Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Great Hypothetical

The terrifying scenario of an armed person breaking into your house and threatening the life of your family is often brought up in any discussion on the morality of taking another person's life. I find myself often referring to section on this idea from a book entitled Choosing Against War: A Christian View by the Mennonite theologian John D. Roth. This from pages 145-148.

It's going to be a bit of a pain to copy all of this but for the sake of simpler reference in the future, I'm going to post his writing below. By the way, I'm going off the assumption it's not plagiarism if you link to the book on Amazon. So here's the link.

I'm posting this because some facebook friends are having a discussion about this very topic and I thought this is an interesting view - certainly outside of mainstream thought in our culture. While I track with this author on a lot of things, I don't follow his logic throughout all of this. I do think he makes some great points, though. So read it and contemplate it. And consider that the way of Jesus 1) is completely countercultural and 2) means that a sacrificial death for our enemies is transformed through resurrection.

You may be thinking at this point that perhaps Christians should indeed be more cautious about embracing the symbols and rituals of patriotism, that perhaps it would be best if Christians looked to the church more than the nation as the primary focus of God's presence in the world, that perhaps followers of Christ should be hesitant about following the call of the nation to war. But all of these affirmations raise many other vexing questions.

For example, even if you are willing to renounce violence in self-defense, don't Christians still have the responsibility for the welfare and protection of their fellow human beings? Aren't there times when the quest for moral purity can actually become selfish, especially if it means that innocent people might suffer because of your convictions? Might there be circumstances in which the truly loving response would be to renounce your abstract principles, no matter how high-minded, so that the lives of real people could be saved? In the end, some people have argued, pacifism seems less heroic than egotistical - an evasion of social obligations in the interest of maintaining some Olympian standard of moral purity.

These are important questions, ones that Christian pacifists have not always taken as seriously as they should. No pacifist, least of all a Christian pacifist, should turn her or his back on human suffering in the face of violence. Indeed, as I will suggest in Chapter 6, Christian pacifists are called by their vision of Shalom to engage the fallen world actively and creatively, not to run from it. But in our hast to defend circumstances in which violence seems to be the only acceptable recourse, we can very easily rationalize our impulse to power and control in ways that are really closer to a Nitzschean than a Christian worldview.

Let us consider some of the questions that are frequently posed to Christian pacifists and, in spite of humility outlined in Chapter 4, offer a response and a counter-challenge in defense of Christ's way of peace.

What would you do if..."
Probably no question is put to Christian pacifists more frequently, or with more imaginative detail, than some variation of the classic query: "What would you do if someone was threatening to kill you wife and children and the only way to stop him was to shoot him - to use lethal violence?"

The energy behind the question usually comes from a strong suspicion that pacifists arrive at their convictions in the comfort of some secure setting and in the safe realm of idealistic abstractions. But if pacifists were actually put into dangerous circumstances in which they had a highly personal interest at stake, then their lofty principles would quickly evaporate into thin air and common sense would prevail. The details of the hypothetical question may vary, but the essential elements are always the same: unless you eventually are willing to kill, you will be morally responsible for the suffering - maybe even death - of innocent people.

Christian pacifists will undoubtedly answer this question in various ways. As I have reflected on the question in casual conversations on airplanes, in focused debates with colleagues, and in some discussions at home and at church, my response usually includes elements of the following.

