Sunday, August 24, 2014

Christ is Not With Us

Is Christ with us?
A. Yes
B. No
C. All of the above.
My first inclination would be to answer “A,” of course Christ is with us. Did he not promise to always be with us (Matt. 28:20)? The New Testament, however, taken as a whole, would answer “C,” Christ is with us, in one sense, but in another sense Christ is absent from us. Perhaps the starkest contrast can be found in Matthew’s gospel where just a couple chapters before this cherished promise of ongoing presence, we find Jesus acknowledging his upcoming absence when he tells his followers that he will not always be with them (Matt. 26:11).
So, while it is one-sided to merely say that Christ is absent from us, it is just as one-sided to merely say that Christ is present with us. It seems to me that we often make the mistake of focusing on just the promises of presence and not the acknowledgements of absence in the New Testament. This is especially prevalent in the way we talk about the meaning of communion. We talk about it as a way, indeed a central way, of experiencing Christ’s ongoing presence in the world and among us. Often the phrase “real presence” is used to describe this belief that Christ isn’t just present in our imaginations or minds, but is actually objectively present in a mysterious way in the sacramental meal.
I believe all this to be true, and it is certainly taught in the New Testament. But this is not all that is taught about the meaning of communion. Yes, Christ promises in one sense to be with us (“This is my body… This is my blood”), but at the same time acknowledges that this ritual meal will be carried out in his absence when he says that he will not participate in this meal again until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness (Luke 22:15-16; Mark 14:25). In a similar vein, the apostle Paul refers to communion as a way of “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor.11:26). So, there is a sense in which in communion we experience Christ in the present, but another sense in which in communion we acknowledge that Christ was once with us in a way that he currently isn’t, and will one day be with us in a way that he currently isn’t.
Talking about the “real presence” of Christ is only part of the truth. There is also a “real absence.”
This scriptural balance is important to maintain for our spiritual health. If we just focus on the promises of presence, we can get the mistaken impression that Christians are to always be compulsively happy and immune from life’s pains because Christ is with us and therefore nothing can hurt us. The problem is that this isn’t true, and if you always try to sustain a walking-on-sunshine attitude, you will wear yourself out and become alienated from reality.
The New Testament is much more realistic than that. Because we are in an important sense away from Christ, our hearts will ache, our bodies will suffer, our deepest longings will go unfulfilled, and our relationships with be difficult.New Testament scholar Mark Powell, in his book Loving Jesus, says that as we grow up and mature in the faith our compulsive happiness should turn into a confident sadness. We are without the fullness of Christ’s presence, and that is reason for us to mourn. Ironically, the deepest kind of joy or well-being (“blessedness”) comes from being willing to enter into this kind of sadness (Matt. 5:4).
Now when I celebrate holy communion, I don’t just see it as a way of experiencing Christ’s presence. I see it as a way of coping with Christ’s absence. Feeling like Christ is absent, feeling sad at times because of the sense of divine absence in your life, is not a sign of spiritual weakness or failure. We need to reclaim the fullness of the paradoxical biblical truth that Christ both is and is not with us.
The Bible uses a number of images to try to capture this dynamic tension, perhaps the most prominent being that of a bride and her groom. The groom has been taken away, and we look forward in hopeful anticipation of the wedding feast and the intimate union in all its fullness. It is a reality we long for and anticipate, not one we currently enjoy. Contemporary theology and preaching seems to have taken a sharp turn towards emphasizing exclusively the present dimension of the gospel message as a way of correcting an older mistakenly one-sided emphasis on the future dimension of the gospel. Both are distortions.
Christ is not with you.
Christ will be with you always.
They’re both true. Accept the first and deny the second, and you get an unbearable despair. Accept the second and deny the first, and you get an unsustainable “happiness.” Accept both and you get biblical faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why I Am Hiding My Daughter's Bible

Many churches have a custom of giving out "3rd Grade Bibles." At my previous church job, I had the privilege of giving one of my daughters her Bible in worship. Now, two years later, I have taken it away and hid it. 

