David Bentley Hart is not only an extraordinarily erudite theologian, he is also very generous in his service of the gospel, always worth listening to, and always offers much to learn from. Here he is in a CPX interview on the question of violence in Christian history:
I’ve drawn attention to this part of the interview before, and to the five parts which follow it:
- The violence of Christian history
- The new atheists and an ugly God
- Ethics and the good life
- Nostalgia for a pagan past
- Gnosticism and alternative gospels
- Suffering and the problem of evil
In light of events dominating the news, there’s an interesting reflection by Michael Ignatieff in a book written in response to the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. In The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Ignatieff argues that the virtue which underlies and motivates revenge is simply the matter of ‘keeping faith with the dead’. This is something known to us all, whether givers or objects of terror. He writes:
‘The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect’. – Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), 188.
The Church, of course, is the child of the narrative at the heart of which is reconciliation, a narrative which is ‘difficult’, to be sure, but whose Author makes it possible to ‘from now on … regard no one from a worldly point of view’ (2 Cor 5.16), to live hopefully by the word that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Cor 5.19), and to rejoice in the vocation of being ‘Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Cor 5.20). Such is a narrative is difficult to live by because, as Ignatieff notes, it exists in relentless competition with ‘the powerful alternative morality of violence’.
Jürgen Moltmann, in The Power of the Powerless, bears witness to this ‘difficult’ way, a way which lives not from that narrative that is passing away but from what Moltmann calls ‘the superabundance of God’s future’:
‘The Easter faith recognizes that the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead provides the great alternative to this world of death. This faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who work for death; for the Easter faith recognizes God’s passion for the life of the person who is threatened by death and with death. And faith participates in this process of love by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices, here and now, in this life. Weary Christians have often enough deleted this critical and liberating power from Easter. Their faith has then degenerated into the confident belief in certain facts, and a poverty-stricken hope for the next world, as if death were nothing but a fate we meet with at the end of life. But death is an evil power now, in life’s very midst. It is the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of the people who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped; the noisy death that strikes through napalm bombs and torture; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. The resurrection faith is not proved true by means of historical evidence, or only in the next world. It is proved here and now, through the courage for revolt, the protest against deadly powers, and the self-giving of men and women for the victory of life. It is impossible to talk convincingly about Christ’s resurrection without participating in the movement of the Spirit “who descends on all flesh” to quicken it. This movement of the Spirit is the divine “liberation movement,” for it is the process whereby the world is recreated. So resurrection means rebirth out of impotence and indolence to “the living hope.” And today “living hope” means a passion for life, and a lived protest against death … Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s rebellion. That rebellion is still going on in the Spirit of hope, and will be complete when, together with death, “every rule and every authority and power” is at last abolished (1 Cor. 15:24). The resurrection hope finds living expression in men and women when they protest against death and the slaves of death. But it lives from something different – from the superabundance of God’s future. Its freedom lives in resistance against all the outward and inward denials of life. But it does not live from this protest. It lives from joy in the coming victory of life. Protest and resistance are founded on this hope. Otherwise they degenerate into mere accusation and campaigns of revenge. But the greater hope has to take living form in this protest and resistance; otherwise it turns into religious seduction … Easter is a feast, and it is as the feast of freedom that it is celebrated. For with Easter begins the laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated and the creative play of fantasy. From time immemorial Easter hymns have celebrated the victory of life by laughing at death, mocking at hell, and ridiculing the mighty ones who spread fear and terror around them. Easter is the feast of freedom. It makes the life which it touches a festal life. “The risen Christ makes life a perpetual feast,” said Athanasius. But can the whole of life really be a feast? Even life’s dark side – death , guilt, senseless suffering? I think it can. Once we realize that the giver of this feast is the outcast, suffering, crucified Son of Man from Nazareth, then every “no” is absorbed into this profound “yes,” and is swallowed up in its victory. Easter is at one and the same time God’s protest against death, and the feast of freedom from death. Anyone who fails to hold these two things together has failed to understand the resurrection of the Christ who was crucified. Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist’. (pp. 123–26).
