been one of a group of soldiers that had liberated Dachau. Obviously I disagreed with my friend.

Growing up in Europe, one had more of a sense of the obligation to come to the aid of an ally and the idea that one group is brought under tyranny, it affects all. When I returned to America, I simply could not understand my devout Christian American friends who could believe that it was no concern of theirs when innocents abroad were being slaughtered. I was viewed as a rather ferocious Crusader type by more PC friends. (comment continues below)

Retriever said...

I'm not quite sure how one works this out, because I am against war. Again, growing up in England, one had one's nose rubbed in it. We often worshipped in the Guard's Chapel, a modern church built to replace the one pulverised with all the worshippers one Sunday by a German bomb in WWII (I always thought of this while in church).

We went around terrified of IRA bombs because of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

All around me,and especially on Poppy day, when I was very young, were sad old ladies who had either been widowed very young or never married at all because a generation of the very bravest and best young men had been slaughtered in WWI. They would come out to remember their lost husbands and sweethearts even 50 years later. Everywhere were reminders of the war.

My own father (who had been British and become American) told us about how they had all been half starved in Britain after the war, and how he could not get used to the sheer abundance of food in America when he first arrived. He used to drink a cup of cream in his college cafeteria a night...

In our London neighbourhood, over pastry and tea, Polish refugees would endlessly, bitterly discuss the betrayals and defeats of WWII and afterwards in a local cafe, and all they had lost to first the Nazis and then the Russians. They could not go home.

So I can't conceive of a Christianity that could always be pacifist. Even tho I believe that we should PERSONALLY try to be nonviolent and gentle as doves. Niebuhr's distinction between moral man and immoral society is a useful one.

However, having majored in international relations and history, I'd say that most wars have been very bad ones. Squandering the lives of the best and bravest to advance the interests of the filthy rich or rulers' vainglory or (nowadays) large corporate interests or some abstract ideology that is simply out of touch with ordinary people's desire to raise their family, help their friends and neighbours, love God and country.... I'm very pro military, but I think certain people should stop trashing our intelligence services and Foreign Service as it is always best to advance our interests by peaceful means. Christian or otherwise....

Grim said...

There's another side to war besides outcomes; war has often been thought to be the sternest test of, and fullest field for, the expression of human virtue. It's not for no reason that in the Republic, after having carefully constructed his ideal city for the purpose of encouraging and supporting human virtue, the first thing Plato does with it is imaginatively take it to war. Aristotle, too, assigns war a special place among all the terrors of life as being the truest field for the virtue of courage, and therefore of all its related virtues.

This is akin to the way that (originally Christian) Just War Theory divides itself into jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The war may be right or wrong itself; conduct of persons at war must be judged separately. It may be that there have been very few good wars, but there have been many warriors who have distinguished themselves in their tests. Some, like Stonewall Jackson, have done so even on explicitly Christian terms.

Grim said...

I think it may even be true that to many contemporaries, talking about the value of 'doing the best actions' instead of focusing on 'attaining the best outcomes' is hard to process. Here's an article on why action is worthy of consideration, separate from outcomes that are not truly as much under our control as we believe:

David Foster said...


Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!