Friday, September 26, 2008

Can a Disciple of Jesus Be a Theoretical Pacifist?

Note: This was the last post on my old blog, The Politics of the Cross, before I took it down. I'm re-posting it here because it fits with the thrust of this new/old blog.

Halden has argued that I am wrong to say that the right to life cannot be reduced to being merely one issue among many. I'm concerned about the arguments he uses to reach this conclusion - much more so than the conclusion itself.

Like the Catholic bishops who have responded to Pelosi's and Biden's misleading statements, I agree that to vote for a pro-abortion politican when a choice exists to vote for a pro-life one, is to cooperate in a grave moral evil and to cut oneself off from the church. This is because, while many other issues involve prudential judgments, abortion is always the taking of an innocent human life and is therefore always intrinsically evil.

To commit a grave moral evil knowingly is to sin in a "high-handed" manner, as the book of Leviticus puts it, and is distinguished from sinning by omission or without being conscious of what one is doing. (This is related to the difference between venial and mortal sin.) Both kinds of sin (high-handed and unintentional) incur guilt, but the sacrificial system makes clear that they have different moral standing in God's eyes and are therefore treated differently in terms of the kind of sacrifice (and the kind of restitution) required. The distinction between murder and manslaughter is embeded in the Torah and the punishments for them are different. Capital punishment and war are also distinguished from murder in the Torah. Now you can say that the Torah is fulfilled in Jesus, but as Paul argued to his Jewish critics, this is not the same as saying that the Torah is simply abolished. To follow and obey Jesus is not to lose the ability to make moral distinctions between different kinds of sin; in fact the Torah continues to instruct Christians in such matters.

Halden thinks all killing is morally equivalent and that the kinds of distinctions between, say manslaughter and first degree murder, do not exist. So the Polish soldier fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazi death camp guard killing Jewish men, women and children for being Jewish, the state executing a mass murderer, a policeman shooting a gunman who has been killing students in a high school and a doctor injecting poison into the veins of a mother so the son can inherit her estate are all morally equivalent. He denies that there is any difference between killing the innocent and killing the guilty, so far as incurring guilt is concerned (though he admits we have a different emotional reaction to them).

He seeks to ground this is the doctrine of atonement and says that because God gave His life for sinners, that proves there is no real distinction between the innocent and the guilty. But if that were true, I fail to see why God should have to become incarnate and die on the cross to redeem the world. If there actually is no distinction betwen the innocent and the guilty, why not just declare everyone saved and skip the cross? It seems to me that to deny any moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty is to deny the whole concept of lost and guilty sinners needing redemption because they have broken God's law and are deserving of nothing but death.

In the course of thinking about a lecture I'm to give next Spring "A Critique of the Liberal Reading of Yoder" I have been wrestling with what it means to subscribe to "pacifism." Perhaps, to sharpen the question, we should speak of "theoretical pacifism" as opposed to "practical pacifism." It is well known that Karl Barth, in CD III/4 on the ethics of war, claimed that he could not affirm pacifism per se but must leave room for the Grenzfall, the borderline exception in which it might be possible to hear the command of God to go to war. However, he called himself a "practical pacifist," and condemned most war including all nuclear war. I define "practical pacifism" as Barth's position, as over against "theoretical pacifism," which says no to all killing with an absolute certainty that permits pacifism to become a principle that can be used to shape and critique everything else.

Yoder was disappointed in Barth's reluctance to go all the way to pacifism and called the Grenzfall a remnant of natural theology that is inconsistent with Barth's overall theology. Yoder wanted Barth to go further toward what I'm calling "theoretical pacifism," although it is far from clear to me that he wanted what I have just defined as "theoretical pacifism." Certainly people like J. Denny Weaver adamantly claim that he did, but I think that there is considerable ambiguity in Yoder's position.

Yoder recognized that, for Barth, the Grenzfall is not an escape hatch introduced when things get tight, but rather, a "solid principle," and "a rule that there must be an exception to every rule" and even "a theological necessity." And Yoder did affirm that he could accept one possible interpretation of the Grenzfall. He wrote:"Still another way of understanding the 'extreme case' would be to say that human knowledge is finite and that all human statements are open to correction because there might still be further facts to be discovered or further truths to be revealed. Therefore any statement which we make, and this would apply to doctrine as well as ethics, is made 'subject to further notice.' This is certainly a very defensible argument." (Karl Barth and the Problem of War, 52)

