April 08, 2010

Blogging Nonviolence: The Authority of Scripture

I discovered this series, "Jesus and Nonviolence," awhile ago, and I've been anxious to call attention to it ever since. Last summer, blogger and pastor Nick Loyd published a lengthy, in-depth examination of the idea of Christian nonviolence in 14 parts (with occasional input from some special guest bloggers). However, I don't just want to link to his posts en masse and say, "Go. Read." I want to have my own conversation about them, even if it's just with myself.

My idea is to use some of his posts as a starting point for my thoughts on the subject, which I too will spread across multiple posts. However, I will begin today with my own introduction to the topic instead of a link (I would also refer you to the lengthy excerpts from important books quoted in the two posts preceding this one, and to my brief history of nonviolence in the two posts entitled "Good Company" from October 2006, accessible from the archives in the sidebar).

The Problem

I would argue that it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to mount or maintain a genuinely solid case for total nonviolence without somehow turning to religious doctrine for support. This ought to be extremely convenient for me, as I hope to convince fellow Christians of the moral importance of pacifism, and for them, religious doctrine is the highest possible authority (often the only authority). Strangely, though, there is a (not entirely unjustified) perception among certain nonbelievers that religion is actually the leading instigator of human violence, historically.

Many Christians seem determined to do everything they can to strengthen this perception. In fact, a large number of American Christians, both as individuals and as churches, are quite outspoken in their support of the military (by which I mean the institution, not the individual soldiers), of warfare, of capital punishment, of torture, of the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of doing violence to anyone who threatens them or their loved ones; in short, of almost every possible form of deadly violence that one human being can commit against another (with the notable exception of abortion, their one claim to the label "pro-life").

In short, a lot of Christians would have no trouble describing themselves as "pro-violence" (to select a convenient label that encompasses any or all of the above issues), perhaps in a qualified way, but usually not. In doing this, they seem to sense no conflict with also being "pro-life," or with scripture. Why might this be the case?

Arguing for Violence

All of the forms of violence I've mentioned are very different issues from one another, and there are many strong arguments to be found on both sides. In my experience, major pro-violence arguments tend to fall into three very general, overlapping categories: pragmatism, precedent, and morality.

Arguments from pragmatism generally claim that individuals and nations must respond to violence with violence. In other words, if you try to kill me, I should try to kill you first so that I don't wind up dead. This seems rather obvious (hence, pragmatic). The primary idea is one of self-preservation, and the appeal is to logos.

Arguments from precedent rely on two things: tradition and analogy. The tradition argument relies on a history of shared values that have developed into a worldview. It can refer to nationalism, but needn't. In America, for instance, one might treat scripture and the writings of the Founding Fathers as interchangeable authorities, as they are founded on identical principles. According to this tradition, America is a Christian Nation, and is righteous and justified in acting in its own interests. That which is best for the nation, is right, and sometimes the application of violence is best for the nation.

The analogy argument imagines a scenario in which violence clearly seems to be the only option that will lead to a desirable outcome. World War II is probably the most frequently-cited source of pro-violence argument by analogy of the past 50 years. Others might include the "ticking-bomb" torture scenario. Both types of argument from precedent appeal primarily to pathos.

Finally, arguments from morality (which rely on an appeal to authority, and are thus the most likely to be supported by scripture) claim that there are times when it is a sin not to employ violence (i.e., in protecting the weak, often broadly but flexibly defined, i.e., all American civilians, no foreign civilians). One might point to the many instances in the Old Testament when God orders the Israelites to make war, even to carry out genocide, in His name, clearly showing that violence can be a moral imperative. This sort of argument represents an appeal to ethos.

Now, as I said, there is often a great deal of overlap between these different sorts of argument in actual practice. I have mentioned the example of World War II. One might easily argue that America had a moral obligation to oppose the evils of Nazism, was righteous to do so as a Christian nation, and was forced to defend itself against Imperial Japan. History shows that, by employing violence, the United States was able to stop the Holocaust and Japanese expansion and aggression. Thus, violence was the best course of action for the nation; it was morally right; it was pragmatically necessary; and it worked. For most Christians, these points are indisputable. Case closed, right? Well, not quite.

The Ultimate Authority

I've attempted to briefly outline the discussion by presenting some of the strongest and most common pro-violence arguments. If I cannot somehow answer them, then I am just wasting your time. I do not intend to address them fully yet. I am merely attempting to outline the parameters of the discussion. I would like to begin by suggesting that all of these arguments, as powerful as they are, can theoretically be overruled by scripture.

All of the arguments I have mentioned are important, but I think I can safely assume that for Christians they are only valid if they are not ultimately contradicted by the Bible. My case for Christian nonviolence must be won or lost in its pages alone. If we take the Bible message as both absolutely true and internally consistent, then its position (once you have worked out what that is) is the definitive one regardless of other considerations.

Fortunately, unlike some topics (I'm looking at you homosexuality), the Bible has a lot to say about violence. The difficulty comes in sifting through it all, seeing how (if?) it fits together, and applying it to our lives today. And that's where we'll pick things up next time.

Posted by Jared at April 8, 2010 04:30 PM | TrackBack