On Forfeiting the Right to Life

In discussing pacifism and just war recently, the argument has come up several times that some violence is acceptable or morally just because the recipients of this violence (in this case, ISIS) have forfeited their right to life. This is a popular argument in favour of the death penalty, but I have difficulty figuring out where that logic comes from: what is a right to life, and where do we get the idea that it’s something that can be forfeited? There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll limit myself to looking for a biblical and/or theological argument.

1. On Forfeiting the Right to Life

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “forfeiting the right to life” is Genesis 9:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

At first glance, this passage seems to imply that God sanctions humans to shed human blood in response to shedding human blood. This passage is traditionally taken to be the creation and sanction of the first form of government for this reason. I think that reading is difficult to follow, for a few reasons.

a) Cities of Refuge. The rest of the Pentateuch has several examples of God deliberately working against the vengeance/retaliation mentality that was prevalent among Israel and in the rest of the Ancient Near East. It used to be believed that the several passages that refer to taking “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” imply that it’s morally acceptable (and even a duty) to repay a wrongdoer in the same manner in which they’ve harmed another; this has been thoroughly debunked by looking at the social context of these laws, wherein it was considered acceptable to escalate in retaliation. “Eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, not a sanctioning of it. Note also that God limits our right to just deserts in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” But limitations on retaliation are more practically shown in the example of Cities of Refuge.

Cities of Refuge were designated in all of the tribal territories allotted to the tribes of Israel, and their sole function was to provide sanctuary that allowed someone to escape the practice of retaliation or vengeance. If God told Noah that humans who shed human blood will have their blood shed by humans, and he meant it in a prescriptive sense (i.e., if he said “humans who shed human blood should have their blood shed by humans”), then we’d have a strong case for retaliation as justice; why, then, would he command his people to construct a network of sanctuaries and an intricate system of appeal and protection, if retaliation is just?

b) Prescriptive vs. Descriptive. In light of the fact that God says a lot more about limiting retaliation than he does requiring it, it’s worth considering whether this passage in Genesis 9 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Could it be that God is actually saying the opposite? That he will demand an account of everyone who sheds human blood because he recognizes that it creates a cycle of retaliation and endless violence?

There are several places in Scripture where interpreters are asking this kind of question. Several of Paul’s sayings, for example, are now thought to be quotations of his opponents that he challenges or strips down; this makes more sense of the troublesome verses in their context, and often leads to a clearer message for the letter as a whole. The confusion about such verses has to do with punctuation and a lack of context: the Greek text had no quotation marks, and thus we aren’t aware right away that this is a quotation; and we’re unfamiliar with the works or arguments that he’s quoting or making reference to. The other reason that we don’t pick up on quotations, or descriptive statements that appear to be prescriptive, is because we (and especially us Evangelicals) have been conditioned to read the Bible as straightforward and prescriptive, so that every text is a letter directly to me, telling me how to live. This leads to assumptions about the intent of the text, and in this case I’m not 100% sure that we’ve been reading it correctly. Given the repeated contrary messages to this in the rest of the Pentateuch, I’d say the chances are good that this is one of those verses we’ve missed the point of, and in the process reversed its intended meaning.

2. On Whether We Have a Right to Life in the First Place

While talk of “human rights” is commonplace today (and I’m generally supportive of the concept and its application), it’s a very recent idea. Despite the fact that this idea descends from the ancient codes of law found in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as the application of Christian theology and morality, the Bible itself has no real notion of “rights”, except perhaps the right of ownership and a few other rights implied in the Law. The rights that existed were not universal, and the right to life wasn’t one of them in any case.

On the contrary, the dominant notion in the Bible about human life is that it’s a gift, offered at God’s good pleasure and easily withdrawn. The value and sanctity of human life is provided by its status as a gift from God: it has sanctity because it belongs to God and reflects God (as the passage from Genesis 9 says pretty clearly). While we can see that God is a giver of good gifts, and that he is both generous and full of grace and mercy, it is clear that human life does not belong to humans. This is further emphasized in the New Testament, where it is stated explicitly and in many ways that the value of a Christian’s life is in its service to Christ and to others: we are to die to ourselves and embrace a new life in which Christ lives in us. Christians recognize that we have no right to life, but only live because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apart from whom we’re already dead. Christian theology has held, based on passages in Genesis, Psalms, Romans, and many other places in Scripture, that all human beings are fallen and under the penalty of death.

