Thursday, December 29, 2016

How I Intend to Approach the Trump Presidency

In a week or two, I hope to resume my blog series on pacifism. But before I can do so, I feel compelled to address a major event that has happened since the last time I posted: the election of Donald Trump. Never in my life have I seen an American political candidate as disturbing and dangerous as Trump. His disregard for basic democratic conventions, his lack of decency and restraint, and shameless self-promotion should be enough for anyone – Republican or Democrat – to be alarmed by him. With these concerns (and others) in mind, I bit the bullet and voted against him in the presidential election. [E1] But, as you know, the election went in his favor anyway. Now I find myself among the millions of Americans who are struggling to accept the fact that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

So now what? How should I approach the Trump presidency? For weeks, I have felt quite conflicted about this, because two different types of strategies for responding to a Trump presidency seem to be emerging, but they seem to run at cross purposes with each other. Let me describe each of them briefly.

First, there is unilateral opposition. Some people are calling for total opposition to Trump in everything he does. [E2] They argue that if Trump gains any victories (for example, if his administration creates an alternative health care system to ACA), then this would lend legitimacy to his presidency, which would in turn give him more power to do harm. One of the advantages of this approach is that it (theoretically) unifies all Trump opponents under one umbrella and galvanizes the opposition. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that this will be effective in stopping Trump from achieving his agenda, at least at first. In addition to the presidency, Trump has the control over a Republican House and Senate, which gives him all the political power he needs to accomplish his agenda, despite a fierce opposition. Furthermore, all efforts at stopping Trump via blatant condemnation thus far – whether by his primary opponents, Hillary Clinton, or the nearly unified media critique of him – have failed. This is not to say that there is no benefit to opposing Trump even without congressional backing. I am just noting that this does not seem to be as effective as the second option. Additionally, unilateral opposition is the same approach that many Republicans used against President Obama, which opens those who use it up to criticisms of hypocrisy and obstructionism.

The second option is strategic conciliation. Seeing futility in opposing Trump head on, some people are calling for those who opposed Trump in the election to suck it up, accept the legitimacy of his presidency, and to work with the President-Elect, not against him. [E3] This may sound like a defeatist approach, but for some, it is just a shift in strategy. There is a convincing argument that the best way to deal with Trump is to manipulate him through praise rather than opposition. [E4] How’s that? More than anything else, Donald Trump craves affirmation and approval. Consequently, those who would like to manipulate Trump can dangle praise in front of him like a carrot in front of a horse, and there’s a good chance that he’ll do whatever we want to achieve that praise.

Of course, there are downsides to this too. For one, any praise of Trump – especially coming from his former opponents – further legitimizes and normalizes everything that he has said and done up to this point. For example, for President Obama to tell Americans to accept Trump as the next president sends a message to women that sexual abuse is not a serious enough offense that it should not prevent male abusers from gaining positions of authority. After all, even President Obama accepted Trump’s authority after Trump publicly bragged about touching women in appropriately. This is the price of strategic conciliation. It is a kind of betrayal to those whom Trump has stepped on in order to gain power. Furthermore, conciliation may achieve short-term goals, but it weakens the resolve of the opposition in the long run. In order to successfully cater to Trump’s ego, advocates of this approach will have to pick their battles carefully, bite their tongues in the face of “minor” injustices, and decide which issues are the most important when Trump attacks on several fronts.

As you can see, there are major problems with both of these approaches. For Christians, this tension is exacerbated by the fact that there are religious reasons that may cause us to avoid each of these approaches as well. Strategic conciliation has been a strategy for thousands of years, and the Bible typically describes it as a lack of faith in God. The Israelites were instructed not to turn to powerful nations like Egypt for help in times of crisis because these empires engaged in evil and turning to them revealed a lack of faith in God. [E5] Similarly, if Christians decide to “work with” Donald Trump because we are afraid of what could happen if we oppose him, we too reveal our lack of faith in God to save. Moreover, partnering with the Trump administration can be fairly described as “yoking ourselves with unbelievers,” which can seriously damage our witness to Christ, not to mention our personal integrity. [E6] So that would suggest that strategic conciliation is not a Christian option.