Robert Frost was right; we have a choice. That choice, in this case just as in others more domestic, is between Revenge (‘keeping faith with the dead’) and Reconciliation (keeping Easter faith):
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.
- The 50 books every child should read.
- Robert Fisk: Beware men of power who turn to writing books.
- An Egyptian military court has jailed a blogger for three years for criticising the armed forces.
Over at The Jesus Manifesto, Mark Van Steenwyk is beginning a four-part series examining the ‘intrinisically oppressive nature of much of traditional Christianity’. Here’s a snippert from his first post – Christianity is Empire, Part 1:
‘The argument that Christianity is intrinsically oppressive is nothing new, but it persists. That’s because it is true. Christianity, at least as it is understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to Empire. A Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire.
This may not always be the case with all Christians everywhere, and it certainly wasn’t true for the earliest followers of Jesus, but it is such a well-worn pattern of Christian practice that it would be foolish to simply dismiss those who argue that Christianity is inherently oppressive.
Traditional readings of Genesis (about subduing the land) mixed with traditional views of the Lordship of Christ (which gives his followers socio-religious superiority) mixed with the evangelistic impulse of the Great Commission (which gives us a mandate to extend Christ’s rule to the ends of the earth) are problematic enough as they stand. But if you add the willingness to use violence to accomplish these ends, you are creating the perfect empire cocktail.
If we are going to have a faith that resists domination, we need to re-examine our willingness to use the Sword to accomplish any Gospel-inspired goals. If a Christianity that is willing to use the Sword will always nurture Empire, we need to put away the sword’.
Material to evoke some good conversation, not least for those in my part of the world thinking about stuff to do with Anzac Day (a subject which birthed this post of mine last year on Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society).
I’m trying to put together a list of responsible books/essays that explore theologically questions of Christian pacifism and Christian attitudes to war, and would be keen to hear of such that others have found helpful (and, if possible, why). Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Wilma A. Bailey, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not murder”?: The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005).
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960).
Oliver R. Barclay, ed., Pacifism and War (When Christians Disagree) (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).
Clive Barrett, ed., Peace Together: A Vision of Christian Pacifism (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1987).
Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
Robert W. Brimlow, What About Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).
Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain, 1914-45: Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1980).
*David L. Clough and Brian Stiltner, Faith and Force: A Christian Debate About War (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2007).
Robert G. Clouse, ed., War: Four Christian Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981).
James Denney, War and the Fear of God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916).
Kim Fabricius, Ten Stations on My Way to Christian Pacifism
Gabriella Fiori, Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography (trans. J.R. Berrigan; Athens/London: University of Georgia Press, 1989).
Peter T. Forsyth, The Christian Ethic of War (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1916).
Peter T. Forsyth, The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy (London: Independent Press, 1957).
*Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).
Stanley Hauerwas, Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
Stanley Hauerwas, ‘No, This War Would Not Be Moral’, in Time (3 March, 2003).
Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths, ‘War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain’, in First Things (October, 2003).
Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004).
Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).
Eberhard Jüngel, Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992).
Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, Rough Rhymes of a Padre (Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918).
Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, After War, Is Faith Possible?: The Life and Message of Geoffrey “Woodbine Willie” Studdert Kennedy (ed. Kerry Walters; Eugene: Cascade, 2008). [Reviewed here]
Jean Lasserre, War and the Gospel (London: James Clarke, 1962).
Philip Matthews and David Neville, ‘C.S. Lewis and Christian Pacifism’ in Faith and Freedom: Christian Ethics in a Pluralist Culture (Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2004), 205-16.
Paul O’Donnell and Stanley Hauerwas, A Pacifist’s Look at Memorial Day: Duke University Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas on nonviolence, Iraq and killing Hitler.
Oliver O’Donovan, In Pursuit of a Christian View of War (Bramcotte Notts: Grove Books, 1977).
*Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
George Orwell, ‘Pacifism and the War’, Partisan Review August-September (1942).
Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1968).
Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (Lanham/Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
Alan Ruston, ‘Protestant Nonconformist Attitudes towards the First World War’, in Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century (ed. Alan P. F. Sell and Anthony R. Cross; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003), 240-263. [The book is reviewed here]
Ronald J. Sider, Christ and Violence (Kitchener: Herald Press, 1979).
*Glen H. Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2008).
John Stott, ed., The Year 2000AD (London: Marshalls, 1983), 27-71.
John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today: New Perspectives on Social and Moral Dilemmas (London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1990), 82-112.
Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics Volume 2: Politics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979).
Miroslav Volf, ‘Christianity and Violence’ (A paper presented at the Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics, Boardman Lecture XXXVIII, University of Pennsylvania, 1 March, 2002).
Alan Wilkinson, Dissent or Conform? War, Peace and the English Churches, 1900-1945 (London: SCM Press, 1986).
*John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale/Kitchener: Herald Press, 1971).
John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
John Howard Yoder et al., What Would You Do?: A Serious Answer to a Standard Question (Scottsdale/Kitchener: Herald Press, 1983).
John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (ed. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009).
Terry Eagleton, ‘Isaiah Berlin and Richard Hoggart’ in Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others (London/New York: Verso, 2003), 104-8.
The Burns Lectures are definitely warming up. In this lecture Robert Jenson dealt with the Tanakh, or Old Testament (as is his preferred terminology with appropriate qualification: ‘old’ equals ‘prior’ rather than ‘antiquated’) as Christian scripture. He began by clarifying the appropriate questions – the status of the OT as Christian scripture was never questioned and for Jenson this can’t be the Church’s question since it is both absolutely prior (presumably in the sense that it constitutes the world in which the Christian faith is born) and necessary for the Church’s self-understanding. Jenson says that the really interesting question for the first Christians was a kind of obverse to that which questions the status of Israel’s scriptures, namely whether Israel’s scriptures could accept the proclamation of the resurrection. The Church, he insisted, did not accept Israel’s scriptures. Rather, Israel’s scriptures received the Church. Jenson noted that for the century, it was Israel’s scriptures which served the Gospel rather than the obverse. This question is alive even though it cannot be clearly asked since God has already answered it in raising Jesus.
Jenson proceeded to highlight how this question is constantly in the background of NT writing and how the NT demonstrates in the way it tells its story a ‘narrative harmony’ with Israel’s scriptures – relationship between passion narrative and Isaiah 53 being a case in point. The OT prophets were the one’s who provided the answer to ‘why’ did Jesus needed to die. Jenson argued that we cannot ask why the OT Scripture after Christ. Rather, we can only ask how scripture is the way for the Christian community. He also observed that the Church reads the OT as narrative because her gospel is itself a narrative, and because her gospel recognizes itself as the climax of the story told in the OT. Jenson cautioned about ‘unguarded talk of the unique fullness of God’s revelation in Christ’ [is that the mythological Christomonism?]. Such talk requires, says Jenson, the important qualification that the God present to the OT sages is the same Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the scriptures with ‘authority’ says Jenson, ‘that is, as if he were the author … because, in a sense, he is’. Jenson continued this line with comments like ‘Christ prayed the psalms as the leader of Israel’s worship gathered as the body of Christ’. When ancient Israel gathered in the temple with their hymns and lamentations they were gathered as ‘the body of Christ’. At this point he introduced some of the difficult issues that were to arise later in his lecture also. In response to those who wonder whether Christians can pray the Psalms that call for the destruction of their enemies and the bashing of babies against rocks, he suggested, with some rhetorical flourish, that they could pray them at the foot of the cross against the devil and his angels. [We shall return to this claim]
The key question which the latter part of Jenson’s lecture focuses on is not whether the OT is Christian scripture but precisely how it so functions. Jenson’s answer is that it functions as ‘narrative of God’s history with his people’, including the Church. This arises because the Church’s gospel is narrative and it identifies itself as the climax of the narrative of Israel’s history. Why this should be so stems from the character of the ‘regula fidei’ as a ‘plotted sequence of God’s acts’ (economy) on the one hand and the nature of the book the Church wrote as a second testament. He interestingly contrasts the two movements to emerge from old Israel with the destruction of the temple – rabbinic Judaism ended up using the Tanakh differently from the Church because their second testament (Mishnah) had a legal character which meant that they read their Torah with law as a guiding concept. On the other hand the Church with its narrative gospel ended up contextualising law within the narrative of God with his people. This also had a lot to do with Paul’s very complex problematisation of the law.
