Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tragic Nature of Life in a Fallen World: Reflections on the Dangers of Pacifism to One's Own Soul

If we try to think of life in this world as either tragedy or as comedy, we will never be able to capture its true essence completely. Christians are the most pessimistic of all men and Christians are the most hopeful of all men - to play off Luther's famous statement of paradox. Only a worldview that includes both extreme pessimism and extreme hope can possibly do justice to the nature of Biblical revelation.

When serious Christians try to figure out whether it is right to engage in violence in response to moral evil, a strong current of contemporary thinking tends to assume that if we surrender to the pessimism of using force to destroy the evildoer that we thereby abandon Christian hope. So this tendency of thought - call it Neo-Anabaptism or Liberal Pacifism or the Evangelical Left or whatever - concludes that there is a conflict between resorting to violence and putting our faith in God. This creates a horrible dilemma: believe and let evil work its will or abandon faith. No wonder so many decide to act justly and forfeit their faith.

For years I myself struggled with this dilemma. Can I be a Christian if being a Christian means that I can never resort to force, even to punish evildoers who wish to attack innocent men, women and children? It was a question of trying to summon enough heroic virtue to be able to do what seemed morally counter-intuitive because of an inflexible rule that must be upheld even at the cost of death. I see many others struggling with this burden and I am convinced that it leads to one of two outcomes: either the loss of faith in God or the loss of faith in goodness.

If one remains passive in the face of great evil, one loses one's ability to believe in the goodness of this world. Paradoxically, one can only believe in the goodness of the world if one is ready to fight evil. No one is talking about glorifying violence or war for the sake of war. But in certain instances, when one confronts true moral evil one must be willing to use force to resist it and protect the innocent. Otherwise, I think one tends to lose one's appreciation for the reality of goodness and begins to view all of life as grey and all actions as morally equivalent. To slip into moral relativism in order to retain one's belief in God is too high a price to pay because moral relativism inevitably, and in short order, distorts and ruins one's concept of God. To be a moral relativist is to cease to believe in the One, True God anyway.

I am convinced now that liberal pacifism - the belief that Christians are called to be non-violent in all situations and to try to convince others to be non-violent in all situations as well - is corrosive of faith and morality. I suppose I have gone to the opposite extreme and some will assume that, since the truth always lies in the middle that I must be wrong. But the problem is that truth does not always lie in the middle of every dilemma; sometimes one extreme is right. But how is pacifism corrosive of faith?

I think we see it in the left-wing attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and also in the liberal multiculturalism that regards all cultures as equally good and therefore shrinks from imposing Christian cultural norms even when they are right and from defending them when they are under attack. There is an unwillingness to confront serious moral evil lest it lead to unbridgeable divisions and this spawns a false moral equivalence, which justifies evil behavior by equating opposition to evil with evil itself.

In the case of Israel, there is a tendency to equate Israeli military defensive actions to try and nullify the attackers' capacity to inflict violence on Israeli civilians with the firing of rockets into Israeli towns. Pacifists call on Israel to refrain from reacting to attacks on its population but pacifism not only is unable to stop the Arabs from attacking Israeli civilians, it also equates such attacks with Israeli attacks in retaliation, thus losing its ability to distinguish between good and evil.

What this leads to eventually is a moral relativism that pleads "can't we all just get along" but really means "let the most determined and the most hate-filled get their way rather than using force to stop them." I am convinced that this kind of pacifism is soul-destroying and faith-destroying because it forces a person to choose between decency and the right, on the one hand, and Christian faith, on the other.

This kind of pacifism tries to pretend that life is a comedy and that eventually everything will work out and we will be able to build the kingdom of God. Different people come to realize that this is a fairy tale devised by the human imagination as it struggles to avoid accepting the reality of moral evil at different points in their lives. When I realized it, I was blessed to do so in the company of St. Augustine, a man who was deeply hopeful precisely in the midst of his pessimism. He understood that it is precisely at our point of deepest need and greatest hopelessness that God's grace encounters the fallen sinner. Those who believe life is a comedy and who are actively engaged in building a Utopia have no need of what the Bible means by grace. They want Divine help, to be sure, but that is not quite the same thing as wanting grace.

The liberal pacifist believes that there is a solution to every problem; but what if some problems are insoluble? What if life really is tragic? What if some moral evil will not yield to reason's pleas? What if there is no good and perfect choice in a given situation? What if God allows us to experience hopelessness - does that mean there is no God or that God's grace is sufficient even in hopeless situations?

Life is a comedy for the Christian, but not life in this world. In this world, we face true moral evil that is as intractable as it is unavoidable. Some of this evil is within ourselves. And we can no more escape it by Utopian schemes than we can flap our wings and fly to the moon. The question is not whether we can figure out a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict - maybe there is none - but the question is, rather, will we love the good, hate evil and trust God no matter what happens?

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