On the other hand, the Bible also seems to condemn unilateral opposition. After all, the gospel is a message of reconciliation: we are to seek peace with everyone, even our enemies. [E7] Or consider this: if we make a decision that we can never forgive Trump no matter what he says or does henceforth, how can we expect God to forgive us? [E8]

These are complicated issues, and I do not want to pretend to have all of the answers. However, I would like to explain how I am drawing from Scripture to navigate through this, and I have one concept in particular that I would offer anyone – but especially Christians – who are looking for guidance. Mennonites refer to it as binding and loosing. [E9]

Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not tell Christians that we should offer forgiveness and reconciliation to everyone unconditionally. Jesus did teach his followers that we have to be willing to forgive limitlessly – no matter how many times a person sin’s against you, you have to be prepared to forgive them. But limitlessly is not the same as unconditionally. There is still a condition that people must meet before we offer them forgiveness: they must sincerely and genuinely repent of what they have done wrong. [E10] If someone does not repent, then it would not be appropriate to forgive them, for they will continue to inflict harm In fact, there are specific Biblical instructions about how to handle unrepentant people [E11].

Binding and loosing is something that I wish Mike Pence and Franklin Graham had understood a little better when they encouraged their supporters to forgive Donald Trump for his recorded comment about assaulting women. [E12] Yes, Donald Trump said the words, “I’m sorry,” and yes, Christians should be prepared to forgive even sexual abusers for their sins, but there is little reason to believe that Trump’s apology was sincere. [E13] In this case, white evangelicals “loosed” when they should have “bound.” Yes, we should be prepared to offer forgiveness, but we should also be prepared to insist on repentance, and that is where the challenge lies.

Both the approach of unilateral opposition and that of strategic conciliation are extreme positions that recommend a singular response to Trump’s presidency. However, the concept of binding and loosing suggests that we must be prepared to judge everything Trump does on a case-by-case basis, neither refusing to hear him out nor catering to his ego. These are the guidelines I have created for myself to help me decide when to “bind” and when to “loose” in dealing with a Trump administration.

5 Personal Guidelines for "Binding and Loosing" the Trump Administration

1. Criticize actions, but not motives. When we accuse Trump or his supporters of being a racist, or acting out of greed, or being “evil,” these accusations put them on the defense. Although I think it’s quite possible that these motives are at play, we must remember the teaching of Scripture: [Humans judge by] outward appearances, but the Lord judges by the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). We don’t know the inner thoughts of Donald Trump, and frankly, it’s not our job to point them out. However, we can explain how his actions have harmed people or could potentially harm people, and we should certainly not back away from making action-oriented judgments and criticisms. [E14]

2. Allow Trump to save face, but don’t resort to false praise or withholding criticism. In order to be effective with a narcissist like Trump, savvy politicians have to create win-win petitions, proposals, and even protests. A petition that says, “Tell President Trump to STOP ---“ is not likely to get very far, but one that says, “Let President Trump know that --- is hurting ---.”could be more effective.

Although this kind of delicacy becomes especially important when dealing with someone who has a fragile ego, it is really a better way for humans to interact in any setting. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making demands, especially insofar as “demands” can be empowering for marginalized people because they don’t frame the conversation in a dependent framework. However, I think it’s generally preferable to seek language that doesn’t identify any individual as a bad guy, but gives even oppressors an opportunity to partner with the good. After all, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities…” (Ephesians 6:12)

On the other hand, we must be very careful not to swing to the other extreme, by offering false praise or withholding needed criticism, because to do this would be a betrayal of those whom Trump has harmed in order to gain power.

3. Be willing to compromise, but be clear about what the lines that I can’t cross. At this stage, I do not think it is inappropriate to compromise with the Trump administration. [E15] After all, democracy works via compromise, and those who are opposed to Trump should be prepared to accept certain policy arrangements and decisions that are less than ideal if it helps move things forward and/or benefits people in the long run.

However, it is very risky to take on this posture of compromise unless you know what lines you are unwilling to cross. For example, I am open to a number of different ways in which immigration can be managed (even though I am an advocate of Open Immigration), but I would never approve of religious tests or any other kind of tests that prohibit people from immigrating here on the basis of their involvement in a minority group.

4. Be prepared to lose all “conciliatory” leverage if a moral line is crossed. If you are going to play the emotional game with Donald Trump and is supporters, it will be tempting to remain silent or even support the Trump Administration inappropriately in order to hang onto that leverage. Consequently, you must regularly recommit yourself to sacrificing all of your leverage and all of your “respectability” if it becomes necessary to do so in order to defend a non-negotiable.