So how can we forfeit something that we’ve never had?

3. On Jesus’ Mercy and the Time and Place of Judgment

It’s always good to end with Jesus (and start there too). My ethics (hopefully) always come from Jesus, and my stance on pacifism comes directly from the way I see him interacting with his own enemies in the gospels, as well as his explicit statements about loving enemies and serving those who persecute you. So I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way when a student asked my friend and colleague Dr. V about how he can square his view of forfeiting the right to life with Jesus’ mercy and salvation. I appreciate Dr. V’s response, though I disagree with him on it.

Dr. V says (in the comments) that he sees the salvation that Jesus provides pertaining to the second death, i.e., the judgment of the living and the dead. I can certainly agree with this: one of the big changes that occurred between the OT and the NT eras was the view of an afterlife (the OT had very little notion of one, while by the NT time Jewish theology had developed a much stronger notion of a resurrection). You can actually see the turning point in Daniel, which speaks specifically of a resurrection, though not all Jews in Jesus’ day believed in an actual resurrection of the dead. The basic idea is that all of the dead will be raised to new life, but will also be judged and separated (by Jesus), good from evil. However, given the nature of this final judgment, I find it problematic to distinguish one form of salvation from another. Said differently, I don’t think that Jesus acts in two ways at the same time, demanding death in one place and giving life in another for presumably the same offences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

There’s been a recent resurgence of emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. We long believed that “heaven” is a place on the clouds where disembodied souls spend eternity in the spiritual presence of God. Aside from the obvious gnostic problems this can create for our theology, it’s just not what Scripture describes. In the Old Testament, salvation is a physical salvation: God saved us from Egypt! God saved us from Babylon! Heaven is depicted as everyone having their own fig tree, and all of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God. It’s very physical. In the New Testament, in spite of the development of a notion of after-life, that after-life is (as noted above) a physical resurrection of the dead. Salvation is from sin (in its power over us as well as the consequences, both personal and social/corporate), and heaven is depicted as a city (the “new Jerusalem”) where all the world lives with and worships God. In both the OT and the NT, heaven is life on earth as God intended it, and salvation is God’s work to make that happen.

If the final judgment is to separate the good from the wicked, we must remember that these are living people in physical human bodies who will be expected to live together in the just ways that God intends for human society. If God has decreed to us that human beings can be the agents of God’s justice upon each other in this life and society by killing those whose sins warrant it, and everyone who is killed is resurrected to be judged by Jesus (who is also God), then Jesus has judged people twice. We would expect him to be somewhat consistent in his judgment, but this may not be the case. He might a) allow a sinner to live a long life and die of natural causes, only to resurrect them and consign them to death for their sins; b) authorize humans to kill someone for their sins, only to resurrect them and kill them again; or c) authorize humans to kill them, and then resurrect them to eternal life. Now surely Jesus has the ability and right to do all of these things, but the idea that God would demand us to perform his judgment duties by killing those who are deemed to have forfeited the right to life, and then either double-up on it or reverse it, seems a bit convoluted to me. It seems to pit Christ against God or Christ against us.

(Also, if God has decreed that retaliation and retribution are just, and we’ll all live in a physical world and real human society, presumably that sense of justice hasn’t changed (and there are no verses that I can think of suggesting that it has). Would we live in perfect society in the new world under the threat of righteous vengeance from our fellow citizens of heaven?)

My train of thought is unravelling a bit (it’s late), but the point is that in Jesus we see God revealed in his fullness. If Jesus tells his followers to reject the sword (and he does), we should question whether or not God has told us to pick it up. If Jesus dies for his enemies, who are certainly sinners and murderers, then we should question whether or not God has asked us to kill them for their crimes. And if Jesus will judge the living and the dead, then we should remember that God said “Vengeance is mine” and not try to add to it.