I have not done this because I don't want her influenced and shaped by biblical stories. I've done it because I don't want her to read the Bible on her own at this stage in her life. As I have reflected on it, and with all due respect to those who would disagree with this (which would be many people based on the prevalence of this practice), I've come to the conclusion that giving the "real" Bible to young children is a horrible mistake. Here's why.

Our fifth-grader is a voracious reader. She reads way above her level and has been known to put down a Harry Potter volume in one day. We're pretty proud of that. As she is getting older we want her to be challenged by books with greater depth and complexity, but we still have a very active role in what she reads. There are just some themes and narrative styles that an eleven year old should not be exposed to. It's tough as a parent to try to balance censoring and challenging, but that's the job we all have as parents (nearly every tough part of parenting is some kind of balancing act, isn't it?). 

So back to the Bible. I believe the Bible is inspired by God to lead us to faith in Christ and train us in righteousness and all that. Let's just get that out there. My life was changed dramatically by reading the New Testament in one week when I was eighteen. I get the spiritual power of the Bible. 

But whatever we want to say about the Bible in terms of being "inspired" or "authoritative" or whatever, it is also undeniably true that the Bible is an ancient library filled with all kinds of difficult and scary stuff. When we go to the public library, we don't just drop off our daughter and let her explore anything in the library. So why should we do that when it comes to the ancient library we call the Bible? 

Let's say she were to bring home a book from school that contained stories about:
brothers murdering brothers
a god who kills nearly all of humanity
men letting other men sleep with their wives to save themselves
men having sex with their slaves
daughters getting their dad drunk so they can sleep with him
and men who try to rape other men...

We would probably not approve of such a book. Which is an understatement. I don't want my eleven year old daughter reading stories about incest, murder, and rape. None of this changes just because the cover of the book is a fake black shiny leather with gold printing on it. By the way, this list of themes doesn't even get us past the first half of the first book of the Bible. What if your child were to keep reading and, God forbid, made it all the way to Ezekiel. You might have to answer some awkward questions about donkey penises and stallion ejaculations. (Don't google this. Just turn to Ezekiel 23. Seriously, don't google it.)

So, I think we've made a big mistake in giving Bibles to children. I don't have a perfect solution all worked out. I admire children's pastors a ton for the tough work they have, and I admire any parent who takes an active role in wanting to spiritually shape their kids in the way of Christ. Like I said, I really don't have the solution, I am just naming what I see as a problem. 

Because the Bible is an account of divinity getting all wrapped up in humanity, we should expect it to be messy and rough around the edges. We should expect stories of failure and perversion, raw and gut-wrenching narratives of loss and pain, and so on, along with all the beautiful stories of hope and perseverance and faith. That's life, and because the Bible faithfully narrates life with God, all that is to be expected. None of this is a problem for the Bible as such. But as the author of one biblical book put it, there is a time for everything. Maybe third-grade isn't the time to drop our kids off in the biblical library. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Letting Go of God

Early in his career, C.S. Lewis wrote a short poem, eventually published as part of The Pilgrim's Regress and later given the title "A Footnote to All Prayers" by his literary trustee Walter Hooper, which points to a spiritual dynamic in the life of faith that is too easily ignored or forgotten: the necessity of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. 
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
Like Pheidias, the ancient Greek sculptor, we carve out images of God in our minds and then trick ourselves into thinking that the God "out there" is identical to the God "in here." Our words and concepts, though, can never serve as containers for God, for, as Lewis reminds us, they are merely "arrows, aimed unskillfully" at God. 
Throughout the Christian tradition there has always been a constructive tension between saying things about God, and at the same time acknowledging that all our words fall short of the divine reality. It is to our detriment when this paradoxical polarity gets out of balance. We can speak truthfully about God, but we do not speak with "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." We become idolaters, Lewis says, when we forget that our religious language provides us with a very human and very limited representation of God, not the reality of God. To worship God in spirit and truth requires that we be willing to let go of "God," to acknowledge that the God who fills the universe cannot be trapped in the confines of our minds. 
I think it is unfortunate that people sometimes feel like they have to become atheists and leave Christianity behind to doubt God. Atheism has (in a certain way) always been an important part of faith. When people start doubting the existence of God, they are, of course, really doubting "God," not God. Sure, some people may go on to deny the possibility of any kind of divine presence or sacred mystery, but that should not be the quick and short-circuited conclusion one draws from beginning to doubt their current understanding of God. 
Your "God" is not God.  The failure or refusal to recognize this difference breeds both the worst kind of religion and the most superficial kind of atheism. 
In order to hold on to faith in God, sometimes we need to let go of "God." The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that he once prayed for "God to rid me of God." He was affirming the need for a sort of spiritual iconoclasm, a purging of images from the mind so that the depth and breadth of God could be more fully known. 
In virtually every area of life, as we grow up we let go of previous understandings in order to deepen and expand our knowledge and to better connect with reality. This is true of our understanding of the cosmos, of science, of relationships, of history, and so on. Why shouldn't it be the same with our understanding of, and relationship to, God? If growth and change must happen with earthly matters, how much more with heavenly matters? 
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Myth of a Constantinian Fall