5. Act respectful, but don’t tell marginalized people that they have an obligation to do the same. I intend to speak of Donald Trump in respectful terms, referring to him as “President Trump” and refraining from participating in memes, insults, and caricatures that degrade him. I do this, not because he has earned my respect or even because the office of the presidency merits it, but because he is a child of God. However – and this is important – while I will choose to respect Trump in the way that I talk about it, I refuse to “police” other people by demanding that they show the same respect for him, especially not people in the minority groups who are the most harmed by his words and actions. I refuse to tell minorities to “take the higher road” in face of a Pseudo-Christian President who himself refuses to take the higher road, unless they are people who specifically ask for my advice or for whom I have responsibility to look after due to their voluntary commitment to my specific Christian community. On the contrary, I will seek to lift up these voices – even if they frame their critiques in crude or distasteful language – because these are the people whom God specifically asks us to defend throughout the Bible.  [E16]


[E1] I say that I “bit the bullet,” because I have conscientiously abstained from voting in the presidential race for all of my life up to this point. The reasons for this are complex, and my thinking about voting in general has gone through many twists and turns over the years, but suffice it to say that a pacifist rarely finds anyone whom he or she can vote for in good conscience in the political race. I ended up voting for Hillary Clinton, not because I am particularly fond of her, but because she seems to represent the status quo, which is significantly better than the step in the wrong direction that Trump represents. I do not believe I would have voted in the presidential race if any other Republican candidate had succeeded against Trump.

[E2] Michael Moore is an especially vocal example of this approach (See, but I have heard it expressed at a number of different levels.

[E3] President Obama and Hillary Clinton are among the leading voices who have encouraged Trump opponents to “work together with Trump” and “give him a chance to lead.”

[E5] cf. Isaiah 31:1-3

[E6] cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18

[E7] cf. Romans 12:14-20

[E8] cf. Matthew 6:14-15

[E9] The phrase “binding and loosing” originates from Jesus’ famous response to Peter’s proclamation identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19). Catholics famously claim this verse as the proof-text for the legitimacy of the papacy, but Mennonites believe that this tremendous authority to “bind and loose” was given to Peter, but was given through Peter to the entire church community. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus uses it again to his entire group of disciples in Matt 18:18.

What does it mean? The phrase is most closely identified with granting or withholding forgiveness. However, the forgiveness it has in mind is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” that keeps people from going to hell. No, forgiveness in this context refers to the complete restoration of an individual into the community of the people of God. Jesus’ followers have the awesome authority to expunge sins and crimes from peoples’ records and treat them as if they had never done such things in the first place. That is not something that should be given out lightly.

But I would argue that this is only an aspect of the total authority of “binding and loosing.” In a broader sense, binding and loosing means that we must draw the lines between justice and mercy. We collectively have the power to say to a person, “We recognize that you made a mistake, and while should lead to certain standards, we are going to ‘loose’ the standards in this case because God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.” We also have the power to say, “I’m sorry, I realize that you want to ignore what happened, but we cannot allow that until we see certain changes. We are going to ‘bind together’ in our resolve in order to protect the innocent.”

[E10] Cf. Luke 17:3-4. Note: Not even God offers forgiveness if there is not first repentance – cf. Acts 2:37-38.

[E11] Cf. Matthew 18:15-18. Notice the repetition of binding and loosing.

[E13] Given the circumstances, Trump had every incentive to offer an apology, whether or not it was sincere. In some cases, we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt, but people in power “should be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1). Besides this, the fact that Trump sought to minimize/defend his action be describing it as “locker room talk” indicates that he does not accept the gravity of his sin, which is a key aspect of genuine repentance. In this case, I would also - as a church leader – expect Trump to make some degree of restitution, and we don’t see evidence of that either.

[E14] This is hard for some of us to accept because Americans tend to assume that an action is moral or immoral based on whether it was done with good or evil intentions. But this is an assumption that is not Biblical and which I believe we need to drop. People can do evil things without intending to, and while our intentions matter, they are not the only thing that matters.

[E15] I do realize that there comes a certain point at which any cooperation with a dictatorship is inappropriate, but to suggest that the Trump administration has crossed that line before it has even gotten started seems misguided to me.

[E16] Cf. Proverbs 31:8-9, Jeremiah 22:1-3, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A Christian Understanding of Power (5 of 7)

This is the fifth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

On the whole, this blog series is designed to be an evidence-based case for nonviolence. But as I explained in my last post, our beliefs peace and violence are not only shaped by evidence and experience, but also by deep assumptions that we make about power. Therefore, in this post, I am going to present an alternative understanding of power through an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture. [E1] I realize that this kind of abstract and religiously loaded post risks alienating several of my readers, but I believe, as Thomas Merton said, that “the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God.” Christianity is not the only religion that can provide a metaphysical basis for nonviolence – Gandhi was able to find similar resources in Hinduism, for example – but even if you are not a Christian, I think it is valuable to consider the religious and metaphysical beliefs which shape our everyday feelings about peace and violence.

