Rough Thoughts on Pacifism

Prompted by a Facebook conversation – these are pretty off-the-cuff thoughts, since I don’t really have a terribly well-developed position, but here we go:

In a nutshell, I’m a pacifist in the same way I’m a universalist – hopeful but not really committed to it. As far as theological arguments for/against, I’ve yet to be really convinced that pacifism is a necessary part of Christianity, and all too often it seems that a nonviolent ethic is made to be central to the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that the Christian message is even reduced to one of nonviolence.

As a matter of personal opinion/ethic, I don’t really have a problem with a pacifist position – keep in mind that pacifism doesn’t = nonaction, just nonviolent action. The issue I have is primarily the extent to which it’s commonly seen as central to the Gospel.

I do think that the defense of children, widows, women, the weak, etc, can, will and do at times require violent force.I also think that pro-violence is a pretty terrible attitude to have – especially seeing Jesus’ very clear opposition to violence done in his name (Peter chopping off that one guys ear, for example).

 Having said that, one can’t ignore various Old Testament passages where various men and even heroes of the faith are praised for the willingness to commit acts of horrendous violence – Phineas kills an Israelite/Midianite couple in the midst of the sexual act, for example.Phineas and the Levites were called to be set apart specifically for their willingness to do some pretty raw things. Which, while not an argument by any means, is something one has to keep in mind.
With regard to whether Jesus commands Christians to not participate in national/state sanctioned violence, I see a couple of issues:

1) textual evidence – I’m not really aware of any real statements in the NT outright forbidding Christians to engage in national violence (say, a war or something like that). So we have to look elsewhere:

(2) Jesus’ posture toward violence in general – Jesus has very little to say about national/state violence – the famous turn the other cheek saying, for example, refers to personal insult/injury. Jesus certainly opposes violence in a sense, as I said before – he makes it very clear that the Kingdom of heaven will never be brought about by violent actions, perhaps in direct opposition to the zealots who sought to bring about the Kingdom by national violence. In that sense, yes, Jesus does forbid it by both word and deed.



A Few Assorted Thoughts on God, Weakness, Jesus and the World

This is actually a discussion I had on a Facebook comment thread -I posted this and the following exchange ensued (one commentator is bold, one is italicized, and my responses are in plain text. I’ve edited here and there, so any awkwardness is my own fault).

I think I should disagree with this argument from Bonhoeffer. Perhaps it’s born of the times in which he wrote, in which evil seemed to be prevailing in his world, that he should see God’s true power in His apparent weakness, but I don’t think it reflects the Biblical picture we have of an intervening God, who conquered all through a seeming act of “weakness” (namely, the Cross).

The Kingdom principles which Jesus teaches tends to upend conventional wisdom, in that the last will be first and the first will be last, service is true leadership, there is virtue in suffering, etc. But God certainly made His presence felt in power as well as in seeming weakness, all through the Scriptures.

If Jesus is the Word of God, the full revelation of God, etc etc, then right off the bat, as Jeff pointed out, there are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom. If we go a bit further, and say that in Christ God was/is acting to reconcile all things and all men to Himself, then it seems that God’s way of acting in the world is completely at odds with how we think He should act in the world.

What I think is an appropriate way of thinking about what Bonhoeffer means by ‘weakness’ is this: the world is a world of striving, power, will, force, violence, etc. That’s what it means to act in power in the world. God doesn’t simply choose to armwrestle the world and win – through weakness (perhaps apparent weakness – we could say that this weakness is true strength) He overcomes the entire ‘machine’ of force, violence, striving, and power. When God flexes His muscles, it takes the form of the Cross and the Manger.

There’s a lot of merit to that, but the God who acts with meekness in so much of the New Testament also took down Annanias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit, and kicks butt and takes names at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation. The Lord is complex, at the very least.

I think it can be pretty certainly said that when it comes to Kingdom/reconciliation, violence will never advance it (see Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for chopping that one guys ear off).

Though it IS rather interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to go and get a sword…I don’t believe Jesus is at all contradictory…but I am sure He enjoys playing with our presuppositions, no matter where they sit.

Jesus also says that he comes to not bring peace but a sword – so there’s obviously more happening here than simple descriptions of primitive warfare. Though references to swords are very common (especially in Proverbs) – not to mention the sword of the Spirit, etc. One could probably argue that it’s a subverted metaphor – remember, the weapons of our warfare are not flesh and blood, so Jesus could quite easily command his disciples to gird up for war – but waged with weapons of the spirit – peace, the Gospel, etc.

