Thursday, November 23, 2006

Must Christians be pacifists? III

A series by Andrew Errington
III: The cross and the wrath of God
I have been arguing that governing authorities who “bear the sword” are a God-given provision for this age, servants of God who provisionally and imperfectly reflect his final judgment on the last day. This does not weaken Jesus’ ethic of non-resistance and nonviolence for the Christian community. “Judge not,” says our Lord; and we dare not disregard his warning. Yet it does mean that “within the New Testament the sphere of public judgment [that is, the determinations of right and wrong made and enforced by political authority] constitutes a carefully circumscribed and specially privileged exception to a general prohibition of judgment” (Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, 99). Within this carefully circumscribed sphere the use of “violence” (in some sense) to forcefully enact judgments cannot be ruled out as categorically wrong.

A clear view of the wrath of God is central to this argument. Without it, Christian ethics are unintelligible. The wrath of God means Christians must not resist the evildoer, but instead love their enemies and overcome evil with good; and it means governing authorities must resist the evildoer, bearing the sword with justice.

This position remains deeply Christocentric. It is because Jesus himself will one day return to judge the living and the dead that we may contemplate the ways of judgment here and now. Yet it is perhaps a less cross-centred ethics than that advocated by Kim Fabricius (see Part I). Previously, Kim has described Jesus as “the hermeneutical criterion of all scripture” (Propositions on peace and war: a postscript Yet his arguments seem to go further and see the cross as the hermeneutical criterion for all that Jesus is, and so all that God is. A similar idea was hinted at by Ben Myers when, in his wonderful Theology for beginners series, he described Jesus’ resurrection in this way: “God took this dead man through death into new life, into the life of God’s future. Precisely as a dead man, he lived! Precisely as the Crucified One, he became the Risen One!” (Theology for beginners (7): Resurrection, my italics). What does this mean? Does it imply that the death of Jesus is the definitive moment in God such that anything that cannot be said of God at this moment cannot rightly be said at all?

The not-quite-pacifist position diverges at this point because of the conviction that the death of Jesus is not the final thing to say about God. The one who was crucified is now exalted as Lord and will return. To be sure, he still bears the marks of the nails in his hands, but these now show not only his surrender to death but his defeat of it. Now Jesus reigns, and he must do so “until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24). If what we have to say about God is at odds with this Jesus, then, too, we may end up with a “decaf theology” (see Propositions on peace and war: a postscript). "As the cross is not the sum of how Jesus 'went about doing good,' so neither is the command 'follow me' exhaustively accounted for by the words: 'when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.'" (O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited, 11).
I’d like to thank Kim for this opportunity to enter into conversation with one whose knowledge and imagination far exceeds my own. I hope some of my thoughts have been half as interesting as his have been for me. Series: I; II; III.


Anonymous said...

Cheers Andrewe for completing your series!

You have basically said it is not possible for a Christian to wield political power by affirming that Christians "must not" use violence, but governments "must". It is a recognized reality among all political theorists that the authority of any government essentially rests on the threat of force. Therefore, so long as Christians must be nonviolent, but this threat of force that enables government is viewed as legitimate no Christian may govern.

What you are suggesting is that we basically return to the Pauline situation in Romans 13 where the nations are basically outside salvation, but Christians living under those nations are called to be patient and endure rather than resist with violence, because God has, for whatever reason, permitted these nations to wield the sword in the intervening period between Christ's resurrection and the parousia.

That's all fine, but this is not how most of our governments define themselves nowadays. Especially in America we have a very explicitly Christian executive officer who believes his use of force and his Christian ethics are compatible. If you told him that he was excluded from salvation on the basis of his participation in governing authority he would strongly object.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Andrew, and certainly, very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Thanks The Miner, but I don't agree that I have said the nations and political authority are excluded from the conquest of Christ. I have simply argued that people in these positions, unlike all other Christians, have a unique responsibility by virtue of their holding political authority.

I do not believe that is impossible for President Bush to be a Christian and the commander of the armed forces. What I do think is that his being the commander of the armed forces gives him no more right than other Christians to repay evil with evil when he is attacked as an individual. It is, however, his responsibility as a Christian in authority to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

jeltzz said...

It is possible to articulate the position that since ruling authorities are permitted 'the sword', and yet the call of Christians in cross-shaped discipleship is specifically to reject the option of violence, that Christians should forfeit the role of governing authorities. I'm not sure what that would mean if, as at various times, one found oneself in an overwhelmingly christian polis, but then we might ask questions about the ordering of the church instead.

Finally, I would suggest that Roms 13 suggests that although authorities are providentially 'in power' by God's authority, this never legitimates their own self-legitimation. From a theological position God has granted them power, but from an anthropocentric reading it is not necessary for Christians to 'legitimate' a government's rule, only to submit to it.

Anonymous said...

Jeltzz, these are interesting thoughts. I can only recommend you read O'Donovan's work on these issues: The Desire of the Nations and The Ways of Judgment.

I'm not sure I understand your second point.

Your first point is a key issue and I think I disagree. The question is whether not only the individuals in authority can be converted, but whether the triumph of Christ can change even the office, or position of authority. I think it can, and I think Paul conceived of that possibility in Romans 13. But this is contestable.

Anonymous said...

Jeltzz, you partake of 'the sword' and 'governing authorities' when you vote, which you cannot renounce legally...

Anonymous said...

in Australia at least.

byron smith said...