One of the classic attributes of God, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, is that God is all-powerful. As the One who created and sustained the world, God is the source of all being and all power. On the one hand, this is an inspiring and reassuring doctrine. But on the other hand, the very recognition of God’s power has led to some of the profoundest doubts and most painful feelings of abandonment for Jewish and Christian people. [E2] We wonder: if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God intervene more? Where is God in the midst of all of the evil that occurs in the world? For the ancient Jews, this question came up the most frequently in the context of their national crises: [E3] “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand? Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” This is one of the most pervasive themes – if not the most pervasive theme – in the Older Testament.

God heard these laments and prayers of the people and responded by promising to send a powerful figure to rescue them: the Messiah. [E4] As God’s representative on earth, this Messiah would be an extremely powerful person. The prophets proclaimed that “authority would rest on his shoulders,” and “a stream of fire would issue from his presence.” He would be “triumphant and victorious,” and to him “would be given dominion and glory and kingship.” [E5] But that’s not all the Messiah would do. Although the people only prayed for God to liberate them from their oppressors, this would be “too small a thing” for God’s Messiah. Going further, the Messiah's reign wouldn’t be limited to Israel, but his “dominion shall be from sea to sea,” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He would “establish [God’s kingdom] and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” [E6]

With such a powerful description of a political leader embedded in Israel’s Scriptures, it should not surprise us that many aspiring politicians in Israel claimed that these prophecies applied to them. We know of several military leaders who claimed to be God’s Messiah in order to recruit more people to fight against the Greeks or the Romans. [E7] Most of these aspiring Messiahs were defeated and killed. Even among those who were relatively successful, they couldn’t live up to the bold promises of a Messiah who would create a global and eternal kingdom.

Now here’s the crazy part – are you ready? In the first century, a group of Jews started claiming that their leader was the Messiah after he had been killed. Of course, I am talking about the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this does not shock you, but it should. In order to understand the New Testament, it’s important for us to recognize how audacious this claim was.

It was very clear in the Older Testament that the Messiah would be a national savior who would defeat Israel’s political enemies and restore independence to the people of God. So the question people had to ask when presented with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was this: did Jesus accomplish these political tasks? For most people, the answer is, “Obviously not.” In the first century, the main reason why many of the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah was because the Roman Empire still seemed to be in control after Jesus left the earth. Clearly, he had not obtained political liberation. Unfortunately, some Christians agreed with them. They acknowledged that Jesus did not achieve national/political victory, so they radically redefined the Messiah’s job description in the Older Testament to make it look like God only promised to send a spiritual Messiah, not a political one. [E8]

But the earliest Christians made the counter-intuitive claim that Jesus actually succeeded as the political Messiah as well, and I agree with them. I believe that Jesus literally restored independence to the people of God and defeated Israel’s enemies. If you know anything about Roman history, that probably sounds bizarre to you, given the way that the Romans decimated Israel in the century following Jesus’ life. Even so, I would insist that it is true, and that the reason that we can’t see it is because we reading history with a biased lens. Let’s consider each of these two main claims.

Did Jesus restore the people of God as an independent nation? – One way to interpret Jesus’ earthly ministry is that he was doing the work of nation-building. He went around telling people that the kingdom of God was near and recruiting them to “join” it. Once people joined his kingdom, they were expected to swear allegiance to Jesus and not to Caesar. Jesus gave this community his own laws and policies that were designed to govern their society, and he appointed leaders who had very specific instructions as to how to expand it. [E9] His teachings and ministry were not just a miscellaneous set of good things he did and said: Jesus was systematically creating a political community (the church) within Israel that was independent from Roman rule, and he did it without ever engaging in battle. [E10] Unfortunately, later down the road, the church got pretty entangled with the state, but it always remained a separate institution, one which Jesus founded. If you can accept this claim – that the church is actually an alternative political society – then you can see that Jesus fulfilled even the most ambitious Messianic prophecies: Today, this “kingdom” extends from sea to sea, claiming nearly a third of the earth’s population in its membership, and it has reigned unbroken for 2,000 years.

