Monday, August 3, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part II: Revolution, Agency, and Abuse

One of the most obvious and difficult questions for Christian pacifism is, of course, that of communal injustice, of systemic oppression. On the one hand, there is no satisfactory answer both because we do not know every situation in which we will find ourselves and because the answer will inevitably entail suffering. However, there are ways to come at the question honestly without feigning the ability to answer it systematically; and in the following I will do my best to do just that.

1. Jesus' context, choice, and model.

In his early essay "The Original Revolution," John Howard Yoder writes, "Time has not changed as much as some think. ... Born a displaced person in a country under foreign occupation and puppet governments, Jesus faced the same logical options faced in 1778 by a Pennsylvanian, or in 1958 by an Algerian, or today by a Vietnamese or a Guatemalan" (The Original Revolution [Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971], pp. 18-19). The first of Jesus' four logical options was realism: accept the situation as it is. This choice was represented by the Sadducees and the Herodians, but was never seriously a consideration, for the Galilean wonder-worker was perceived a threat to the establishment from his birth.

The second way was the clearest, the most pertinent, the ready at hand: "righteous revolutionary violence" (p. 21), the Zealot option. Some, perhaps most, of the Twelve came from this group; and many clearly took Jesus to belong to this sort of group. The desert temptation was the opening salvo and Gethsemane the decisive confrontation of the possibility of the sword as the tool of the Lord's liberation of Israel through his Messiah. "Yet Jesus did not take the path of the Zealots. ... He rejected this path not, as some of us might, because, being secure, we would stand to lose in a revolution, or because, being squeamish, we want to avoid social conflict. At those points He was with the Zealots" (p. 23). What then was wrong with the Zealot option?
What is wrong with the violent revolution according to Jesus is not that it changes too much but that it changes too little; the Zealot is the reflection of the tyrant whom he replaces by means of the tools of the tyrant. ...

What is wrong with the Zealot path for Jesus is not that it produces its new order by use of illegitimate instruments, but that the order it produces cannot be new. An order created by the sword is at the heart still not the new peoplehood Jesus announces. It still, by its subordination of persons (who may be killed if they are on the wrong side) to causes (which must triumph because they are right), preserves unbroken the self-righteousness of the mighty and denies the servanthood which God has chosen as His tool to remake the world. (pp. 23-24)
The last two options before Jesus were the desert and "proper religion." The former involved explicit withdrawal away from the world, represented by the messianic-apocalyptic Jewish community at Qumran. The latter found embodiment in the Pharisees, who made clear in the midst of the city their "separateness" from various facets of life: "Certain coins, certain crops, certain persons, certain occupations, certain days were taboo" (p. 26). But there can be no neutrality in the face of oppression: "To avoid revolution means to take the side of the establishment." And so "the Pharisees as well, although deep moral and theological differences separated them from the Herodians and the Sadducees, finally did make common cause with them in the crucifixion because Jesus threatened their position of noninvolvement" (pp. 26-27).

2. War, the police function, and personal violence.

We ought always to distinguish, in this sort of discussion, between two different sorts of questions: First, between the role of Christians vis-a-vis violence and that of non-Christians; and second, between warfare, civic positions implicated in intra-state officially-sanctioned violence, and spontaneous confrontations with violence. The first distinction is important on the one hand because no legitimate account of a Christian stance toward violence can leave aside Romans 13; but it is also even more important as a reminder to Christians that their calling is unequivocally not the same as those who have yet to confess Jesus as Lord. Since Kant Christians have accepted the unquestionably unbiblical notion that "ethics" names what one must be able to expect of each and every individual in any possible situation. On the contrary, Yoder writes:
To recognize that the church is a minority is not a statistical but a theological observation. It means our convinced acceptance of the fact that we cannot oblige the world to hold the faith which is the basis of our obedience, and therefore should not expect of the world that kind of moral performance which would appropriately be the fruit of our faith. Therefore our vision of obedience cannot be tested by whether we can ask it of everyone. (p. 116)
The second distinction is equally vital, for, while Christian pacifism may require "that every member of the body of Christ [be] called to absolute nonresistance in discipleship" (p. 72), generosity and common sense allow for the plain fact that there is a fundamental difference between dropping a bomb and defending someone being mugged. Furthermore, that there is a place for the state, for the administration and execution of justice, and for the protection of the innocent in God's will for the world "between the times" is part of the gospel; God desires neither disorder nor anarchy. So when we approach these issues, we must remember always to speak of agency -- who is called and empowered to do what -- and thus to identify with careful specificity what sort of violence, in what sort of realm, we have in mind.

3. Domestic abuse.

Because my wife is a social worker, I know well how trite it is to act as if nonviolence is a simple answer to a simple question: "Don't hurt others, ever." And Dr. Carroll helpfully brought to our attention in the last post the single most glaring and awful example of systemic violence and the church's ongoing and consistent inability or refusal to step forward: domestic abuse against women. In response all I can say is that the church must always stand on the side of the injured and powerless, and that means without question any woman hit or exploited by a man. That Christian men have responded by telling women to submit to their husbands in such situations is a tragedy the consequences of which we are surely continuing to reap. Should men who call on Jesus Christ as Lord be "willing to step into the messiness of the situation to protect [an abused woman] from the final blow"? I have no way of answering except to say, absolutely. Is such a situation properly the realm of police action? Probably. Are there possibilities for creative nonviolent action? Surely. Are there avenues and resources and groups to implement and to know and to serve in that can alleviate the injustice structurally? Certainly.

But those and other qualifications do not negate the exception -- especially when the exception is the rule. So I leave you only with my own bewilderment and lament that we do in fact still live in a world grieving and groaning for the consummation of the kingdom, for the time when a man will no longer hit or exploit or hate or kill either his neighbor or his wife -- indeed, for the time when marriage will be dissolved completely, and women will no longer find themselves powerless before men or be considered second-class citizens, for we all together, purified and radiant, will be the holy and beloved bride of the Lord God Almighty.

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