Friday, December 13, 2013

Why I Am a Pacifist: The Biblical Argument

This is the second part of a seven-part series. To start from the beginning, click here.

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about how I could best present the Biblical case for pacifism. I considered writing an in-depth study of the "classic" pacifist passages, [E1] or arguing why the Bible verses that are cited in defense of Just War and self-defense are misinterpreted, [E2] or making a list of all of the verses that show how nonviolence is God’s way. [E3] However, rather than taking any of these approaches, I decided that the best way to make a case for pacifism is to tell the story of the Bible. I hope that the way I tell this story will illuminate why nonviolence is a key part of the Christian message. [E4]

Let’s start with Genesis. According to the first book of the Bible, evil began to take over the world when sin entered the human community. It’s important to note that the first sins were social in nature. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, they broke the bond of trust between themselves and God, which resulted in them feeling ashamed and covering up to protect their vulnerability. [E5] Once this trust had been broken, humans started relating to one another and to God in a fundamentally different way. There arose deception, jealousy, competition, and within the second generation of humans, the simple act of disobediently eating fruit had resulted in an act of murder. [E6]

Murder – or the threat of it – marks the ultimate inability to trust others, for murderers seek to resolve conflict by eliminating their opponents rather than reconciling with them. In addition to the harm that this does to murder victims and their families, this creates an environment in which people feel that they are not safe, and they in turn must hold the power of violence to ensure their own survival. But this only perpetuates the tension and violence, [E7] and thus, in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we see the world spiral out of control until it gets to a point where it “was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” [E8] Anyone born into this community would be immediately sucked into the vortex of violence, and so the only solution for eradicating violence seemed to be the destruction of the human race altogether. [E9]

Fortunately, God had another plan. God decided instead to create a community that was immune from these cycles because it lived by a different standard. [E10] Rather than trusting in their own might or power, they would put their faith in God, and this would eliminate the need for deception, competition, and violence. We find the beginnings of this vision in God’s call to Abraham. In their opening conversation, God tells him, “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you” in order that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” [E11] Now this idea of making Abraham into a nation may not mean much to those of us who have embraced an individualistic version of Christianity, but it arises from the conviction that salvation had to include more than just individual conversions but an entire societal transformation.

And so Israel was called to be the space on earth where God was rightly worshiped and the people lived in harmony with one another. They were not supposed to dominate other nations, but their influence would spread based on their reputation of being a faithful community. [E12] Micah, for example, looked forward to a day when “Many nations will come and say, ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths,’” with the result that “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up the sword against nation, and never again shall they train for war.” [E13] Being inspired by the way that Israel lived, these nations would choose trust in God instead of trust in force.

Of course, for Israel to become this kind of place, the people had to have tremendous faith in God themselves, which they were never able to do perfectly. They continually turned to other things for their protection and prosperity – whether that was the gods of other nations or their own political and military strength. [E14] And so God backed away from them, allowing them to suffer at the hands of enemy-nations, until they learned to trust God as their Savior. [E15] Amidst this back-and-forth, there was a growing hope for a Messianic leader who would usher in a new era, one in which Israel would become an independent nation that lived up to the character that God had always intended for it. In expectation of this Messiah, Zechariah says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he... He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim [i.e. Israel] and the war-horse from Jerusalem [i.e. Judah]… and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” [E16]

Over the centuries that followed, many people claimed to be that Messiah and tried to bring Israel into this golden era. However, one stands out as unusual: Jesus of Nazareth. Like the others, he claimed to be a political leader, who gathered followers that swore allegiance to him, raised funds with the promise to bring change, and promised that the “kingdom of God” was at hand [E17]. But there was something different about this political leader: he had a fundamentally different conception of power than all of the others. He told his followers “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” and that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” [E18] You see, Jesus was planning to start a revolution but without using violence as a tool to bring it about. Instead, he offered relentless critiques of evil from the posture of a servant, he made bold promises that he trusted God to carry out, and he began making changes without seeking the establishment’s approval.

Of course, the powers that Jesus was opposing didn’t play by these same rules.  They captured him, tried him, and tortured him, and when he still wouldn’t waiver in his convictions, they used their ultimate weapon against him: death. But Jesus held fast even then and proved that not even death could stop him. He rose from the dead, demonstrating that all of their weapons against him were impotent, and having defeated Death itself, he sent his disciples into the nations to invite them to participate in a kingdom that could not be shaken, even by the threat of death itself. [E19]

This kingdom has not been fully established. Jesus promised to return, armed solely with the Word of God, to banish the forces of evil forever and create a space of everlasting peace. [E20] But in the meantime, he has established his own community – the Church – to carry out Israel’s mission as the holy nation that God had designed for the salvation of the world. [E21] The Church is called to be a community that is free from deception, that eliminates equality, and where anyone can be safe because there is no hint of violence. [E22] To do this, the community is called to imitate Christ in his absolute refusal to use violence as a weapon for any and every cause.

Perhaps my boldest claim of all is that “the Church” has done this. Obviously, there are many Christians in the world who not only approve of violence but who have led the world into war. But at the same time, there has always been a remnant that has remained nonviolent [E23] – from the persecuted church of the first three centuries to the monastic communities that stood fast throughout the Middle Ages to the Anabaptists and Quakers that split off from the established churches in the Modern Era to the Catholic Worker movement and Red Letter Christians who are promoting “Just Peace” in the world today. The people of God are still called to live by God’s vision for Israel, to create a space on earth that models love, justice, and peace, and that invites others into it. The only way that I know how to be faithful to this vision is as a pacifist.

End Notes

[E1] I'm looking at you, Matthew 5:38-48. Fortunately, Richard Hays has already done this in his chapter, “Violence in Defense of Justice,” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 319-329. 

