We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism. To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem. First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture. There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case. This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.
Second, this is a biblical case. Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members. Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters. Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church. But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.
For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity. I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal: understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.
Defining some key terms in this study:
- Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ. “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.]. So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up. “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives. It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
- Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study. But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence. For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Update: Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right. But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc. Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil. Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong. We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong. The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism. There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear. Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.” But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
- As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion. Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion. Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires. Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence. If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.” However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent. Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
- These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important. Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children. That is not so. Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome. Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car. I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm. So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
- Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue. Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent. Nor are intentions everything: If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence. The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
- Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence. It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent. Examples of such practices include: strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc. We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
- Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence. These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
- Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.” In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking. For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter). (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention. See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005). This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
- Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice). This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles. Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking. I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.
I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow. The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions: “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.
Update: A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong. I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword to my copy of On Civil Disobedience. I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars. Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.
Happy Birthday, Thoreau. Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA, Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class. He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.
Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.
Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs, but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.] He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine. Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience. By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil. One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws. Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.
Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists. Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways. Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience. So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.] These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.
We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness. We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.
We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.
Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.
UPDATE: It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway. Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten. Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]
Here’s the index of the moral discernment series. I’ll soon add this to the page on “popular series” in the upper right of this blog.
With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor. Although this series has not proved popular (based on the few comments), I will nevertheless index it and place it on the Popular Series page for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.
The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners.
Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms: deontologicalforms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong” and usually right and wrong are deontological categories. The most famous Western philosophical version of this is German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences. He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.) 1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it. Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong. 2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves. A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)
Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.
In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period. (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.) Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape.
By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes. The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism. An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people. Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873). More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University) and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).
Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.
(This is a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning? I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture. Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not. There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)
A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community. This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc. Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation. In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid). We similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.
Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally. The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name? It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions. Example of a major difference: The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION. Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice. We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy. However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems: some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.
Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness. Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.” Legalists focus on the level of moral rules. If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook. Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules. E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.” Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions. Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died. This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.
Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning. One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.
I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant. Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer. Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought. If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not. They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas. They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together. The moral world is a world of relationships, a web. Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.
With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment. I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension. Further, “history is the laboratory of ideas” and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them. Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins. The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂
We have been discussing the dimensions of moral discernment, using the 4-dimensional diagnostic tool designed by Christian ethicists Glen Stassen. Moving clockwise from the lower right, we have discussed the way basic convictions (or “ground of meaning beliefs”) shape our moral judgments and then the way our varied loyalties, interests, and passions also shape our moral discernment. We now come to the upper left-hand box in our 4-dimensional diagram, the dimension of Perception, that is, how we see our moral environment, and the moral “issues” or decisions or problems or judgments that we encounter. This dimension of perception is another part of ancient ethics that was lost for awhile with Western ethics concentration on disembodied moral reasoning, but is being rediscovered in both moral philosophy (philosophical ethics) and moral theology (theological ethics). See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (1981); Judith A. Dwyer, Vision and Values: Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition (1999); David McNaughton, Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics (1991); Duane L. Cady, Moral Vision: How Everyday Life Shapes Ethical Thinking (2005).
Once again, Stassen identifies several critical variables that shape our moral perception. One is authority. There are authorities in every life. In logic arguments from authority are considered weak arguments. But no one can master every field of information. We all take some things “on authority.” If we identify the locus of authority for persons (religious leaders, government officials, parents, teachers, respected elders, etc.) we know a key factor in how people perceive the moral world around them. But in addition to the locus of moral authority(ies), we also need to pay attention to the nature and degree of a particular authority, asking “What kind of authority is it?” and “How much authority does it have?” My own commitments in politics are to rest authority with the people through elected representatives with lots of checks and balances, critical inquiries by a vigilant free press and answerable directly to the people. (Yes, this is an ideal rather than current reality. One works to make reality closer to the ideal.) In religion, my Free Church commitments are similarly to non-heirarchical authorities, answerable to the gathered community and the whole people of God. For Christians, Scripture is also an authority: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Scripture is embedded in the liturgies and writings of the early Church Fathers. For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Church Tradition form parallel strands of equal authority mediated by the Magisterium and the unique institution of the Pope who, when certain conditions are met, is believed to give infallible doctrinal and moral teaching. (There is a whole discussion of ordinary and extraordinary papal tradition that goes well beyond our purposes here. See what you learn when you’re a Protestant who gets the chance to teach at Catholic universities?) For Protestants, Scripture alone is to be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, but there is wide divergence in approach to interpretation.
