Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Is Jesus Call to a Radical Lifestyle a Call to Pacifism Between Nations?

When I write or speak about what I consider a biblical approach to war, I oftentimes get comments like the one currently submitted with respect to my blog article “Are Christian Ethics Suicidal for Western Civilization” that make several objections to the Christian participation in war. First, they object that Jesus calls us to a radical lifestyle of peacemaking, non-resistance and powerlessness. Second, that those who believe in any kind of just war theory are articulating what they want rather than the biblical message; and third, that peacemaking and non-resistance would be an effective strategy if actually followed by large numbers of people. I reject all of these arguments.

Concerning this truth that Jesus does call us to a radical lifestyle, the advocates of non-resistance are incorrect in their interpretation of what that lifestyle is like. They base their opposition on only a handful of Jesus’ sayings and upon a tenuous interpretation of Jesus’ life and mission at His first coming. It is not based upon the bulk of Jesus’ teaching or upon the overall context of biblical teaching as a whole. In addition, the pacifist argument relies on an interpretation of the early church and its activities that flows from the church’s status and reactions to that status rather than from the church’s actual doctrinal teaching. Jesus did say, “blessed are the peacemakers,” but there is no reason to suppose from biblical models of acceptable statecraft or from the teachings of Scripture or from practical experience that genuine peacemaking comes through powerlessness and non-resistance. Policemen are “peace officers” and “peacemakers.” Their purpose is not to bring war to society, but rather to achieve and maintain the peace. They do so through persuasion, but also through the limited application of force and through the deterring threat of force. Some will say that no country should be a policeman to the world, but as I will discuss herein, I believe that all nations are effectively policemen for their neighbors. Jesus did say that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, but He did not say that it is appropriate for us to allow innocent victims to be persecuted by oppressors. Likewise, Jesus did say that when someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek, but He never said that if we see someone assaulting someone else, we should allow the assault to continue. Throughout the biblical text a distinction is made between avenging and defending oneself and avenging and defending others. The Bible constantly encourages an attitude of non-resistance and forgiveness rather than revenge-taking on our own behalf as individuals. But it likewise encourages us to band together for the defense and the vindication of others against those who attack or oppress them. David did not defend himself against his detractors, but he did allow his son, Solomon, to bring them to justice. Romans 12 tells us not to take vengeance, but Romans 13 tells us that the state is God’s servant to take vengeance. The biblical account did encourage the ancient Israelites not to build chariots, but it never encouraged them not to have a defense. The kings of Israel who were described as the good kings are also noted for their additions to the defenses of Jerusalem and for the skill and ability of their warriors. The biblical position is personal non-resistance and forgiveness, but corporate defense.

The advocates of pacifism look to Jesus’ own lifestyle as an argument for their position. They note that Jesus did not resist the Romans and did not resist His crucifixion. In response to this I would say first that you must look at the context of Jesus’ mission at His first coming and second, that you must look at the whole of biblical teaching. Jesus’ mission was to live a perfect life on our behalf, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise again from the dead, and to commission the early church and tell them to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was not His mission to establish a political kingdom or to destroy the Roman Empire. Jesus’ specific mission at His first coming required a passive response. Despite the talk about how oppressive the Romans were, the truth is that the government of Rome was not particularly oppressive or particularly unjust compared to the majority of governments in the history of the world. There was really no particular reason for justice to require Jesus to lead a revolt against Rome. There is no question but that the ancient Israelites resented Rome’s presence for ethnocentric reasons, but those reasons do not provide an adequate basis in justice or necessitate an armed revolt against an established government. The real determining factor was God’s purpose and mission for Jesus’ life on earth, not the political, economic context into which Jesus came. Whenever we lose sight of this, we distort the Scripture and what God is trying to communicate to us through it. Second, we have to look at the whole of the biblical account. A quick look at the passages prophesying the Second Coming of the Messiah clearly shows that Jesus is no pacifist. When He returns, He will make war upon His enemies who have gathered together and made war against His people. Some choose to allegorize or spiritualize these texts, but there is no compelling reason to do so. In addition, God not only describes Himself as a man of war throughout the Bible, but acts as one on many occasions. It must be remembered that genuine Christian ethics are based upon the nature of God Himself. We call things good because they are like God and in accord with His plan and order. We call things bad because they are a deviation or twisting from God’s order or plan and divine nature. If God Himself acts as a warrior and a vindicator of the oppressed, then it cannot be evil to do so. If we are to be imitators of Christ, we would need to be imitators of His fullness rather than merely of His actions in one context. Some will respond to this that God’s perfect knowledge allows Him to do this justly, while for us such justice is impossible. It is true that due to our human failings and imperfection we often make mistakes when seeking to live up to God’s moral rules. But that does not mean that we are not to follow God’s moral law or to seek to conform to His plan, order, and nature as best we can with the power of the Holy Spirit and with fervent prayer. God has put us in life as a moral adventure. He does not wish us to bury our talents in the earth and to do as little as possible so that we can avoid the risk of wrongdoing. Rather, He seeks for us to go out and engage the world. When we do so, we will make mistakes but by the grace of God we will be attempting both to will and to do His good pleasure.