This post is the fourth in a series on Christian ethics and the use of force.

One of the most frequently made assertions in defense of the pacifist viewpoint (which, broadly construed, is the idea that at least lethal force and perhaps even all force is immoral for Christians) is that the early church was uniformly pacifist, and that it wasn't until emperor Constantine in the fourth century gave a higher legal status to Christianity that you see Christians engaging in and defending warfare. On this view of history, up until the fourth century you have a pacifist church following Jesus, and then you get a militant church following Constantine. But there are good reasons for questioning such an account.

Pacifists, then, would interpret the legalization and promotion of Christianity by Constantine as a sort of "fall" from a more pristine moral condition. Constantine, it is argued, was never a genuine Christian, but just used the church to unify his empire and in doing so the church imbibed an imperial ethos and became much more comfortable using force.

I must say that this line of thinking is one I am drawn to. I am skeptical, even cynical most of the time, about people with power, and especially when people in power make religious claims. As an ancient Greek philosopher once said, "To the masses, all religions are equally true; to the philosophers, they are all equally false; to politicians, they are all equally useful." So, as a general rule, I would be inclined to accept an account like this, or, at least, would be inclined to think it is probably true. The idea of a power-hungry ruler using and distorting the Christian faith for his own purposes is not at all implausible.

However, I think there are significant problems with the idea that pre-Constantinian church was virtually all pacifist, and then with Constantine we see a sudden and unprecedented shift in accepting the moral legitimacy and necessity of force. It is true that in the early church we find most of the major theologians speaking against Christian participation in the Roman army, but from this it is problematic to then assert, first, that the whole church was pacifist, and, second, that therefore this is probably the right position for all Christians to take.

This is really much too big of an issue to try to say something helpful in a short post, but I am just going to make a few critical observations. For those interested, two of the books that have been the most helpful to me are Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom and John Helgeland's Christians and the Military: The Early Experience.

1) Even if for the sake of the argument we assume that the whole early church was pacifist, it is possible they were all wrong in taking this stance. One can't argue Christian ethics based simply on early church practice. The early church was unanimous, for example, that virginity was to be prized over marriage, but many Christians now regard that anti-sexual stance as unfounded. While early church tradition has always had a fairly high level of authority attached to it (and rightly so, to my mind), that doesn't mean it was a golden age where Christians agreed on everything and got it all right.

2) In point of fact, though, one can't conclude what most Christians thought based on the writings of some of the early thinkers whose writings have come down to us. If Christians were anything then like we are now, then most people have no problem disagreeing with what there leaders think! We should also keep in mind that we have virtually no knowledge of what most pastors and church leaders were teaching in this era. We have the writings of some of the major voices, but we can't assume that most people agreed with these thinkers.