4. Okay, one more thought: Who Decides What Constitutes Forfeiting One’s Right to Life?

While not a biblical or theological objection, I can’t get past this one: who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life? ISIS believes that everyone who is not of their particular brand of Islam has forfeited their right to life by rejecting God. Theologically speaking, their version is probably more accurate and certainly more straightforward (for if life is but a gift from God rather than a right…). They believe their killing is just and a service to God; we believe that using lethal force against them, whether as punishment or deterrent or in defence, is justified for the same reasons. We could go around and around this circle forever – and we already have been for far too long. So long as both sides justify their actions in reference to a different religion, there isn’t even any common ground on which to judge one side’s argument over the other. Even if we were to make the argument specifically about forfeiting the right to life by the killing of others, ISIS has more claim against Westerners in this regard than we do against ISIS: Westerners have been bombing them for decades. To say that their crimes forfeit their right to life places us on a very high horse indeed, and I hope we can get off of it in time to get out of this cycle of killing before we have another generation of it rise from the ashes of today’s conflicts.

Subduing and Having Dominion Over the Earth

Historically, Christians have believed that human beings were created as the pinnacle of creation, that everything prior to us was made for our benefit, that we have “dominion” or rule over all of nature (and therefore can pretty much do what we want with it), and that we can enforce this dominant position by subduing or taming nature. We get all of this from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (emphasis added in bold)

John Calvin’s interpretation of these passages was that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, that everything else was made for our benefit, and that this is inherently linked to our being created in the image of God. In the 1960’s an incendiary article was printed that pointed to the Protestant work ethic (usually identified with Calvinism) and the theology behind it as a primary factor in the rape and destruction of our planet (I can’t think of the title or author offhand), and I can certainly see the connection. If nature exists for human flourishing (to the glory of God), then virtually any exploitation of nature can be justified by human beings gaining from it.

In the past few decades there have been many attempts to re-read this passage and re-write this theology to make it more eco-friendly, and much of it is very helpful. The degree to which this theology needs to be revised, however, is still an issue. For example, it’s very helpful to critique Calvin’s uncritical anthropocentrism, which he assumes with no effort at explanation or justification; yet eco-centrism is also inappropriate, and it’s difficult to dismiss the human perspective and emphasis altogether in a text communicated to humans, written by humans for humans, which culminates in God becoming a human. Yes, be critical and suspicious of anthropocentric readings and theologies, but consider carefully the Christological implications, or the implications for the doctrine of revelation. Along those lines I have a few thoughts on how this passage should be read.

1. The Meaning of Dominion

Calvin’s understanding of “ruling” is quite different from mine. He lived in a time when most countries were still ruled by monarchs who, ideally, had total control of their nations and ruled by force rather than by acclamation, not needing the approval of the lower classes who had far less dignity than them. Further, his understanding of God’s rule over creation was one of intense micromanagement: every single event in the universe happens at God’s good pleasure, ordained by his perfect will in full foreknowledge of the future, working out a perfect plan for all creation to glorify him, which is befitting to his infinite glory and dignity beside which all else is merely instrumental. In this kind of thought, “rule over” connotes power and privilege: human beings, as rulers over creation, have superior dignity and are free to enjoy and exploit those they rule over for their own benefit.

Most attempts to reassess this theology have revolved around the term “stewardship,” using it to replace the harsher terms “dominion” or “rule”. Note that “stewardship” isn’t found in the text above, but it’s implied: a steward is merely one who is appointed to rule in the place of the rightful ruler, so God telling humans to rule over the earth he created is bestowing stewardship. Note also that there’s nothing in this term that necessarily changes the theology: we still rule, it’s just emphasized that this is in God’s place. Because of God’s true dominion, it is suggested that we should treat his kingdom as he would – and our notion of how God treats his kingdom has changed since Calvin’s time. Most interpreters emphasize that God is loving and kind, and that God values everything that he has created, but most of them (that I’ve seen) still fall short of the radical reversal of rule that Jesus showed us (from Luke 22):

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Most eco-friendly readings of Genesis still emphasize human authority over creation, but just try to make it nicer, which is terribly insufficient given the radical reversal of authority that Jesus modeled. He was authoritative because he was the one who served. His emphasis was not on power, but on responsibility and service. Christians read Scripture in light of the character and teachings of Jesus Christ, and in that light I find it impossible to see “dominion” or “rule over” creation as anything less than the responsibility for its wellbeing – the total opposite of Calvin’s view, which encouraged us to exploit it for our own wellbeing. Jesus went on to characterize his authority or rule as friendship with his disciples (John 15:15), and told them that there was no greater love than to give oneself up for one’s friends (John 15:13). This is the way that God rules the universe, and as his steward, “ruling over” creation, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I should be willing to at least inconvenience myself for the wellbeing of the rest of the ecosystem.

