Thursday, March 02, 2017

Why I Am Not A Pacifist, by CS Lewis

This particular essay of Lewis's was almost lost.  It was an address delivered to a pacifist society in 1940 that was not intended for publication.  It is one of the essays in The Weight of Glory, which I am rereading.  I found many references and quoted sections, but not the entire text, save for a two-part video, with doodles. I dislike the format, so I am not embedding it.  It's there if you want it.

It was significant in my own development because at the time I read it, I was still largely pacifist.  That pacifism had been weakening under the force of affection for heroic fantasy, including the somewhat-historical Arthur.  I was able to keep the two separate with a juggling act between clear justice of fighting orcs or Mordred versus the morally ambiguous wars of modern history. A highly permeable wall, but that's what I had.

Lewis's reasoning was not unassailable - few mortals have ever constructed a bulletproof argument on any subject - but it included approaches I had not considered and distinctions I had not made.  He resorts to false dichotomies in at least two places, but even so, these only weaken his conclusions - they do not overthrow them.

But that's not what I came to talk about.  For those of you who have the text, I uncovered something else about it:  the distinctions about good and evil, and the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek in the context of the rest of Scripture (including some of his own statements) and the writing of Christians from that time to this, apply to other moral topics.  I first saw parallels with immigration arguments, but once the possibility of reapplying the reasoning came to me, charity, loyalty, and obedience to authority all came into play as well.

I'm not sure this one is the best example of the argument, but it is a great quote, and reasonably related.
It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life might be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists of tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made
 I think that applies to "comprehensive solutions" beloved by politicians, activists, and dreamers of many types.

Another Lewis quote, from "Learning In War-Time."
We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti- Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds.The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”.


Texan99 said...

Physical fighting is so alien to my existence as a woman in a peaceful and prosperous community that I generally encounter this dilemma only in the context of what policies to vote for. Lewis has been helpful to me in distinguishing between the impulse to fight to salve my own feelings when I'm personally outraged vs. fighting to defend someone who deserves my defense, though it's awfully easy to confuse those two. As he says, we often get mixed up about the idea that "I can forgive my own enemies, but I can't forgive those who hurt my dog," as if they didn't become "my enemies" to the exact extent that I identify so strongly with their victims, and therefore become the proper objects of my duty to forgive. But I'm horrible at the duty of forgiveness, just horrible. I can nurse a grievance like nobody's business. Most of the time, if I curb the habit at all, it's only to keep it decently veiled.

Sam L. said...

Comprehensive Solution: WE can fix everything, if YOU will do as we say.

Grim said...

Tex and I stand at opposing corners. For me the danger of pacifism is that I am in some danger of not grasping its draw at all. It's hard for me to disentangle pacifism and cowardice, although I am of course aware of illustrative examples -- Sgt. York being one -- where it is obviously not quite the same thing at all.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Lewis hints at that accusation without saying it.

Texan99 said...

Grim is exactly right: in my case, it's hard to disentangle pacifism from cowardice in the context of a physical fight, because I'm patently a quivering coward about a physical fight. To think about the problem usefully at all, I have to translate it into a kind of fighting I'm reasonably good at and not afraid of. By that route, I can begin to work dimly through when I might be justified in giving, say, political support to physical fights conducted by others. It's a very confused area for me; I don't even like killing the food I eat.

There's something in the Screwtape Letters about how useless it would be to tempt a man with a mistaken passion for pacifism if he enjoyed a complete confidence in his own physical bravery. "But if he's the man I take him for, try pacifism." That would be me.

Grim said something a few years back about being unconflicted about killing a man to prevent his doing what Grim himself would rather die than do.

Thomas Doubting said...

I'm curious what everyone's take on the recent movie "Hacksaw Ridge" would be. Here's the IMDB blurb:

"WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot."

(Trailer, etc., at the link)

I have a friend who, every time the movie comes up, calls Doss a coward. But Doss didn't refuse to go to war or into battle, he just refused to kill anyone because of his religious convictions. He received the Medal of Honor for actions at Okinawa where he saved 75 wounded soldiers and was himself wounded 4 times.

Like York, I think Doss was wrong, but not a coward. I think there are a number of Christian organizations, like the Quakers, who are sincere pacifists, and commands to love your enemy and turn the other cheek certainly can be read that way.

On the other hand, yes, pacifism is also a useful dodge if one is a coward. It lends a veneer of respectability to it.

james said...

I thought it a good depiction of a courageous pacifist. I looked up his story afterwards, and found that the movie hadn't told the half.

The question is not whether Jesus called people to be pacifist, but whether he calls everyone to that discipline. The early church, closer than we to His ministry, was pretty firmly in the "no fighting or death penalty" camp, but then early Christians had no responsibility for governing.

Grim said...

"Grim said something a few years back about being unconflicted about killing a man to prevent his doing what Grim himself would rather die than do."

That was in this reflection on Easter week. I was in Iraq at the time, which may explain why I was reflection on violence in this way at Easter.

Grim said...

*...was reflecting...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ james - Tony Campolo once claimed that the Church was pacifist for its first three centuries. This seemed extreme to me, so I asked a NT scholar of my acquaintance about this. He smiled and asked "How would you describe the position of the 20th C Church on pacifism?" He waited a moment and then finished "The first three centuries of the Church were even more varied and complicated."

My take is that the most common form of refusing to take up arms in the early church was something similar to the position of Jehovah's Witnesses today: that all governments are so corrupt and so NOT the kingdom of God that no Christian should be wasting his time on having anything to do with them, and especially not fighting for their survival.

james said...

It's quite possible that my sources are inadequate--I'm not an expert, and it shows from time to time.

In any event, I am not a pacifist.

Thomas Doubting said...

I have heard that one way Christianity spread in the first three centuries was that a number of Roman soldiers became Christians and as they were moved here and there they made converts around the empire.

I don't know how true that is, though.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think both of those things are true. The soldiers were on the frontiers more than in the cities, and there don't seem to have been many of them believers, but those few had what we might call an introductory impact. People at least heard of the new faith. Most of the church believed the Second Coming was imminent and we were not to take up with earthly causes in general.

Yet there were certainly pacifists in the current sense, right from the start. Tertullian was one, I believe.

Thomas Doubting said...

James, I had never thought of someone being called to pacifism, but it makes sense.

Also, I think you are right about the early Christians not being rulers. I've long thought one of the biggest differences between the Old Testament / Covenant and New was that with the Jewish people God established a nation on earth, while with Christianity He established a spiritual nation. So, the Jewish faith has elements of civil and criminal law to it, while Christianity is about becoming and living as citizens of Heaven.