[E2] Hays also addresses several of the texts that are cited against pacifism in this chapter, on pages 332-336.

[E3] Many such lists already exist. Here is one example, which does a pretty good job of listing the New Testament texts (although it still misses a few important ones, such as Luke 19:41-42 and Ephesians 2:14-18), but fails to look at any of the Old Testament passages that point toward pacifism. Despite these weaknesses, I would encourage you to look at it, as it gives a good sense of how big of a theme this is in the New Testament by the sheer number of verses it cites.

[E4] Of course, I recognize the dangers of this approach. When you paint the Bible in broad strokes and select verses that fit your agenda, you risk shaping the Biblical story into your own ideology rather than allowing it to shape you. Just because someone can string verses together in an impressive array doesn’t mean that their arrangement is true, and this applies to me just as much as anyone else.

However, at the end of the day, “the Bible” – to the extent that it can be called by that name – is a story whose power is not primarily in “inerrant” facts or “infallible” but in the way that it orients us to reality. If we take it to be an authority, then we must take the risk of telling its story as a whole, even if our own preferences and presuppositions get mixed in with that telling. The best way to avoid that is to share it with other Christians, as I am doing now, so that they can see our blind spots and together we can turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance. To refuse to tell the story out of the academic fear of “doing violence” to the text is to subject oneself to another narrative – only one that is not named and therefore which cannot be challenged.

[E5] Genesis 2:25 to 3:7. I do not personally believe that Adam and Eve were historical people, but I still believe that the Genesis story is divinely inspired because it teaches us correct theological truths about God, evil, human nature, sin, etc. However, just in case you’re wondering, I do believe that Jesus was a historical person (God in the flesh) and that his death and resurrection were historical events. I say this for the sake of transparency. This is not the place to discuss historicity and its relation to Biblical reliability or authority.

[E6] Here, I am referring to the story of Cain and Abel, which can be found in Genesis 4:1-16.

[E7] Several passages of Scripture talk about the cyclical nature of violence: cf. Genesis 9:6, Proverbs 19:19, Matthew 26:52.

[E8] Genesis 6:11

[E9] See Genesis 6:13.

[E10] “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Leviticus 20:26.

[E11] Genesis 12:2-3

[E12] See Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3, and Jeremiah 13:10-11.

[E13] Micah 4:3; echoed in Isaiah 2:4 and to a lesser extent, Zechariah 8:20-23

[E14] For examples, see Jeremiah 2:11 and 1 Samuel 8:4-9.

[E15] For example, see Psalm 106.

[E16] Zechariah 9:9-10

[E17] It’s impossible to document everything political that Jesus says and does in the gospels, but here’s a small sampling: Matthew 21:6-11, Mark 1:15, Luke 4:16-21, John 4:25-26.

[E18] Luke 9:23, Mark 10:43.

[E19] This sentence alludes to Colossians 2:14b-15, 1 Corinthians 15:54-56, Hebrews 12:28-29, and Romans 8:38-39.

[E20] See Mark 13:24-27, Acts 1:11, Revelation 19:11-16.

The Revelation passage is one that many have used as an argument against pacifism, since it uses strong war imagery. Somehow, despite the clearly metaphorical nature of Revelation, many people fail to interpret this passage metaphorically. I, for one, do not believe that the “sharp sword that comes out of his mouth” is a literal weapon that he holds in his teeth, but is instead the Word of God, which is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and [pierces] as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and [is] able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

[E21] Unfortunately, most American Christians have completely lost the corporate aspect of salvation. It is not enough for God to save each of us individually; God wants to save all of us together, as a community. See especially John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, and Ephesians 2:11-22.

To see how the Church carries on the task to be the holy community, first consult Exodus 19:5-6, then see 1 Peter 2:9-10 and Revelation 1:5b-6.

[E22] There are high moral standards given to Christians throughout the New Testament due to the importance of preserving a holy community. For one powerful example, read Ephesians 4:25-5:5. For the issue of violence specifically, see 1 Peter 3:8-15.

[E23] By using the term “the remnant” here, I do not intend to imply that pacifists are the only “true” Christians or that they alone will be saved. I know many advocates of Just War theory and believers who have fought in wars, whom I assume will inherit the kingdom of God. To get a better handle on my understanding of salvation, see my post, “Heaven and Hell Reconsidered.” However, I am claiming that it is only by the grace of God that the pacifist witness has survived all of the centuries of kings and emperors who sought to snuff it out, often times with the help of the established churches.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I Am a Pacifist: Introduction (1 of 7)

For most people, pacifism is such an unrealistic position that they only talk about it in order to mock it. One particular joke comes to mind: “How do you win an argument with a pacifist? When he tells you that it’s wrong to use violence, punch him. After he gets up, see if he still maintains that violence is always wrong. If so, punch him again. Repeat as necessary until he fights back or concedes your point.” [E1] The reason that some find this funny is because it supposedly exposes the ridiculousness of the pacifist position. Pacifism may sound nice in theory, but it doesn’t work in the real world. Once you start hitting the pacifist, it demonstrates that all of his ideals are powerless to stop the blow of your fist, right? [E2] He will have no choice but to admit that you are right or to fight back. Clearly, there are no other options available to him, such as blocking your punches, getting away from the situation, or silently taking the beating until it becomes clear that you can’t change his mind with blows…

I would like to suggest that the reason most people think that pacifism is ridiculous is because they have never actually taken the time to evaluate it. Have you ever genuinely considered the arguments for pacifism? Well, here’s your chance. In the next seven posts, I am going to make a case for a position that I too thought was ridiculous, but which I have since found to be profoundly insightful, ethical, and powerful. So go ahead and “hit me” with your best questions and criticisms as we go. [E3]