For persons of other faiths or persons who have no religious faith (atheists, agnostics, etc.) there are also moral authorities. Identifying their locus, nature, and degree is just as critical in understanding their moral perception.
Another critical variable in moral discernment is identifying the moral or existential threat, including both its nature and degree. For example, in discussing stem cell research through the destruction of human embryos, some find the threat to be to the sacredness of human life while others see the threat in terms of the genetic diseases that could be cured if such research is allowed. (Notice how we are back with different convictions about the nature of human beings. Each dimension of moral discernment influences the others. This cannot be emphasized too much.)
In the debate over torture (and I have to write a post showing why even having a debate over torture is already a sign of moral confusion and decay that didn’t exist even in America even a few years ago) some see the threat of terrorism as justifying torture. Others, such as myself, see torture as a threat to both the dignity and well-being of the tortured, to the torturer, and to the moral fabric of the society which allows it.
Another critical variable is social change. Is any social change acceptable? If it is, what speed or rate of change is acceptable? What allies are acceptable in working for change? What method or methods are acceptable?
During the civil rights era, the influential Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey was conflicted, not because he was racist (far from it), but because he had a strong sense of order. Ramsey supported the work of the NAACP which tended to work for change through the courts. The nonviolent movement led by such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee struck Ramsey as “chaos in the streets.” The threat of such rapid and “undisciplined” social change was greater for Ramsey than the threat of segregation or the slower disappearance of segregation.
The final variable in the perception dimension is the integrity of information. Is the moral agent (or community) open to new information or not? Does the agent manipulate information to fit a predetermined answer or does the agent allow new information to lead to new perspectives? How does the agent handle information which contradicts previously held views? This is not to say that one surrenders convictions easily (that’s what makes them convictions, rather than opinions), but one wants to make discernment based on accurate information, not innacurate or manipulated information.
We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen. Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook. We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.
The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world. That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station. (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.
The patterns and options on these matters is fairly large. One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types. H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther; HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).
HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their wider cultures selectively. For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners. Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian bartenders to be absurd. Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces. But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.”
In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew. I recommend especially the following:
Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.
Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.
The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr by Charles A. Scriven.
Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen. This gem needs to be more widely discovered.
I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful on this issue:
Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.
Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.
Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.
Frederick Herzog, Justice Church
Letty Russell, Church in the Round.
Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.
Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.
Others could be added.
Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians. But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment. Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world. For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.” Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.
An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role. A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists. Anarchists and radical forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable. Maybe some moral systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.
So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world. And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.
P.S. With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL. Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world. But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.) Again, there are non-Christian parallels. Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state. Further examples could be multiplied.
When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).
[Here your author engaged in a self pity-party that he has removed.] 🙂
Continuing our series begun here and here on moral discernment. The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic convictions” dimension are Justification and Sanctification, two terms from the Apostle Paul concerning different facets of salvation. (Again, non-Christian moral systems have rough analogues to these variables.) If we think of salvation as primarily Justification (e.g., Martin Luther or Reinhold Niebuhr) we focus on forgiveness for our sins. Grace is then understood primary as “unmerited mercy” for our sinful acts. A theology that plays up justification to the exclusion or marginalization of other dimensions, is not likely to have high moral hopes for people. Specifically, it would not expect a higher morality for Christians than others.
Other theologies focus more on sanctification or Christian discipleship (i.e., moral improvement), whether understood as a slow process or one that may happen instantaneously. Some Christian theologies (e.g, some readings of John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox) stress sanctification in a way that suggests that Christians may achieve some form of moral perfection (although for Wesley, this was simply a “perfection in love.”) If this is our focus, then we see grace not primarily as “unmerited mercy,” but as “empowerment to faithfulness.”
Think back to our last section on the variables God and human nature and it is easy to see some of the many combinations that would lead to differing moral outlooks. I have an aunt who is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan Holiness group. Her version of this theology (which I do not claim is normative for Nazarenes) combined a judgmental view of God, a perfectable view of human nature, and a stress on sanctification/perfection to lead to a constant spiritual temperature taking. You will recall others with other combinations.