3) The idea that Constantine took a totally pacifist church and twisted it to suit his political agenda of imperial domination is, even before looking at any of the historical evidence, implausible and suspicious. If Constantine just wanted a religion to advance his political goals, and if Christianity was known for being uniformly opposed to force, then why would he pick that religion? (Which was still a minority religion at that point in the empire.) It just doesn't compute. If your main goal is imperial domination, why try to make a religion that has absolute-nonviolence at its center your means of achieving that goal?

4) The motivations for opposing Christian participation in the army by most of the early church theologians were complex. It wasn't just that they opposed all killing (although some did). They opposed Christians being in the army, in large part, because that involved participating in the emperor cult and other pagan religions and sacrifices. Origen, for example, is often cited as the strongest pacifist in the early church. Yet, Origen supported the state and even prayed for "brave armies." He thought that people should fight for the state, just not Christians because Christians were a priesthood and priests should always be exempt from fighting. Instead of fighting, Christians should pray for those doing the fighting for a righteous cause. His moral logic, then, was much different from that of many contemporary pacifists, and is certainly questionable.

So, for these reasons, I don't think that Constantine caused the church to "fall" from its previous moral purity. Instead of thinking of it as a fall, it seems more likely to me that the legalization and subsequent imperial sponsorship of Christianity intensified and strengthened the strand of Christian thinking going back to the New Testament (and in the Jewish faith before it) that affirmed that governmental structures (and the force needed to sustain them at times) are from God (Romans 13:1-7, for example). While Christianity was a persecuted and suspicious minority in the empire for its first few centuries of existence, it had little reason to develop and expand this strand of thought. After gaining power with the rise of Constantine, this line of thinking took center stage and certainly had reason to grow and develop.

None of this is to deny that the Christian faith has often been, and still is, hijacked by powerful people to advance their kingdoms. I also do not think that the Constantinian shift was a total blessing to the church, as it is not hard to point to ways in which the church began to abuse power, especially in the persecution of "heretics" and the unquestioned identification of divine blessing and imperial expansion. However, I also do not think it is fair to think of this shift as the absolute curse it is often painted out to be by some on the pacifist side. Like most things, it was a mix of the two, sometimes being more of a blessing, and sometimes being more of a curse.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jesus and Self-Defense

This is the third post in a series on Christian ethics and the use of force.

It is often assumed that Jesus' ethical teaching is uniformly pacifist in nature. Consequently, even those who identify as Christian and yet support the use of force for self-defense or protection of others will often feel the need to resort to claiming that while Jesus holds up absolute non-violence as the ideal, we will inevitably fall short of that because of the kind of world we live in. Force, then, in the contexts just mentioned, is usually justified as a necessary evil, a moral compromise that bridges the gap between the reality of a violent world and the ideals of Jesus' teaching.

However, there are several passages in the Gospels that might lead one to question whether Jesus really was an absolute pacifist. Before looking more closely at the two passages that I think offer a legitimate (albeit limited) challenge to the pacifist model, I first want to point out a couple passages that often get appealed to in this discussion by just-war folks that I think are not helpful at all in trying to show Jesus wasn't really a pacifist.

The Centurion 

The first is the story of a centurion (Roman army official) who comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his slave (Matt 5:8-13). Jesus is impressed with this man's faith and heals the slave. Just war folks have often said, "See, here is Jesus talking to someone in the army, and not a word about how he needs to quit his job. Therefore, being in the military and using force must be ok." Arguments from silence, though, are inherently suspect. Jesus also doesn't say a word in this conversation about slavery being wrong, but from that I don't think we should conclude Jesus had no problems with slavery. This passage offers little to us in our discernment about the ethics of force.

The Temple Demonstration

The second passage that is frequently appealed to is the story of Jesus "cleansing the temple." Whether it happened at the beginning of his ministry (John) or at the end (Matt, Mark, Luke), at some point Jesus went into the temple with a whip and drove out the animals and turned over the tables of the money changers as a way of protesting against what the temple had become in his estimation: a center of economic injustice and religious corruption. This story does offer a correction to the image of Jesus as a soft person, meek and mild, who merely went around playing with children and gazing at flowers. Jesus also could get angry and forceful, and could be intimidating to deal with (see also Matt 23). Yet, there is nothing in this story that indicates Jesus had any intention of hurting anyone physically. If Jesus had attacked anyone, he would have likely been arrested on the spot. Like the prophets before him, he employed a bold demonstrative action to bring attention to his charge of corruption, but there is little, if anything, in this story that could be used to justify force or coercive action against another person.

