Friday, June 01, 2007

Are Christian Ethics Suicidal for Civilization?

In a discussion on the blog Conservative Swede, participants discussed the problem of pacifist ethics in the era of Islamist terror. I have posted my (rather long) comment here bellow as well as at the other site:

"I have read this post and the comments with great interest. I am an evangelical Christian in the United States. One of those people who still has God and Christ in the equation of Christian ethics. I think you are right that the ethics of many of those here in the United States called “liberal Christians” have ethical ideas that are nothing short of suicidal. I question whether or not those ideas are really particularly Christian. There are Christians in history who have held such ideas, but I don’t think they represent the dominant belief of the core of committed Christianity over the history of the church. I also have to disagree with James C. Russell’s book, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. While Mr. Russell is correct that the Middle Ages brought about some changes in some of the leadership of Christianity, most of these changes were unraveled, at least for Protestants, at the time of the Reformation. While it is true that during the Middle Ages Christians were probably more willing to tolerate bad behavior on the part of others (such as looting, pillaging, torture, etc.), this was never actually part of the core of Christian doctrine. The writings of John of Salisbury are far more representative. Salisbury is no pacifist. He believes in what we would call the just war theory. And he doesn’t believe in the modern wimpy just war theory that never allows a first strike or the initiation of a war for a just cause, he actually believes in fighting for causes that are just. But Salisbury also disagrees with the destruction of church property or the taking of innocent lives without military necessity. Certainly this is also represented in the many writings concerning Christian chivalry. The actions of the Crusaders who massacred the citizens of Jerusalem were not within the core of medieval Christian teaching, but were the sort of aberration present in all ages because of the sinfulness of human beings—even Christian human beings.

As for early Christianity, the pacifism of early Christianity is highly overstated by modern pacifists. Most evangelical Protestant Christians and most Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified not because He believed in pacifism, but because He was a willing sacrifice to save those who would believe in Him from their sins. He is the Lamb of God described in Isaiah as bearing our iniquities and being wounded for our transgressions. Christ’s death satisfied God’s demand for justice and His righteous life is attributed to Christians so that they are righteous before God. This sort of legal transaction seems alien to many literalists and sometimes to those of the Roman persuasion but has not only been accepted historically by Christians from the time of Christ’s resurrection to the present, but is also evidenced in Scripture (particularly the book of Romans) and has been quite in line with the thinking of canon law and common law lawyers throughout much of the history of western Europe.

There were some early Christian writers who were opposed to Christian participation in the Roman legions because legionnaires had to offer incense to Caesar and had to effectively worship idols in the form of the standards of the legions. Despite this concern, archeology and other sources show that there were many Christians in the early Roman legion. Roman writings actually give praise for the victory to Christians who, in one battle, prayed and obtained a change in the tactical situation (and this long before the Christianization of the empire). It is also likely that Christianity spread to Great Britain and the other far corners of the Roman Empire through Christian soldiers. It must be remembered that Paul undoubtedly evangelized the Praetorian Guard while he was imprisoned waiting his appeal to Caesar. When the empire became Christian, at least in name if not in practice, there was no longer any reason why Christians could not serve in the military since the problems relating to idolatry were no longer present. From that time forward, there were many Christians who served in the military.

It is worth noting that despite people’s feeling that the New Testament is a pacifist book, the New Testament does depict the return of Christ as involving violence against His enemies at the battle of Armageddon. A sorcerer is struck blind in the book of Acts and a couple who lies to the early church are struck dead. The notion that early Christianity was all warm fuzzies is a misunderstanding of Christianity and what the Bible actually says. Those Christians too have believed in the organic unity of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Old Testament is obviously no pacifist book. But even in the New Testament, Paul says that the government does not bear the sword in vain. The government is there to punish evil and reward good. It must utilize coercion to do so. But when it does so, it is not acting in a way that is inherently evil. Instead, it is “God’s servant.”

The real moral distinction between correct and incorrect violence in the Bible is different from secular views of violence however. In the secular world, justified violence tends to be based primarily upon self-defense. In the biblical worldview, justified violence is primarily about defense of others. One may sometimes be justified in defending oneself because of one’s value to others and the role in which you are reacting to others. If it was purely about saving one’s individual self when there was no appropriate role for you to play toward another, then martyrdom could actually be the appropriate thing. But when innocent lives such as those of women and children or those in the community are at stake, martyrdom in the face of aggression is not appropriate, but rather the defense of the community from aggression, injustice and oppression is appropriate. This was the basic belief of the Christian reformers such as Luther and Calvin. But this view began to be distorted during the 1600s when there was an increased emphasis on trying to make the theory of law and international relations appeal to an audience without direct reference to the Bible or to faith as the sole argument. Writers like Locke and Hobbs made self-defense more important and neglected the primacy of the defense of others. This had two negative effects. First, it emphasized selfishness in foreign policy and second, when combined with a misunderstanding of the Christian belief in willing martyrdom of the self, it made entire civilizations more suicidal. But this was not the direct result of Christianity, but rather the combination of Christianity with the skeptical secular theories of writers like Thomas Hobbs.

