Monday, September 27, 2010

An Incarnational Response to Pacifism

I had a physics teacher in high school who used to call people out by saying "I won't say any names, but his initials are Alex Marshall."  I actually enjoyed that class, more than I can say for most other classes in high school and definitely more than I can say for any other science course I have ever taken (there is a reason I'm in a philosophical field).  Well all that to say, I have a roommate, and I won't say any names but his initials are… just kidding!  If you know my roommates, this won't take long to figure out.  So we all genuinely get along, but also have some drastic differences in opinion on a couple of issues, one being the issue of pacificism, or more generally a Christian response to culture.  My roommate's conception of pacificism is a bit more radical than most I have encountered before- typically I think of pacificism as merely being opposition to warfare, maybe more broadly to physical violence.  However, I think my roommate has a consistent argument when he claims that opposing violence will lead us to have to disengage from many aspects of our culture (especially the government) which condone or participate in violence.  He also associates violence with non-physical actions- any sort of coercion can be violent, including verbal coercion or attempts at such.

Now, my most basic opposition to pacificism is that I think it does not do justice to the complexity of life.  The pacifist wants to argue that black-and-white distinctions between moral and immoral violence cannot be maintained.  I'm fine with that.  I'm fine, even supportive, of the idea that we can critique the typical oppressor-oppressed schema for understanding and justifying violence as too simple and not taking into account the real complexities of human nature.  But we can't then turn right around and make the same move by making a black-and-white schema in which all violence is immoral and non-violence not.  The point of the post-modern deconstruction of oppressor-oppressed systems is not to replace the system with another equally over-simplified description of reality (or at least, it shouldn't be).  If we are going to acknowledge the complexity of life, we have to acknowledge it on both sides of the issue, both the violent and the non-violent as well as the oppressor and the oppressed.

Tonight, however, while sitting in a meeting with said roommate listening to a speaker a more directly theological argument occurred to me.  I think the incarnation itself provides reasons for questioning pacifism (directly challenging the idea that the incarnation provides justification for pacifism here).  Two arguments derived from the incarnation that make pacifism seem untenable to me:
  1. The incarnation is historically conditioned.  By this we mean Christ came to a particular time and place within a particular culture and that he actively engaged all levels of that culture.  If we are to follow the example of Christ it would seem that we are required, therefore, to engage our particular culture in our particular time at all levels of our culture.  This means being actively involved in even the areas of our culture that would normally stand in direct opposition to many of our views.  If pacifism requires that we disengage from the political sphere because the government supports violence, then I would argue pacifism prevents us from being able to follow the example of Christ and be "incarnational" ourselves.
  2. The way in which Christ engages the culture he is part of is anything but peaceful.  His speech and arguments are extremely confrontational- he definitely rocks the boat.  On one occasion that we have record of he even resorts to physical "violence," overturning the tables in the temple and driving out money changers there using a whip.  Eventually this leads to his being crucified.  I have argued elsewhere that at least in Matthew's account (and I think the case could probably be made in other gospels, I have just only taken the time to make it in regard to Matthew) the crucifixion and resurrection narrative contains the idea of a military victory over his enemies (the religious leaders he has been opposing).  That Jesus does not engage in direct military violence against the Roman authority does not mean that his confrontation of his society is not in some sense violent towards those he does oppose (which, by the way, seems consistent with the Old Testament statements about God's actions towards his enemies and the prophecies of the book of Revelation and even some statements of Paul).  Essentially, I am arguing that Jesus seems to engage in an ethic with two sides to it- one side being the non-retaliatory side which pacifism jumps on, the second being the directly confrontational side in which he interacts with his culture on all levels and challenges it deeply as he does so.  Only following one side of this ethic requires us to fall short of the call the incarnation places on us.  It also goes back to the above point about painting too simple a picture of life.

Now I say all these things with some major caveats.  It is extremely difficult to enter into a conversation like this without sounding as though I support physical violence as a normal mode of operation for Christians.  I certainly do not.  Its nearly impossible to enter in a conversation like this without political overtones coming into play.  So for the record, I have no intention of condoning the war the United States is currently engaged in with these comments.  This is not about particulars, its about the general idea of violence vs. non-violence.  What I want to argue is that this issue, like many others, is not one that can be laid out in black-and-white absolutes.  We are called to engage our culture in a redemptive, and therefore often confrontational, way.  What exactly that looks like in every instance it is impossible to know.  Therefore, it is impossible to make exacting claims about what is or is not acceptable as part of that process.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Where I Am Now, Part 1

So I'm beginning to get moved in and settled in New Haven. The city is quite lovely. Semester at Yale is starting to take shape. Meeting new people, learning a few of their names…

On the more heavy side, doing a decent amount of reflecting on where I am and what I'm doing here. This is partly prompted by the other ever looming question- what tradition are you from. To which, it turns out, I do not have a good answer (and have taken on the label one of my profs gave himself- a walking ecumenical train wreck), instead I have a bit of a story. Which I have been obliged to tell far too many times the last few weeks and the retelling has forced me to think through the story and try to make a little sense of it.