The context of Jesus saying that He brings “a sword” deals with the division, especially of families, within the Jewish community over His claims to being Messiah. It creates near enmity between family members when one person in the family embraces Jesus as Messiah–the others see it as a betrayal, and the new believer is usually shunned by the rest of the family/community. It happened then, just as Jesus said, and it continues to happen today. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship, though that’s going to dovetail quite nicely into being a Bonhoeffer reference as well.

However, Jesus didn’t seem too off-put by the fact of war and violence…He often used the ideas of soldiers going to war, Kings planning wars, and such…I don’t believe Jesus was promoting war or violence, nor do I believe He was pleased by it. But I do think that He regarded such things as a reality of the fallen world that we all must live in. And, though He did use such examples to point to spiritual truths, it also strikes me that Jesus didn’t seem too adverse to earthly power, when such powers were in line with shaping world events for the spread of His Gospel.

Also, in spite of Jesus letting the Romans do with Him what they did, I don’t see Jesus being a pacifist at all. He would have told husbands/fathers to protect their wives and children against invaders, and were it not for Him seeing God’s hand of judgment against His people in terms of the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, He would have organized armed rebellion against the pagan invaders.

I’m not a pacifist or super zealous anti-violence-in-the-bible guy – so I don’t see Jesus as a pacifist (in the modern sense) in any way. I also agree that Jesus was fine working within the existing structures of power (most of the characters in the NT seem fine with that) but with the intent to both (a) subvert or reform them and (b) remind them who it was that their authority came from (I think we see both of those themes in Paul, though the anti-imperial themes are blown way out of proportion these days). Paul is a great example of someone willing to use the circuitry of the Roman empire to spread the mesage of the Gospel, even though those two things are pretty at odds with each other. But I believe that there is intent to subvert and reform by the spreading of the message – since there’s significant biblical witness to the Gospel being God’s power to save.

Note on ‘The Kingdom of God’

An interesting aspect of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings and parables in Luke is that none of them make any reference to the great Jewish symbols – none of the parables/sayings are tied to the land, or Torah, or nationalistic hope of liberation. Jesus has redefined the kingdom (Luke is full of redefinitions – the most prominent ones being the redefinition of the family and the people of God) away from the traditional symbols and the hope of national vindication , and by way of odd little sayings and parables, shows and tells that not only is the kingdom at hand and the end of the exile near but is happening through his own work.

N.T. Wright on Building for the Kingdom

‘…what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized,and directed by the Spirit, is to build *for* the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord *is not in vain*. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Surprised by Hope’, p. 208)

Baby Jesus and Bible-Reading

The term ‘Christ centered’ gets thrown around a lot in reference to the Bible – a Christ-centered hermeneutic, a Christ-centered exegesis, Christ-centered interpretation, etc. But this seems to be one of those things that, upon close inspection, isn’t’t as clear cut in meaning as is supposed. What does ‘Christ-centered’ actually mean? Does it mean that every word of Scripture is actually about Jesus? Every story, every narrative, every page of Scripture, has Jesus as its subject and object? What does Christ-centered actually mean?

Well, taken at face value, it could mean a reading of Scripture which aims to ‘see’ Christ in all of the Bible. There are multitudes of books, devotionals, exegetical manuals, etc, which broadly have this goal – see Christ on every page. But this has some complications, because, obviously enough, Jesus isn’t the immediate objector subject of a lot of biblical stories. The story about Achan is (duh) about Achan. The story of Esther is about Esther, etc etc. So, (again) obviously enough, if Christ is supposed to be seen on every page, then there has to be more to the method than simply saying ‘that story is about Jesus.’

A common technique is typology, or foreshadowing, or whatever you like to call it. Something is a type of Christ if it foreshadows an aspect of His person, life and work. A good example of this would be Mechelzidek, or the Levitical sacrificial system (one can reference the book of Hebrews for this). These things are types of Christ in that they point to what is accomplished by Christ.

