Thursday, June 02, 2011

The "Heresy" of Pacifism

A friend of mine and I had a very short talk yesterday about the use of the military and that got me thinking overall about pacifism in the church. Maybe it's just me, but there seems at times to be a kind of unspoken pacifism in the church. That in and of itself is not a bad thing in my view, I tend to believe every follower of Jesus should strive to deal with conflict in a nonviolent way. But it seems at times that the pacifism that is running around tends to be more ideological and less willing to deal with the situation at hand. In short, it tends to think more about the letter of the law and not its spirit.

In a perfect world, refraining from violence would be a perfect tactic in dealing with problems. But we don't live in a perfect world and the actors we deal with are not always rational actors.

In thinking about this question of war and the Christian faith, I did some surfing and stumbled upon the blog called the Row Boat by Nathan Schnieder. In a post written in 2009 entitled, "Niebuhr, Pacifism, Realism, Peacebuilding" he critiques Reinhold Niebuhr's essay “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.”

I have not read Niebuhr's essay (though I intend to). But I did like this review of the essay as well as some of Schnieder's criticism. Niebuhr's organizing take on the world, Christian Realism, is something that I wished was preached more in mainline Protestantism. There's a lot to dig into here, but I want to focus on Niebuhr's take on nonviolence. In short, we look at whether or not the nonviolence practiced by Ghandi was Christian or not:

Niebuhr asks how biblical modern nonviolence theory really is. In the first half of the twentieth century, peaceniks preached peace but generally lacked a method. But by the end of World War II, most believed they had found one in the work of Gandhi. The method of nonviolent resistance perfected in the Indian independence movement quickly began to take hold in the civil-rights struggle of black Americans. (For Niebuhr, as well as for Martin Luther King, the chief source was FOR member Richard Gregg, who lived with Gandhi in India before writing his classic The Power of Non-Violence.) Many Christian pacifists believed that Gandhi was in some sense a fulfillment of Christ’s promise.

Yet does Jesus’s scriptural example really have anything directly to do with Gandhian resistance? Jesus exhibited no interest in the overthrow of an unjust social order, beyond noting that its temples would crumble and its poor would always remain. He stood up for all sides of political divisions—centurions, tax collectors, oppressed Jews, and dejected prostitutes. Sure, he advocated taking blows without complaint, and did so himself; but he also spoke of swords and lashed out at merchants. Jesus’s witness was mainly pacifist, but it would be an exaggeration (and a disappointment) to say that this constituted Jesus’s essential message. Ascribing to him a Gandhi movement would be a stretch.
Schnieder then tries to explain Niebuhr's Christian Realism:

The sum of Niebuhr’s thought is often described as a Christian “realism.” It takes seriously the inevitability of sin and selfishness in human affairs, then seeks a set of social arrangements which provide a modicum of justice and the freedom for Christian witness to flourish.

Violence and war have a place in this. They have a certain necessity for him, though Niebuhr hardly had great confidence in their capacity for do-gooding. An adventure like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which sought to transform a crumbling society into a model democracy through transformative violence, was hardly something he could get behind. But an intervention in Darfur against a coordinated genocide, more likely yes.
Some folks say pacifism is biblical.  But then again, as Schnieder says, genocide was also favored in the Bible as well.  In the comments, Schnieder explains a bit more how Christians who take nonviolence seriously should make decisions:

I also mean to agree with Niebuhr that Christianity doesn’t equal Gandhian political struggle. Yes, there are resources in the Bible to support it, but there are also resources to support genocide. Jesus’s own efforts seem much closer to anti-political pacifism than political resistance. The point is: I think nonviolent resisters have to take fuller responsibility for their commitments. They can’t just say, “This is what Christianity tells us all to do, so we have to do it.” Instead (and I think this is actually more empowering), they should say, “I am a Christian, and I have come to the conclusion that this is the right thing to do, and I find deep resources to guide me in it in my faith.”

Indeed.  We need to take responsibility for our actions instead of hiding behind the Bible. 

So what does this all mean?  Well I think that it means that not every war is a good war to get involved in or support and it also means that not all wars are bad wars to be avoided.  We have to be willing to look at the Bible and prayerfully consider what God would have us do and then in faith move forward. 

I think the best example of Christian Realism being lived out by a person is the foreign policy of President Obama.  More on that later.

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