Wednesday, October 15, 2008

J. R. R. Tolkien, War and Pacifism

J. R. R. Tolkien knew war first hand, having served in the British Army in World War I. He lost close friends and only just survived himself. His son Christopher served in the RAF during World War II and Tolkien's letters to his son make clear his distaste for the use of airplanes in war. He also makes clear his hatred of nuclear weapons and their use on Japan. He seems to have a realistic appreciation for the moral ambiguity of war at its best and no illusions about its horrors.

Is Frodo a pacifist? It is true that he does very little fighting in the story and none whatsoever in the scouring of the Shire. So is the message of the story that pacifism can overcome evil when swords are useless? I think not, for several reasons.

1. Frodo is dependent on his friends to escape the attacks of the Enemy. He may not fight, but they do with his approval.

2. When Gollum is choking Sam to death, Frodo draws his sword and puts it to Gollum's throat. He tells Gollum to let Sam go or "I'll cut your throat." Who doubts that he would have done it to save Sam?

3. To the extent that Frodo has a role in the story that does not involve fighting, but only suffering, he is a Christ figure. He gives himself totally in the service of a great quest aimed at the salvation of his friends and all of Middle Earth and does so because a specific 'doom' has been laid upon him.

4. But his quest also involves the destruction of Sauron, which Frodo earnestly desires.

In Letter 195, Tolkien discusses Frodo and pacifism:

"One point: Frodo's attitude to weapons was personal. he was not in modern terms a 'pacifist.' Of course, he was mainly horrified at the prospect of civil war among Hobbits; but he had (I suppose) also reached the conclusion that physical fighting is actually less ultimately effective than most (good) men think it! Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory." (Letters, Carpenter ed., p. 255)

In Letter 144, Tolkien speaks about Tom Bombadil:

"Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment.' I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty," renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact htings with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or eve to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron. " (Letters, Carpenter ed. pp. 178-9)

Tolkien's position on war is consistently Roman Catholic. He believed in the just war tradition, which meant that not all wars or ways of waging war are right, but that some are. In saying that war is "just" or "right," however, one must also acknowledge that war is never a good, just a lesser evil. Even participation in a justified war is something for confession. He also sees vocational pacifism as a good and necessary sign. If reluctant and sad Christian participation in war is a testimony to the fallen state of this world and the impossibility of living without sin in it, the pacifism of certain members of the Church is a testimony to the future victory of the Kingdom of God when war will be no more, as well as a sign of contradition to those who would glorify war into a crusade of righteousness or over-invest it with utopian dreams. Both just warriors and pacifists need each other and Christian witness depends on both being present in the Church in every generation.

Protestantism has lost the pacifist witness because of its abolition of the monastic orders and its failure to uphold the pacifist standard for the ordained clergy. In this may be seen its utopianism and liberalism. Anabaptism, when considered to be the replacement of the monastic orders in Protestantism, can function as a witness to the future Kingdom. But Protestantism for the most part tends to oscillate back and forth between utopian, liberal pacifism for all and a holy war or crusade mentality that sees war as the means to utopia.


Sam Adams said...

Interesting and informative post. Are you recommending Tolkien's view that, "Both just warriors and pacifists need each other and Christian witness depends on both being present in the Church in every generation"?

I definitely agree that, "Protestantism for the most part tends to oscillate back and forth between utopian, liberal pacifism for all and a holy war or crusade mentality that sees war as the means to utopia." Yet I understand Christian pacifism to be more eschatological, that is, not dependent upon some liberal notion of progress but instead relying on categories such as "apocalytic" and "resurrection."


P.S. interesting debate question with regards to abortion tonight...Obama did back away from partial birth abortion but McCain rightly brought the issue forward--albeit belatedly and weakly--that abortion is about the life of the unborn rather than primarily an issue that has to do with women's health or women's issues. Yet I was surprised at how weak McCain was on this.

Craig Carter said...

Here is why I'm having a hard time giving you a straight answer on this, Sam. I am doubting the truth of what you say in your last sentence.

I don't mean you don't mean what you say; I mean rather that I have been in conversation with so many people lately who claim to be influenced by Yoder toward pacifism and they are simultaneously adopting a general liberal position accross the board (abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc.). They also claim to be putting the church in the place of the nation state, yet they criticize the Religious Right unrelentingly and give the Religious Left a pass most of the time unless really pressed.

So it seems to me that most pacifists influenced by Yoder/Hauerwas (not Roman Catholic clergy and religious or Amish/Mennonites) seem to be just adopting a liberal position. When you also consider that there is a long tradition of liberal pacifism in the old Social Gospel tradition, I really wonder if those being influenced by Yoder are not just becoming liberal.