As skepticism grew in Europe through the writings of people like Hobbs, Hume, Kant and ultimately Nietzche and the existentialists, and as Europe slipped from immorality being primarily the prerogative of the upper classes to being the ambition of every class, Europe rejected the role of God and an honest view of God’s commands and teachings in favor of a system that included a greater and greater distortion and disingenuity about good and evil, honorable and dishonorable behavior. The problem of slavery added greatly to this distortion.

Slavery was on its way to extinction during the Christian Middle Ages. But upon the discovery of the New World and the economic benefits of making slaves of Native Americans, Africans and others, Europe delved once again into the depths of slave owning and slave trading. To be sure, the Arab world was involved in providing these slaves and the wars within Africa and South America contributed to their availability. But Europeans compromised Christian beliefs in order to justify the holding of slaves. The same thing happened in the early United States. The United States compromised and gave up its original natural law/common law perspective in order to adopt a positivist jurisprudence that enabled the legal justification of slavery despite its obvious immorality. In the end, what people regard as a “Christian” system today is far different from what Christianity actually suggested or required. As G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but tried and found difficult.

If genuine Christianity were to return in Europe and to remain ascendant in the United States, and to finally seize back the American ruling class from those in America who hold the European view of man, the world, and things, there is no question but that western civilization could triumph over the current threat from radical Islamo-Fascism. But as long as the West continues to idolize the beliefs of Hobbs, Hume, Nietzche and Heidegger, we will fall prey to those who combine the teachings of Heidegger and Mohammad.

In one other important detail, I think that in asking what system one should adopt, consideration ought to be which system is true? I know that it has become fashionable to believe in objective truth these days, but to adopt a system like Greek or Roman paganism simply because you think it is effective is quite foolish unless there is some reason to believe it is also true. Contrary to the beliefs of the skeptics, I and many like me in America and the rest of the world find no intellectual and logical reason to believe that Christianity is false. Quite the reverse. Christianity as it is truly to be understood is systematically consistent and meets the facts of reality. Christianity also has solutions to our greatest needs such as dealing with death, alienation, loneliness, addiction and sin. The modern world has not liked Christianity because the Bible objects to sexual immorality (but not sex in marriage) and other popular modern addictions. The modern world has been looking for data to justify the rejection of God for hundreds of years. The oldest anti-Christian writings are easily seen as absurd today. In time the current waive will be seen to be foolish distortions as well. I hope and pray the men and women of the West come back to God on His terms as soon as possible – before it is too late.


David M. Smith said...

As much as I trust the sword, you, Dean McConnell, were born for the pen. Great piece!

Jason Pappas said...

John of Salisbury get his just war theory from Cicero. The American founding fathers all read Cicero in college. “De Officiis” is Cicero’s ethical treatise, read by every gentleman of public affairs; it was the core text of a traditional liberal arts education. Ambrose wrote his own “De Officiis” based on Cicero.

It’s not easy to separate the influence of Christianity from our Greco-Roman heritage. In part, this is a compliment to the ability of Christianity to absorb our great Classical heritage. However, I fear that Swede has a point about what is distinctive of Christianity: Jesus’ example and teachings. The Gospels can easily underwrite a philosophy of self-resignation and pacifism. The Romanization of the Christians created a muscular form of the religion that is worthy of praise. And, Paul was a proud Roman citizen. However, I fear recidivism.

When Christians were muscular Romans they could fight without hesitation. The Eastern Roman Empire fought Islam until it fell in 1453 AD. However, once subjected to Islamic oppression, Christians could readily adjust and accept servitude in this life while hoping for reward in the next. How many times do we come across a Spartacus fighting the Islamic establishment during 12 centuries of oppression? Outside of Spain, revolt was rare. Christianity without Roman virtues is problematic.

