Friday, February 26, 2010

Where Does The Church's Error Lie?

I've been having a fascinating correspondence with the brother of a co-worker. He is a classic evangelical in regards to his views on war and violence and the Christian's response to them. He would say that it is sometimes justified and even sometimes holy for us to kill our enemies and that sometimes violence is our only course of action. The conversations we've been having have often been focused on his use of the Old Testament to defend "just war" and how we differ in regards to our interpretation of the Christian's position in regards to the Old Testament law and way of life. I would like to post my response to his last correspondence below for the groups examination so that I can be sure that my defense is strong and not in error. The second half of the email is in response to some practical questions he had for me in regards to pacifism as a way of life. Please leave your thoughts.

++below is the email response++

I believe that your use of the Old Testament to defend your ideas of a just war and justified violence point to the root reason for our differences. This conversation stems from differences in how we understand God's response to sin and how we understand "justice" and the law of God in light of the cross.

Let me explain my understanding of our position in regards to the law in as succinct a way as possible. In the time before Christ, followers of God were instructed (by God Himself) that the proper response to sin was to remove it from their midst and to destroy it. We can't ignore that there was a time in human history when it appeared that the only way to effectively stop evil from happening in our communities was to fight it violently, and God instructed us on how to do this in the Torah laws. It's interesting to note that this idea of justice (the idea that retribution is a fair system of law) is not only how the Israelites operated judicially but also how other nations throughout history have operated. It's a common, almost natural, response within mankind to resist evil by destroying those who perpetrate it. We currently live in a governmental system where this is true. If I kill a man, I run the risk of being killed by the state as a "fair" response. God gave Israel a set of laws which they were to follow in order to effectively fight against evil, often these used "violent" means. This cannot be denied. It also can't be denied that throughout the Old Testament, God leads the Israelites to destroy evil nations around them and that God used natural events (violently) to destroy evil men (the Flood). In the Old Testament we are given a picture of what it is that makes God angry and what is against his nature. In the Old Testament we learn what sin is.

Now I would suggest that we probably agree on the above paragraph but what follows is probably where we differ. I believe, as you probably believe, that Jesus ultimately paid for the sins of the world in his death on the cross. I believe that Jesus death on the cross represents to us a new way in which God deals with sin. In Christ's sacrificial death, he shows us not only the way in which we would all be saved (by God loving his enemies and dying for them) but also the way by which his followers were to live (by loving their enemies and dying for them). This is not to say that sin is no longer sin (as it is still repugnant to God and God hates it), as Christ says "not an iota will pass away from the Law", but it is to say that our RESPONSE to sin needs to change. The cross changes everything. It's not just a spiritual truth that we believe in and which saves us, its a practical response to sin that we live out every day. Hence why Christ tells us to carry our cross and to follow Him. Following Jesus implies US dying to give THEM life, not THEM dying to give US life. Non-violence is an essential doctrine because an understanding of it is the LIFE of the Gospel and what makes Christians uniquely different than the world. To believe that we must still follow the "eye for an eye" way of dealing with sin in our world (demanding justice through the destruction of our enemies) is to live under the way of the old testament and not in the new Gospel of Jesus. When we kill our enemies and sue our oppressors in court, we are essentially denying Christ's death for them on the cross. Saying that Christians sometimes must kill their enemies and that death is still a just way for Christians to deal with their enemies is to neuter the Gospel.

I hope the above explanation gives you a more holistic understanding of why I believe what I believe. Now let me answer your questions:

You asked whether a Christian could be pleasing to God as a soldier, police officer, or a judge: No. I do not believe these professions are Christian. In the case of the soldier or the police officer, their profession would require of them to potentially kill another human being. This is not how Christ has treated us. We are now obligated to forgive as we have been forgiven. God righteously should have destroyed us for our sin. He doesn't do this because of Jesus, neither should we do this to others. In the case of the judge I would say that it probably depends on the nature of the state under which the judge was working. If the state would obligate the judge (under the rule of law) to condemn prisoners to death or to have them tortured or to have violence committed against them , then no. If a state could exist which did not obligate the judge to do these kinds of things, then perhaps Christians could be judges. Given that this kind of state is unlikely, I would say it is unlikely that Christians could ever be judges. Their administration of "justice", given their Christian propensity towards forgiveness, would probably not be looked upon favorably by the state. In the same vein, I don't believe that Christians can serve on jury's (as your religious obligation toward the love and forgiveness of your enemies would cause you to be rejected during the selection process).