Take a Staff?

The next passage, I believe, contains more promise of relevance for our discussion, and it is one that is rarely brought up in these discussions. It concerns Jesus' instructions to his disciples we he sent them out on a preaching journey.

Mark 6:8-9 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

A staff was a multi-purpose object. In traveling, it could be used as a walking stick, but it also served the purpose of providing some basic protection as a means of self-defense from robbers and bandits. In allowing his disciples to take a staff, is he endorsing the legitimacy of using at least some degree of force to defend oneself? While that is a possible reading, there is no way to prove conclusively this is what is going on. Conversely, there is no way to prove this isn't what is going on either. The difficulty of interpreting this passage is compounded by the fact that Matthew and Luke record this episode differently, telling us that Jesus ordered them to not take a staff with them (Matt 10:10, Luke 9:3). So, while this passage may be relevant for the discussion, the conclusion we can draw is somewhat limited. What we can say is that at least some remembered Jesus as encouraging his followers to go out with a staff, and that one of the main uses of a staff was self-defense. Any stronger statement involves speculation and specification that goes beyond what the text tells us. 

Buy a Sword

The last story I want to look at provides the strongest challenge to understanding Jesus as an absolute pacifist. Luke records the following scene which happened shortly after the Passover meal and before Jesus was arrested:

Luke 22: 35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

This is a very difficult passage to understand. Broadly speaking, Jesus' words can be taken metaphorically or literally. Many, especially pacifists, opt to take these words metaphorically, and point out that elsewhere Jesus uses sword language metaphorically to talk about the divisions and difficulty allegiance to him will bring to people ("I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." - Matt 10:34). On this interpretation, the disciples misunderstand the metaphor and look for actual swords, and Jesus corrects them by exclaiming, "That's enough!"

While Jesus certainly does use sword language elsewhere in a metaphorical way, interpreting his statement here in this context metaphorically seems a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. In this context, Jesus is reminding them of an actual command at a previous time to literally not do something, and now he is saying that a changed context requires changing that previous command. It certainly seems that Jesus is talking in a very straightforward, literal way about the need to amp up personal security and safety a bit in light of the troubles to come with his approaching arrest and execution. 

Some pacifists acknowledge these points and interpret the passage literally, but argue that while Jesus wanted the disciples to get a couple swords, he didn't want them to use them, as is evident from how the story progresses. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter gets a sword and strikes one of them to try to protect Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him and tells him to put the sword away. 

So, if Jesus didn't want them to use the swords, why would he tell them to get them? Some would argue that Jesus wanted to make sure that he would be arrested, so he needed his companions to look like troublemakers (fulfilling the scripture to be "counted among the lawless"). So he wanted them to get some swords to look like a violent gang so that his plan to get arrested as a suspected revolutionary would go through. 

This interpretation strikes me as very ad hoc and strained. It is highly questionable that Jesus would need to deceive the Roman authorities into thinking they were a violent gang in order for him to be arrested. The Gospels tell us that the religious officials (who had the ear of the political authorities) had been intent on killing Jesus for a good while, and Jesus' demonstration in the temple was enough to mark him as a potential revolutionary. Add to that the fact that Judas had already betrayed Jesus' location to the authorities (indicating there desire to act immediately to arrest him), it seems that Jesus' fate was sealed and he certainly didn't need to do anything else to get arrested.

But the problem still remains: if Jesus wanted his band of eleven to have a couple swords, why then did he rebuke them when the sword was used? The early church theologian Tertullian wrote that "in disarming Peter, Christ disarmed every Christian." But is that true? What is clear from the story is that Christ did not want force to be used to protect himself. He was convinced he had a unique mission to go to the cross and offer himself up to God, and that his death would have a saving effect for all people. But while it is clear that Christ didn't want force to be used to stop his arrest, it is not as clear that Christ was against his disciples using force to protect themselves. 