Did Jesus defeat Israel’s political enemies? Taking a broad historical view, you can make the claim that Jesus’ “political campaign” did, in the end, defeat the Jews’ political enemies – the pagan Romans. While it’s true that the Romans continued to control Israel immediately after Jesus ascended, Jesus delivered the fatal blow to their dominance while he was still on earth. He took their strongest weapon – the threat of a humiliating death through crucifixion – and showed that it was powerless to stop him. By doing this, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” In other words, he demonstrated to his followers that the violence power of the Roman Empire was actually quite weak. Violence doesn’t have any positive power at all. Its only power is the ability to scare people into cooperating with its own wishes. However, once we decide to stop giving into to those threats, violence itself becomes impotent.

Emboldened by this insight, Jesus’ disciples continued to make converts and extend Jesus’ kingdom, despite great resistance by the Roman Empire. The Romans at first ignored the Christian movement, and then they persecuted it with increasing degrees of severity, but their attempts to threaten or kill off Christianity didn’t work at all. On the contrary, this spiritual-political movement seemed to grow with each martyrdom. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century, when the Emperor issued an empire-wide ban on Christianity and Christian leaders were hunted down and killed. But after about 10 years of exhausting itself by trying to extinguish Christianity, the Roman Empire eventually submitted to the kingdom of God. [E11] Hence, one could claim that Christianity conquered the (pagan) Roman Empire without engaging a single military battle. Therefore, Jesus did what the Messiah was supposed to do: he led a movement that defeated the enemies of the people of God.

Christians believe that Jesus is the revelation of God: he reveals who God is and what God is like. They also believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the powerful one who was sent to redeem the people of Israel. If both of these claims are true and Jesus embodied the power of God, then it follows that God’s power is not violent. The Israelites of the first century and Christians today expect God to rescue us by a show of force. We look for salvation among rulers and generals because we don’t understand what the power that created and sustains the universe is really like. But Jesus showed us in his life, his death, his resurrection, and his victory that that peace is more powerful than violence, love is stronger than fear, and life is greater than death.  That is the metaphysical basis for my pacifism.


End Notes

[E1] “Anabaptist” is the term that people used to describe some of the “radical reformers” in the sixteenth century at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The Mennonite Church, to which I belong, has its roots in the Anabaptist movement. However, I prefer the term Anabaptist to Mennonite here because Anabaptist refers to people who identify with that movement even if they are not associated with the Mennonite Church, such as Neo-Anabaptists.

I should also emphasize that this is an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture, not the Anabaptist interpretation. There are many other Mennonite groups and other groups that wouldn’t read the Bible this way.

[E2] Of course, I am talking about the problem of evil, but I am not going to address that in its philosophical form in this post. However, you could extrapolate some of my comments on this post to get a window into how I understand the problem of evil. A big part of this issue is that we have a misguided idea of what it means to call God “all-powerful”.

[E3] Psalm 74:10-11. For other examples, see Psalm 44, 60, 79, 80, 85, Jeremiah 12, Ezekiel 19, the entire book of Lamentations, etc.

[E4] I am attempting here to give a very brief summary to the story of the Older Testament, and of course, there are many ways to challenge this. For example, one could rightly point out that the concept of the Messiah developed in the Scriptural canon: the earliest references just referred to David or another King of Israel, but by the time we get to Daniel, this figure has divine qualities. I see this diversity as a developing understanding of who God’s Messiah would be. But I realize that this discussion is complicated and needs to be nuanced, especially out of respect for the Jewish people who read the same Scriptures differently.

[E5] Isaiah 9:6, Daniel 7:10, Zechariah 9:9, Daniel 7:14

[E6] Isaiah 49:6, Zechariah 9:10, Daniel 7:14, Isaiah 9:7

[E7] Two of these “failed Messiahs” are mentioned in Acts 5:36-37

[E8] I believe that spiritual liberation and political liberation are interrelated. Unfortunately, this strategy of bifurcating the spiritual from the physical, which is often associated with the heresy of Gnosticism, has done untold damage to Christianity. Most Christians in the world today still believe that Jesus only came to be a spiritual Messiah, and they fail to appreciate the political implications of his work on earth.

[E9] There are plenty of Scriptures to back up each of these claims, but you also need a little historical/culture context to appreciate them. For example, Jesus' announcement about the kingdom of God is found in Mark 1:14-15 among other places, but context would reveal that not only the word' "kingdom" but even the word "good news" or "gospel" is politically loaded. There are several references to the powerful phrase, "Jesus is Lord" throughout the NT (e.g. Romans 10:9, Phil 2:11), but it is helpful to know that this phrase was a contrast to the common affirmation, "Caesar is Lord," and Christians were persecuted during the early part of the Roman Empire because they refused to say the latter. The political nature of his community was clear at many points, especially in texts like Luke 22:25-30, during which he finishes up his "ethical teaching" by reminding his disciples "I confer on you a kingdom." Even the fact that Jesus felt compelled to designate his disciples as apostles (Luke 6:13-16) reveals that he was thinking in structural terms about how to carry his movement forward.
[E10] A very important question for Biblical theologians is how the people of God in the Old Testament (Israel: the descendants of Abraham) relate to the people of God in the New Testament (the church: believers in Jesus). For a long time, theologians argued that the Jews failed as God’s people, and so God replaced Israel with the Church. This is called supersessionism, and it is a dangerous theology that has contributed to (if not caused) the persecution of Jews throughout the centuries.