So basically, the story runs like this: I grew up in a non-denominational but essentially Baptist church in Memphis, TN. When I went to college I started to question some of the assumptions of that background and began exploring the Anglican tradition. Then got hired to work as the Youth Director for a Methodist church for a year, then moved to Yale. Now back to exploring Anglicanism and doing an Anglican Studies program, but certainly not formally part of any Anglican/Episcopal Church.

But of course, that is a really, really boring, watered down, insufficient story. And given my record of writing very long blog posts, that ends this post far, far too quickly. So now to try and give some shape to "the rest of the story…"

The environment that I grew up in was very much evangelical. I would not say Fundamentalist. I think and hope that they would be just as appalled as I am by Terry Jones threatening to burn the Koran, for instance. But they were certainly conservative by anyone more moderate than Pat Robertson's standards. And by that I mean that the Bible was held as entirely authoritative for the Church. They acknowledged that there were different interpretations. In fact I remember many lively discussions in our youth group about differing views on Calvinist and Arminian theology or the ever-controversial issue of evolution and Genesis 1. The Church didn't try to dictate views, at least when I was there, something for which I am very glad. But the general rule that they lived by was that the starting point for every endeavor (not just theological ones, either) had to be scripture. That was the authority. Which put us more or less in line with the majority of the Southern Baptist Churches in our area.

Growing up there were always two things about that broader "Southern Baptist Culture" in which we might be included that intrigued and perhaps bothered me. One was the issue of women in ministry. I knew the consensus in the culture I was a part of was opposed to women pastors. I never understood why. The other issue was apologetics- defending my faith against all the "attacks" from "out there," especially the ones that claimed the Bible was not true or was not authoritative.

When I went to college my interest in those two issues led me to realize some very significant problems existed for this nice little world of thought I had grown up in. The first was that the "liberal" position of allowing women pastors was just as scripturally defensible as the Southern Baptist view. Enough said, I more or less switched camps over night. Which doesn't really seem significant, but it was in terms of opening me up to exploring ideas and traditions outside of my own. The second was that there are a whole host of problems for the idea of holding scripture as an absolute authority in the way my background did. The most pressing one in my mind was the issue of canon. The arguments I had heard growing up for the Protestant canon being the "original" canon were completely dismantled by my (Protestant) professors who openly and honestly admitted that the question of defining the canon was an open one until Luther at which time we didn't get a single unified definition but three. With that came the realization that appealing to scripture is essentially appealing to tradition, that evil, manipulative, Catholic force that I was raised to disregard. Another pressing problem for me was interpretation- it can't be done while maintaining that you are still holding scripture alone as your basis of authority. This is further evidenced by the vast differences in interpretations of scripture that exist among various Protestant (and broader Christian) traditions.

Ultimately these realizations forced me to dethrone scripture as it were and instead seek a new basic source of authority. At first glance it might seem as though tradition would be a great alternative. Except that many of the same difficulties emerge here. We have conflicting traditions on a good many issues. And we have conflicting interpretations of those issues. Witness the divide of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions- both claiming a heritage that goes right back to the Apostles and both vastly different on many issues. So tradition alone will not work either as a basis of authority.

Here is where Karl Barth gives me the first steps towards a solution. Ultimately, I think that the authority has to be in God himself. The problem that arises, however, is that I don't have a direct, on-demand line to God, and I don't think anyone does (with the possible exception of Moses, he seems to have God's ear whenever he wants it). That is not to say we have not experienced God, that God does not speak to us. I certainly believe God does. But I also think that God does so as God wishes, not necessarily as we wish (though certainly sometimes they coincide). Any attempt to say that God is always, guaranteed to speak a certain way is, I believe, automatically invalid.

So we are left with our direct experiences of God, a scripture that reflects the direct experience of God by others, and a tradition that attempts to understand all of this. And yet we still have no consistent, universally accepted theology. Except, I think, we do. In my studies of early Christianity it seems to me that despite all the diversity and all the arguing, a synthesis was reached and something was agreed upon. And that formed the basic statement of Orthodoxy that gets found in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed (but its important to note is not original to those creeds, all these ideas exist much earlier). For me right now, that I think is enough. We can have disagreements beyond the essentials that are laid out there, but so long as we hold to the trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the universal familial relationship of the Church existing among all others who hold to that basic Orthodoxy then I think the disagreements in interpreting scriptures and traditions are ok. And I'll talk more about how I think that synthesis plays out in the Church in another post.

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