"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Pacifism

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It has been a while since I had a serious thought about the topic of pacificism. As I was preparing for a sermon on money (The Money Trap) I got caught up in re-reading Richard Hay’s comments on violence in Moral Vision of the New Testament. This will be needful of a bit more academic analysis, but some initial thoughts.

Hays does a good job pulling moral questions through the text of the New Testament, and even when you disagree with him his analysis forces good thought on the topic. His treatment of the question of a Christian’s stance on the military garners a similar reaction from me…but, it is apparent that Hays’ personal feelings on the question enter in.

In other parts of the book he engages the text and admits the places where the text is silent. In the section on violence, he does the same thing but then goes on to fill in that silence, in some cases with very acid rhetoric. The one thing that strikes me about Hays and violence, is that you are left with no doubt as to his personal thoughts on the question. In so doing, I believe he does some violence to the text.

For example, he talks about the healing of the Centurian’s servant (Luke 7:1-10), the Centurian who witnesses Christ’s death (Mark 15:29), and the discussion between Jesus and the soldiers (Luke 3:14). These snips of the Gospel text do not suggest to me that Christ had a hostile attitude towards soldiers, anymore than tax collectors. One certainly does not hear the venom used for the pharisees…you brood of vipers. Now, I hesitate to read approval into a lack of condemnation, but the text is neutral on the question of the soldiers at worst. Although he admits at one point that the “New Testament writers did not see participation in the army as sinful a priori, nor was the question of military service a question being debated in their communities” (335) he goes on to comment that “…the place of the soldier within the church can only be seen as anomalous.” (337)

Indeed, the only way he can cut the neutrality of those texts over to his negative view is to comment that no where do the positive stories about soldiers who become believers actually depict them fighting in God’s service (340). He does go on to mention that the same is not done for other converts such as tax collectors and prostitutes, but misses the key point that Jesus is making – it is not the job that defines a person’s godliness, but rather the inner musings of their heart. When he later tells the tax collectors to collect only their due, is he endorsing the role of tax collector? Perhaps Jesus is saying that one can be a godly tax collector, if one operates with Christ at the centre. Indeed, the tax collector is an interesting image to play off against the soldier, as both were agents of oppression by Empire – one physical, one economic. What it leaves me with is a strong sense of caution at inferring Christ’s meaning behind things that Christ never said.

As he moves into the argument Hays asserts that history teaches that violence simply begets violence. I’m not so sure, as that reads far more like a slogan than a thoughtful argument. I might counter argue that history teaches that violence sometimes ends violence (not the nicest argument, but as supportable by that same history).

In the conclusion (343) Hays drops an offhand comment that strikes me as simple moralizing (even if it contains some truth): “…and to establishment Christianity that continues to play chaplain to the military-industrial complex, citing just war theory and advocating the defense of a particular nation as though that were somehow a Christian value.”

I think where he goes off the rails is by allowing his personal bias to cloud otherwise good textual analysis. It would be much more compelling for him to dwell in the ambiguity of the text and explore what possibilities might arise; rather than ending with a definite pronouncement that is based on his own biased read of history and the church’s lack of faith (indeed, the church is faithless by nature, so I’m not sure what that might prove or disprove. Should we expect a human institution to model Christ to us?)

Perhaps what is most troubling is the need to provide an answer. Contrast this with John Stackhouse Jr’s words in Making the Best of It. He admits he does not have the answer on violence, but asks that Yoder and Hauerwas provide some space to at least acknowledge there are large areas of uncertainty around the scriptural witness on the question of violence and military service. Given the central place occupied by uncertainty in those seeking faith and understanding, the stance that welcomes some uncertainty and maintains the dialogue is certainly preferred to the one that provides concrete response and ends the talking.

My own witness leads me into part of that discussion. I am uncertain how God gave me a vocational call into the profession of arms – a strong and certain call – if that profession (as Hays, Yoder et al maintain) is contrary to the faith of Christ? I can’t get around that without a thought like – God calls us into sin in order to save us, which is so contrary to the nature of God that I would think it heretical.

I’m also not certain how you can make such strong assertions without condemning those who believe they serve God while in the military. Is a soldier as worthy of salvation as a prostitute or a tax collector? Jesus certainly seemed to think so.

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Written by sameo416

September 15, 2011 at 1:34 am

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