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.

 

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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+

Book Review: Just Spirituality

Cannon, Mae Elise. Just Spirituality. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 208 pages.

In Just Spirituality, Mae Cannon undergirds our efforts toward social justice with the essential practices and spiritual disciplines that give those efforts a solid foundation and longevity. In an age when activism is cool, this is a necessary and welcome approach!My own experience with the book is perhaps the opposite of what was intended. I was immediately drawn to the book because, while I tend to be passionate about issues of justice, I struggle with spiritual disciplines. While Cannon seems to want to enhance our activism through spirituality, I found myself more interested and engaged in spirituality because of its connection to activism.

In the book, Cannon profiles seven famous Christian leaders of the 20th century, pairing each of them with a particular spiritual practice that enhanced their ministry, and then comparing them to a contemporary Christian leader. This approach has strengths and weaknesses.

The weakness is that there is far too much material to be covered in a short chapter, making the connection between the particular practice and the person’s biography seem vague and overly simplistic: we know that Mother Theresa practiced many spiritual disciplines, and it isn’t clear that silence stood out or influenced her work any more than any of the others. Cannon acknowledges this by discussing the spiritual life of the subjects of her book more widely, but that de-emphasizes the particular practices that she means to emphasize. The connection between the historical and the contemporary subjects also seems quite thin at points for the same reason. Ultimately, Cannon is summarizing a person’s life, ministry, theology, and spiritual practices on a handful of pages, making it come across as a teaser, and perhaps a bit shallow.

The strength of Cannon’s approach is that it serves as an accessible entry point into the lives and stories of people of faith, both exalted heroes and everyday saints. It’s one thing to point to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer life as exemplary, but it’s quite another to compare myself to him! Cannon’s inclusion of contemporary examples makes such practices seem much more accessible and realistic, and serve to remind us that it was Bonhoeffer’s practice of spiritual disciplines that made him a saint, not his saintliness that made him able to practice spiritual disciplines.

I appreciate Cannon’s variety: while I was very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story, and generally familiar with Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, I had only vague notions of Oscar Romero’s story, had only heard the name of Watchman Nee, and had never heard of Fairuz at all. These seven heroes come from all over the world (no two from the same global region), and all served in different movements and conflicts. Amidst their differences their similarities stand out all the more, as they are all defined by their spiritual discipline and commitment to care for others.

On the other hand, Cannon’s contemporary examples seem to come from a much narrower field. I appreciate that they were all examples that she has a personal connection with, but at times it almost seems like a commercial for Willow Creek. Her writing style was somewhat repetitive; at 208 pages it’s hardly a long book, but it could have been shorter. This style made reading more than one chapter at once a bit of a trial, but the content of the book is much better digested one meal at a time: read one chapter per day, or better, one per week, and then try out the practices recommended at the end of each chapter. I found that doing so gave me a sense of practicing the discipline with the person. I intend to revisit the chapters, one at a time, and make a more concerted effort to implement the disciplines described.

Ultimately, this book works best as an introduction, a teaser, into both the lives of these important Christian figures and the disciplines they practiced. It’s an excellent book to read in a small group setting, where each chapter can be discussed and elaborated upon and other sources can be brought into the discussion. Disciplines are usually more difficult to practice alone (particularly the discipline of community!), so a small group setting would be a perfect place to explore these disciplines and integrate them into your life.

Overall I give it a B. For what it is, it’s quite good; for what it could be, it’s disappointingly short and simplistic. Read it with friends.