But first, I need to say a word to my friends in the military. The main concern that has prevented me from promoting this view until now has been my fear of shaming those who have served, are serving, or who have loved ones who serve in the military by highlighting the sinfulness of violence. Now, I cannot deny that I am unequivocally opposed to war and therefore would discourage most people from participating in the military. [E4] However, this does not mean that I look down on those who decide to join against my advice. On the contrary, I recognize that people often join the military for noble reasons, and I admire the discipline, courage, and sacrifice that it cultivates in them. Moreover, I respect anyone who is willing to risk their life for what they believe, regardless of whether or not I agree with them. [E5] So I can honestly say that even though I am opposed to the military profession, I still have a great deal of respect for many soldiers. [E6] In fact, I have often discovered that soldiers make the best allies for peace, because they have a more accurate understanding of the cost of war than any civilian can and therefore are more inclined to oppose it. [E7]

Finally, before I make any actually arguments, I need to start with a few clarifications:

– There are many, many versions of pacifism. In one of his books, John Howard Yoder identifies 25 different types of pacifism and indicates that there are several more that he couldn’t cover. [E8] Consequently, you can’t assume that what I write in these blog posts represents all pacifists.

– The type of pacifism that I subscribe to is Christocentric, by which I mean that I am a pacifist because I believe that nonviolence is a part of the gospel revealed by Jesus Christ. I have learned a lot from non-Christian pacifists, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Gene Sharp, but my reasoning is ultimately different from theirs.

– The type of pacifism that I subscribe to is also not passive. It calls people to "fight" for what is right, which you can do without using violence. Being a pacifist doesn’t mean cowering in the face of threats, getting nauseated whenever you see violence, or letting people walk all over you. On the contrary, I believe that it is often essential to stand up for justice, to express anger, to devise strategies about protecting people, to look evil in the face, and to risk one’s life for the greater good.

– I personally still have a long way to go in becoming nonviolent in my own life. As Stanley Hauerwas has famously said, the reason that he believes that nonviolence is God’s way is preciously because he’s “such a violent son of a b****.” I can certainly say that’s true for me. When I hear about innocent people getting attacked or abused, my initial reaction is to want to hurt the perpetrators. I still get in arguments that escalate into yelling, and if you hit me, my instinct would be to hit you back. Pacifism is not just an abstract belief, it’s a way of life – a way of thinking and talking and acting – which requires many years of discipline and which I have yet to achieve. But I have come to see the truth in it, and I aspire toward it, trusting that the One who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion.

So, here’s how the series will work:
(1) Introduction (This Post)
(2) The Biblical Argument
(3) The Greatest Force in the Universe
(4) It's More Practical Than Violence
(5) An Honest Look at History
(6) What I Would Do If a Violent Person Threatened my Loved Ones
(7) The Shocking Image of a Pacifist God

I hope that you will join me in this series, and I pray that the comments that follow will foster civil dialogue, lead to truth, and aim for reconciliation.


[E1] For a full version of the joke, click here.

[E2] Notice that the joke always assumes that the pacifist is a “he.” Somehow, it doesn’t work when you apply it to a female pacifist, because hitting women is not socially acceptable, whereas hitting men is. This is just a small sampling of a larger theme I’ve noticed about how arguments against pacifism are often inextricably bound with chauvinist assumptions. More on this later.

[E3] The only question I won’t answer in the comments is this one: “What would you do if a violent person threatened to harm one of your loved ones and you had to kill him to stop it from happening?” I’m not trying to avoid this question, but it is a very common and relatively complex one, so I am going to dedicate an entire blog post to addressing it.

[E4] I say “most people” because I am aware that the military has nonviolent functions and roles, and many of its members never see combat or fire a weapon. Consequently, I am open to the possibility that there may be ways to participate in military peacefully. However, this is more difficult than it sounds because the institution itself is intrinsically committed to violence, and even those who are not killing are generally endorsing or enabling the military to further its violent agenda.

[E5] Gandhi, one of the most influential advocates for nonviolence of all time, did not believe that the type of pacifism that he advocated was the opposite position of a soldier's. Instead, he believed the worst response to evil was inaction, the intermediate response was violent intervention, and the best response was nonviolent resistance, which he brilliantly renamed satyagraha. He went on to set up training camps that were similar to military training and made sure that his followers knew that they may have to die for the cause of peace. Now, I’m not sure if I agree that violent interventions are always better than inaction, but I certainly believe that soldiers who dedicate their lives to fighting for the good are just one step away from the kind of lifestyle that I would honor. 

[E6] Fortunately, the New Testament has provided a wonderful model of how one can oppose violence and yet honor soldiers. Although the New Testament’s opposition against violence is unequivocal (a point that I’ll argue upon in the next post), it nevertheless highlights several individual soldiers as godly people of great faith. For example, in Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus claims that a centurion he encounters has more faith than everyone in Israel, and in Acts 10, we read the story of the Holy Spirit coming to a centurion named Cornelius, who was honored as the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit.

However, we should also point out that these passages carry a strong degree of irony in them because everyone in Israel would have assumed that these soldiers were “bad people” by virtue of their occupation – they were soldiers of the enemy army. Thus, it was scandalous for Jesus to say that a Roman soldier had more faith than an Israelite or for God to select a Gentile soldier as a recipient of the Holy Spirit. The point these texts make is that these people were good despite their military profession, not because of it. A comparable example in the Older Testament is the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram (2 Kings 5). He too is scandalously healed by the God of Israel, but after this experience, he can’t just go back to business as usual. It changes his lifestyle and impacts his career (2 Kings 5:17-18).