As Yoder points out, the Grenzfall does not guarantee that we will ever find an exception to the command to nonviolence any more than we can guarantee that we will not. It can simply function as a reminder and a marker of the limits of human knowledge. So far as we know right now, we will never encounter a situation in which the norm of nonviolence should be abandoned. But we leave open the possibility. (This also allows us to see such exceptions having been made in cases in the Old Testament, such as in the extermination of the Canaanites.) For Yoder, accepting the Grenzfall did not necessarily mean abandoning practical pacifism. Yoder clearly was more comfortable not using the concept. But Yoder was not able to convince Barth to drop the concept; they disagreed on the relevance of the Grenzfall for Christian ethics. Barth would not call himself a "pacifist" (his term) meaning a "theoretical pacifist" (my term), even though he would go so far as to call himself a "practical pacifist" and say that pacifism has almost infinitely strong arguments on its side. My interpretation of this dispute is that Barth remained an Augustinian for what I consider to be very good reasons, whereas Yoder never really came to grips with Augustine. For Yoder, the Grenzfall really functioned in Barth's theology as a remnant of natural theology. For Barth, it functioned as a barrier between church dogmatics and systematic theology.

I think that Yoder could have accepted Barth's interpretation of the Grenzfall and that it would have strengthened, not weakened, his pacifism. But to argue that he could have is not to forget that he didn't do so. So I see Yoder as ambigious at this point. I don't think Yoder was a "theoretical pacifist," but I think that there is enough ambiguity in his work to argue both ways. My main point is not to argue that Yoder can't be interpreted as a "theoretical pacifist," but to argue that he need not be interpreted that way and that we should not either interpret Yoder that way or take that view ourselves.

Barth rejected all systematic theology because he held that the human mind cannot capture the truth about God in a human intellectual system. Since the mystery of God in Jesus Christ cannot be fully grasped by the human mind, we must approach this mystery from different angles using the various dogmas and each one will give us a unique and partial yet true insight into God. Each volume of the CD starts again from the beginning to speak of God from yet another angle. In this approach, Barth was Augustinian. Augstine once said: "If you can comprehend it, it isn't God."

I think that Barth was right and Yoder was wrong on this issue of the usefulness of the Grenzfall as a concept in Christian ethics. Why? For two main reasons:

1. God being a God of love does not preclude the fact that God is also a God of judgment. This is a moral universe and good will be rewarded and evil will be punished. If it were not for the resurrection, judgment, reward and punishment, then there would be no answer to the problem of evil. We know that we will judge angels. (I Cor. 6:3) We don't know what this means, but it is a reminder that the saints have some sort of role in the eschatological judgment by which evil will be dealt with and the New Heavens and New Earth come into being. Since there is often a triumph of injustice in this life, we better hope that there is a Day of Judgment and a settling of accounts by a perfectly just and righteous Judge. God used Israel to judge pagan nations in Canaan in the Old Testament and we are told that we will judge angels in the New Testament. We would not expect to receive a command to engage in judgment and punishment in this age, but would be going too far to eliminate totally the possiblility in theory.

2. If "theoretical pacifism"becomes a principle (an "ism") then it can easily turn into an organizing principle for a systematic theology. This happens in certain liberal readings of Yoder, as for example in Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement. Non-violence or pacifism becomes the central organizing principle and is used to re-interpret Christology, the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine of final judgment, the doctrine of sin and, finally, the doctrine of God. (This is similar to the way the doctrine of double predestination comes to distort post-Reformation Reformed theology. A rationally clear principle is taken as the center piece and via deductive logic all the other loci are re-interpreted in such a way as to produce a logical system.) Ironically, in the case of Weaver, this is done all the while loudly protesting against the systematic theology of Christendom as inherently totalizing and violent! When Anabaptist theology becomes liberal, it becomes rationalistic even while purportedly rejecting systematic theology.

The assertion that there is moral equivalence between killing in war, capital punishment, the killing of a criminal by a policeman who is protecting innocent people, abortion and ethanasia is a sign that something has gone wrong in theology. When all forms of taking human life are said to be morally equivalent, it is a sign that nonviolence has turned into a rational principle that trumps everything else. Degrees of innocence and guilt are irrelevant because there is actually only one real moral principle left: nonviolence. You either are nonviolent or you aren't - end of discussion.

The principle of nonviolence then becomes a criteria by which all other doctrines are judged and refined. Sin, judgment, Christology, atonement and eschatology are all understood in a novel manner.The final outcome is that God comes to be defined as nonviolence. This reduces God to a rationally comprehensible principle that, once it is known by us can be used as a magic key to unlock every door. The end result is the worship of an idol created by us in our image according to an interpretation of Jesus that is not the result of exegeting the Scriptures as a whole, but rather is the result of importing a rational principle that makes sense to us into the biblical accounts of Jesus and then used as a hermeneutical key to bring the Bible as a whole into line with this principle.

I conclude therefore that, so far as I can see, a disciple of Jesus can be a "practical pacifist" but not a "theoretical pacifist" because practical pacifism involves following a Lord on a path of discipleship in such a way that we cannot know the future, but have to trust him to lead and guide us when we get there, whereas theoretical pacifism involves coming to know a rational principle that make discipleship possible without the Lord because we already know the answer to all the questions ahead of time.

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