Sunday, July 09, 2006

Christian Pacifism: Wimpiness, or Prophetic Witness?

One thing I’ve sometimes noticed in discussions about Christian Pacifism, is that it is often misunderstood. In the popular imagination I believe it is considered hopelessly idealistic and unrealistic, or worse, the cowardly haven of milquetoast, panty-waisted, self-hating Americans who want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that evil forces in the world do not exist. But is this accurate?

I sense that Jesus Christ demands a lot more of us than what is covered in typical pious platitudes and pie-in-the-sky bromides we hear in a lot of Churches. There is far too much equivocation going on with the Gospel. Liberal Churches tend to stress the Peace Tradition as a form of prophetic witness. A lot of conservative Christians today are quick to look down on certain aspects of liberal Christianity, especially those who’ve traveled a hard road of alcoholism, or drug use, or promiscuity, and were pulled out of a downward spiral by the strong hand of God in a saving act of faith. For a lot of people who’ve gone back to the various churches, Christianity is a means to impart good values to their children – to keep them on the straight and narrow and to keep them from messing up their lives with indiscipline, substance abuse, and premarital sex. All of that is well and good, but that is a positive by-product of Christianity. It is not the essence of what it is.

Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God and our role in helping to bring it about. Jesus was speaking about a profound change to come about in the world. "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is,' or, 'There it is.' For behold, the kingdom of God is among you." The Kingdom is “here, but not yet”. There is an apocalyptic aspect to it, but it is also an undercurrent that runs through history. As members of the Body of Christ, “being in Christ”, and being granted sonship, we have a cooperative role to play, but the greater role is His. A great part of holiness is to step out of the way with our own wills and to let God do his work through us. If Christians don’t work to transform the world, and if the world is never transformed, then for what was this reconciliation between God and Man? “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven…”

Stephen Hand is a traditionalist who shares with many liberal Christians a belief in Christian Pacifism. On his TCRNEWS website, he posted this article by Michael Baxter, CSC, on Just War and Pacifism: A "Pacifist" Perspective in Seven Points, in which Baxter offers his views on what Christian Pacifism is, and what it is not. Some excerpts:
Having been asked to speak from a pacifist perspective, I should state right away that I have misgivings about the word "pacifism." Not only does it have connotations of an unreasonable refusal to take up arms to defend the innocent, like your wife or daughter or grandmother who is being raped. It also implies a moral position the substance of which is intelligible without reference to Christian belief and practice. This is not the kind of "pacifism" (if one must use the word) that I espouse. Placing the qualifier "Christian" before the word "pacifism" helps to correct this problem to some extent. But the implication still remains that pacifism is a coherent position the core of which is the same in spite of its many varieties.

At the outset of Romans 5, we read, "So then, now that we have been justified by faith, we are at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). In this context, "justified by faith" means "being admitted into God's favor in which we are living" (v. 2). This favor was puzzling because we were "still helpless," "godless" (v. 6), "still sinners" (v. 8); because we were "enemies" (v. 10), as the text reads "for if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more can we be sure that, being now reconciled, we shall be saved by his life?" (v. 10). For Paul, a fundamental and far reaching reconciliation has been accomplished in and through Christ, the reconciliation of God and humanity. We, who were God's enemies, have been brought into God's peace. This is not a reconciliation of individual Christians with God, as understood in certain strands of the Lutheran and Evangelical traditions. Rather, it is a reconciliation that is inherently social. It dissolves the enmity between Jew and Gentile. In this sense, the cross of Christ forges a new people, who live in a new way, made possible by Christ. Peace is thus, first and foremost, en ecclesial reality, and inasmuch as the Church is, in traditional Catholic ecclesiology, a perfect society, it is also a social reality…

…The irreducibly social character of peace, in the Catholic theological tradition, is illustrated in the great anti-Arian treatise On the Incarnation, where Athanasius declares that the truth of the divinity of Christ has been demonstrated in Egypt inasmuch as the spread Christianity has brought that land peace, true peace, God's peace. If we were to inquire as to how this peace is established, the answer would have to be that it is through the lives of those claimed by Christ in baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist; lives that are so transformed that Christians may be described as "partakers of Christ" or, simply, as "Christs."