You asked whether I would use violence to protect my child from physical harm: This is, undeniably, where the rubber meets the road. To answer simply: No. I would not use violence. However, this is clearly not an easy thing to do. To clarify: I don't believe that God calls us to "passivity" in how we deal with violence. There are loving ways to resist evil. Perhaps in the kind of circumstance you describe I would choose to stand in between the offender and my child. Perhaps I would be able to come up with a way to explain to this man how much God loves him and how much he has been forgiven. Perhaps in suffering the blows that would be set against me and not hitting back I would change that man's heart. There is no way for me to know the future of a man's heart and I cannot, in taking his life or hurting him in response, trump God from being the judge and protector of my family. I am called to be like Christ.

Iran and World War II make for an interesting defense of my pacifism. Iran seeks nuclear weapons as a reaction to our oppression of the Middle East. This is a long ongoing struggle where many lives have been lost and represents an unending cycle of violence. It is hard to know who started it at this point. Violence as a method of the "restraint of our enemies" has been attempted time and time again without any success: people continue to die. The only way to end this conflict is for the oppressed to choose non-violent resistance and love their enemies.

World War II is often cited in these types of discussions. I find it interesting that people think the conclusion of World War II was a success. The results of World War II and the division of Europe and the middle East generated several more wars in its wake. Without World War II we wouldn't have the Cold War, Vietnam, the war in the Pacific (nagasaki, hiroshima), and the conflict in Israel. Perhaps if men had chosen radical non-violent means of resistance to show their enemies their humanity and love, we would have been able to avoid a war of that magnitude. Unfortunately, what's been done has been done. We are given an opportunity now to offer the world something different in Jesus.

I hope this lengthy email clarifies some things. Looking back on my last email I feel that my explanation of my understanding of the Old Testament, War, and God's wrath, was weak and not very well developed. I would offer this as my more well thought out response.

seeking first His kingdom,

++ end of email correspondence ++

I was telling my father about this correspondence last night and we got around to talking about Emperor Constantine and how the Church gave in to the authority of Rome. We were talking about the early witness of the martyrs and how willing they were to go to death in order to live out and profess the good news and how the witness of the martyrs would have been completely irrelevant if they had not gone willingly (even joyfully!) to their deaths in the face of a tyrannical empire. We forget that their words were unnecessary… their willingness to die for their enemies and to die joyfully for God without hate in their hearts for their persecutors was testimony enough to the power of Christ in them.

Also… I will leave you with these somewhat unrelated but awesome words from Walter Wink:

"I submit that the ultimate religious question today is no longer the Reformation's 'How can I find a gracious God?' It is instead, 'How can I find God in my enemy?' What guilt was for Luther, the enemy has become for us: the goad that can drive us to God. What has formerly been a purely private affair—justification by faith through grace—has now, in our age, grown to embrace the world. As John Stoner comments, we can no more save ourselves from our enemies than we can save ourselves from sin, but God's amazing grace offers to save us from both. There is, in fact, no other way to God for our time but through our enemy, for loving the enemy has become the key both to human survival in the age of terror and to personal transformation. Either we find the God who causes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, or we may have no more sunrises."

-Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonresistance


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  2. It never ceases to amaze me that whenever someone proposes nonviolence as a Christian response to violence, without fail, the next two arguments against such a proposition are: a) Hitler; and b) Someone raping your grandmother. Both of these arguments have been successfully debunked by pacifists in print and debate, yet due to their emotionally-charged nature, Just-War theorists consider them deal-breaking, nail-in-the-coffin scenarios. Once you remove these nightmare scenarios, what reasons for disobeying Jesus' command remain?

    For once, I'd just like to hear some new or different arguments.

  3. TC - part of the problem there, I think, is that few people have looked into the intellectual basis of pacifism. They tend to assume that there isn't one. So they keep on thinking that no pacifist has ever thought about WWII or the rape of our grandmothers.

    To the post ... this is a brilliant statement of the whole case. I was a just war supporter for some time, but came to the conclusion that just war and modern war were incompatible.

    Once I got to that point, it was easy to see that war has never been acceptable to God. It did take a while for me to get there, though.

    One of the mistakes is assuming that pacifism is represented by Neville Chamberlain's naivete. Rather, it is better-represented by those who go out into the world BEFORE there's a crisis and seek to create real peace, not just make deals with evil.