Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Question of Violence

I've been seriously wrestling with the question of violence (read: abstractly) since last fall when I first came to seminary. When I was a college student, I read Gandhi and King and told myself that I was a pacifist. Truth be told, there was nothing at stake to prevent me from embracing this conviction and it seemed at the time like the only option for one seriously seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. Somewhere along the line, I didn't explicitly reject pacifism, but it became more complicated than simply affirming the principles of non-violence embraced in my youthful idealism. The question of pacifism came up afresh in an ethics class I took here at Princeton Seminary last fall and I found myself resistant to embracing pacifism like I had in the past. I was surprised by my resistance to pacifism given my history and also because I'm not exactly a proponent of just-war as I can't imagine many situations where war can ever be labeled "justified." And call me unreasonable, but I prefer to live in peace and don't exactly revel in the violence of American society that devours the most vulnerable among us. However, my rejection of pacifism last fall was more indebted to my ever progressing understanding of the nature of ethics from a Barthian view rather than any sort of excitement for "justified violence" (again, as if there is such a thing). In short, it seems like pacifism is simply another ethical principle that one can embrace and therefore the human agent can know in advance what to do in any given situation. This necessarily means that the human agent does not need to remain open to the command of God ever anew in the present to discern what action should be taken. Pacifism at its core means that I have my principle of peace and, therefore, I already know exactly what God is calling me to do in the present moment of decision; act non-violently. This creates a sort of creaturely autonomy in relation to human action that functionally negates the need for the command of God in the present when it comes to the question of force/violence. As such, my Barthian sympathies in this respect kept me from embracing pacifism full-stop and led me to say that while the burden of proof is always and forever upon the use of any type of force, I must remain open to the command of God in the present to act in a type of way that might defy certain principles of pacifism.

But more than any commitment to Barth or anyone else's specific conception of Christian ethics, I also questioned whether or not my specific situation of privilege would make pacifism all too easy to embrace. It seems a bit too convenient to declare pacifism as a white person of privilege. And there seems to be something a bit problematic about telling those who are being devoured by systematic structures of racial, ethnic, and class oppression that I directly and indirectly benefit from and support that they should be peaceful and not use force to fight against such structures. Where would I ever stand to justify such prescriptive norms? And just when you get comfortable, you find a wrench in it all when you encounter someone like Bonhoeffer who declares himself to be a pacifist in order to remain faithful to the radical call to discipleship within Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and then he proceeded to use force in an act of faith against the enslaving and crushing powers of his time. But he neither justified this action nor said he knew with absolute certainty that this was the right or the good. Instead, he simply says that he did this in faith in the hopes that this is what it meant for him to be a faithful disciple in the present. You can sense Bonhoeffer's deep insecurity in his decision even in the midst of his resoluteness to act forcefully.

These questions of violence, ethics, the command of God, white privilege, and discipleship came up again this semester as I read James Cone. While some may argue that Cone doesn't have true pacifists in mind, his condemnation of whites who refuse to use violence and their judgment of blacks who use it is incredibly powerful. I still haven't been able to come to any sort of conclusion regarding what to say by way of response to Cone's charges as I stand somewhere in between denying pacifism as a principle (for the reasons I list above), always hoping to seek the way of non-violence and wanting to remain open to God's command in the present at all times. In the midst of my confusion and wrestling, I read an article by Paul Lehmann sent to me by a friend a few weeks ago. Lehmann is attempting to respond to Cone's recent work back in 1975 on black theology in an article entitled "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology" (note: the title makes it seem as though Lehmann is using the conjunction to make a stark dichotomy between the two but he is not) and at the end, he responds to Cone's questions concerning the use of violence. I'm particularly interested in the last line referencing the shift from ethical justifications to "the apocalyptic sphere" and what Cone might say by way of response to the claim that the gospel moves the question of violence to the apocalyptic arena. It might be interesting to ask whether or not Bonhoeffer makes this shift himself to "the apocalyptic sphere" when he remains committed to the way of non-violence while simultaneously rejecting any justification for his forceful actions against the Third Reich carried out in the ever uncertainty of faith.

"In pressing the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?', Professor Cone has brought that question to a point from which it is possible to make a theological move which regrettably he does not make. The theological move is that the questions: 'Whose violence?' and 'Whose reconciliation?' lead directly to the recognition of the fundamental human reality of violence as man's radical inhumanity to man which only God's reconciliation can prevent and heal. The gospel is that people can be reconciled with one another only as they are reconciled to God; and when people are thus reconciled to God they give themselves in thought and word and deed to the empowerment of the poor, to the liberation of the oppressed, to the struggle against every dehumanizing dimension of human existence. Cone rightly declares that 'reconciliation means that people cannot be human ... unless the creatures of God are liberated from that which enslaves and is dehumanizing. In this same sentence, Cone writes that 'God cannot be God' unless the creature is liberated. But putting it this way involves Cone in am imprecision as regards the gospel which is analogous to the imprecision which Professor Moltmann expresses as regards violence and nonviolence. The gospel is that God refuses to be God without being reconciled to man and in this empowerment man is to be reconciled to his fellowman. Similarly, Moltmann, whom Cone quotes, rightly declares that 'the problem of violence and non-violence is an illusionary problem.' But one cannot say, as Moltmann then does, that 'there is only the question of the justified and unjustified use of force and the question of whether the means are proportionate to the ends.' It is because the gospel transposes the question of violence from the ethical to the apocalyptic sphere that it also deprives force of every justification, not least the one which illusorily seeks a proportionate relation of means to ends."