A) I don't know how I would respond. The truth of the matters is that none of us can know with absolute certainty how we would react in the face of a sudden, dramatic threat to our own lives or the lives of those we love. But this honest confession of uncertainty simply underscores the importance of giving careful thought to our response in advance of the moment, and to preparing ourselves as best we can to do what is right rather than merely what our natural impulse might be.
Just as we teach teenagers that they should give careful thought to matters of sexual morality before they find themselves in the back seat of a car with their hormones racing, so too Christians ought to reflect carefully on questions of personal violence in anticipation of a moment of crisis. In the end, we don't know exactly how we will respond. But we do have a framework in the life and teachings of Christ for knowing how we should answer the question, and as Christians we should commit ourselves in advance to shaping our response around Christ's example.
B) The question's direct appeal to human nature - to our natural impulse to self-defense and the bonds of affection that connect us with our families - heightens the drama of the moral decision. But few Christians would regard appeals to human nature as an adequate foundation for discerning God's will in matters of ethical decision-making. Simply because our instincts are to kill the attacker does not in any way make that choice obviously Christian. Again, consider the example of sexual morality. It is possible that despite all proactive teachings and careful modeling our children will make wrong choices in the heat of sexual desire. But that possibility - understandable though it may be as a natural, human impulse - should not imply that God intended men and women to be sexually intimate apart from marriage.
After all, it is precisely the realities of human nature that make ethical discernment necessary in the first place. Certainly the impulse to use lethal violence is understandable; human nature would urge us to defend ourselves and our loved ones at all costs. But Christians are called to a higher standard of morality than simply conforming to our natural impulses.

C) The rhetorical question that begins "what would you do if..." is riddled with numerous hidden assumptions about unknown factors that make the question almost empty of meaning. In the way it is usually posed, the question imagines only two possible outcomes: either you kill the attacker or the attacker kills your loved ones. Yet in real life, the scenario actually could play itself out in many other variations that are almost never considered in the standard framing of the story.
If, for example, you had the right training and fast reflexes, perhaps you could disarm the attacker without killing him. If you were psychologically astute and sufficiently empathetic and gifted in speech, perhaps you could persuade the attacker to give up peacefully. If you had sufficient faith, perhaps God would intervene miraculously. If you shot and missed, perhaps the attacker would end up killing both you and your loved ones. If you shot and killed the attacker, perhaps you would be filled with so much remorse that you would renounce your faith, become an alcoholic, and live the rest of your life in misery. If your loved ones are Christian believers, then you know that they would enjoy eternity in heaven; by killing the attacker (who is presumably not a Christian) you would foreclose forever the possibility that this person would come to know Christ.
The point in laying out these many alternative scenarios is not to argue that any one is more likely to occur than another. But it does suggest that the hypothetical question so frequently posed to pacifists turns out to be far less straightforward than it initially may appear. In general, the question seems designed from the outset to direct the correct answer away from costly forms of discipleship toward a defense of our natural instincts.

D) In the end, I - like all Christian pacifists - am committed not to take the life of another human being, regardless of the consequences. If someone were to attack me or a loved one, I trust that God would give me the courage to find creative, non-lethal ways of resisting that attack. But in the end, I am willing to allow the attacker to kill me and the people I love rather than to shed another person's blood to defend my interests. As an undeserving recipient of God's gracious love, I am called to bear witness to that same love in everything I do, trusting in the power of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life.

Aren't Christians pacifists socially irresponsible?
Some people have argued that pacifists have abandoned all sense of social responsibility. By abstaining from the messy compromises of violence and the rough-and-tumble realities of national defense, Christian pacifists are simply conceding power to those who are truly immoral, or at least to those who care only about advancing their own self-interests. To do this - to allow evil to fill the vacuum of power left by the pacifist - is socially irresponsible.

The charges is a serious one and worthy of closer reflection. The rejection of pacifism on the grounds of social responsibility generally assumes that a responsible action will always keep open the option of choosing violence. On closer inspection, however, it would seem that both of these assumptions are flawed.

In the first place, the argument for social responsibility is deceptive in that it suggests from the outset that acting 'responsibly', that is using violence to defend the innocent, will inevitably resolve the problem, whereas a commitment to nonviolence will inevitably lead to greater suffering. In some instances this logic may indeed be true. It is possible that a pacifist response to violence could result in the death of innocent people.

But Christian pacifism does not claim to be a political strategy offering any guarantees about the outcome of a given encounter. Its primary goal is not effectiveness in terms of a rationally calculated outcome, but rather faithfulness to the witness of Christ and God's restoration of Shalom.

