Beyond Just War and Pacifism

In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?

Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).

Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?

Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.

So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:

As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)

This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).

“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.

I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.

While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.

I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.


Corporations Are People Too

Since 2010, I’ve been one of the many people frustrated by the idea, protected by law in the USA, that a corporation is a person. The Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 not only reinforced that corporations are people, but also that they are people with free speech. Since the US Supreme Court sees spending money as a form of speech, corporations are thus free to spend as much money as they like on elections. That this is an incredible distortion of democracy is obvious, but that’s only one reason why so many of us are frustrated by it. The book and documentary film The Corporation asks the question “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” and ultimately concludes that a business corporation is a sociopath. Considering that our greatest societal protections are offered to persons, and corporations are potentially dangerous sociopaths who lack the features of persons we would normally protect (e.g., humanness, biological life, etc.), it seems that applying the term “person” to them is a categorical misstep: they get many of the benefits of society with none of the responsibilities, with “corporate responsibility” often serving as little more than a marketing ploy. As such I’ve long been of the opinion that “person” is entirely too good of a title for a corporation, giving them too much power and distorting the relationship between personhood and humanity.

But personhood is not necessarily identical to humanity, though it has long been held by many to be the same thing. The abortion debate centres around the definition of personhood, with the prevailing view being that a fetus, in spite of being human, is not a person until it is physically born. Given the huge variation in the time that a baby can be safely born, the actual moment of birth seems a harshly arbitrary distinction on which to hang the right to life, and our stinginess with the title of “person” in this respect makes the notion of a business corporation as a person rankle even more.

Animals are people too. At least, that’s what I always used to tell my parents when they barred my pets from, say, eating at the dinner table with us or sleeping on my bed. But there is a growing movement to recognize specific animals (e.g., dolphins, whales), and even the natural systems of the planet as a whole, as people. Recognizing the environment as a whole as a morally significant stakeholder is recognizing a form of corporate personhood.

For all of these reasons I’ve been mistaken about railing against corporate personhood in general, but I didn’t recognize it until I read William Cavanaugh’s “Are Corporations People?” in Christian Political Witness. Cavanaugh makes the point that “corporate personhood is central to Christianity” (129), and that the alternative view to corporate personhood is individualism and the competition of the market in both the business and political spheres. He traces the view of corporate personhood from Genesis (Adam is often translated as “humankind”, and God interacts with humans in a corporate fashion throughout the Bible), to the corporate personhood of the Church in the New Testament and Church Fathers, to the corporate personhood of the nation state (which still appears in the form of nationalism), through to the rise of market economies which had the effect of “liberalizing” us from corporate personhood to become individuals who “deal with each other on the basis of contract…rather than as members of a social body” (138). He points out that there is no essential relationship between democracy and free markets: they’re both encouraged by liberalism, but markets do not require democracy to function, with the implication that a market-dominated society is not necessarily free and certainly not necessarily equal. So the absence of corporate personhood in our system actually removes our sense of belonging to a common body, and individualism feeds the competitive market-based systems that exacerbate inequality in society. “If we do not see each other as members or potential members of the same body, we cannot begin to see the political process as a healing process for the weakest of our members” (144). So the problem, then, is not that we might see corporations as people (i.e., moral actors with the ability to speak), but rather that the Citizens United decision privileges business corporations over others (such as the Church, unions, clubs and societies, etc).

What Cavanaugh didn’t touch on at all is the spiritual aspect of corporate people. This is the biggest reason I’m surprised I didn’t catch on to the importance of seeing corporations as people: I’ve been talking about it in other contexts for years! The New Testament notion of Powers and Principalities states that corporations such as churches, governments, and even business corporations, have a spiritual or inner aspect as well as an outward or physical aspect. By attributing a spiritual aspect to a corporate body we affirm it as a spiritual being – a status that many of us probably wouldn’t assign to individual animals even if we were willing to grant them another level of personhood. If corporate bodies are spiritual beings, how can they not be people?

