Friday, November 11, 2011

Why I'm Wearing a Poppy Today

It is the crazy time of term: marking to do and I'm away at ETS/AAR next week. So blogging has been slow. But I wanted to get this up for Remembrance Day.

For years I was conflicted about Remembrance Day and found it difficult, especially as a pastor. For as long as I can remember I have struggled with the issue of war and whether Christians should participate in it. For about 15 years, from the start of my doctoral work until about 5 years ago, I embraced pacifism, to which I had always been vaguely inclined. But after I completed 12 hectic years of academic administration in 2004 and had a chance to read, reflect and pray systematically about the theological implications of the pacifist position, I gradually changed my thinking.

Theologically, I have always been conservative, Reformed and Evangelical. On moral issues like sexuality, marriage, the family, abortion and euthanasia I have always held firmly to the traditional, biblical positions. But for a period of my life I departed from the conservative consensus on two points: war and economics. Over the past few years, having had time to reflect on these issues more thoroughly, I have come to reject liberal pacifism and socialism as incompatible with a biblical worldview. I have been deeply influenced by my reading of Augustine over the past few years, whose thought on matters relating to Christianity and culture I now regard as the most profound in the history of the Church.

I admire the Amish and their separatist way of life, just as I admire the venerable tradition of monasticism, even if neither pacifism or celibacy is my personal calling. Like celibacy in the monastic tradition, socialism can be a positive thing if it is voluntary and limited to a specific community like the Amish or the monastic orders. But to impose either socialism or pacifism on the modern nation state, which means imposing it in unregenerate people, is folly and the theology that teaches we ought to try is, in the end, heretical.

The reason for my change of mind is not practical but theological. I have no problem seeing that a moral position may be true and right even if highly impractical and hard. But it was when I began to think through the theological implications of the position that the Church should be calling the nation to adopt a pacifist stance that I lost my pacifist faith.

First, there is the Pelagian optimism about human nature that one must have if one seriously believes that a nation can become pacifist without causing a disaster. One must take seriously all that old social gospel rhetoric about abolishing war, disarmament and so on. Is human society susceptible to being reformed to that extent in this age? To the extent that war becomes a thing of the past? No it is not, I now believe, without a tyrannical, absolutely totalitarian, total world government - in which case the cure is much worse than the disease.

Second, the tendency toward pacifism involves an over-realized eschatology in which the kingdom of God becomes a human project achievable by human effort here and now. Since there is no evidence to suggest that this is an actual possibility, the determination to achieve it hovers precariously between triumphalism and nihilism. The anti-war stance can become a nihilistic, fatalistic, stubborn call to abandon the defenses of civilization, let the wave of evil roll over the culture, and give up the ambiguous work of fighting against barbarianism with all its shades of grey in favor of morally clear but grim determination to die heroically.

Third, where my pacifist faith really went off the rails was when I realized that the very nature and character of God is at stake. Non-violence becomes an absolute higher than good and evil themselves; in fact, for the liberal pacifist God is non-violence. All judgment must be then considered unworthy of him. God does not fight against or punish evil; he simply absorbs them until they stop. Why they should ever stop is never explained; it is just assumed. But in any case, God does not judge sin or conquer it except by suffering from its effects.

I came to realize that non-violence, while certainly a very important good, has been turned into an idol. In fact, it has become God. The old God of wrath who acted in history to reveal his wrath against sin and his mercy for sinners has been turned into an abstract principle of non-violence. Pacifism is the appropriate way to worship the God who is non-violence. There is no grace in such a God because there is no holiness. There is no love, because there is mere passivity. The passive tolerance of modern liberalism finds its ultimate sanction in the God who passively suffers but never acts to conquer.

To embrace liberal pacifism, that is, to advocate pacifism for Christians and non-Christians alike and for the nation state in this age is to embrace liberal Protestantism and its deformed, modern doctrine of God. To advocate liberal pacifism for the state is to become liberal. It is to have a Pelagian doctrine of human nature, an over-realized eschatology, a passive, suffering God who is no longer the righteous judge of all the earth and a view of salvation as essentially a human, social accomplishment.

I noted in my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, that General Dwight D. Eisenhower entitled his memoirs of his experience of World War II as supreme allied commander, Crusade in Europe. I criticized World War II as a crusade on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to the Medieval crusades to liberate the holy land from Muslim invaders. If the Medieval crusades were wrong, so must the modern one be wrong. But it was my assumption about pacifism that was wrong: both the Medieval and so, logically, the modern crusades were justifiable, though tragic, wars. To fight against the neo-pagan death cult called Nazism and save civilization from its nihilism and terror was the right thing to do. Of course it involved great evils, but once Hitler started invading one country after another great evils were set in motion and would have continued regardless of how the West responded.

I wear a poppy today in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for freedom, civilization and peace in that war. War is always horrifying and always involves sin and evil. It is never a matter of absolute good and evil; both sides are made up of sinful people. But nevertheless, as Augustine recognized long ago, there is a need for good people to do their duty even when duty is compromising, morally ambiguous and tragic. And it always is and always will be until that great day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory to end all opposition to his rule and bring peace once and for all.

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