- Paul Lehmann, "Black Theology and 'Christian' Theology," 36-37


Kevin Davis said...

It seems a bit too convenient to declare pacifism as a white person of privilege. And there seems to be something a bit problematic about telling those who are being devoured by systematic structures of racial, ethnic, and class oppression that I directly and indirectly benefit from and support that they should be peaceful and not use force to fight against such structures.

That is precisely why I've never found pacifism compelling. In Dr. Brian Blount's (president of Union Presbyterian Seminary) commentary on Revelation, he uses a similar argument to make sense of the violence in John's vision.

Rod Lampard said...

Relevant reading Kait, especially given the growing awareness that North Korean militarism poses a serious threat to the stability of the global community.

Jasmine said...

I still am committed to pacifism, but I agree with you that I want to be aware of my white privilege in doing so. This quote of Cone in particular struck me:
"Even today the same kind of literalism is being used by white scholars to encourage blacks to be nonviolent, as if nonviolence were the only possible expression of Christian love... Jesus' exhortations to 'turn the other cheek' and 'go the second mile' do not mean that blacks should let whites walk all over them.... The post-Civil War black church... turned to the white Jesus who always speaks to blacks in terms of white interest and power. He tells blacks that love means turning the other cheek; that the only way to win political freedom is through nonviolence..."
(Black Theology of Liberation, 33-34, 40).

However, I think MLK is another voice that can be added to the conversation as a person of color who felt nonviolence should be the practice of Jesus-followers.

Kait Dugan said...

Kevin - I don't think that all pacifism stems from a position of privilege, but this has been a particular issue that I've encountered when taking classes on critical race theory, Cone, and liberation theology. But I would also want to argue that established systems and societies with power use force to secure their own power and place of privilege to the destruction of those who are crippled under their weight. So both peace and violence can be preached about and used to reinforce places of power and privilege and we must never assume our position is exempt from critique. I don't think you're saying that, but your comment reminded me that those with privilege use violence continually to secure their place of power while preaching nonviolence to the oppressed.

Rod -- Not even sure what to do with that situation. I'll leave that one to others!

Jasmine -- BTL is an amazing book even though I liked Black Theology and Black Power better mostly due to its style. I don't think that all pacifists are what Cone is critiquing here, but I do find it rather haunting when Cone critiques whites for loving MLK's style of nonviolence. I think, at the end of the day, Cone is unsympathetic with those who preach nonviolence and it costs them nothing. But when you read and witness the life of MLK, his nonviolence cost him his life. I'm currently reading a book by Cone on MLK and Malcolm X. I'll be interested to read more about what he says in relation to the white preference for MLK. Thanks for your comment!

Brad said...

Hi Kait,

I really appreciate this reflection. One comment to further the conversation, as an alternative way to look at things: Instead of one's identity as a white person of privilege being a *problem* for identifying as a pacifist, it might instead be precisely part of the motivation or impetus for doing so. That is, the recognition of the enormity of one's very real ability to coerce others in physically violent as well as less visible or obvious ways may lead directly to the confession that one will flatly refuse to kill, coerce, or otherwise harm others (to the extent that one can control). That's no solution to the very important issues you raise here, but it is at least a different way of framing the "privilege" question.

Andrew Esqueda said...

Hi Kait, I often struggle with the same issue of pacifism. I think that part of my problem with pacifism is that it's propogated in a vacuum. Ideally pacifism is nice. I have often called myself a practical pacifist, though I'm not sure that I even have a good definition for practical pacifism. However, practicing pacifism in Apartheid South Africa, or the Congo, or Myanmar is much easier said than done. At the same time, I do believe that Jesus advocates a posture of non-violence, and I do believe that the gospel transcends all contexts. So, this is my struggle: how do we as Christians advocate and embody non-violence in light of the imminent threat of violence to many of us and our families? An answer I am still searching for.

Kait Dugan said...

Brad -- I totally agree with you to a certain extent. As I said in response to Kevin's comment above, I think that either position of pacifism or a rejection of pacifism can be used as a means to secure and advance one's own place of power and privilege. Cone makes the comment that whites are always violent and are complicit in a system of violence since their place of power requires violence against blacks and other people of color. So I think you are onto to something valid and incredibly important to recognize. I think it becomes a question about why one is either rejecting or accepting violence as an acceptable form of Christian action in the world and how this may or may not be conveniently used to secure one's own social status.

Andrew - I know what you mean about practical pacifism, I think, since I have called myself a "functional pacifist" in the past given my issues with it. I think your questions are critical and I think they are important to keep struggle with. I think there is something to removing this question from the realm of right and wrong, good or bad, and instead asking what it means to follow Jesus in our particular contexts. I'm not sure if that distinction makes sense, but I think what I'm trying to say is that this question isn't about justifying our actions since I don't think that can ever be done either way, but trying to discern what might be the most faithful to both the Gospel and our neighbor.

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