[E7] One of the best institutions out there in this regard is Veterans for Peace, an organization made up of veterans who have come to oppose war. However, not everyone who opposes war is an out-and-out pacifist like me. If you have served or are currently serving in the military and are struggling ethically or psychologically with your experiences, let me offer you two resources. First, I would recommend that you contact Centurion’s Guild, an organization made up of veterans – not all of whom are pacifists – who are dedicated to helping you process your experiences based on your own values and make clear moral choices, whether that means affirming your past decisions or repenting of them, leaving the military or staying in it. Second, you can call the GI Hotline, at 1-877-447-4487, which is free and anonymous, and they can explain your rights and options if you are thinking about leaving or transferring to a different department or role.

[E8] Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism by John Howard Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971). In the third edition (1992), Yoder added three more, and these all fall within the scope of “religious” pacifism, most of which is Christian. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Is it ok to be a little selfish?

Some of us – especially those of us from conservative religious backgrounds – have to deal with a high guilt complex. We have been taught throughout our childhoods to make “the right decisions,” and so with every decision we make, we are constantly worrying about whether we are being selfish. After all, a number of theologians identify selfishness as the root of all sin and unselfishness as the highest virtue. [E1] Consequently, we feel guilty every time we speak up about what we want, we second-guess our motives every time we get our way, and we chastise ourselves for every self-indulgence we take because we know that our resources could have gone to a better cause.  Perhaps I am exaggerating a bit, but many of us can relate to that nagging guilt that haunts our decisions. When we want something for ourselves and we can’t come up with any good justification for having it, we wonder, “Is it ok to be a little selfish?”

A number of folks have answered this question, “Yes, it’s perfectly ok to be selfish,” often times in direct opposition to the Christian traditions that promote unselfishness. For example, modern psychologists teach that humans ought to care for themselves. They affirm the importance of maintaining positive self-esteem, affirming one’s worth, and treating oneself from time to time. They see self-care and self-love as intrinsic values, to the point that some say that we need to care for ourselves before we can or should care for others.

Another group that has defended selfishness are philosophers. Some great thinkers have advocated for selfishness by arguing that unselfishness is impossible to achieve. [E2] Their reasoning goes like this: Human action is motivated by desire, and human desires are, by definition, aimed at pleasing the self. Thus, even the seemingly most selfless act, such as a stranger risking her life for another person, is ultimately motivated by the desire to be a good person or to appease one’s conscience or for the helper high that such a saving act creates. In other words, being selfish is a part of being human, so we might as well embrace it. Things go over more smoothly when everyone admits what their selfish motives are rather than trying to pretend that we don’t have ulterior motives.

A third group that has defended a kind of selfishness are social activists, especially feminists. [E3] These folks recognize that the world is not set up in a way that is just or fair. Some people have power while others don’t. Some people have access to good jobs with reasonable benefits, while others don’t. Some people inherit wealth, educational opportunities, and connections, while others inherit poverty, danger, and suspicion or opposition from the powerful. Many social activists believe that the only way that this will change is if the oppressed stand up for themselves: if they demand their rights, recognize their dignity, and practice self-empowerment. They see the Christian ideal of unselfishness as a tool of oppression, designed to get the oppressed to accept inferiority, and they urge the oppressed to reject this ideal.

All of these claims are insightful and important. But the question I’d like to ask here is, “Are they Biblical?” Many of us are suspicious of psychologists and philosophers and social activists precisely because they aren’t committed to the Lordship of Christ, they don’t recognize the authority of Scripture, and so we shouldn’t expect them to share our values. Although many of their comments resonate with our experiences, we can’t follow their advice unless it aligns with our higher commitments. And I can’t think of any places where the Bible encourages us to “treat ourselves” from time to time, or where it says that unselfishness is an impossible ideal, or where it teaches us to stand up for our rights. So does this mean that Christians are condemned to live as miserable martyrs [E4]?

I don’t think so. Although it is true that the Bible doesn’t talk about “healthy selfishness,” it never praises unselfishness either. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never names “selfishness” as a sin or “unselfishness” as a virtue [E5]. In fact, the entire concepts of selfishness and unselfishness are relatively new. Let me explain what I mean.

When we talk about someone as being “selfish” in today’s language, we mean that they are putting their wants or needs above those of others. By contrast, a person who is “unselfish” puts the wants or needs of others above their own. This way of speaking reveals an assumption that we make about wants and needs: that they are always at odds with one another. If I get what I want, we assume that means that someone else doesn’t get what she wants. To offer a concrete example, let’s say that my wife expresses that she wants chicken for dinner but I am really in the mood for fish. I might feel that it is “selfish” for me to express this preference and so I remain silent about it. After all, if I were a good, i.e. “unselfish” person, then I would put her wants above mine and just eat the chicken.

The problem is that this is a very individualistic way of thinking. [E6] There is more at stake in this interaction than our respective cravings for chicken and fish. If I tell my wife that I want fish, even though I know that she wants chicken, I open myself up to her. I give her more insight into myself (even if it is seemingly trivial information), which gives her the opportunity to practice the discipline of listening. On the other hand, if I don’t tell my wife that I want fish but I keep thinking about how much I do, then I will likely become slightly resentful or distant from her, which makes a marginal but negative impact on our relationship. So it would be better for both of us if I at least expressed my desire for fish. Of course, this only works if she also feels free to express in response that she still wants chicken, so that she can open herself up to me and not feel resentful herself. We may have to come up with a creative solution to please both of us, or one of us may have to “compromise.” But a compromise can only make sense if it is seen as the best solution for the group as a whole, which in this case is my wife and I, and not as a sacrifice I had to make as an individual.