I actually see an unbroken continuity between Israel and the Church. Jesus very intentionally recruited followers from within Israel first, and set them up as the leaders of this new community. Then, at his resurrection, he commissioned them to extend the boundaries of the Jewish community so that it would also include non-Jewish people. This, of course, was always the plan for the nation of Israel – going back to Abraham. So it’s not that the church is a “new Israel,” but we are a continuation of Israel, after it’s membership opened up considerably. This institutional continuity is attested by the fact that Christians still look to the Hebrew Scriptures as their own.

[E11] I am referring here to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, at which time the Roman Empire did not become Christian, but it stopped trying to persecute Christianity, recognizing it as the true way of God. This is a complicated historical claim, which deserves an entire post to itself, and it is actually an odd one for a Mennonite to make. Most progressive Mennonites view Constantine’s conversion as a sad moment in the history of Christianity, and here I am hailing it as victory.

As an Anabaptist, I do have major concerns about the way that the church started getting invested and involved in the running of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think that this happened immediately at Constantine’s conversion, and I believe that the ending of persecution was a good thing. There are plenty of examples of early Christian leaders who refused to cooperate with or submit to emperors in the first couple of centuries after Constantine’s conversion. My favorite story is about Ambrose, the pastor of Emperor Theodosius. Ambrose learned that the emperor massacred 7,000 people in Thessalonica and refused to let him participate in church until he repented for this action. And it worked! Theodosius repented and was careful not to act that way again. I believe that Mennonites today, who live in an Empire that more closely resembles post-Christian Rome than pre-Christian Rome, should spend more time studying the successes and failures of the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Deep Assumptions about Power (4 of 7)

This is the fourth post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

We have arrived at the halfway point in my blog series about pacifism. For the first three posts in the series, I argued that violence is ineffective. [E1] I cited a number of studies showing that it is not an effective tool for disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, or overthrowing oppressive governments. I offered an analysis as to why the threat of violence creates moreresistance than cooperation and why individuals and nations cannot seem to eliminate their enemies by killing them.

But that was the easy part of my project. Anyone can point out flaws in people or systems. However, for my blog series to have any value, it has to do more than that. I have to offer constructive alternatives to violence: nonviolent ways of disciplining children, protecting oneself, reducing crime, etc. that are plausible and effective alternatives to violence. The goal of this series is not to criticize those who make use of violence, [E2] but to make the case that there is a better way to fight for good in the world. [E3]

Unfortunately, I’m not ready to present these nonviolent alternatives to you yet. Why not? Because I fear they would fall on deaf ears. For those of us who have been immersed in the logic of necessary violence, [E4] every nonviolent solution or proposal initially strikes us as unrealistic. It doesn’t matter such a proposal has statistical support, scholarly backing, or a track record of success. One can always attribute the past successes of nonviolence to something else. The critics of nonviolence are fond of saying, “Just because nonviolence works some or even most of the time doesn’t mean we can rely on it all of the time. And it is in those cases when nonviolence doesn’t work that violence is most needed.” [E5]

Perhaps I sound defensive here, for I am anticipating negative reactions before I have even presented the argument. I shouldn’t presume to know how you, my reader, will react to what I am about to say, but I’m making an educated guess based on my own gut-reactions. The logic of necessary violence is so widespread in our society that I myself, as a committed pacifist, have a hard time accepting them.  Often times, when I hear a nonviolent solution to crime or oppression or war, I think, “How na├»ve! There’s no way that could work.” Now that I’ve been looking at this for a while, I have come to see that these gut reactions are not based on empirical evidence, sound reasoning, or even philosophical objections. Instead, my distrust of nonviolence is a result of the way I have been taught to think about power.