…Similarly, there is the witness of those in the monastic and religious life whose obligations to follow the evangelical counsels included a refusal to participate in any kind of killing. Mot notable among these, perhaps, are the follower of Francis of Assisi, who, like their founder, renounced violence as part of pursuing the imitation of Christ. There are many other elements in Catholic tradition that reflect the Church's abhorrence for bloodshed (in keeping with the longstanding principle "the Church abhors bloodshed") or, to put it in positive terms, the Church's presumption for peace.

…No one receives the gift of peace as an individual, any more than they receive the Body of Christ as an individual. Rather, we receive the gift of peace as members of a body (I Cor 12:12-30, Romans 12:4-5), as branches on a vine who remain in God's love and lay down their lives for their friends (John 15:1-17). In this sense, Francis of Assisi was not "an individual"; he was a saint, a member within a communion, who took into his body the marks of Christ, and was thus shown to be a sharer in the body of Christ.

…There is a continuity between just war and pacifism, in that when the just war tradition is faithfully theorized and practiced, it calls for a politically disruptive witness on the part of its practitioners. The fact that such faithful practice is rare and exceptional should not obscure the demands of this tradition, but should make us press it upon the church all the more urgently, precisely because, as the experience in Austria showed, it has had little impact on the moral discernment of Catholics. One would hope that there would be a long record of careful moral discernment on the part of Catholics regarding their participation in war, in particular, regarding whether or not participating in a particular war would be unjust and thus an instance of cooperating with evil; and whether or not participating in particular actions or operations within a war would be unjust, and thus an instance of cooperating with evil. But the fact of the matter is that there is very little record of this kind of discernment among Austrian Catholics or German Catholics during these years. Moreover, there is very little record of this kind of discernment among American Catholics either.

…Most critics of pacifism contend that it is either unrealistic or irresponsible or both. But if one takes this strict understanding of just war theory, then it too can be criticized on similar grounds. Take, for example, the argument advanced by Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez in Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism (which by the way has a long section in the footnotes that confirms Anscombe's view of the immoral intentions of Allied Commanders in planning how to wage war against Nazi Germany ). …They argue that deterrence strategy is immoral in that it entails a willingness to take innocent life, or if not, then it entails lying. But, the question arises, if we reject deterrence strategy, what are we supposed to do? Let the Soviet Union conquer the West? In the final chapter of the book, they provide an answer to such questions by offering some "concluding Christian thoughts" including a "profession of faith" in Jesus Christ whose life, death, and resurrection shows to humanity the path of righteousness and true freedom. This path requires Christians to pay many costs, and one of those costs in the context of the nuclear rivalry of the early 1980s is a sacrifice of the notion that the fate of Christianity depends on the future of the Christian West, which must not, they point out, be confused with the kingdom of God. Christians must, in other words, have faith in Divine Providence, which calls them to greater detachment from the Christian West. A similar emphasis on Divine Providence can be found in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II, who argues that one should avoid evil no matter what the consequences, trusting that any and all consequences will be enveloped into God's mysterious plan. This profound belief in Divine Providence is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition which holds that God is capable of bringing forth good from any kind of horrifying evil.

…I have already alluded to the way that this legacy paved the way for a utilitarian method of doing social ethics, a method devised by professional ethicists in order to mitigate the violent dynamics of modern nation-states. But another feature in this development is that things associated with religion are relegated to, and cordoned off within, a different sphere of life. It is a sphere of ultimate ends, rather than means, a sphere of the Absolute rather than the Relative. In this thinking, the last thing we want involved in politics is someone who believes in an absolute ethics, such as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Also in this thinking, pacifism gets seen as an Absolute, which means it is irrelevant for politics. Thus pacifists, according to Richard John Neuhaus, in his emotional editorial in the December 2001 issue of First Things, are nothing more than a reminder of the Kingdom to come and have nothing to say about the morality of war among the kingdoms of this world. Hence my misgivings about being identified as a "pacifist." Hence too my wariness of questions such as, "Are you an absolute pacifist?"

So let me answer that question before the question period begins. I am not an "absolute pacifist." Rather, I am an absolute Nicean and Chalcedonian Christian, that is, I believe absolutely that the Son is one in being with the Father, and that the fullness of God's will and the fullness of God's life, is revealed and made possible in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, which He gave to us, along with His gift of peace. And it is only by thinking more critically about, and distancing ourselves from, the waging of war by modern nation-states, that we will worthily receive that Gift of Peace.