The reason that the Bible doesn’t hold unselfishness or self-empowerment as virtues is because it doesn’t think in these individualistic terms. It recognizes that we are interconnected. For example, when Paul talks about this body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, he says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Notice: this is not a command but an observation. Paul is aware that something that is truly harmful for one person is truly harmful for the rest of us, and something that is beneficial for one person is beneficial for the rest of us. Thus, the moral question that the Bible asks is, “What would be best for the community?”

So, to put a Christian spin on the psychological argument, self-care is important because it allows us to care even better for others. [E7] This is why we should “take the plank out of our own eye” before removing the speck from our brother’s. [E8] To put a Christian spin on the philosophical argument, I suppose you could call our desire to please God or our desire to help others “selfish” to the extent that it brings us happiness, but then we must differentiate between godly desire and “sinful” desires that have distorted views of what is good for us as human beings. To put a Christian spin on the social activist argument, when a woman stands up for herself against an abusive husband, she is actually serving him too, for his abusiveness is a sin that leads to misery in this life and the one to come. So is it ok to be a little selfish? Well, if my selfishness will lead to more just, loving, and peaceful interactions between me and the people around me, then it’s not just ok: it’s a moral imperative to act that way.


[E1] One research project I would love to do some day is to figure out when Christians started seeing “selfishness” as a vice. For most of Christian history, “pride” was seen as the chief of the vices, but contemporary theologians ranging from Billy Graham to Reinhold Niebuhr have replaced this with selfishness. (Cf. Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), p. 257, where he says, “From the perspective of the individual, the highest [moral] ideal is unselfishness.”)  I suspect that this way of perceiving selfishness had something to do with Kant, although it may go back as far as Abelard. I’d be interested if anyone has any thoughts on this.

[E2] Of course, not all “philosophers” maintain that selfishness is inevitable, and there is a lot of room for debate regarding who counts as a philosopher. In any case, Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps the person most closely associated with the determinist argument, which says that everything we do is necessarily selfish. Friedrich Nietzsche, a student of Schopenhauer’s, was one of the first to then embrace selfishness as a virtue, and it’s likely that Schopenhauer’s determinism looms in the background of his ethics. Ayn Rand would be another person who spoke directly about “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and even some theologians – like Reinhold Niebuhr – have used this philosophical assessment as a basis for their theological work.

[E3] One of the most famous essays that have been written along these lines is, “For God So Loved the World?” by Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, 1989. Here is a link to their article: Although the target of their essay is atonement theories, they certainly implicate the virtue of unselfishness in the process. Another theorist who comes to mind is Carol Gilligan, whose theory of moral development combines elements of psychology and social activism. Many others could be named whom I don’t have the time to list here.

[E4] Martyrdom, in common usage, refers to a person who embraces misery for the sake of their religious or ethical commitments. This is not what the Bible means when it mentions “martyrs” (a Greek word which is usually translated as “witnesses”), nor is it a fair description of the martyrs of the early church. In the Bible and early church history, martyrs were people of joy, not people of misery, who believed they were “gaining a reward” for their work. Modern thinking would call these people, “selfish,” but as this essay explains, that is a faulty category.

[E5] When people turn to the Bible to look for proof-texts that name “selfishness” as a sin, they usually come up with two: Mark 8:34 (and parallels) and Philippians 2:3-4. So, I thought I’d go ahead and address each of these texts.

In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, ““If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This text certainly advocates self-denial, and many assume that this is the same thing as unselfishness. But the context makes it clear that the self-denial Jesus is referring to is the rejection of power. Rather than trying to grasp power to get ahead, Jesus’ followers must deny themselves these privilege and instead embrace the more difficult path that is symbolized by the cross. See Mark 10:42-45 to verify this interpretation.

However, this self-denial is not aiming toward unselfishness. On the contrary, Jesus teaches his followers that they will be better off if they embrace this path. Verse 35 says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Notice, Jesus is trying to motivate his followers to take this path by saying they will save their lives by doing it. This is an awkward point for the unselfishness interpretation, for you get in a dilemma where you try to do the “unselfish” thing for selfish reasons.

In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul gives these instructions, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Let me break down each part.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. The word “selfish” here is not in the original Greek. It was added by modern translators, presumably to clarify that it is “selfish ambition” that Paul was opposing, and not all ambition – for that would too radically challenge our capitalist assumptions. This is again not an instruction against seeking one’s wants but against power-grabbing.
But in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Notice, this doesn’t tell us to put others before yourself but to regard others as better than yourselves. As Paul notes, this is a practice in humility. If we take the perspective that other people have insights that we ourselves haven’t thought of or skills that we lack, we are much more inclined to take their advice and work alongside of them. This is a challenge to change our perspectives of others, not a call to give up our own wants or needs.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Unfortunately, there is a textual discrepancy in this verse which makes a big difference in meaning. Some of the ancient manuscripts say, “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” while others say, “look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” While the former version seems to support the “unselfishness” perspective, the latter version seems to support the idea of mutuality that I am advocating here.

When you come to a textual crossroads like this, it’s best to look to the greater context for support. In Philippians 2:2, Paul advocates for “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” I would say that this can only happen when we carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), confess our sins to each other and pray for one another (James 5:16), which implies that each person must give and receive. Reciprocity is in the air that Paul breathed, and so to impose our individualistic understanding of selfishness versus unselfishness on this passage is anachronistic.

[E6] One might wonder, “How is this way of thinking individualistic?” Whenever we talk about “wants and needs,” we are looking at the internal experiences of each person rather than the relational dynamics between persons and the systemic dynamics between persons and institutions and environments. We might also call it “materialistic,” because it focuses on the pains and pleasures rather than on virtues like character, companionship, and meaningful work, which may include both pain and pleasure. Once you broaden our way of thinking beyond “Will my action cause Person A pleasure or pain?” and start thinking about what is best for the relationship, for Person A’s character, for the systems that our actions participate in and reinforce (e.g. What kind of precedent does this set?), etc., then it usually becomes apparent that what is best for Person A is what is best for us as well.