Since the metaphorical approach to this passage seems deficient, and therefore some kind of literal approach seems to be the only valid interpretive option, Jesus must have wanted the group to have the swords for some reason, and self-defense seems as likely a candidate for that reason as anything else. If that is the case, though, then there is the apparent practical problem, often pointed out by pacifist-leaning interpreters, of how two swords could be enough to protect the whole band of disciples from the authorities who might be after them. But lets think about it: if Jesus encouraged them to get swords to protect them from the Roman army/police, then even if each of them had a sword in each hand that wouldn't be enough. They would be no match for Roman military force no matter how many swords they had. Perhaps, then, what Jesus had in mind is not self-defense from the Roman authorities, but the kind of self-defense that would be needed from small gangs of robbers and looters during the massive social and political upheaval he believed was soon to take place in Jerusalem. Presumably, having two armed disciples to watch out for the other nine would be reasonably effective for this purpose. This interpretation, while not free from difficulty, seems to me to be the least inadequate way of accounting for this passage. 

The final objection that could be made from the pacifist side against this interpretation is that the early church seems to have uniformly understood Jesus as rejecting all violence, and an early and uniform interpretation is likely to be the most accurate. In the next post, we'll look at the early church tradition and raise questions about the frequent assertion that it was uniformly pacifist. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Loving Enemies, Defending Neighbors

This is the second post in a series on the Christian ethics of the use of force. 

Although the pacifist position can certainly draw from a variety of teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus, the central or foundational text for this view can be found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:38-48:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Admittedly, at least on the surface, these words of Jesus seem very hard to square with the idea of using lethal force in self-defense, or even in trying to protect others. Loving enemies and killing enemies certainly, and understandably, strikes many people as mutually exclusive options. In what follows, I want to do one main thing. I want to argue that this reading of this teaching, while it may be true, isn't obviously true. In other words, I want to show, at a minimum, that the pacifist position can't simply be justified by merely quoting this passage as a proof-text. In a later post, I want to talk more about a couple of gospel passages where it seems that Jesus does, at least on the surface, advocate using weapons in self-defense, which, if that is the case, would certainly influence how one understands this text. For now though, I want to just stick with this text and offer some considerations that might lead one to doubt if Jesus is here teaching an ethic of absolute non-violence. 

The first thing I would point out is this: Jesus frequently used startling, shocking, and presumably exaggerated language in order to make a point. Perhaps the most non-controversial examples of this would be where Jesus tells people to cut off body parts that might lead them into sin. I can imagine a pacifist responding that Jesus' teaching to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, etc., doesn't sound like exaggerated imagery or hyperbolic speech, it sounds like a straightforward practical command. So let's take another example, where Jesus' mode of speech seems to be a straightforward practical command:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal." - Matthew 6:19

We might ask, for example, how in the world this command could ever be reconciled with the practice of having a savings account or, especially, a pension fund. The vast majority of Christians (I would suppose) see no conflict between this teaching and having a savings account or paying into a pension. Most would interpret this, instead, as a statement about one's priorities and values, and would take from it that Jesus is teaching us that we should not put out trust or our sense of security in our money but in God. 

The interesting thing is that this interpretive move is exactly how a large tradition in the church, following St. Augustine, has handled the "love your enemy" text. It doesn't concern outward actions so much as inward dispositions. Just as you can save money as long as you don't put your faith and identity in it, so also you are allowed, if necessary for self-defense or the protection of others, to use coercive and even lethal force against others as long as you do not hate them in your heart. 

I don't presume to have shown this is necessarily the correct interpretation of the enemy love command, I only point out, at this point, that there are a number of things Jesus said that, while they may seem straightforward in their meaning and simple in their application, often turn out to be much more complicated. In this same passage that we are exploring, for example, Jesus clearly says that we are to give to people who ask of us. But do we draw from this that it would always be wrong to refrain from giving to someone what they ask of us? Most of us don't. Jesus puts forward an ideal in strong language, but apparently leaves it up to his followers to interpret and work out the details. I would suggest this is probably the case with the enemy love command. Just as one can't draw a straight line from "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth" to a prohibition on all savings, I also don't think one can draw a straight line from "love your enemies" to the conclusion that lethal force can never be justified. 