TCR Editor Stephen Hand / On a Personal Note: I have always been a hairs breadth away from calling myself a pacifist, but it seems to me a term easily misunderstood ---and it means different things to different people. If it means opposing wars as a means to resolving international conflicts and having a radical suspicion of what hubris, greed and real motives or misguided analysis lie behind such wars, then yes, count me in from my youth. If it means considering Dorothy Day was a prophet, I have believed that since a very young man, despite a few differences. In other words I am with the radical peacemakers, and forsake all jingoistic warmongers as I would reject Hell itself.

If it means I believe War is largely "a racket" then count me in. If it means judging innocent others for defending themselves when aggressed upon (e.g., Poland after Hitler pounced), count me out. There is a higher way--- the earliest Christians, Gandhi, Tolstoy, and I praise and urge that--- but not all are capable of it when under attack. If it means watching a neighbor get jumped without trying to help, that is ridicuous and unchristian, for it is cowardice not to aid others who are victims of crimes. I can only pray that if I were (alone) personally attacked, I would have the faith and spiritual courage not to defend myself, but to call the aggressor to consider God and the eternal soul he is risking and offer my beating or life for him. But to announce in advance that I would be so heroically virtuous seems ludicrous to me (how can I know?; it would be like saying "I am a Saint" which is preposterous. I have not been so tested.) So we must, it seems to me, be radical peacemakers vis a vis nations and war in general, without announcing thoughtless pronouncements on our virtues ahead of time.

These few caveats are, again, a far cry from modern wars which kill 93% civilians to 7% soldiers. And premptive / preventive wars are out of the question. As is the extension of empire (read "vital interests") through war. And the choice of destroying nations to kill certain dictators while propping up others. We are peacemakers by grace. Not warmongers. We will not fight and kill simply because some government tells us to.


Mike McG... said...

Good post, Jeff. It put me in mind of Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, formerly of Notre Dame and now at Duke.

"The essential presupposition of peacemaking as an activity among Christians is our common belief that we have been made part of a community in which people no longer regard their lives as their own. We are not permitted to harbor our grievances as “ours.” When we think our brother or sister has sinned against us, such an affront is not just against us but against the whole community. A community established as peaceful cannot afford to let us relish our sense of being wronged without exposing that wrong in the hopes of reconciliation. We must learn to see wrongs as “personal” because we are part of a community where the “personal” is crucial to the common good.

"It is an unpleasant fact, however, that most of our lives are governed more by our hates and dislikes than by our loves. I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate. It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?"

Pacifism requires conversion as well as renunciation of our attachment to personal autonomy. A touch sell, to be sure.

crystal said...


your post made me look around the net for more info on this subject ... thanks for that ... and I found an article (by a Jesuit, of course) called Is it time for Catholics to become pacifist?

It had a quote of JFK's ...

President Kennedy said it well, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” Kennedy spoke in the great tradition of Catholicism and a Quaker appeal when he predicted that, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.”

Darius said...

Maybe your position could be described as something like, "pragmatic pacifism" which is also mine. It isn't an absolutist stance that would see non violence as the solution in every case, but would view violence as a last resort, when no other options are viable.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, for example, lived in social contexts where nonviolence could work. But trying that with Adolf Hitler would have been a bad option!

To me, the problem today is that nonviolent means are highly underutilized, keeping the world in turmoil.

Paula said...

Jeff, I am so sorry to not have time to digest and comment these posts. I will catch up in few days.:-)

Jeff said...

Hi Mike!

Thanks for putting that quote in by Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas is an interesting guy. I had posted before about various theories of atonement here, and Hauerwas had an interesting interview about his view of atonement here.

Interesting what you say about our hates, dislikes, and personal autonomy. I reminds me of what you said before when you wrote:

Woundedness: The allure of ideological realignment as a method for settling personal scores. Its premise: Repudiating the views of persons and institutions that have wounded us moves us closer to the truth. But does it?

Jeff said...

Hi Crys,

Good article by Fr. Drinan. I didn't know he was still kicking around. :-) He's seemed awful quiet ever since they made him stand down from congress years ago. Thanks for posting that. I can always rely on you for good Ignatian stuff. :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Darius,

"Pragmatic pacifism" which depends on the social context... That's intriguing, because I've always had the impression that it (pacifism) is an all-or-nothing kind of deal that relied on total consistency. I'm trying to learn more about it. If you could fill us in, that would be great.


Jeff said...

Hi Paula, :-)

Don't worry, I'm the one struggling to keep up with everyone. Summertime... Some nice weather for a change... Very busy between birthdays, holidays, car repairs, and work..