Drew - I believe that Jeltzz does indeed renounce that partaking and suffers for it each election.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Jeltzz needs to suffer for it, unless having to respond to the penalty notice counts as suffering. By section 245 of the Electoral Act, "the fact that an elector believes it to be part of his or her religious duty to abstain from voting constitutes a valid and sufficient reason for the failure of the elector to vote."

jeltzz said...

I will try and explain my second point in more clarity later. As for the issue of voting, it is true that I abstain from compulsory voting and avail myself of the grounds of religious objection to do so.

However, I do not think christians should undertake a 'purity-code' approach to this issue - as if, and I think this applies to pacifism across the board, the mere withdrawal of oneself maintains a sinless self-righteousness. Pacifism, if it is truly worth its salt, must be prepared to 'step forward' into the muddy array of grey issues, rather than to take a 'step back' of retreat from engagement with the world.

I do need to read O'Donovan, hopefully over the summer.

Anonymous said...

it is true that I abstain from compulsory voting

Jeltzz, I admire your consistency and dedication to the point.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

The Miner seems to have articulated my major objections, Andrew--objections I already had to O'Donovan's project. But I want to add an exegetical point. In your second paragraph, you paraphrase Matt. 5 in saying that the Christian must not resist the evildoer (but governments must). But, with Walter Wink and others, I want to challenge the translation of Matt. 5:39 as "do not resist an evildoer." Christians are supposed to resist evildoers, just not with violence, but with transforming initiatives of a "Third Way."

Wink challenges the usual translation of "antisthenai" as "resist," pointing out the many places in Scripture and secular Greek where it refers to armed rebellion, instead. I focus elsewhere: "ponero" ("evil") has the "l.i.d" case ending, meaning that it can be translated as a "locative" showing location ("Do not resist in evil, on evil, at evil.") which hardly seems to fit. Or it can be translated as a substantive dative as the RSV, NRSV and you seem to do ("Do not resist an evildoer.").

But while grammatically possible, it doesn't fit with Jesus'own behavior in resisting evil people creatively throughout his ministry--especially in the demonstration in the Temple. (His exorcisms show Him resisting larger forces of evil, too. And these forces His followers are positively commanded to resist.)

But if we take "ponero" as an instrumental, it fits both the context of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, and Jesus' own actions. "Do not resist with evil," or "Do not resist by evil means." Notice how that fits Paul's paraphrase in Romans 12:17, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, etc." Then Paul gives concrete transforming initiatives for peacemaking with enemies as Jesus had already done in Matthew 5.

If we therefore abolish the idea that Christians are to be NONRESISTANT to evil or evildoers, but are rather to resist in a different, nonviolent, pattern than the world's tit for tat use of force, we don't have the strange tension you posit between the command to Christians and that to governments--which would lead to the problems the Miner has already outlined.

Your idea that Christians in positions of authority are charged with performing actions that would be sins for anyone else has huge problems. I cannot follow it and it seems predicated upon two things--a nonresistant (rather than nonviolently resistant) reading of Jesus' command to disciples, along with a restriction of those teachings to a "private sphere" from which your reading of Rom. 13--a reading which rips it from its context in the middle of Rom. 12-14 leaves a whole for wrathful actions from agents of government. We are back here to government as the "left hand of God" in Luther's words.

But this leads to absurd conclusions: Christians being free to join armies in different nations and then free to kill each other if the governing authorities of those nations each decide they are God's instrument for punishing the other. (National loyalty above loyalty to the Body of Christ?????) And Christians being free to kill non-Christians instead of dying for them so that they can come to know the love of Christ. How does this show love of enemies??

No, it just won't work.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Incidentally, I didn't realize that there were penalties in other democracies for not voting. That could certainly help voter turnout here in the U.S. There would have to be exceptions for the Amish (most of whom do not vote) and others who had religious objections because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, NOR RESTRICTING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF;" In Canada things may have changed, but, originally, Mennonites, Doukhabours, and others were granted the right to conscientious objection to military service in exchange for refusing to vote.

Anonymous said...

I've been finding this discussion really interesting. But I must say, nobody has convinced me of anything yet.

First and foremost, although the pacifist position has good exegetical support, I haven't heard any argument to challenge the idea that the state has a God-given responsibility to exercise judgment. (Perhaps the idea that 'the nations are basically outside salvation' is shorthand for such an argument, but I certainly haven't understood it yet.) And if it is accepted that this responsibility exists, then it seems impossible to hold that forceful acts of judgment by the state (say police actions) are sinful in God's eyes.

On the other hand, I haven't yet heard any good argument that would justify a Christian fulfiling a necessarily violent role within the state apparatus, e.g. police office or soldier, or fulfiling a commanding role which would seem to require authorising violence.

Anonymous said...

But this leads to absurd conclusions: Christians being free to join armies in different nations and then free to kill each other if the governing authorities of those nations each decide they are God's instrument for punishing the other. (National loyalty above loyalty to the Body of Christ?????) And Christians being free to kill non-Christians instead of dying for them so that they can come to know the love of Christ. How does this show love of enemies??

No, it just won't work.

I agree with all that Michael has said. It also seems to me that there is some sort of underlying assumption here that a government or an individual acting on behalf of a government is capable of making theologically righteous decisions of life and death that the individual acting in a personal capacity is not able to do.

I really do not understand the rationale behind the idea that the President may make arrangements to kill hundreds of thousands on behalf of his government but that he may not kill one person in his own defence.

I have to say that what I've found most frustrating about all these posts is that, read from the assumption that God does not recommend or condone war, they actually give no cohesive apologetic about why God allegedly does condone war. I suppose it's obvious if one holds that point of view, but I certainly don't see it.