Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Was Jesus Naive?

Back in 2005 (contrary to what the web link says), Gregory S. Clapper wrote a very powerful article for The Christian Century on his experience as a military chaplain entitled "Wounds of War." I strongly suggest reading it.

Precisely because I admire Clapper's article, I continue to struggle with his argument that "Sometimes the world makes us choose whom to love." Indeed, I found that comment so troubling that I wrote a letter to the editor in response (which was published in the October 5, 2005 edition of The Christian Century). Here's what I wrote:

I greatly appreciated Gregory S. Clapper's "Wounds of War" (June 28). With compassion for the trials and tribulations of men and women in the armed services, Clapper captures the difficulties of moral decision making for Christian soldiers in the maxim: "Sometimes the world makes us choose whom to love."

Clapper's maxim raises questions for Christians. For if the maxim is true and if it provides (an admittedly tragic) justification for Christians to kill, it suggests that the Jesus who says, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matt. 7:12), "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) and "Be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Luke 6:35) is either naive or wrong. Either way, our Lord loses moral authority and credibility.

I still cannot neatly resolve the tension between the demands of Christian realism (so powerfully put forth by Reinhold Niebuhr) on the one hand, and the teachings and example of of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels on the other hand.


Anonymous said...

Jesus was more radical than we think.

As I said in a different blog recently, when the Israelites were wrong for wanting a king, the problem was not that they should have wanted a democracy instead.

Democracy may be the worst form of government except for all the rest, but that rather begs a question about government in general.

As with most things in the spiritual life, the problems happen not by our attachments to God, but by our desire to both attach to God and to other things.

The assumption that one can be a good Christian and a good citizen is just that: an assumption. It may sometimes be true, but it also is often not true. And this has nothing to do with form of government.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Thomas. The henotheistic assumption that we Americans often make that being a good Christian and being a good citizen are always one and the same thing is rarely held up for critical scrutiny (and certainly not in an election year!). Indeed, to question that assumption is taken by many as unpatriotic and blasphemous.

Jerry S said...

As a police officer I face the dichotomy of citizenship vs. Christianity on a daily basis. Or do I? I believe that my Christian faith helps me in my service as a police officer. My job puts me in a unique place to serve my fellow man per our Lord's command. I do not hate the people I have to put in jail, I feel for them and want better for them. If one of these tries to fight or run to avoid jail, I do not have to hate them to fight to take them into custody or chase them for the same reason. Should one of these place my life or someone else's in danger, I will do what must be done to protect myself and others. I do not have to hate these people to do these things. I suspect that is what it is like for many of our service men and women who are also Christians.

As to the belief that one can not always be both a good Christian and a good citizen, it is my contention that, if we are good Christians, we will be good citizens. Even St. Paul recognized a sort of "dual citizenship", and he used his status as citizen of Rome to accomplish his duties as citizen of Heaven.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Jerry. Thanks for some insightful comments based upon your experience as a police officer. I salute the work that you do, and I think that you're quite right - the things you do and the way in which you do them can, indeed, comply with our Lord's teachings.

I think there are some points from the Just War tradition that are relevant here. At the heart of the Just War tradition is a presumption in favor of peace and against war (a point of common ground with Pacifism). However, the Just War tradition also accepts that there are some situations in which the use of force – including waging war – is morally justified and necessary.

The Just War tradition does not seek justification by arguing that war is necessary as the lesser of two evils (a negative justification). Nor does it seek justification in arguing for war as a legitimate means for pursuing national interests (a self-serving justification). Rather, Christian proponents of the Just War tradition maintain that love for neighbor requires intervention when violence, aggression, or tyranny threaten the lives of innocent persons (a positive justification). In other words, a moral teaching from Jesus that animates the entire New Testament serves as the core justification.

Applying this teaching as its core motive, Just War theory seeks to mediate between the polar oppositions of Pacifism and Holy War by finding a middle-ground position based on love for neighbor. Against the Pacifist insistence that warfare is a sin of commission, Just War theory says that the failure to intervene for the sake of the innocent and defenseless is a sin of omission. In opposition to the Holy War or Crusade mentality, Just War theory refuses to justify dehumanizing or annihilating enemies, thus taking seriously the New Testament’s rejection of revenge as a moral motive for Christians. Instead, the appropriate Christian moral motive for setting aside the presumption in favor of peace for the sake of waging war is not revenge, but love of neighbor.

I take this line of moral reasoning very seriously, and I think that along with the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello criteria for waging war (or for using force or violence in defense of justice), it provides a compelling moral basis on which Christians may legitimately serve in the armed forces, as police officers, etc.

Having said all of this, a tension still remains for me. Yes, love of neighbor may mean intervening on behalf of the defenseless in ways that require forceful or violent means. And love of neighbor is, indeed, central to Christian ethics. And yet, the same Lord who teaches and exemplifies love of neighbor also teaches and exemplifies an unwillingness to use the forceful means of his Jewish and Roman enemies. Indeed, in Jesus, we see that God treats enemies - not by coercing them or killing them - but by sending Jesus to die for them.