That said, however, the death of innocent people is by no means an inevitable or self-evident outcome of nonviolent action. Certainly the examples in recent history of the solidarity movement in Poland, the so-called Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (1989), People Power in the Philippines (1986) or the largely nonviolent resistance to communism in East Germany and the other eastern bloc countries, all of which offer evidence that pacifism in those circumstances - even in the face of grave injustice and powerful military threats - was actually a more socially responsible approach to political transformation than the violent impulses of the reactionary or the revolutionary.

Second, the implication that the truly responsible option in social ethics is inherently clear simply does not square with the reality. All people, and perhaps especially Christians, have a deep sense of responsibility to fulfill their various duties as parents, workers, citizens, and believers. But the exact nature of these responsibilities is often shaped by the context and circumstances within which they emerge. Responsibilities are never crystal clear or self-evident. And precisely because we have multiple responsibilities (to our children, our bosses, our communities, our churches, etc.), we are constantly faced with the challenge of balancing and choosing priorities among the competing demands these obligations place on our time, money and energy.

Any parent will immediately recognize the tension involved when our responsibility for providing for our families conflicts with our responsibility for spending time with our children, or our responsibility for nurturing our marriage relationship, or for being actively involved in civic affairs, or for supporting the work of the church. These struggles between competing obligations are a given in modern life. Every day we are forced to make difficult choices - ideally in accordance with our principles and convictions - about the meaning and nature of our responsibilities. So we ask ourselves such questions as: responsible to whom (my family? the state? the world? God?), and responsible for what (to ensure security? to make money? to preserve life? to be faithful to the teachings of Christ?)?

Our political or social responsibilities to the country are no different. Here, just as in many other areas of life, we choose among alternative possibilities in ways that reflect our deepest commitments. If one begins with a clear commitment to Shalom and a conviction that ultimately God is the guarantor of our security, then nonviolence may actually be the most responsible course of action.

In any event, the apparent dilemmas of social responsibility are no different for us than for Jesus himself. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus faced powerful forces within the Jewish community that tried to push him into a quite specific understanding of his responsibilities as a Jews. The Zealots, for example, had a clear vision of a restored Israel based on a military insurrection and their political liberation from the Roman oppressors. The Pharisees were deeply offended that Jesus did not adopt a responsible attitude towards a strict observance of the Law. The Sadduccees found his agitation among lower class Jews socially irresponsible in light of the conservative order they were trying to preserve. And the Essenes understood the only responsible option to be a retreat from the whole scene into the monastic purity of the desert.

Like Jesus, Christians will inevitable face competing definitions of social responsibility. And, like Jesus, the Christian pacifist's choice of an upside-down approach to security, one based on the vulnerable power of love, will likely offend some and leave others deeply disappointed.

Yet in the end, Jesus refused to allow his own sense of mission and purpose to be defined by conventional understandings of what was socially responsible. His pursuit of a higher calling and purpose, always in service to Shalom, disrupted standard assumptions and challenged those who followed him to consider a new understanding of social responsibility as well.


Joe said...

Like my old police academy instructor used to say, "Hey, we issue you three magazines so you can take out 3 bad guys." (Thats 17 bullets per bad guy, he he he) I will never agree with you on this specific topic, but I just listened to your Easter sermon, and it rocked! Good job

Donnie Miller said...

Thanks, Kumah.
The reason I was so pumped after that Easter sermon and wrote about it on my blog was because even before getting up to preach I was feeling really discouraged and tired, wondering "what do I have to offer these people." Then the Holy Spirit moved and it was a thrill to be used that way and gave me a shot of encouragement that I'm still riding.

You really should listen to all the sermons in that series, my 2nd one and the other two from the other two pastors. Ben Stears, whom I first met because of your blog, had the congregation in tears on Sunday. I'll post that sermon tomorrow.

And I'd love to hear your first sermon. You don't have an audio copy do you? Do you still prefer getting shot at to preaching in front of people?