[E7] This is particularly apparent with children. Children absorb attitudes and behaviors from the adults around them. Thus, treating ourselves with dignity and respect – but not overindulging – is the loving and responsible thing for people with children to do.

[E8] This verse is often used to tell people, “Don’t judge others,” but this misses the actual instructions in the passage. In Matthew 7:5, Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Christians do have a responsibility to judge each other (Note: To judge each other, not people outside of our community, as 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 makes clear), but in a humble way that always assumes that “others are better than ourselves.” In other words, we should want to be corrected and challenged as much as or more than we want to correct and challenge others.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Three Models for the Church-State Relationship

Not too long ago, I attended a political meeting in which the members were strategizing ways that they could address some of the systemic problems that plague my city. [E1] I was encouraged to be a part of this group because I agreed with their assessment of the problems and I liked the solutions that they were proposing. However, when they went around the table and asked each person to volunteer in one of their projects, I had to tell that I wasn’t ready to join them yet. [E2] Why not? Because for me, there was a more basic question that I needed to address first: What is the proper relationship between Christians and the government?

This is a question that has been on my mind since I was a teenager. I remember sitting in church and hearing some of the members encourage the others to vote for various national or local politicians because they opposed abortion or some other practice that they regarded as sinful. Clearly, they determined that these actions were destructive on the basis of their Christian faith, and I agreed with them. But I also realized, even at that stage of my life, that there’s not necessarily a one-to-one ratio between a religious belief and a good public policy. For example, just because I believe that people should go to church doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of a law that requires them to do it. At that church, we needed to have a discussion of what the proper relationship between Christians and the government should look like before we started advocating specific political actions. Likewise, every time I make a political post on this explicitly Christian blog or every time I make a politically-charged comment in church, I am aware of the need for this conversation. Consequently, I have written this post to create space for people to learn how I understand the church-state relationship and to give them categories for thinking about their own view and dialoguing with me about mine.

In what follows, I will outline three Christian ways of conceiving our proper relationship to secular governments. Obviously, I am not presenting these from a position of neutrality: I myself subscribe to the third view and I will argue why I think it is the best one. [E3] But I hope that I have given each of the other two a fair enough presentation that it provides the language necessary to have this conversation and to address those disagreements that often times lie at the bottom of our political dividedness. So here are three models for the church-state relationship:

Model #1: Separation of Church and State. Many Christians believe that religion and politics shouldn’t have anything to do with one another. They become very annoyed when Christian politicians try to impose their religious views on others through laws or when pastors try to impose their political views on others from the pulpit at church. In their minds, there ought to be a strict division between religion and politics: religion applies to the personal realm whereas politics applies to the public one. Inevitably, they cite Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17 as the defense of their position: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” [E4]

While this division between religion and politics sounds good in theory, it breaks down in practice. Religion and politics are inextricably tied together, as anyone who works deeply in either field will tell you. On the religion side, it is pretty obvious that the sins we struggle with and the trials we go through are heavily influenced by the societies we live in. In societies where sex saturates the media, the people struggle heavily with lust. In societies where it is extremely difficult to get a job, people are more tempted to lie and steal. In societies that emphasize the need for punishment, people turn more quickly to violence as the solution to their problems. I could go on and on. Now hear me carefully, the fact that we are influenced by society does not mean that we are determined by it. This correlation does not let people off the hook for lusting or stealing or being violent. However, it does mean that any church that only fights against sin at the individual level is serving God with one hand tied behind its back. The Bible is filled with calls for entire societies to reform. [E5] The division between church and state is just another manifestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy that seeks to separate the spiritual from the material.

On the political side, it is simply impossible to be morally neutral when making policy decisions. Many Americans believe that we should exclude moral and religious language from debates over public policy and instead argue for or against certain laws and rulings on the basis of the Constitution. But, just like everything else, the Constitution has to be interpreted. Judges and politicians who find themselves interpreting the law ask questions like, “What did the ‘founding fathers’ intend when they said that we have a right to bear arms? When we pledge allegiance to a country that offers ‘liberty and justice to all,’ does this include a right to free health care? When the colonists signed a document which claimed that ‘all men are created equal,’ were the suffragists right in pushing beyond the original scope and claiming that this should apply to women too?” Notice, these are not questions that you can answer simply by appealing to the Constitution. They force you to consider (or “reconstruct”) the moral framework in which the Constitution was written and to consider/reconstruct a historical narrative that defines what the United States was created to do and in what direction it is heading. But once you start asking these types of questions about a higher moral framework and the direction that history is moving, you are unavoidably meddling in the territory of religion and morality. Therefore, I would agree with Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s claim: “First, it is not always possible to decide questions of justice and rights without resolving substantive moral questions; and second, even where it’s possible, it may not be desirable.” [E6]

Model #2: The State as an Agent of God’s Will. In contrast to a model that depicts the state as a morally neutral entity, many Christians view the state as a divinely sanctioned institution that was created to carry out God’s will.  [E7] The proof-text for this verse tends to be Romans 13:1-7 [E8], but unlike the “Separation of Church and State” model, this one finds larger narrative support in the Older Testament. [E9] In those Scriptures, God called the Israelites not just to be good individuals but to be a holy nation. As noted before, laws and policies cannot be quarantined into the “legal” sector, as they inevitably create a moral and spiritual atmosphere that affects the entire population. [E10] David recognized and celebrated this spiritual aspect of the law. Consider his words in Psalm 119:33-35 & 40, “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight… How I long for precepts! Preserve my life in your righteousness!” As David was well aware, there is a connection between public policy and private piety.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are shaped at an individual level by the decisions and laws passed by the government. [E11]