Many would argue that Jesus’ example of rule only applies to human beings, and that I’m distorting his example by applying it to nature. I think that this is still tied up in human exceptionalism, or the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation rather than (or in addition to) being the caretaker of it. Calvin (and virtually everyone else) saw humanity’s creation last as implying that we were the pinnacle, the climax of God’s creative work, and to a certain extent that’s very true (God said that creation as a whole was “very good” only after humans were created), but we must not forget that the implication of our very creation is that we were created for a purpose, which was to have dominion, which we’ve now characterized as self-sacrificial love and friendship for our subjects. There is a sense in which humans are exceptional, in that we alone are created in God’s image, we alone represent him on the earth, we alone are adopted as siblings and co-heirs with Christ who took on human form (and not the form of an animal or plant); but again, given the inversion of dignity and authority that Christ models, this need not imply that humanity is greater or has more dignity or worth than nature in the traditional/hierarchical sense. Rather, we are exceptional because of the purpose God has given us (to rule as God rules), whereas the old view is that we were given rule because we are exceptional. That kind of anthropocentrism is little more than egocentrism, and has no place in the Kingdom of God.

2. The Meaning of Subdue

Most of the time we only hear the word “subdue” in police reports: police subdued an attacker, easily pictured as a person in authority physically dominating someone under their authority until that person submits to their authority and desists their antagonistic behaviour. The image is obviously negative, forceful, and assumes conflict. Sometimes we also hear the word “subdued”, often describing a boring party or even a funeral, implying that the thing that is subdued is listless, joyless, lifeless. It’s understanding, then, that some eco-conscious interpreters have a serious problem with the idea of human beings “subduing” the rest of creation, much less that this would be a good thing.

For a lot of human history there has been conflict between humanity and nature. Wolves, for example, were hunted to near extinction in many places because they constituted a threat to human settlements, cattle, and even human lives. Even a hundred years ago, a major trope in literature was man vs. nature, with the “wild” being an exotic place of danger and mystery, contrasted with the dignity and order of human civilization. Over the past century, though, in light of the barbarism of human nature revealed in the Holocaust and always-intensifying ecological crises, culture has taken a different view: “the wild” is “God’s country,” a pristine place untainted by contact with the always-destructive humans, a hidden remnant of Eden.

None of these characterizations of nature are fully true, and they reflect much more what we humans think of ourselves than any realities of the natural world, but the point still remains: is it appropriate for humans to interfere with ecosystems? We do have a history of destroying them inadvertently, even when we’re actually trying to help. Perhaps the best thing we can do to care for “the wild” is to do nothing to it at all. This is the philosophy behind nature reserves, huge tracts of land set aside to simply exist with a minimal amount of human interaction. Then again, sometimes it seems that we can help: national parks are often treated as nature reserves, but we also often interfere by reintroducing species decimated by previous human interference, culling invasive species, or performing controlled burns in fire-prone areas. Sometimes our efforts include some level of harm to the ecosystem, and we don’t discover it until decades later; other times we’re actually able to correct our past mistakes, and having learned from nature are able to encourage it to flourish.

Is that really “subduing” the earth? This sounds a lot like the sanitization of “dominion,” doesn’t it? Ultimately, “subdue” means “control” or “bring under control.” The Bible says that God controls a lot of things in nature – usually the things that we’re completely unable to influence, like the wind, the rain, the tides, the snow, the boundaries of the oceans, the quality of the harvest…except that, to an increasing extent, we are now able to influence and even control most of these things. And for the most part, we’re doing it inadvertently as part of our exploitation of the earth, just as we inadvertently harmed ecosystems and eradicated species in the past. Our climate is increasingly out of control because of our actions and habits, and must be subdued.