The next pair of critical variables are differing convictions about love and justice. Most theologians have stressed Christian love (agape) as the highest Christian moral norm. Many define such love as “sacrificial,” but others as “equal regard for all” (see Gene Outka), “mutual love” (many feminist theologians) or “delivering love” (Glen Stassen).
However defined, it is crucial that love be related to justice. Justice is understood also in various ways and applied to various dimensions of life: economics (distributive justice), racial relations, gender relations, civil rights, war and peace, etc.
Reinhold Niebuhr saw Christian love as sacrificial but almost impossible to live out, even for Christians. Therefore, it functioned only as a criterion that judged how far from Christ’s teachings our best moral efforts lie. So, he focused on justice understood as a rough balance of power and of competing interests. He stressed the difference between love and justice.
By contrast, someone like Dorothy Day sees love and justice as intimately related and both as commanded to be lived out in this world.
Next chapter will finalize the dimension of basic convictions by focusing on the mission of the church in the world.
Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment: https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/critical-variables-in-moral-discernment/ We begin with the lower-right hand box:
Basic Convictions or “Ground of Meaning” Beliefs:
God and Human Nature
Justification and Sanctification (or Forgiveness and Discipleship)
Love and Justice
The Mission of the Church in the World
Now, longterm readers may recall that, following the late theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and his sometime writing parter, philosopher James M. Smith, I argued here that we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our basic convictions. Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. We usually know when and how we came to particular opinions, too. Convictions, however are different. They are not easily formed, we often do not remember forming them and they cannot easily changed. Further, convictions are so self-involving that we cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different. If an individual or community changes one or more convictions, then, in a real sense we are not talking about the same person or community.
Example: Differences between those who hold that lethal violence is sometimes justified (“non-pacifists”) and those who believe that it is never morally justified to take the lives of human persons (“pacifists”) are fundamental differences of basic conviction. As a former soldier who is now a pacifist (for 20+ years), I can testify that turning from a belief in “just wars” to gospel nonviolence is more like conversion from one religion to another (or from unbelief in any faith to faith in a particular religion) than it is like correcting an error in logic. And, in a sense, I am not the same person that I was before I laid down my rifle and refused to don my uniform.
Well, this first dimension of moral discernment doesn’t contain EVERY conviction, but those which my teacher, Glen Stassen, found were “critical variables.” Differences in these 7 Christian theological convictions (or analogues in other belief systems) lead to very large differences in moral discernment. (I will formulate this primarily for Christians, but try to indicate it’s adaptability to other belief systems.) The first 6 of these critical convictions are paired because they tend to affect each other in noticeable ways. (Yes, every conviction affects every other, but these are not idly paired together as we will see.)
God and Human Nature. How we understand God is a huge factor in our moral discernment. Obviously, if one is an athiest or an agnostic, that also affects one’s moral judgment greatly. But suppose one believes in God. How one understands the character of God (Primarily loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, or primarily judgmental, wrathful, capricious–or an impersonal Unmoved Mover disinterested in individual lives, etc.) is a major variable in one’s ethics–especially if one’s religion teaches that one should emulate God’s character.
Also important is how one understands the way that God works in the world. Someone who believes that God is removed from the world, that history and nature are closed systems will approach things very differently than someone who believes that (in one way or another) God is dynamically active in history and the created order. Example: One reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to keep his followers nonviolent in the face of police and mob violence was that so many shared his faith that they had “divine companionship in the struggle” (in his words), that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Imagine how different things would have been if most of those struggling in the Civil Rights movement had believed instead in a Deistic God that, watchmaker like, set the universe in motion, but left everything alone to impersonal forces.
Paired with our views of God are our views of human nature. The ethics of someone who holds to the behaviorist views of B. F. Skinner, for example, in which humans simply respond to stimuli will have a different ethic than one who holds that most of our behavior is genetically determined. Similarly, one can contrast those who think of people as mostly good with those who think of people as mostly evil or sinful. (My own view is that we are mixed. The best of us are deeply flawed, but the worst of us can rise above our baser tendencies.) And someone who believes that humans have freewill will approach things differently than someone who holds to any form of determinism.