The deepest reason why most people have a hard time embracing pacifism is because they believe that violence is the ultimate form of power. To them, the call to nonviolence sounds like a call to become weak and helpless in the world, which no one is completely willing to do. After all, all of us seek power. Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I don’t mean for it to be. I’m not suggesting that power is a bad thing, or that everyone seeks power as an end in itself. I realize that not everyone wants to be in charge, and not everyone feels comfortable with power when they get it. Still, I would maintain that everyone seeks power, because power is the ability to influence people or events toward desired outcomes. In order to pursue any goal in the world, we must also seek the power we need to achieve that goal. For example, the kindest and humblest person you know might want nothing more than to make children happy, and so they will pursue training and credentialing that allows and enables them to make children happy. That is still a pursuit of power. Similarly, an Anchorite monk who wants nothing to do with society may run into the wilderness so that no one can disturb him. That is still seeking power – the power to live life undisturbed. Seeking power is not intrinsically good or bad, but it is inherent to the human experience. Consequently, all humans have developed beliefs early in our lives about what power is and how one can acquire it.

In Western society, we have been conditioned to believe that the most powerful force in the universe is violence. [E6] We are taught, in various and subtle ways, that violence created us, [E7] that violence is the glue that holds society together [E8], and that violence is the only weapon strong enough to save us from evil. [E9] [E10] These beliefs are not conclusions that we have deduced after careful study and analysis. They are the assumptions that we begin with. They are what philosophers call mythical beliefs. [E11]

I know that I promised to keep my argument for pacifism grounded in evidence, statistics, research, etc., but no amount of evidence can persuade us to adopt nonviolence so long as we are filtering that evidence through our mythical beliefs about violence. For me to persuade you to be a pacifist without challenging those beliefs would be like trying to purchase a car at a U.S. dealership with Japanese yen. It wouldn’t matter if I have enough wealth to afford the purchase – in the context of mythical violence, my arguments don’t have any currency.

Therefore, in my next post, I will offer an alternative "myth" about what constitutes true power [E12]. To do this, I will draw deeply from another tradition in the West – the Christian tradition – to show how it offers an alternative understanding of power. [E13] Indeed, I think that one way that we can frame the Christian gospel is that it is a revelation about what constitutes true power in the universe. [E14] After laying that foundation, I’ll actually present the nonviolent principles and practices to which I have been referring, and I’ll end the series by considering how Christian pacifists might respond in the face of the most ruthless kind of violence.


End Notes

[E1] – Just for the record, I also believe that the use of violence is “immoral,” but as my ethical philosophy has progressed, I have come to see concepts such as morality and effectiveness as interconnected. Besides that, it is hard to make the case that any action is “immoral” to a general audience in our pluralistic society, so I decided to approach it from the angle of effectiveness.

[E2] – Also for the record, I believe that most citizens of the United States are guilty of “making use of violence,” even if we ourselves aren’t the ones who carry it out. For example, when the general public “calls for blood” in response to a terrorist attack, that puts pressure on government officials to order military officials to launch airstrikes and invasions and other forms of institutionalized violence. Although soldiers often end up being the ones who “pull the trigger,” they don’t usually make the decision to shoot or kill, but are following orders given to them from officials who are elected by the general public. Thus, in a democracy, we all have to share some degree of responsibility for the actions by representatives of the U.S. government.

[E3] – Yes, you heard me correctly. I said there is another way to fight for good in the world. I am not one of those pacifists who avoids using martial or confrontational metaphors because they contain “violent language.” Instead, following the example of the New Testament, I want to appeal to the good impulses that can drive one to engage in warfare (justice, courage, sacrifice, etc.) and employ them in a more appropriate setting.

[E4] – The logic of necessary violence is my way of referring to all of the public dialogue, private conversation, entertainment and thought that flows from the uncritical assumption that the only way to protect yourself or do good in this world is through the use of violence. Hence, it is the logic of necessary violence. Whenever a presupposition like this is repeated often enough, even if it is implied more often than it is stated, we find ourselves believing it.

[E5] – This is a hypocritical argument, as the critics of nonviolence rarely apply this same principle to the “necessary” use of violence. After all, there are many circumstances in which violence has failed: attempted coups, botched assassinations, friendly fire, etc., and yet none of these failures are taken as evidence that violence only works some of the time. Instead, when violence fails, most people try to understand why it failed so that they can try to use it more effectively the next time. Why can’t this same principle be applied to nonviolence?

[E6] – “Western society” (i.e. the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) is not alone in thinking this way. In fact, I would argue that pretty much all of the nations of the world today are committed to the logic of necessary violence, partially because they have been influenced by the West. But that has not always been the case. Archeologists have discovered some ancient societies such as the Hrappan society in Ancient India and the Norte Chico civilization in ancient South America which seemed to have developed advanced societies without institutionalized violence. Apparently, as their communities sought power, it did not seem imperative to them to seek the power of violence. As it so happens, both of these societies have left written languages that have yet to be decoded, and I hope that we will someday decode them and learn a lot from them.

