Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Rejoinder to Privileged Pacifism

I had the pleasure of meeting ACU English professor Bill Carroll last month at Lipscomb's Christian Scholars Conference, and after graciously offering me some suggestions for genuinely good Christian poetry, Bill has been reading through the blog. Last night he commented on a post from a week ago on Christian martyrdom and justifiable violence, in which I argued that Christian justification of violence negates any possibility for a coherent account of martyrdom. Since his comment raises excellent issues that I would like to address further this week (and beyond), I asked Bill if he would mind my posting his comment in full, and he kindly agreed. I deeply appreciate any and all dissenting comments such as these, so I look forward to the ongoing and spirited conversation to which this will hopefully lead. Finally, I bolded portions of his writing I thought especially important: such edits are completely my own; everything else belongs to Bill. See you later this week for my response.

Sorry so late to this post, but a thought that bothers me when I read Yoder or Camp's reiteration of Yoder: Neville Chamberlain's purchase of "Peace in our time" at the cost of tens of thousands of Czechoslovakian (at the time) Jews, gays, disabled persons lives seems so irresponsible and such a tragic price. We seem to have no problem letting the blood of others be the price of our peace. It was clearly the move of a politician who was not a pacifist, but it troubles my soul to have the power to stop genocide, even if "peacekeeping" means standing with guns between people holding machetes. Too often Christians with power are content to let distant (whether behind the closed door in the next house or in a far nation) oppressors destroy the oppressed, particularly when involvement requires a personal cost. I am not a fan of violence, and I get frustrated because I get labeled a hawk simply because I hesitate to embrace pacifism without hesitation. I would love to hear more from Camp about his experiences in Rwanda when the violence broke out. His published comments beg more questions than they answer. It seems remarkably easy to be a Christian pacifist in the U.S. at the moment, and remarkably easy to condemn Nigerian Christians for their religious/political quarrels with their fellow Muslim Nigerians or Irish Catholics and Protestants who maintain their centuries old quarrel. Again, I am not saying violence effectively answers violence -- history shows how naive that position is. However, we enjoy a privileged pacifism. Perhaps because I work in the academy, but the current American brand I see most often is theosophical, unattached to the oppressed, condemning, and, bluntly, callous.

As UN "Peacekeepers" find across the world, you can have the big guns, but when people with rocks and blades want to kill each other, someone dies, and often it's you. Many of these peacekeepers legitimately have no desire or intent to use deadly force, and I envision these individuals as martyrs for a cause, though often the individuals are not Christian. It seems somewhat unkind to argue that a person like this could have no "intelligent" or "defensible" account for martyrdom. I do believe that pacifism in the face of Hitler would have ultimately left Europe free of Jews. Is that our aim? In the face of Nazism, Bonhoeffer was driven to conspire to murder, and I side with the scholars who label him anti-Semitic. However, he recognized the humanity of the Jews, even as he held typical European prejudices, and he could not conceive of another way to stop the slaughter. Bonhoeffer may not be perfect, but I respect his understanding of the gospel, and I believe his case illustrates that pacifism is not as uncomplicated as American academics believe it to be.

This in itself is more of a rant than a philosophical position. The context for it is broader than this post, and I hope my tone hasn't been offensive, because I enjoyed reading the thoughts here.


  1. I don't think this is a 'rant' at all. I think it's simply bringing to the fore the deeper, intersubjective implications of the violent reality of humanity and the difficulties in idealising an absolutist form of pacificism.

    I think Jesus' view was clear that we are fighting a "spiritual" battle, which is a part of God's Kingdom - not against flesh, but against 'spirit,' in which faith, peace, truth and love are central 'weapons.' I had a preacher once say analogously, perhaps in bad taste, that in this particular way Christians are "violent", but yet our confession of "Jesus Christ as Lord" is an inherent paradox to this (loving your neighbour and turning your cheek). Jesus does not condemn the Roman soldier, but wants to show him the spiritual reality of faith that will lead, and change his perspective of the practical/physical reality that confronts him. From this place is where a form of neither pacificism or violence emerges, but something unimagineable to us, and activated by God through faith; love - which is ultimately, non-violent, but perhaps not exactly pacifistic.

    I think it's incredibly difficult to pin down in language - but you know it through your heart in Christ.

