Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Christian Pacifism: Two Clarifications, and a Question

Last night while hanging out with a friend of mine here at Candler, one of the major subjects of conversation that arose was the pacifism and theology of Stanley Hauerwas. My friend has read him here and there, but never thoroughly or for an extended period of time. Moreover, while still speaking out of the Christian tradition, he is much more inclined philosophically than theologically, so he and I have significantly different ways of thinking about and looking at the world.

Some of his questions provoked increased examination of the tenets of the kind of peaceableness Hauerwas (and Yoder -- though I know they are not univocal here) posits, argues, explicates, and represents, alongside helpful reminders about what Christian pacifism is and is not. So: a couple of clarifications, then an enduring question my friend left me with.

First, inevitably in conversations of these sorts the question arises, "Sure, but if such-and-such happened [e.g., an attacker accosted you or a family member], you're honestly telling me you wouldn't do anything?"

One key word here is "anything," but we'll leave that aside. More important is "would." To be clear: Christian discipleship does not primarily speak to or call on us regarding what I or we would do in life. Discipleship -- that is, the call of Jesus to follow after him -- is about what we should do. It is not natural. It is not normal. It is not what comes easily. It is the call of repentance: not to feel bad or guilty or shameful, or to feel anything, but to turn, to halt in the way we were going and to change trajectory into the way of life embodied in the crucified and risen Messiah.

Pacifism properly grounded -- as it is so in Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder -- is grounded concretely here, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in discipleship to this man, his teaching, and the form of his life. We should not expect the call to be Jesus' disciple to be anything less than a painful intrusion into what comes naturally to us.

Which leads to the second clarification. "Countercultural" is an oft-used term these days, and to some extent rightly so, but I wonder if, vis-a-vis cruciform discipleship in particular, counterinstinctual might be a better descriptor. Yes, not defending myself (or even, with the use of violence, another) is not instinctual. Our instincts tell us: fight or flight, shoot or duck, strike or flee. Not to retaliate is by its very nature against these instincts, precisely because Christian faith tells us that such instincts belong to the old age, the fallen age, and followers of Jesus Christ -- rescued in his cross and resurrection, welcomed into his people, empowered by his Spirit -- do not belong to or act according to the ways of that age. Disciples of Jesus are people of the coming age, in which they study war no more, in which they beat their guns into garden tools.

And so we see, through a properly eschatological lens, that Christian discipleship's counterinstinctual locus is in common league with its ought-ness over against its would-ness. Would we fight back? Would I kill? Maybe. Probably yes. Should we? Ought I? If we or I follow the way of Jesus, the answer is clear, however greatly it reels against all that our bodies or minds or hearts know, or think or do without thinking: no.

(I note here a helpful comment my brother Garrett shared with me recently, after co-teaching a Sunday morning class on Christian stances toward violence: Why answer "Yeah, I probably would" at all? Why not instead believe, truly believe, that the power of God's Spirit will be faithful to us even in our sin, even in our inclinations, even in our violence? Why not, as an act of faith, say: No, I would not -- or at least, I hope not -- because that is not what I have been called to, and the God who called me is faithful, he is mighty to save. In the life of his people he has so molded me into the image of his Son that, in hope, I say that I would not kill.)

I may sound overly confident (though I hope not triumphalistic!) in my presentation, as if what I am saying is not representative of a tiny minority of Christian theology -- today and for past centuries. And that is precisely the place where my friend most challenged me, and where I would like to leave the conclusion of this post. My friend is African-American, and his first response to the account I gave (whether representative of Christian pacifism in general, or of Hauerwas or Yoder in particular) was, "Well, obviously that man is not black." That is, the account of Christian pacifism I offered was undoubtedly thought up by a tenured white American male.

Now, to be sure, the peaceable witness of the church is no modern bourgeois invention of Hauerwas, much less of Yoder or even the Radical Reformation. Rather, the church before Constantine was, as a community and in the writings of its teachers, a people constituted by nonviolent witness before an oppressive state.

That said, what my friend heard smacked of hardline Calvinism, of "Stay in your place, thank you; mind your business, thank you; wherever God put you in life, stay right there, thank you," of long-term historic oppression of women and Africans and others, with no end in sight, and certainly no liberation offered by a Christianity that blesses (baptizes?) those who suffer silently and willingly. And, both because my friend speaks out of the concrete experiences of the African-American community and because he is steeped in philosophy and black theology -- that is, because his question is neither abstract nor frivolous -- it is of the utmost important that I listen to him without a kneejerk defensive response.

So let us pause, then, in silence together, and listen. As the church catholic, a people from every nation and tongue, rich and poor, knowing both comfort and suffering, the one peaceable body of Christ -- what do we hear? What might we say?

[Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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