[E7] It is difficult to trace the exact origins of “Western Civilization,” but most people would identify the Greek city states as one of the places where it emerged. For the Greeks, violence or chaos was the fundamental substance of the world. According to Hesiod, the first substance to exist was Chaos, and out of Chaos came Gaia (the Earth), and from them came everything else. Their children had the Titans and then the gods, whose bloody battles spawned the world order in which we now find ourselves. ( Similar accounts can be found in Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian, and Roman myths.

This may seem like a straw man in my critique of Western civilization today because most Westerners don’t believe in these stories. But I would argue that it still influence us – even after the story itself disappears, the ideas behind it manifest in many ways. For example, the modern account of evolution is often described as creation by violence. I don’t really want to get into an extended conversation about evolution in this post, but I do think that emphasis on violence as creative (via natural selective) rather than on life as the creative force (via mutation and adaptation) reveals something about our Western biases.

However you feel about creation in a big sense, there’s no denying that our national myths all point to violence as the source of our creation. For example, in the United States, we believe that the revolutionary war created our nation. We point to July 4, 1776 as the day that our nation was born, the day when we proclaimed our intent to rebel violently against the English government, and this proclamation is ritually reinforced through the national holiday of Independence Day, in which we shoot fireworks to commemorate warfare and sing battle hymns to the Republic.  

But why is July 4, 1776 considered the beginning of the U.S. nation? I would argue that June 21, 1788 – the day on which our Constitution was ratified and the 13 colonies decided to bind together as one nation in a legal document – would be a better marker of the beginning of the U.S. government. Or if you want to define a nation in terms of the identity of the people living here as Americans rather than British colonists, then you have to go back before the Revolutionary War. What I’m trying to point out is that these claims are not rational but mythical: we look to violence as the creative force that brings nations and perhaps even the human species into being.

[E8] The belief that violence is “the glue that holds society together” has been maintained in the West for a long time. It was perhaps most clearly by Thomas Hobbes in his famous passage from the Leviathan: “Hereby, it is manifest that during the time that men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war as is every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war… In such a condition… the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In other words, if there is not a government with enough power to keep all people too terrified to break the law, chaos would be unleashed and people would indiscriminately kill each other. I think it’s safe to say that this view has been disproven by the existence of several stateless societies in the world that do not devolve into sheer chaos. Even so, we find ourselves with this great fear that if the guns were removed, people would take the opportunity to do great harm to each other. (The Purge movies are a modern expression of this philosophy.)

[E9] Violence is also seen as the only tool that can save us from evil (which our favorite word for other people’s violence). Again, this idea has a long tradition in the west – dating back to the Pax Romana of Augustus at least – but it has manifested in our own time as the theory of deterrence. Thomas Schelling was one of the political scientists who developed the theory of deterrence, the more weapons that we develop (specifically, nuclear weapons), the safer the world will become, as the mutual threat of violence will keep nations from acting violently toward each other. This was an extremely formative philosophy during the 60s and 70s, but the leading political figures of that time – including Henry Kissinger – have since rejected it.

[E10] And so, we see Violence as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Are you picking up on the religious overtones yet?

[E11] By “mythical,” philosophers do not necessarily mean these beliefs are false or even that they are irrational, but that they are “pre-rational” – they are the formative beliefs as the base of all of our other beliefs.

[E12] Remember, I am not using “myth” to mean falsehood here. More like “foundational belief.”

[E13] Although you don’t have to be a Christian in order to be a pacifist, pacifism only makes sense when it is tied to a particular tradition. And so, at this point, I have to abandon my attempt to appeal to a general audience and make the case for my particular version of pacifism, Christian pacifism. Actually, even “Christian pacifism” is not a homogenous ideology. In his book, Nevertheless, John Howard Yoder identifies something like 20 different types of Christian pacifism, and I would only embrace a few of those myself. I mention this because I want to make it clear that I’m not speaking on behalf of all pacifists, or even all Christian pacifists.

[E14] Let me make one more point clear: I don’t think that pacifism (by itself) is the “bottom line” of the gospel. Instead, the bottom line of the gospel is that the world is being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. However, I do believe that nonviolence is one of the implications of the gospel, and there are certain ways to frame the story that bring this to the forefront. If you want to read version of this story, you can see my previous post on the Biblical story of nonviolence here