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  3. Thanks for posting this Brad, I live for this kind of dialogue! I appreciate so much Dr. Carroll's comments for a couple of reasons.
    1) It seems to me that we have left the typical realm of the Christian pacifism debate. In discussions I have had, it seems that many remain unconvinced of the gospel's fundamental pacifistic implications. We are stuck at the exegetical level. And while I do believe this is a worthwhile debate to have (there are certainly competing texts within the biblical witness) I am increasingly convinced that the burden of proof does not rest on the christian pacifist's shoulders (i.e. The question is not how to explain the pacifist position in light of violent old testament texts, but how to explain violent old testament texts in light of a self-sacrificing God fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ). That being said, it seems that Carroll's comment leaves the realm of exegetical debate and pushes towards the incredibly difficult hermeneutical dilemma: How to faithfully witness to the life, death and resurrection of Christ in a complexly violent world.
    2) Carroll's comments usher us into the fray. We can no longer theologize void of emotional involvement; he shoves us in the direction of "the oppressed" and asks us to continue the conversation through the thunder of bombshells. I certainly need this remindful push.

    Dr. Carroll's comments are certainly a needed word for those of us who would be pacifists. Yet I would like to push these words even further. I not only enjoy a privileged pacifism, others also enjoy a privileged bellicism. Take a vote, push a button, send the troops: situation under control. We engage in war without the domestic consequences. For those of us who have no loved ones fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan (i.e. me) there is little personally or emotionally at stake in what is going on "over there." We read news articles announcing the deaths of enemies (and civilians) killed by aerial drones, as if the drones alone were responsible. Both Pacifist and (Just War theorist/Pragmatist/Realist/Ally to the weak... not sure what fits here) alike lack a healthy dose of Romans 8 "groaning." I imagine that, no matter what philosophy you adopt, experiencing war firsthand makes one long for peace. We do not know what it is like to cease caring which side wins if it means our family will remain safe. When we begin, deeply and compassionately, to experience war as part of the "not yet," we may be able to more faithfully and less callously point toward hope.

  4. p.s. I hope you share the poetry recommendations Dr. Carroll offered!

  5. For David,

    A brief response and a poem.

    I don't identify myself as a pacifist (though many of my students probably believe that I am), but I also can't really conceive of "just war." Bonhoeffer felt he blackened his soul with his complicity in the plot to assassinate Hitler. I think many Christians who feel compelled to act violently in the pursuit of justice (as police officers or judges) or in military duty face the same struggle. Even if their cause is clearly legal, just, and for society necessary, violence leaves its mark. What I wish I felt more keenly was the violent mark left on others by the luxurious lifestyle I lead. David is quite accurate that we (I!) enjoy the protection of others having the "situation under control." I wander again--to get back to the point, I hesitate to condemn the use of violence to stop violence even though it doesn't ring true of Christ because the failure to act to protect the weak doesn't ring true either. I can't believe the rest of the world allows the situation in Darfur, or a hundred other places, to continue.

    In light of the current conversation, I have linked a poem by an Irish poet seeking peace in the midst of the Troubles composed this poem. I wrote a paper a paper about it entitled the "poetics of hatred" because there is a boiling under a very calm, composed surface. But after eight hundred years of violence, those on both sides in Ireland can identify with the necessity of kissing the hand of the killer if peace is to be achieved (if you don't know the story, Priam had to beg his son's killer, Achilles, for the corpse of his son, Hector, which Achilles had dragged around Troy for nine days in revenge for Hector's killing of his best friend). My understanding of true poetry is that it always, always, always sides with life, and yet the great Irish poets of the 20th century (Yeats, Heaney, Boland, Longley, et al) never let it be that simple. They are a group who confront the legacy of hate and violence every day.

    The first link offers the text and some background. The second includes Longley reading his poem.




  6. Thanks for all the comments, gentlemen. I think we're all in agreement about the implications of discipleship for Christians regarding violence and peace, but similarly agreed that it is no simple affair. This afternoon I'm planning to post my first response in a series of posts better outlining my thought on the matter, and hopefully we can continue the dialogue for some time.

  7. You write 'I side with the scholars who label him anti-Semitic'. Could you elaborate, please.