The Church is a corporate person: together, Christians form the body of Christ. We believe that we actually embody Christ in the world, and that we do so more completely and powerfully in a corporate sense than we ever could individually. Cavanaugh refers to patristic thought and quotes Zizioulas to make the point that Christian identity and personhood is actually dependent upon our oneness in Christ, so that “the Eucharist ‘is the reality which makes it possible for us to exist at all’” (134, emphasis original). For Christians, corporate personhood and identity is primary; individual personhood and identity is secondary (at least, ideally). This sets the terms by which the Church interacts with the rest of society (i.e., our politics): “The church’s goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the telos of an economy of love” (145). The Church is to represent a different type of corporation in the world that models legitimate and healthy corporate personhood (as opposed to the sociopathic nature of the modern business corporation) and in so doing to include those excluded by other corporate persons and provide limits on, or redirect, the ambitions and power of other corporate persons.

On Submission to Authority and Romans 13:1-7

When you ask someone what the New Testament says about politics, they’ll probably point you to Romans 13:1-7, which is one of the few explicit references to government. Unfortunately, this passage has historically been used to support and justify many governments, giving them the appearance of divine sanction and suggesting that supporting a government is a Christian’s duty. Here’s the passage:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Romans 13:1-7, NIV)

Historically, this passage was somewhat pivotal in the Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” theology, the distortion of which led to most of the German church being unconcerned about the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. The implication of this passage, when taken out of context, is that governments will do what they will, but that they are set up by God and a good Christian must obey and support them.

While I’ve sometimes wondered about how God could want me to obey Hitler or someone like him, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of this interpretation for other reasons as I read more of Paul’s thoughts about powers and authorities. It seems that elsewhere he sees the gospel as being highly subversive of unjust authorities, and in some cases seems to be referring directly to Rome, though in vague or veiled language.  How could Paul talk about Christ’s victory over powers and authorities in one passage and tell us that the authorities are ordained by God and should be obeyed in another? There seems to be a disconnect.

Timothy G. Gombis sheds some light on this in his essay “The Political Vision of the Apostle to the Nations” in Christian Political Witness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). Gombis uses a narrative approach to examine Paul’s theology, beginning with a narrative summary of the Old Testament, then looking at how Saul’s xenophobic and violent legalism was transformed into Paul’s theology of a new polis in Christ, and then specifically examining Romans 13:1-7.

Gombis compares Romans 13:1-7 to Jeremiah 29, pointing out that even Gentile Christians in Paul’s day were strangers in a strange land as far as integration into Roman society went. Christians had been exiled from Rome only a few years earlier, and once they were allowed back there was higher taxation on them; they would have been interested in joining an anti-taxation movement at the time. But like Jeremiah, who told Israel to settle into Babylon and look out for the welfare of that city as for their own welfare, Paul was exhorting Christians toward the revolutionary community of Christ: non-violent, breaking no laws, and yet practising a kind of generous community that undermined the corrupted politics of their context. Jeremiah’s advice to Israel did not legitimate Babylon, and Paul’s advice did not legitimate Rome (or Nazi Germany); but it did legitimate the Church within Rome, giving it all the more power to subvert the corrupt powers and bring them into the loving community of Christ.

In regard to the authority being “God’s servant”, this still makes me (and Gombis) uncomfortable. For this, he refers to Isaiah’s reference to Cyrus as “messiah.” Cyrus wasn’t a good guy, but God used him for God’s own purposes. Doing so did not legitimate Cyrus, any more than it legitimated Pharaoh or the Canaanite kings or the corrupt kings of Israel before them. In the same way, Paul’s reference to Roman authorities as God’s servants doesn’t imply that they’re pious, or even legitimate; rather, it simply underscores the good advice he offered to the churches not to make trouble by directing his audience back to God’s purpose for order and peace in the world, which these authorities have the ability and calling to provide. The role of the church is not to subvert these offices, but rather to subvert their corruption by embodying a different kind of politics in their midst.

I like Gombis’ approach because it clarifies Paul’s thought in general even while tackling this particular passage. It’s challenging though: my own predilection is to embrace theologies that involve actively resisting unjust authority. Gombis does note that Paul may have softened his rhetoric in this case in order to avoid the appearance of supporting a revolt around the tax issue, or against Rome in general, but even so his political theology is harder to follow: revolt is easier than humbly giving yourself to your enemies in service.

This is a great chapter in an excellent book, with other contributors including Stanley Hauerwas, David P. Gushee, Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, and William Cavanaugh. I’ve only managed to get through 4 out of 12 chapters so far, and I hope to talk more about the other chapters soon.