Now, someone who holds to a harsh, judgmental view of God and a view that humans are mostly evil will be very pessimistic and distrusting of people and desire strict laws with harsh enforcement to keep people in line. (So might an athiest with a pessimistic view of the world and people.) A person who views God as mostly loving and humans as free agents who are mostly good will have a very different approach to things. And so it goes–along nearly infinite combinations.
Next time: we’ll discuss justification and sanctification.
Jonathan Marlowe reminds me that I had let the series on GLBT persons in the church slide for 18 long months. I truly apologize, Gentle Readers. I stopped blogging altogether because of depression for awhile and got sidetracked to other things. Also, I found that I had loaned out my copy of Hays’ book and could not give my reply to him entirely from memory. I hope to finish the biblical exegesis today and give final arguments this weekend.
In the meantime, I have decided to turn some of these series into separate pages of posts–reorganizing this blog some. And, for your early a.m. reading pleasure, let me remind you that over a year ago (June ’07) I participated in a “meme” known as “Out of the Closet: Theological Confessions.” The series was revealing and funny. You can find the entire list at Australian theologian Ben Myers’ great blog, Faith and Theology. My contribution is repeated below and if new people participate, send the link and I’ll keep track and let Ben know–because it was great fun and a break of the super-serious discussions.
As started here, there is now a theological confessions meme. I confess that I hesitated to play because, just as some of the others have phrased their “confessions” in ways that might make some folk angry, so my own contribution is likely to ruffle feathers–and I do that enough anyway. But, here goes anyway.
I confess that Dispensationalists in general, and “Christian Zionists” in particular, get on my LAST nerve! In the interests of fraternal correction and Middle East peacemaking, I should strive gently to show disciples of Hagee & Co. where they have misunderstood the Election of Israel in God’s economy. Instead, what I want to do is throw something at them–and I have to restrain myself with great exertion! [I wrote this before the current election year–not knowing that Sen. John McCain would seek and win Hagee’s endorsement for his presidential campaign, nor that they would later mutually repudiate each other. Everything I wrote is still true.]
I confess, despite the above, that I believe the “parting of the ways” (James D. G. Dunn’s phrase) between synagogue and church was the greatest tragedy in church history, dwarfing even the Constantinian warping of the church into the chaplain of imperial power. Any theology, and any ecclesiology, which fails to reckon thoroughly with God’s continued covenant loyalty to the Jewish people is deeply, deeply, flawed.
I confess, though I have learned many things from the late Hans Frei (1922-1988), I find him to have one of the most turgid writing styles in late modern theology. He constantly puts me to sleep.
I confess that before last year, I never heard of John Piper, Rick Warren, or Max Lucado. Now that I have, I don’t think I was missing anything.
I confess that if double predestination turns out to be true, and some people have been “elected to damnation” from eternity, I will be very, very angry with God.
I confess that I often prefer to read science fiction and detective novels when I should be reading biblical studies, ethics, and theology.
I confess I think my aesthetic sensitivities are underdeveloped (my eyes glaze over when someone mentions “theology and the arts”) and this is one of the reasons I find it difficult to grasp people like Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).
I confess that, after wrestling with the issues and my own homophobia for over a decade and a half, I stand with the revisionists on the church’s sexual theology, vis-a-vis sexual minorities. Although I am still strongly committed to an ethic of either celibacy or monogamy, I now(for several years, actually) support monogamous marriages for same-sex couples, too. Lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and I see no evidence that it is automatically granted to all gay or lesbian Christians and LESS evidence that sexual orientation can be “cured.” If this leads to charges of “depravity” charges of defection from biblical authority, and if it leads (as I have evidence it already has) to lost job opportunities in church-related posts–so be it. My gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers have to endure far more just to be given permission to live without hiding.
I confess to being extremely tired of hearing Christian theologians (usually male; often, but not always, evangelical) dismiss all feminist theology by flippantly referring to the post-Christian Mary Daly or the radical Catholic Rosemary Radford Reuther (and I have learned from the latter), without ever seriously wrestling with or even reading the likes of Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Sarah Coakely, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Phyllis Trible, Mercy Amba Odoyuye, Elsa Tamez, etc. No one of either gender is beyond critique, but the major currents of feminist (womanist, mujerista, etc.) theologies should be important dialogue partners to all serious theologians, today.