Thus, we find God is very concerned about creating a just society throughout the Bible: one in which widows and orphans are cared for, foreigners are welcomed and protected, and wealth is fairly distributed, not just at the individual level but in the very structures of the group [E12]. Of course, the just society of the Older Testament also included the sole worship of God, strict sexual boundaries, and institutionalized religious ceremonies [E13], because the Israelites did not believe that you could separate the political from the religious. By creating this kind of society, the community of Israel could stand as a witness to the world insofar as it was a place that overflowed with peace and justice because it was grounded in the worship of the one true God. [E14]

Many modern Americans implicitly or explicitly claim that this is the task our government should take. We too should try to create a just society that pleases God and serves as a light to the world. But there is one major problem with this view: God never called America (or any other modern nation) to be the new Israel. Without a shared commitment to the Lordship of Jehovah – as Jehovah was revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures – no “theocracy” is possible. It makes no sense, then, to try to invoke promises like 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 to any modern nation-state.

But, we may ask, what was to happen to the holy nation of Israel, to the just society that would be the light of the world? Did God abandon a project that once had divine approval? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. From my Christian perspective, I would say that Jesus of Nazareth – a Jew who was a direct descendant of David – created a new community which would carry on the divine task that was assigned to Israel: the Church. The Church is called to be a holy nation, the light of the world, and the political center of the Kingdom of God. [E15] [E16] These are not just metaphorical ways of speaking. In a real way, the Church is a distinct political institution, with its own laws and ceremonies, policies and leadership structure. When modern prophets feel called to stand up and urge the people of God to act in line with Scripture, they should direct their appeals not at the secular government but at the Church.

Model #3: The State as a Part of Fallen Creation. But if that is true, where does that leave the state? How are we supposed to relate to secular government that claims to circumscribe our allegiance to the Church? If the “Separation of Church and State” model is false, then we can’t in good conscience ignore what happens in the political world. But if the “State as an Agent of God’s Will” model is false, than we can’t try to reform the state as though it is God’s agent on earth. So where does that leave us?

The Bible deals with this problem extensively in both Testaments, but years of manipulative hermeneutics and bad translations have blinded us from their resources. The first thing to remember is that political structures were a part of God’s original intention for humanity. We get a hint of this in Genesis 1:26, when God gives humanity dominion over the year, but it is fully expressed in Colossians 1:16, which says, “For by him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” According to Walter Wink, the term “thrones” refers to the political structures that rule the world, while “powers” refers to the power they exercise and “rulers or authorities” refer more to the specific people who occupy those powers. [E17] Yes, God designed them as a part of the original plan.

However, when “the Fall” happened, humanity was not the only group that was infected. The “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” also became corrupted by sin at an institutional level.  Thus, 1 Corinthians 2:8 notes, “None of the rulers of this age understood [God’s wisdom], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,” and Ephesians 6:12 declares that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The kingdom of God poses a threat to these kingdoms, and so they declare war on Christ.

Nevertheless, God’s ultimate goal is not to destroy these other kingdoms and governments but to reconcile them to the Trinity through Jesus. Even as Ephesians encourages us to prepare for battle against the governments, it also encourages us to seek their reconciliation. Ephesians 3:10 says, “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Jesus Christ.”

Thus, the Christian is called primarily to participate in her own government: the Church, the kingdom of God to which she swore allegiance when she was baptized. However, we have a secondary responsibility to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” that we live in. [E18] We do this by modeling godliness in our own community and publicly testifying against injustice on the basis of our belief that Jesus is Lord. Contrary to what many think, this is a politically significant act. Governments, even empires, change simply by being put to shame by the Church’s alternative way of doing things. [E19] And when this happens, Christians may be called upon to help reform the government to make it a little more like the kingdom of God. When this happens, we are called to follow “the Joseph paradigm,” and to benefit the empires in which we live by living faithfully to our own beliefs, just as Joseph, Esther and Daniel did. [E20]

That was a long post, and one that was completely rooted in the Christian narrative, but I hope that it is clarified some differences in the way that Christians think and at least, that it can provide a better way for us to talk about politics together.

End Notes

[E1] This was a meeting hosted by IndyCAN, the Indianapolis Congregational Action Network. At this specific meeting, individuals were offering “progress reports” on the three projects that the organization were working on: reducing the mass incarceration problem that plagues the United States in general and Indiana in particular, improving the public transit system of Indianapolis, and creating greater access to citizenship for undocumentable people. I appreciated not only their specific solutions to these problems but the “theology of abundance” that explicitly directed what they were striving for.

[E2] I should clarify that I was not just participating as an individual but as a representative of my church. Thus, I would not have felt right volunteering for anything without discussing it with them first. It is possible that I/we will get involved with them in the future, but this would require some conversation first.

[E3] I am always a little suspicious when an author presents three views and conveniently places his or hers as the healthy medium or synthesis of the other two. To do this is to gerrymander the field of ideological possibilities in a way that serves the purpose of the author. Nevertheless, I find myself doing the same thing, as the most effective way that I know how to explain my own intellectual journey is through a dialectic format. The only corrective that I know to offer is the confession that the other views could also construct themselves as the healthy medium if they so desired and that there are legitimate views that I have excluded from the get-go because they don’t fit my purpose. Now that you’ve read that disclaimer, please proceed to engage the substance of the argument.