It is also worth pointing out the examples or illustrations that Jesus himself uses as he fleshes out this command. All of the examples, even the one about turning the other cheek, are about responding in non-violent and creative ways to gestures or actions of others that seek to demean or degrade us. They are about how to respond to different kinds of insults, not how to respond to an assault that threatens one's life or the life of another. (As Walter Wink and others have forcefully argued, the turn the other cheek command probably envisions someone being given a back-hand slap as an insult, not being attacked. It is a situation that addresses how to respond when your honor is challenged, not when your life is threatened.) 

The situations Jesus talks about in this passage strike me as radically different than a scenario where someone's life is in danger because of an aggressor. He seems to be concerned with people not getting sucked into cycles of revenge, not with giving rules about the use of force in protecting others or self. 

Just as one can raise all sorts of considerations about why a literal and absolute application of the "don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth" would not work, one can also raise many questions about why a strict and absolute application of non-violence would sometimes not seem to be the most loving option. From what I have read, it seems that pacifists really hate it when people raise the "what if" questions and paint awful scenarios where someone is going to kill your child unless you kill them. Some pacifists (like Yoder) think these are illegitimate questions because they assume too much, like that you know that violence is the only resort or that you know you will be able to carry through the use of lethal force in the way the scenario requires. The most common strategy on the part of the pacifist is to not answer the "what if" question at all, but to question the assumptions behind the question. While challenging some of the assumptions is helpful in some ways, in other ways it simply avoids addressing a situation where the assumptions would hold to be true, and there are situations where the assumptions would hold to be true. These kinds of scenarios are not merely hypothetical. They really happen. Here is an example.

A couple years ago, a young man came to see me at my church office. He wanted to talk with me because he had just pulled a gun on someone and wanted to know if he had done the right thing. He was in a parking lot at a store and witnessed one man attack another man. The two men got in a scuffle, and they ended up next to his truck that he was getting in. The aggressor reached for a sharp piece of metal that was in the bed of the truck, and he put it to the other guy's throat and was attempting to stab him. The young man who witnessed this had a carry permit and had a pistol in his glove box. He quickly got the gun, pointed it at the aggressor, and told him that if he didn't let go immediately he would shoot him. The aggressor let go and ran off, and was apprehended by the police minutes later. 

Now, what would you say to this person? 

Here is a situation where it is hard to imagine any other possible way to save the man's life than to use the threat of lethal force. Perhaps there was another way, but he couldn't see it, and, in hearing the story from him, I couldn't see it. I told him I thought he was courageous and that he should feel good that he saved a man's life and that it all ended without any serious harm. 

Paul Ramsey, the influential just-war ethicist, once asked us to imagine a tweaking of the parable of the good Samaritan. He said to imagine that the Samaritan arrived earlier, when the man was being attacked on the road by the robber. What would the good Samaritan do then? It is one thing to turn one's own cheek when being dishonored, but it is another to turn one's face away from an injustice without acting to stop it. 

The pacifist would want to point out here that violence and inaction are not the only possibilities. Some type of non-violent intervention might be possible. Perhaps, for example, the Samaritan could throw himself on top of the man being beaten and hope that this display of love would move the robbers to stop what they are doing. Perhaps, as Yoder suggests, one should simply be obedient to Jesus and hope for a miracle in this kind of situation. I would suggest that if your ethical chain of reasoning involves a step that involves "insert miracle here," perhaps there is something amiss with your chain of reasoning. I believe in the possibility of miracles, but I don't there is any ground for assuming or expecting them in such a scenario. 

Although I would strong disagree with them, here is where I really respect the pacifists: most would acknowledge how deeply counter-intuitive pacifism is, how it seems to go against some of our deepest convictions, and yet they would respond by saying that Jesus is Lord and since Jesus commanded nonviolence we will commit ourselves to that and leave the consequences up to him. I think there is something praiseworthy about this posture. 