The ‘how’ question in relation to the role of the OT was forged in contrast to various challenges to the initial role of the OT – Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Platonism. Although there was a certain ‘Church History 101′ feel to the lecture here, Jenson’s characterization of the movements and issues was always interesting. In response to all these developments, but particularly to that ‘monomaniacal Paulinist’ Marcion, Jenson says that Christians have no way of avoiding the fact that the God of Israel is a ‘man of war’ who goes into battle, sometimes for, sometimes against, his people, but a God who takes sides in history. This, says Jenson, is the only alternative to a god who abandons history. God is either involved in fallen history as the God of Israel is, or God is not. If God is to engage a violent history God cannot do so without being a ‘God of war’, that is, without getting God’s hands dirty. And it seems, for Jenson, to be involved is to be implicated as an agent of violence. Like Hans Boersma has also recently argued, Jenson seems to hold that God uses violence as a means justified by God’s ends – that God participates in the world’s violence but he does so by entering into that violence and dying in it, through which violence is undone.
When questioned as to whether there was a third alternative, namely to suffer violence as the crucified one, Jenson responded effectively that in relation to this issue it was not really a third alternative since the crucifixion was an event in which God was both the crucifier and the crucified – and therefore, presumably, not non-violent. He also presumed that the question was motivated by the issue of theodicy.
Three critical questions arise at this point:
- The first picks up on the difference the revelation of God in Christ makes. Why did Jenson limit the praying of that psalm to prayers against “the devil and his angels”? If he is to be consistently true to the ‘man of war’ motif, why do not Christians pray against their human enemies and their enemy’s babies? And if they do so, how is this consistent with love for one’s enemies?
- Is it necessary that if the Father sent the Son to the cross and the Son went to the cross in obedience to the Father that the God of Israel must be seen as both the crucified and the crucifier? Surely the willingness to be crucified and the willingness to let the Son be crucified (not my will but yours) do not entail the agency of crucifixion. Surely the fact that this evil event is ultimately good (Friday) lies in the good consequent upon it (for the joy that was set before him). There is no paradoxical necessity to make God (in whom there is no darkness) the agent of death. Surely the triune God is here its defeater.
- Finally, does the fact that the Old Testament is the Church’s scripture rule out the possibility that it, like the New Testament, is a ‘text in travail’ bearing witness to Israel education by God. Is it not possible to discern in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a journey within Israel to unlearn pagan violence – we think here of a trajectory which includes the Cain/Abel story, the Akideh, the repentance of God post flood, the Joseph story, story of Job, the servant songs and so much more. So rather than accepting a strand which is taken for granted in the scriptures – God as man of war – why not discern how that strand is being deconstructed in the course of Israel’s journey with God? If such a reading is persuasive then the motivation to question the ‘man of war’ motif need not be motivated by theodicy, or not in any simplistic way.
Richard Floyd, author of a wonderful study called When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and a Forsythian scholar, has posted some helpful reflections on the cross and violence:
Recently, Michael Jensen responded to my post on violence and the cross asking me to speculate on what Forsyth might say to Girard. After discerning that this Girard is different to this one I confessed that my only reading of Girard has been vicariously through Volf, and Hans Boersma’s book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross. While I am reluctant to comment on work where I haven’t read the primary sources, and I don’t normally like to reproduce stuff that is already on my blog somewhere else, I thought that this might be of interest to some who would otherwise miss it in the comments section. Perhaps any discussion that arises will also mean that I can learn some more about Girard and maybe even feel inspired/challenged enough to actually go and read the guy’s stuff.