This is why I find it distracting to talk about Christianity when our civilization faces a threat from a resurgent Islam. We need to rediscover our Roman virtues if we are to meet this threat. I have no doubt Christians can reconcile our Greco-Roman tradition with their religion but the focus should be on our secular Classical heritage. Seeking harmony between religious and secular philosophy should be a private matter within each denomination or parish if we are to avoid endless religious exegesis and theological debates.

May I suggest that we need to unite against the subjectivist relativist multi-cultural trends that are undermining our culture? Socrates, Plato and Aristotle fought the subjectivists of their day (the Sophists). While today’s secularists are mostly of the relativist variety, we need to remember that this is a recent trend of the last 200 years. I find greatest respect for our secular Classical heritage among Christians. But what they fail to emphasize is that what we need most at this juncture: the strength of our Classical values and virtues.

Professor McConnell said...


I think an alliance of those who believe in objective truth against the subjectivists and the Islamofacists is warranted.

The real issue is objective truth. Real Christianity recognizes all real truth as God's truth, and acknowledges that because God has revealed truths about Himself and His universe to all peoples, all peoples generally have some true ideas in their collections of ideas.

What the Romans and Greeks said that was true (quite a bit) was true in all contexts. What they said that was false (just as much) was also false in all contexts. What they said that was indifferent is often interesting and educational. Being imitative people, we Westerners have been heavily influenced by the arguments of the Greeks and others. But when the Greeks are right their ideas are not uniquely Greek, but true. When they are wrong, even error is usually unoriginal if we but knew. But we can give them credit for saying what they said when they did in a durable form. But there should be no prejudice against truth, nor any quarter for falsehood, because of the nationality or culture of the communicator. Christians have not always seen it so, but there are several Biblical examples.

It is not always easy for finite and fallible humans to sort out what is true and what is not. Basic moral principles are easy - do not murder, do not steal, etc. Applications can be hard and complex, even with Biblical examples. And you are right that arguments among Christians about doctrine can be endless and bitter despite the injunctions of Jesus for love and unity as well as truth and obedience to God. Many are unable or unwilling to harmonize the sanctioned violence of the Old Testament, or to distinguish and reason why similar actions may not be permissible today because circumstances are different in fundamental ways. The Reformers were comfortable with such discussions, but in our age we blush at truth and yet embrace falsehoods (like the supposed justification of abortion and destructive embryonic experiments)without a qualm.

I think some of the issues about Christians and rebellion are tactical. Christianity teaches obedience to legitimate authority, and even to illegitimate authority to the degree illegitimate authorities act like legitimate rulers. As Cicero or John of Salisbury would have said, rebellions are not usually successful, and often lead to worse governments than those eliminated. Roman fought its attackers with a real chance of success and a legitimate goal of maintaining an ordered government. The French and Russian revolutions are good examples of why fighting is not always the best answer.

Today, we are in a strong position with a reasonably good governments. Fighting the Islamofacists makes a lot of sense. But there must be an ideological struggle as well. Truth is worth fighting for. The Bible never lets people abandon truth for stability or peace.

Vance said...

Excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Dean McConnell,
You wrote a great article there. It is sad to me that the Crusades are a part of our history as Christians.

Anonymous said...

Well, it is quite true that it does not seem as though the pacifist position fits easily into the world as we find it today. What we need to ask ourselves is whether God intended for us to be radically set apart..or to conform. The example set by Jesus speaks volumes about how we must respond to terror. He came at a time in which his people were grossly oppressed and did not pick up a sword to harm his enemies or rid the world of Terror. He asked us to give with a radical generosity that also does not fit into our culture. Does that mean he didn't mean it? Christian ethics do ask us to put aside what we value and live for God in the way he intended us. though it may not seem practical perhaps it would if more of us actually did it instead of trying to reconcile God with our own desires from particular lifestyle or form of political rule. Imagine every Christian united against terror, in your face, in peaceful protest. What would it look like if the battlefields in Iraq were filled with Christian soldiers willing to die out of love for their enemies. Just a thought

Professor McConnell said...

I think conformity can be seen in Pacifism as well as militarism. In America and England there have always been large pacifist factions, some of whom are Christians, but most of whom just want personal peace and affluence at all costs. What is really hard is turning the other check ourselves while being willing to fight to protect others.

Also, on Rome, compared to the vast majority of historic governments, it was really pretty good at the time of Jesus life on earth in Judea and Galilee. I do not think revolt against Rome was particularly justifiable until the emperors started demanding worship and persecuting Christians and Jews. But even then, rebellion was unwise. The expansion of Christianity changed Rome. But when Rome fell, the new order in its place was not really better for hundreds of years - or ever in some places where the chaos was succeeded by Islam.