If I was convinced Jesus taught absolute nonviolence, then I would hope I would have the same approach. But I am not convinced. I have shown in this post that there are some good reasons to question using this teaching as a basis for absolute pacifism. 

I think the pacifists are right to challenge us by pointing out that our imaginations have been truncated and constrained by the myth of redemptive violence that is pervasive in the world. As someone put it, "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." We are too quick, in many cases, to assume force is the only solution. But I think it is easy to make the same absolutist error in the other direction, and assume that force can never be the right solution. 

Although pacifists can certainly be, and often are, very articulate and sophisticated scholars, the pacifist reading of this passage always strikes me as rather fundamentalist. That is to say, it clings to the most literal and absolutized application possible without showing an openness to interpretive ambiguity and exegetical complexity. This is not true of all pacifists, to be sure, but it is true of those who quote this passage as if it ends all discussion. On numerous occasions I have had people of a pacifist bent tell me, "Here is what it comes down to: do you really think Jesus meant what he said?" 

Well, before we can ask if Jesus meant what he said, we have to ask if Jesus meant what we think he meant when he said what he said. I have suggested that the pacifist reading of this text goes too far and claims too much. I should hasten to say, though, that even if one were to agree with everything I said, that wouldn't mean the pacifist position has been discredited. Although appeal to this passage is central for most Christian pacifists, it is by no means their only argument or their only scriptural resource. Most would say that we should interpret Jesus' teachings by his example, and that his non-violent life and self-sacrificing death clearly shows what enemy love looks like, and it never involves violence. We'll explore that line of argument further in the next couple posts.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Did Jesus Really Teach Non-Violence?

Several months back, a crazy guy came to my house several times one night wanting to come inside. He said that heaven was in my home and that he had to get in. I assured him that while it was a nice place, it wasn't heaven. For several hours he persisted in his delusional rant, yet I was able to keep him outside in our front yard. Keeping him out of the house and away from my family was my primary concern, so I did everything and said everything I could think of to keep him in conversation outside. I listened to him, prayed with him, listened a lot more, and, to make a long story short, finally ending up having to call a neighbor to help out, and then the police. He left before the cops showed up. When they finally arrived, they told me to not go outside again if he comes. So, I went back in the house, and spent the rest of the night staring out of the window with a gun nearby.

This little incident got me to thinking a lot more about my beliefs about Jesus and the ethics of force. As a mostly decent person, I would hate to shoot someone. As a Christian, I struggle with whether it could ever be the right thing to do. I do, in fact, think it could be the right thing (otherwise I wouldn't own a gun), but I still struggle with it, which I suppose is a good thing. I am not a pacifist, but out of all the things I don't believe, pacifism presents me with the greatest challenge.

Some Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus taught absolute non-violence, or pacifism, which essentially boils down to the conviction that it is always wrong for a Christian to use violence. Some pacifists would allow for non-lethal uses of force (like, say, tackling someone and restraining them), but in general pacifists assume and assert that Jesus is against all killing, and at least many forms of physical force or coercion.

The pacifist case is very strong. As I said earlier, as much as I don't believe in this perspective, I find it very difficult to disagree with it. This seems to have been the majority view of the early church, and the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles certainly seem (at least on the surface, and perhaps even upon closer inspection) to point in this direction. Most Christian traditions, however, after the fourth-century and up until the present day, have not been pacifist and have assumed and argued that some forms of coercion and lethal force are not only allowed, but sometimes required in order to love our neighbors.

To help me work through some of my thoughts on this matter, I decided to do a series of posts on this question. Hopefully it might be of some help to others who also wrestle with this. Not sure yet how many it will be. I would like to explore the following topics, not necessarily in this order:

Can you "love your enemy" and shoot them? 

Is "WWJD?" always the right principle for Christian ethics?

Was Jesus really pacifist? 

Was the early church really completely pacifist?

What does Christianity have to say about "gun control"?