[E4] This passage is also found in Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26, with very few differences between the three versions. I believe that this story is widely misunderstood, and once you interpret it differently, the whole basis for the “Separation of Church and State” view crumbles. To defend my alternative reading of this passage would have been too much work for a footnote, so I created an extended exegesis of that text in the post: A Critical Look at the "Render to Caesar and to God" Passage.

[E5] See Amos 5:4-6, Jeremiah 4:1-4, and Jonah 3:1-10 for just a few examples.

[E6] Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009), 251.

[E7] Although I contrasted this against the “Separation of Church and State” models, there is a way to combine these two models that quite devastating: to suggest that the Church and the State rule over completely different spheres and that each is divinely commissioned to do so. The reason this is so devastating is because “ethics” and “morality” are generally assigned to the Church sphere, which gives the State unrestricted divine approval to commit horrific atrocities. We can look at war crimes, such as the wave of destruction created by the Crusades or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not as atrocities as the pacifist would say, or as necessary evils as the just war theorist would say, or as even neutral events as a Gnostic might claim, but praiseworthy actions! God help us!

[E8] This is another verse that deserves an extended exegesis, but I simply don’t have time to write it now. But just a few observations about this text to wet your appetite:

(1) In my NIV Bible, Romans 13:1 says that we should submit ourselves to the “governing authorities,” but the word in Greek is actually the exousiais or “powers,” a term that usually refers not only to physical governments but to the spiritual forces that guide them. In other texts, the powers are depicted as being in rebellion against Christ, even though Christ rules over them. See 1 Corinthians 15:24 and Ephesians 6:12 for some examples.

(2) The material immediately preceding this passage urges Christians to respond with creative nonviolence toward those who persecute them (Romans 12:17-20), and Paul elsewhere forbids his followers from using the government as a means of pursuing personal justice (1 Corinthians 6:1-11).

(3) I believe that there is some wordplay going on in the Greek, with “overpowering” and “under-powering” being used cleverly and with a double-meaning behind the concept of the authorities “bearing the sword.” But I haven’t done the legwork to confirm this yet. Maybe if I do, I will post another exegetical blog for the two or three of you who may actually be interested in that kind of thing.

[E9] For me, convincing moral claims rest not exclusively on one or two Bible verses but on the ability of one to show how a moral response flows out of the Biblical narrative. I plan to write an entire post on this in the not too distant future.

[E10] I first learned this from Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, which effectively demonstrates that “laws” do not merely regulate the social order; they help produce it.

[E11] The most clear contemporary example of this for me is the practice of “tolerance.” Tolerance, which is established to a certain degree in the first amendment of the US Constitution, was originally designed as a public protection, not a personal value. People agreed not to stop each other from having divergent religious views with force, but that doesn’t mean they thought heterogeneity was a good thing. Many still made every effort to convert others to their religious perspective.

Today, however, tolerance is arguably the chief value shared by Americans today. (One could argue that “freedom” or “non-judgmentalism” compete for this spot, but I see these as being different ways of saying the same thing.) How did this happen? Well, as each generation affirms the government’s decision to extend religious liberty to everyone to the next generation, that generation begins to praise it and celebrate it so much that they internalize it. Now, I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of whether tolerance is a true value or whether it has any Biblical backing. I just want to point out that this is the nature of law.

[E12] Due to time constraints and limited internet access, I could only look up one OT and one NT passage for each of these. These are not necessarily the best texts, but they should at least give you an idea how much the Bible is concerned with these issues. The OT passages are generally directed at the entire nation of Israel, and the NT passages prove that these concerns remain near and dear to God’s heart in the new covenant. For widows and orphans, see Ezekiel 22:6-7 and James 1:27. For foreigners, see Isaiah 56:3-7 and Acts 8:26-40. For the just distribution of wealth, see Amos 5:7-14 and Luke 4:16-21.

[E13] My disclaimers from above apply here too. For the sole worship of God, see Hosea 8:1-6 and Galatians 4:8-11. For strict sexual boundaries, see Ezekiel 22:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. For institutionalized religious ceremonies and practices, see Joel 13-14 and Hebrews 10:25.

[E14] See Genesis 12:1-3, Micah 4:1-3, Isaiah 66:18-21 for some examples.

[E15] For the church as a holy nation, see 1 Peter 2:9-10. For the church as the light of the world, see Matthew 5:14-16. (Notice: This is an analogy about our corporate witness. Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. When we act as a godly community, this stands out in a way that the world cannot ignore.) For the church as the political center of the kingdom of God, see 2 Corinthians 5:20.

[E16] One of the views that I did not include in my “Three Models” is Christian anarchism, the idea that Christ calls his followers to be against all forms of domination and therefore against all forms of government. Although I have a lot of appreciation for this view, it’s biggest flaw is that it allows the opposition to define what constitutes government. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, consistently embraces words like “kingdom,” “lordship,” and “ruling” as aspects of Jesus’ life. It redefines or recaptures these concepts so that violence and domination need not be a part of them. Christian anarchists are resisting something that needs to be resisted, and I respect them for opposing what so many Christians unwittingly embrace. But in their effort to be radical, they have cut some essential elements out of the Christian counter-witness.

[E17] Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 18.

[E18] Jeremiah 29:7

[E19] One of the most famous examples of this comes from the exchange of letters we have between the early emperors of Rome and the local authorities, who were frustrated that the Christians were making them look bad by taking care of their orphans and widows better than the government itself could.

[E20] I borrow this term from John Howard Yoder, in his essay “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p. 56-57. I used his term in part to acknowledge how influential this essay was for me in interpreting the Biblical paradigm differently. Yoder prevents a supersessionist reading of the “kingdom of God” by arguing that the paradigm shift in God’s government already happened at the fall of Babylon, at least according to Jeremiah. I would highly recommend this essay, with the warning that it is a little dense.