I confess that I find it very disheartening that so many theological bloggers, often with excellent theological educations, are so dismissive of, or even ignorant of, the thought of major liberation theologians–from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and from marginalized populations in Europe and North America.
I confess that although I know that correcting heresy is an important task of theology, I fear authoritarian heretic hunters far more than I fear liberals and heretics.
I confess that I have weak electronic skills. I never owned a computer until it was time to write my Ph.D. dissertation (making do on an electric typewriter before then) and used it only as a glorified wordprocessor until the dissertation was finished. I have never owned a cell phone, blackberry, video game, etc. I don’t know what a “podcast” is. But the new i-phone looks so cool, it may awaken the long-buried techno-geek within.
Many of the people I love and trust the most from my church are enamored of communal living on a subsistence farm. People I admire like Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan, shared this utopian dream of small farms as ideal church communities. I confess that this sounds like hell to me. I am a confirmed urbanite.[NOTE: This is not to disrespect either farmers or my friends with dreams of communal farming. I worked my grandparents’ farm in summers. I have great respect for farmers–I just don’t want to BE one. I do think that peak oil and global warming will spell the end of SUBURBS–and good riddance.]
I confess that despite my love for the liturgical richness of Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican worship, my abhorrence for authoritarian heirarchies would keep from ever joining those communions even if I did not feel the commitment I do toward Free Church ecclesiology.
I confess that although I agree with Barth in preferring Mozart to Bach, I love jazz, blues, and Southern rock even more. The Kingdom of God had better have some place to get funky.
I confess that one reason I am so very adamant in insisting on a BODILY resurrection (for both Christ and believers) is that I find it quite impossible to believe in disembodied souls. The Christian Hope is not for “spiritual afterlife” or “heaven when we die,” but for Resurrection, for the New/Renewed heavens and earth in the fullness of God’s Revolution. One reason I simply cannot get behind “spiritual resurrection” views (Bultmann’s or Willie Marxen’s, Crossan’s or Borg’s, etc.) is that I find that HARDER to believe than bodily resurrection (though the latter is also a difficult conviction to sustain in a world where “what’s dead stays that way”). If all I were offered was a spiritual resurrection, I couldn’t be a Christian at all.
I confess that I am a personalist and existentialist (but preferring Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus to Sartre or Heidegger or Tillich). If there is any major heresy to which I am constantly tempted, it is humanism. (I do try to resist.)
I confess I find Cornel West more helpful than John Milbank, Jeff Stout more helpful (at least at times) than Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Ricoeur more helpful than Hans Frei or George Lindbeck, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Marion Young, and Michael Walzer, more helpful than John Rawls on the one hand or Mary Ann Glendon (who became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under Bush–one of his better picks) or Jean Bethke Elshtain on the other.
I confess I hope the universalists are right and eventually all are saved and all is redeemed. (See here for the best defense by a theology blogger.) But I cannot bring myself to actually commit to such a view because my sense of impending JUDGMENT is so real. Thomas Jefferson once remarked (thinking of slavery–including his own inability to free his own slaves) that he trembled for his nation when he remembered that God is just. I feel that way not only about my nation, but about the Church, especially the evangelical churches of the U.S.–many of whom are still cheerleading war and torture, have rejected the Sermon on the Mount, could care less about the poor, neglect God’s good Creation, foster hatred for Muslims, etc. I think on these things and I hear God saying in the voice of Amos, “the Day of the Lord will be for you darkness and not light.”
I confess that I have heard Carl F. H. Henry preach twice and both times I was “underwhelmed.”
I confess to being clueless as to what the “Emerging Church” movement is about. Every time I read an explanation, it seems fuzzier than before. I fear that it is “rootless,” but I don’t want to pass judgment without understanding. But the “Friends of Emerging” take the prize for vague descriptions.
I confess I am sometimes envious of the success of other theologians when my own “career” has only resulted in a few small publications and the loss of teaching posts. This envy is sinful, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t exist.
I confess that I think far too many people read John Howard Yoder through the lenses provided by Stanley Hauerwas and I believe this to be a mistake. Hauerwas is important, but he differs with Yoder on many points and, at each of those points, I think Yoder was right and Hauerwas is wrong.
I confess that, despite my commitment to pacifism, I love martial arts movies and the James Bond films–despite their thorough participation in the “myth of redemptive violence.”
Well, this could go on forever, so I’ll stop now.