From the structure of ethics in connection with the nature, order and design of God, it does seem to be the case that, as Aristotle thought, vices generally come in pairs rather than singly. While bloodthirsty war-likeness is indeed a vice, it must be recognized that there is a vice at the opposite extreme of virtue—the vice of not using force, resistance, or action when it is godly and appropriate to do so to rescue or vindicate those who are in distress. True virtue is to use force for the genuine benefit of others and for the working of justice, but not to use it to vindicate ourselves as individuals or to seek injustice. The main reason we do not seek to vindicate ourselves is that, as John Locke pointed out, we are singularly poor judges of justice where our own case is concerned. No just man acts as a judge of his own cause or an executioner of his own cause. It is for this reason that God ordained the existence of human governments and for which they are brought into existence. To then deny this function to governments is to break the divine order rather than to vindicate it.

Similarly, the early church did not seek to violently overthrow the Roman government, but sought rather to live peacefully within the Roman Empire. Some of the early church fathers encouraged Christians not to serve in the Roman military. But these teachings have to be interpreted in the overall context. There was no compelling reason for the early Christians to violently resist Rome. They were not commanded in any special revelation to do so and as a matter of practical wisdom, it would have been a failing effort. It would not have been possible or desirable for them to defeat the Roman Empire. As mentioned above, the Roman Empire was relatively just compared to other political orders. In limited times and places the empire did persecute Christians. That persecution did work for the spread of the Gospel in a way that unsuccessful armed resistance would not have done. However, had there been a large Republican faction within Rome that had wanted to defend and protect Christians; it would have been reasonable, had they had the effective means, to seize control of the Roman government in order to protect the Christians, as well as the religious freedom of all, and to make Rome’s order even more just. As for the instructions on membership in the military, the reason given for these was always to avoid the necessity of Roman soldiery to worship the emperor as a deity. Despite these warnings, we have every reason to believe that there were actually many Christians in the Roman military. The quick spread of the Gospel to far-flung Roman colonies like Britain was in all likelihood possible because of Roman legionnaires who were Christians bringing the Gospel to the farthest-flung military outposts of the empire.

As for the second major criticism, that the reason advocates of just war theory believe in Just War theory is because of their own internal desires and wishes, this is not really a strong argument. Such arguments are very popular today, but do not refute the underlying proposition when they attempt a deconstruction of the people who hold a position. C. S. Lewis has a wonderful critique of similar arguments in an article in God in the Dock entitled “Bulverism.” But then, besides being a bad argument, the charge is also not true either. All human beings inherently tend to desire peace and prosperity rather than the pain, suffering, risk, and threat that come from war. While there may be some people who think temporarily that they would desire the glory or adventure of war, they soon learn otherwise once they are provided with a taste of that terrible draught. I advocate the position I do because I believe it is biblical, not because it fits it with my personal desires or wishes. Indeed, I think extreme positions such as complete pacifism or complete “realism” are much more easy and comfortable for practical purposes than what I consider the biblical principled position that there are times when force is necessary and times when it is inappropriate. Decisions requiring judgment, wisdom, and discretion are rarely personally desirable, but they are the way the world usually is set up to work.

As for the effectiveness of peacemaking and non-resistance, I see none exemplified in the Bible or in history. It is true that martyrdom is sometimes effective though it is sometimes ineffective. The martyrdom of thousands of Christians in Tokugawa era Japan did not cause an explosion of Christianity in Japan, nor did the martyrdom of thousands of Christians in North Africa, Arabia, or Persia cause an explosion of Christians after the cataclysmic expansion of radical Islam after 600 A.D. Where are the Christians that Marco Polo met along the Silk Road through central Asia? Where is the explosion of the church caused by the persecution of Christians in Burma/Myanmar? Sometimes God uses our martyrdom to bring others to Christ. Sometimes it is merely a testimony against our enemies. Nowhere in the Scripture is it taught that states should become martyrs in the face of unjust attacks or that our state should allow unjust attacks against other states. This is sometimes an effective strategy against a principled dominantly Christian adversary. The United States was influenced by the non-resistance of Martin Luther King because it was a predominantly Christian country. Britain was influenced by the non-resistance of Gandhi because it still had the afterglow of centuries of Christian dominance (although the violence of Indian extremists didn’t hurt in convincing the British to leave either). By contrast, non-resistance if offered would be completely ineffective against Hitler, Stalin, or fascist Japan. Indeed, in the limited cases in which it was offered, it was infective. To say that if everyone was non-resistant there would be no war is merely to say that if we were all slaves, there would be no war because we would have one master. The problem is that that master would not necessarily be God. Just as God works through our words to spread the Gospel, so too He sometimes works through the acts of states and governments to bring justice both on an individual level and on an international level. While there have been cruel and terrible wars and bad results from wars, in many instances right has indeed made might and victories have occurred for physically weaker belligerents who have been spiritually stronger. Modern secularist historians comfort themselves in claims about the military prowess and economic power of the victors in such battles, but at the time the battles occurred it certainly did not seem like victory was such a foregone conclusion.

No, while God calls us to pacifism as individuals dealing with our individual interest, and while general pacifists no doubt mean well and are noble in their intentions, pacifism in just war is not a wise or biblical option.


Anonymous said...

To your list of martyrdoms that did not seem to advance the gospel, add the massacre of the French Calvinist Hugeonots which began on St. Bartholomew's Day, 1572. 100,000+ dead.
France, to this day, has never recovered from the loss of its protestants.

David said...

This is a fantastic article. I espeically liked the point about police officers and peacemakers. For some reason I had never thought of their correlation in that context before.

The Wittenberg Door said...

Excellent analysis. The reasoning employed by pacifist is similar to that used against capital punishment. As you pointed out in your post, the problem lies in the confusion between the duties of the individuals and those of the state. Detractors would do well to read the fourth book of Calvin’s Institutes (specifically, ch. XX.10–12).

Keep up the fine work.