‘One of the main reasons that [Girard's] theory continues to increase in popularity is that he helps Christians avoid the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that God is involved in violence, even as he expresses his most hospitable self on the cross. This gain carries the cost, however, of the denial of a good creation. Desire, as something underlying all cultural endeavor, is inherently mimetic and thus must lead to violence, Girard insists. But is it true that mimetic contagion explains all desire and that it accounts for all violence? Girard fails to acknowledge that we often desire certain objects because of their inherent value rather than simply because other models desire them. A theology of creation that affirms its inherent goodness will insist that desire can function in wholesome ways and stems not first of all from imitation but from the positive value of the created order. Girard’s atonement theology is built on an ontology of violence that leads to a negative view of culture and is thus unable to function as a solid foundation for a positive politics of hospitality. Not only does Girard regard violence as the basis of human culture, but he also finds much of the Old Testament unworthy of the nonviolent God that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The continuity between the two Testaments gets stretched to the breaking point.’
My sense, regarding Forsyth’s response, is two fold.
Firstly, he would have never attacked Girard by name. He felt that when we we ought to expose error, we should expose the error and not attack the person. That’s the easy bit.
That said, Forsyth would see in Girard’s thinking a failure to understand not only the nature, scope and purpose of God’s atoning activity in Christ, but the nature and depth of sin and evil and the threat that sin poses not just to the world, but to God’s own being.
Whilst violence is the fruit of humanity’s angry rejection of the future intended for it by God, it also serves as part of the ‘tools’ that God uses to bring about his good purposes. So for example, Forsyth’s significant support of Britain’s role in WWI.
Forsyth insists that sin is so violent that it took the almost boisterous expression of violence (a clash of violence) to overcome it. Whenever grace and guilt collide, war it out, there will be violence – even in prayer. But it was not the violence of it that saved. It was the obedience in the midst of violence that did that. That said, Forsyth asserts that ‘it would have mattered a whole world if Jesus had met His death naturally, by accident or disease. Everything turns, not on His life having been taken from Him, but on its having been laid down. Everything, for His purpose, turns on the will to die. But, none the less, for that purpose, it had to be a death of moral violence (inflicted, that is, by human wickedness and the wresting of the law), to give its full force to both man’s sin and Christ’s blood. “Men of blood,” in the Old Testament, were not mere killers but murderers. So that we say it would have mattered a whole world if the death had not been violent and wicked, if Jesus had died of disease in His bed, or by accidental poison.’
He asserts that we feel the pain and disappointment of death as impugning the moral goodness of God. To us pain and death seem a moral outrage, a violent injustice done to the good. And it was moral outrage on God’s holiness that gave the sting and the mean misery of death for Christ. Only a great difference remains: The taste of death makes us think that it is a moral outrage on us – a tyranny; whereas Christ tasted it as the fruit of a moral outrage by us – a treason. ‘How prompt we are to accept Christ as a sympathizer with our oppressions’, he said, ‘and how slow to take Him as the accuser of our sins!’
Whether or not Girard sees more divine irony and inconsistency here than he can cope with, well I guess that that’s God’s problem – a problem that he has already taken up and answered violently in the obedience of Jesus Christ.
PS. Apologies to MJ for this being less than an ‘ideal blog entry’. See item 4 here. Learn to scroll … it’s not hard mate. You can do it. I know you can …
‘The violent may take, but it is the meek that inherit and the just that keep. The spirit which possesses the earth and keeps possession is inspired at the folly of the cross … “The weakness of the cross” is the greatest pitfall on earth, and it mocks the empire makers as it establishes its power upon their wreck, and thrusts its fine spells through the crevices of their untempered walls. This is all very ridiculous, of course, but they laugh best who laugh last. One sits in the heavens and laughs.’ – PT Forsyth.