In this case, subduing the climate means subduing ourselves: if we stop over-consuming, burning oil and burning forests, and even reverse our habits by planting new forests, the climate will calm down. Climate scientists paint an apocalyptic image of what the climate will be like if we pass the point of no return on carbon emissions, and it’s an image of a completely out-of-control climate that makes all life precarious. That is a type of nature that will certainly need to be subdued and brought under control. But if we can subdue ourselves before we hit that tipping point (if we haven’t already – experts are torn on that), then all we need do is leave it be, like the nature reserves. That’s certainly one application of this text, but it doesn’t capture the full meaning of what is meant by “subdue” in the text; it’s really much better to use the image of a garden, as the text itself does.

Genesis 2 says that Adam was put in the garden to take care of it. Those who are critical of the notion of subduing “the wild” are also critical of seeing humans as gardeners. When we think of gardens, we tend to think of the “great” gardens of the world: carefully manicured grass and sculpted shrubs, flowers planted in blocks or patterns of colour, everything uniform and neat. This kind of garden requires the gardener to “subdue” nature in a forceful sense, and while what it produces is beautiful, it is not without violence on the ecosystem. Most species of plants and animals are viewed as “weeds” and “pests” because they break the uniformity of the gardener’s vision, and are eradicated or hunted without mercy. In this model of gardening, most of nature is devalued.

However, along with the growing ecological awareness that leads to re-reading Genesis comes increased (or rediscovered) knowledge of the diversity, resilience, and properties of nature. The great gardens of today are often just as carefully pruned but completely unmanicured, with the gardener’s role being that of providing the indigenous plants with what they need to fully thrive in their natural environment, limiting the influence of invasive species or damagingly overpopulated creatures in order to promote the “natural” equilibrium of an ecosystem. My own yard is planted with indigenous grasses that grow long, and I’m far from meticulous about “weeding” as I know that the plants that grow in the midst of my lawn are part of this habitat; I only pull them when enough of them are growing in a certain spot that they crowd out other plants that would also thrive in that area of the lawn. My lawn was planted with the knowledge that the space it grows in was once “wild” forest, and before that it was orchard (more than forty years ago), and before that it was probably “wild” forest again. Now it’s grass, and that’s a decision that I have made. I have interfered, and what grows there now grows at my good pleasure; I can pull it out, cull its numbers, or subdue it, and I do so with the goal of allowing the whole to flourish in its own beauty rather than bending it to my own view of beauty.

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I subdue my yard because I love it. I mourned when a construction crew (against my wishes) cleared a large section of my yard as they dug the basement of my house, but we’ve gone out of our way to plant indigenous grasses and wildflowers to attract pollinators, butterflies and bees; we’ve planted local trees that thrive here, of the same varieties that were cut down and cleared out to make room for our house. We’re correcting the mistakes that were made last year, and using our knowledge and power to help our yard find the equilibrium that naturally occurs after many years; with our careful help a small ecosystem can be developed in our backyard within a few years, and we can enjoy the benefits it provides. I consider this ecosystem, somewhat abstract as it might seem, a friend; and I’m willing to work to give it what it needs to thrive. My “dominion” is one of service, and my “garden” is “natural” or “wild” in spite of being “subdued”. Its dignity is not diminished by my own, nor is my dignity diminished by having a “wild” yard; rather, both of our dignities are enhanced when I choose to serve and live in harmony with the natural world that I call my own.

That’s what I see in Genesis, and what I’d like to see in our world.

Criminals with the Best of Intentions

I just finished reading Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, The Weather Underground, and Beyond by David Gilbert, and it was a bit of a surreal experience in that it held up a twisted mirror to me, revealing my darkest timeline. I resonate with a lot of Gilbert’s story, his analysis of events, and even his politics and intentions; but the book begins with the story of how he was arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, which resulted in a shootout and three dead police officers. Like me, Gilbert began as a pacifist; but within a decade he was participating in bombings and living as a fugitive.