Now, here’s a few things I notice about that: the significance of that which is the type is intelligible only by virtue of what it points to (comparisons can be made with a realist interpretation of language). Types are pointers to a greater reality. I also notice that it devalues the type, or the sign – the real significance isn’t the sign but that to which it points. This makes it very easy to simply assign the role of type to something and by doing so assign it value only as a type or sign rather than it having significance in itself. To put it another way: it becomes very easy to look a X and say, ‘Oh, X is a type of Christ. Next!’

Continuing along that route: typology can become quite ridiculous – think of the medieval obsession with paralleling every part of the Ark narrative to some aspect of Christ’s person, work and life. Now that’s not a cheap sideshot, just an observation.

So the point so far is that in saying that one has to see Jesus on every page, one is basically committing to moving beyond the immediate subject/object of the text and engaging in typology, or metaphor, or what have you. So the text isn’t ‘about’ Jesus in the strict sense – it points beyond itself, by way of typology or metaphor, to Jesus.

Now that isn’t really too controversial as it stands, but I’m not so sure that Jesus is literally the subject of every aspect of Scripture. I don’t personally think every story s meant to foreshadow or be a type of Christ, and I think sustained attempts to make that so border of flights of fancy because Jesus isn’t, strictly speaking, the center of every aspect of the Biblical text but rather the goal of the text as a whole.

Put another way: not every word of the Bible has to have Jesus as its immediate object and subject, though the Truth of the Scriptures is, obviously, Jesus.  Scripture as a whole has Jesus as its telos – but not every word of Scripture is necessarily about Jesus in the sense that if we look hard enough at every page, or engage in typology/metaphor, Jesus will emerge. Typology is obviously great, and biblical – one can find types of Christ all over (again, Leviticus/Hebrews is a good place to start). But I remain unconvinced that every story, or every page, of Scripture has Jesus as its object and subject, though Scripture’s telos and goal is, in fact, Christ, the Word of God, the Truth of the Scriptures, to which the Scriptures bear witness.

Postscript: the telos of Scripture has to be understood in the context of Israel, exile, restoration, etc, because that’s the overarching narrative of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go into too much depth there.

N.T. Wright on Forgiveness of Sins

‘From the point of view of a first-century Jew, ‘forgiveness of sins’ could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well, as Qumran amply testifies. Overarching the situation of the individual was the state of the nation as a whole; and, as long as Israel remained under the rule of the pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the Temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for ‘forgiveness of sins’ as the great, unrepeatable eschatological and national blessing promised by her god. In light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear. It was ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, p. 271)

Wright and Dogmatics

I commented on a blog yesterday that N.T. Wright is trying to say a lot of what the dogmatic tradition is trying to say – i.e Chalcedon – but using different language. By this I mean that Wright is trying to explain (for example) the relations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Jesus’ self-understanding without using the same grammar. Instead of nature, substance, essence, hypostatic union, etc, Wright is using Jewish grammar – Wisdom, Word, etc, to explain the relations between the Trinity and Jesus’ humanity/divinity.

This is not an arbitrary move. Wright sees the classical grammar not as wrong per se – he’s not one of those ‘damn you and your Pagan Greek philosophy!’ types – but as unnecessary, because had the Church not strayed from (to paraphrase Wright) the secure harbours of Jewish thought, she would have seen that, though different, more subtle and more nuanced, Scripture came with Trinitarian/christological grammar built in, and not had to develop the grammar that it did.

Wright is hardly above criticism in this. He doesn’t seem to want to integrate what he’s saying with the dogmatic tradition – which is just odd. His christology leaves something to be desired. His ideas on election aren’t very fleshed out. A lot of his ideas in general aren’t spelled out with systematic rigour. These are all things he needs to reckon with.

The Death of the World

‘They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and it that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies ad philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.’ (G.K. Chesteron, ‘The Everlasting Man’, pp.212-213)

Note on Torrance’s ‘Incarnation: the Person and Life of Christ’

It’s a great book by a great mind. However, it seems odd to go through this book and find very, very few references to anything Jesus actually did. There’s virtually nothing about Jesus’ parables and sayings, his healings, his miracles, his confrontations with the powers, the temple-motif (all of which figured profoundly into Jesus’ work), the Jewish-ness of Jesus. This is odd, because for a book about Jesus’ person and life, there is very little about his actual life. I’m aware that it’s dogmatics, but still, it seems weird. There is indeed a brief bit towards the beginning about historical issues, but this hardly seems sufficient.