If so, I can't go there. I am a conservative theologically and politically and I repudiate liberalism completely. I reject all progressivism and all of liberal modernity insofar as it is rooted in the false anthropology of the Enlightenment that views a negative understanding of freedom as freedom from constraint as the essence of man. I reject the perfectibility of man and the idea that the State should be involved in all areas of life.

I can see how a Mennonite or a RC monk can be a pacifist and a conservative. But I don't see, I'm afraid, how Protestants can do it. Maybe there are a few and I have tried to be one, but frankly I wonder if it is a coherent stance.

After all, I do not think that pacifism can become the basis for national policy in the modern world. I do not think we as a society will ever "evolve" or "progress" to such a point (which is why I am not a liberal). So while I can see myself called to a pacifist stance personally, I cannot see making it the basis of public policy.

But here are people influenced by Yoder denouncing conservative Christians for supporting the Republican Party and George Bush as if a real possibility existed to support a pacifist party in national politics. They are outraged by James Dobson, but seem unperturbed by the recent actions of the Episcopal Church USA. This seems to me to indicate that they are just becoming liberals.

I'm not sure about a lot of things, but of this I am sure. Liberalism is a Christian heresy and if pacifism cannot be detached from liberalism, then it must be a Christian heresy too.

Sam Adams said...

Craig, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I came to pacifism through Hauerwas and Yoder and perhaps even more through McClendon but having been brought up solidly evangelical and conservative my pacifism was thoroughly Christocentric. Without Christ pacifism makes no sense. And liberalism makes no sense of Christ. I see pacifism as something that has been blocked for evangelicals not by theology but rather by politics. That is, most evangelicals are unwittingly held captive by liberalism whether of the right or left, and that prevents them from following through with a faithful ethic rooted in a consistent Christology.
I have had many interesting conversations with my Mennonite colleagues who are moving in this liberal direction and it seems to me that this is an area where we Mennonites need to be held accountable to the best of our theology.

I am, however, uncomfortable with what passes for "conservative" politics in the U.S. and so have a very hard time with either political candidate.

I will stand by the last sentence I wrote on pacifism because I think it is true. And I think it is faithful to both Yoder and Hauerwas, if not their followers.

Craig Carter said...

Just one more comment. I too have concerns about what passes for conservative politics. I am trying to distinguish a biblical and Augustinian conservatism from the neoconservatism that is closely allied with US patriotism, militarism and empire. But the answer seems to me to lie more in the direction of Wendell Berry than Jim Wallis or in the direction of John Paul II than Kathrine Jeffort Schori.

Sam Adams said...

Craig, where would you suggest reading to begin exploring the sort of conservative politics you are suggesting? I am quite familiar with Wendell Berry but are there others that would be a good starting point--or even a particular essay of Berry's to begin with would be helpful.

Craig Carter said...

I'd suggest exploring Roman Catholic Social Doctrine and especially the thought of John Paul II and the Communio school.

Carson Holloway, "The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity" (uses JP II's "Evangelium Vitae" to critique the founers of modern political liberalism - Hobbes, Locke, etc. Very accessible)

Travis Kroeker and Bruce Ward, "Dostoevesky: Prophet to Modernity" (an exciting study of Dostoevesky's critique of both the looming socialist tyranny in Russia and the liberal West; not as daunting as one might think, can be read before reading the Brothers Karamazov)

Douglas Farrow, "Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage" (a very accessible Augustinian analysis of the issues involved in the State's re-definition of marriage)

David L. Schindler, "Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communion Ecclesiology, Liberalism and Liberation" (difficult, but worth it. this work lays out a Catholic, conservative theology rooted in von Balthasar that is a self-conscious alternative to the "theocons" like Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak etc.)

William Cavanaugh, "Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire" (excellent Christian discussion of economics, accessible, uses Augustine & von Balthasar)

"Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" - Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (a comprehensive but concise overview of the totality of Catholic social doctrine)

Archbishop Charles Chaput, "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life" (a breezy introduction to social witness by a leading Catholic bishop)

I don't know of an equivalent book written by an Evangelical from an Evangelical perspective. Such a book would need to emphasize current hot button issues like marriage, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, bio-engineering and new reproductive technologies in the broader context of a concern for the common good, the limited role of government, the principle of subsidiarity, and the basis for human rights. It would need to have an international focus and be appropriately critical American civil religion, while not condemning everything about America. It would need to show how Christians can be involved in politics as a specificly Christian witness to the Gospel and it would need to be critical of consumerism, hedonism and individualism. Unfortunately, no such book exists to my knowledge.

The closest thing that exists, in my opinion, would be the writings of Ron Sider. But he is too uncritical of political liberalism and the leftist tendancy to embracing statist solutions to all social problems.