After he starts from the beginning of his story, it becomes clear that self-criticism with the goal of improvement is one of the principles that Gilbert carried through every collective and organization he was a part of, and this book amounts to an extended self-criticism of his life. He says so in the introduction, pointing out that he wrote this book for the sake of his son Chesa, and also in response to the many letters he’s received from activists asking for wisdom and advice. He’s had a lot of time to reflect on his life, as he’s been in prison longer than I’ve been alive, and the depth of his self-criticism shows the perspective he’s gained, no doubt partially from growing older but mainly (I think) from time outside of his life as a revolutionary. His distance from the events has allowed him to acknowledge persistent flaws in his character, repeated mistakes both personally and organizationally, and flaws in the radical Left in general. A few things stood out to me as I read this book:

1. The Left Eats Its Own

Someone once told me that the Left eats its own, and I was disappointed to acknowledge how true that is, even in my own experience. Love and Struggle confirmed that for me, with story after story about infighting within organizations and between organizations who, by all accounts, should have been the closest of allies. Gilbert points out how much false motives played a role in this, over and over again: self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” who talk about solidarity with armed struggles abroad, but who actually just want to stoke their egos and dare themselves to be more radical; organizations who uphold being anti-male-supremacist and anti-white-supremacist as core definitive values, and yet maintain hierarchical structures and harbour racist and sexist attitudes; etc. To put it more bluntly than Gilbert does, a lot of the time they were being poseurs.

I think that the infighting in the organized Left is somewhat inevitable based on the character of the Left: it values education (and educated people love to debate), principles (and no two people have completely identical principles), and passionate advocacy. Add in a dose of human pride (leftist activists are often perceived to be holier-than-thou, and the perception is often all too accurate), and it’s easy to see why there would be conflict. Especially when leftist activists are concerned with so many issues, most of which are intertwined yet still represent so many perspectives and people groups; contrast that with the Right, which is much more homogenous (mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly Christian or otherwise religious) and places a higher emphasis on cultural uniformity. Gilbert’s life as an activist included involvement with anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, and anti-racism groups, often working in alliances (or working to build or maintain shaky alliances) between white, Black, Mexicano/a, feminist, and more generically leftist organizations. Each of these organizations had its own principles and purposes, and while they were all against American imperialism, sexism, and racism, their other principles often conflicted, sometimes over slight variations in interpretation of Marx or Lenin or Mao.

There’s also the Left’s desire to be non-complicit with evil or oppressive systems, and their ability to see systems everywhere. Not only are the principles of different organizations conflicting with each other, but they do so because the organizations have differing views of which systems the other is complicit with (e.g., sexism, racism, imperialism), and they vow not to ally themselves with that kind of complicity in order to maintain the stability and clarity of purpose of their own organization (but to the detriment of the larger movement). Ironically, the clarity with which they see the specks in their neighbours’ eyes not only doesn’t reflect in how they manage to miss the logs in their own, but also the logs in the eyes of the third-world revolutionaries they claim to have solidarity with: Gilbert describes Soviets and Maoists in a generally positive light in spite of their obvious horrors, and recalls an argument he once had with another revolutionary about whether or not it was alright for the communist Vietnam to invade the communist-of-a-different-stripe Cambodia. It turned out that the imperialist move by the Vietnamese (invading their neighbour) stopped the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of its own people. The third-world nationalist struggles were clearly idealized uncritically, except perhaps through analysis of their brand of theory (Marxist-Leninist vs. Maoist, etc.).

So how can people who work to allow the greatest extent of human freedom and individual rights and expressions maintain cohesiveness in spite of their differences? Individual critical thought and aversion to authority, while often excellent and necessary traits, keep the Left from working together with even a shred of the cohesive power of the Right, and I’m sure that this is why communist regimes tend to have well-developed propaganda departments. Leftist cohesiveness is impossible in an educated society that allows for criticism, even when there’s a common enemy to unite them.