So besides the criticism that in practice, Just War theory can be a cover for the negative and self-serving justifications for setting aside the presumption in favor of peace, I am personally unable to fully and completely resolve this tension. And yet at the same time, I have nothing but the highest respect for persons who serve (at great personal risk) as police officers, in the military, etc.

Finally, I certainly think that being a good Christian can and perhaps most of the time does mean being a good citizen. But part of it depends on what we mean by "good citizenship." If being a good citizen means always abiding by the law and paying your taxes, then I think there are times when being a good Christian entails a head-on collision with good citizenship. I think, for example, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s non-violent civil disobedience. Some might argue that, actually, he was being a better citizen than others who supported segregation (and I would agree), but saying that means adopting a different notion of "citizenship" than one which equates it with abiding by the law (even if the law happens to be unjust) and paying one's taxes (even if the tax dollars are being used to fund things that are unjust).

BillyD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BillyD said...

"For if the maxim is true and if it provides (an admittedly tragic) justification for Christians to kill, it suggests that the Jesus who says, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matt. 7:12), "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) and "Be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Luke 6:35) is either naive or wrong."

I believe that this is what is called a false dichotomy. There exists at least one other option, which is that you are misinterpreting Our Lord's words. The unanimous tradition of 2000 of Catholic Tradition suggests that you are doing just that.

BillyD said...

pimf: 2000 years

BillyD said...

well, pim additional f (preview is my friend) "unanimous voice of 2000 years of Catholic tradition."

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, BillyD.

It is indeed possible that I am misinterpreting our Lord's words. And it's also possible that C. S. Lewis misinterpreted them, too.

I struggle with the authoritative weight of not just Jesus' teachings (whether misinterpreted by me or not), but also his example of non-violence. I believe that Jesus was a pacifist. That both troubles and fascinates me.

You say that the other option to my purported "false dichotomy" is the "unanimous voice of 2000 years of Catholic tradition." I believe you are in error here. For while it is true that for most of Christian history, the just war tradition has been the dominant view, pacifism was mainstream Christian teaching in the early Church. See, for example, Roland H. Bainton's Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace.

For a contemporary defense of the pacifist perspective by a mainstream biblical scholar, I also recommend the chapter on "Violence in Defense of Justice" in Richard B. Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

BillyD said...

I'll take a look at the books, Father. But no fair reading deleted posts (which is what I suppose your reference to Lewis means) - I deleted mine for a reason!

Bryan Owen said...

Sorry - I happened to see your posting before it was deleted.

I also commend to you a piece I posted on Bishop Paul Jones on his Feast Day back in 2007. His story is a powerful one. And his statement before the House of Bishops in 1917 haunts me - particularly the part which begins, "Prayer is, I believe, the best test of the whole matter."

BillyD said...

Okay, Father, _Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace_ is on its way from

I read your piece on Bishop Jones, with whom I was previously familiar. I admire his stance during WWI, while deploring his opposition to entering WWII.

Robert F said...

I don't know if you will read or respond to this comment, since it's so late in coming to the discussion. Although it is true that the church of the first centuries took the position of Christian nonviolence seriously, there were a number of reasons why the church Fathers discouraged or even prohibited Christian participation in military and/or "police" work (which was a function of the military}: the prohibition against taking vows of loyalty to the Emperor that included making sacrifice to him as a deity; concern with the loose morals that were typical for soldiers in that time period, and which, rightly or wrongly, have been attributed to soldiers down through the ages. Also, in the first couple of centuries of the church, Christians would have been prohibited from participating in the military unless they were Roman citizens, which a great many of them, even many living in Rome itself, were not. And although some bishops and communities prohibited Christians from becoming soldiers, others did not, even from the earliest periods, because the documentation from that period refers to the existence of Christian soldiers who were not disciplined for continuing to be in the military.
Certainly, Jesus did not resort to violence against those who opposed him. That was not his purpose. Neither did he mount military or political campaigns to eliminate slavery or abolish a host of social evils that existed at the time (some of them still exist today). He was neither a soldier nor an activist. He was the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. I'm not sure we can view his specific actions as our model for being made in the image of Christ. I think it is untrue to say that the early Church got it right with regard to war and peace but sold out that understanding in the Constantinian era. Through the the political and social reality of Constantinianism, the church both finally developed its settled and essential doctrines and grew into a responsibility it had not faced before with regard to its continued existence in a fallen world. Granted, it has not always exercised that responsibility in a loving and humane way; but that failure is not a warrant for walking away from a need to become responsible agents in the world's affairs.
At some times, nonviolence might be the best witness to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world; at other times, the use of necessary coercion may also witness to that Kingdom (I think of Bonhoeffer). Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, is absolute; no other principle can share with him that primacy.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for many excellent points in your comments, Robert F. The issues involved are quite complex, and in the time since I first posted this piece, I am more aware that blanket claims that the early Church was uniformly pacifist are problematic at best. Summing up the argument of a chapter entitled "Pacifist Church?", Peter Leithart in Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom put is like this: "In short, the story of the church and war is ambiguity before Constantine, ambiguity after, ambiguity right to the present."