2. It Takes More Than a Common Enemy

The principles that united the various groups that Gilbert interacted with were generally based in excellent values: anti-imperialism, solidarity with the oppressed, anti-male-supremacy, and anti-white-supremacy. The various groups also shared a foundation in socialist thought and analysis, mostly Marxist-Leninist though sometimes Maoist or Islamic. That said, the extent to which these values or perspectives were emphasized in each group led to divisions, as noted above; the only thing that kept them together, it seems, is a general sense of having a common enemy, American imperialism. Their major emphasis on solidarity was proved fragile by instilled racism and sexism, their distance from the third-world revolutions that inspired them, and their own differing analyses of theory and events and practices. There was a general assumption of humanism that undergirded all of the other values and principles, but at least in Love and Struggle it was merely an assumption and not elaborated upon.

Without a strong core, it’s easy for values to shift. How does a pacifist student protester evolve into a violent revolutionary? If generic humanism alone is the strong core, then the project was doomed from the outset, because humanism itself is not a core: it is derived from, and a mere shadow of, the true Human. Humanism itself can have many different perspectives and values that range widely simply because of its generic nature: humanism is basically a generic appreciation for human life, abilities, accomplishments, etc. It’s a powerful value that spawns many other powerful values, but it’s very non-specific. But if we recognize that humanism is a development of Christianity, which is based on the person and character of Jesus Christ, we can see the true strength of humanism and everything that comes from it: it comes from Christ, and without Christ it’s just a generic sense of goodwill that has no anchor to root it. Revolutionaries can justify violence against the bourgeoisie in solidarity with the proletariat by emphasizing the humanity of the oppressed and dehumanizing the oppressors: in the name of humanism for the oppressed majority, dehumanization of others on a smaller scale seems permissible. But Christ defines what it means to be human, and calls us to humanize our enemies, showing us how to do it in his own life. With his teachings and examples (and continued presence among us), there is a specificity to our humanism that doesn’t allow for a shifting scale of values or justification of means in light of desired ends.

3. Radicals Are Often Forced Into Radicalism

Reading this book was a lot like watching the documentary If a Tree Falls, about how environmental activists became “eco-terrorists.” In both cases the shift toward more radical and revolutionary action came in response to the inefficacy of more congenial and conventional means of dissent. Basically, when all legitimate avenues for being heard are blocked or undermined, activists are faced with the choice of giving up or trying less legitimate actions. When I watched If a Tree Falls I resonated more with their struggle, as I too find it difficult to promote environmental sustainability in a nation with the world’s biggest environmental catastrophe as one of our primary industries. But seeing this shift toward radical and revolutionary action in Love and Struggle about issues that I’m less involved with helped to frame it for me a little better, and I think that the shift to violence is a false choice.

While I do think that the powers that be force greater radicalism on dissenters by blocking any legitimate methods of organized dissent, I don’t think that radicalism or even revolution require violence. Gilbert points out near the end of the book that many leftist organizations thought that the violent organizations he worked with hurt the cause by resorting to violence, and I think that they’re right: a regular strategy these days is for undercover police to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest and try to whip up a mob in order to discredit the claims of the protesters and legitimate the use of force to put them down. Gilbert describes this strategy going back to the 60’s, so I’m surprised that he didn’t catch on that engaging in violence actually undermines the position of dissenters.

Radicals who have left the biggest mark on this world were those who chose radical love (not in the sense of the free love of the 60’s, which Gilbert admits was quite poseur-ish in its deliberate flouting of societal norms for the sake of flouting societal norms, as well as being largely a cover for men to hook up with multiple women). Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., made themselves stand out by their radical refusal to be violent toward their enemies, and their efforts to bring peace to those who would kill them. These people were forced to radicalism in the same way that Gilbert and the Weather Underground were, but their radical methods were more innovative and truer to their core values. Their shift to radicalism was not a compromise with the powers that be, but rather a fuller and more drastic expression of their very selves as human beings. Their radical insistence on love in the face of adversity made dehumanizing them completely impossible, and made any violence against them very obviously illegitimate.

 

Overall, this was a very fascinating book, and a cautionary tale for me. No matter how frustrated I get with doing things the right way, I can never let it drive me to become what I struggle against. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and though I admire Gilbert’s passion and principles, I think he lost his way. A good read for inspiration and practical advice, but take Gilbert’s self-criticism further than he does if you want to gain more foundational wisdom here. B+