May 27, 2004
Rather die than kill

Mark Kleiman created quite a dust-up in the blogosphere with this post:

Am I the only person who couldn't care less about the opinions of a bunch of preachers about policy toward Iraq ? If I don't pay any attention to what Jerry Falwell thinks about same-sex marriage, why pay attention to what the National Council of Churches thinks about foreign policy?

As his updates indicate, this got a pretty negative reaction, most conspicuously from Allen Brill, who argued that these church's extensive experience with charitable work around the world qualified them to speak on foreign affairs.

I think Mark was being needlessly rude, but I also think I see the point he's driving at. In fact, I raised a very similar complaint about an antiwar sermon last year at All Saints:

For one thing, he lapsed into that frequent failing of political Christians, speaking outside his area of expertise. Talk soon moved away from the ideals of Christ towards practical ideas of how to deal with the current conflict, through international law and so on, that seem like a matter of policy on whose efficacy people with the same goals can disagree. They should not be confused with religious doctrine. (Leftist Christians are hardly the only guilty parties here; the Assemblies of God, for instance, opines in its doctrine that pornography isn't covered by the First Amendment.)

I don't think that the NCC confuses its letter with religious doctrine, since it points out that "faithful Christians of good will may disagree with one another when it comes to questions of national policy." But I can see why it's less than clear exactly what authority they're speaking from. It is, after all, called a "pastoral letter," which implies they're speaking as pastors and bishops, not as folks who've done a lot of work with the U.N. Rather like the priest speaking his opinions from the pulpit seemed like it was almost deliberately blurring his opinion with God's.

The other problem is the nature of the reasoning in the letter. In the interests of keeping it short, I suppose, they don't spell it out in great detail. But they seem to be following a kind of similar line of thinking as the priest mentioned above, in assuming that if you start with certain principles it will lead you inevitably to a certain course of action. And so, we travel from the principle that every person is a child of God to the assertion that a U.N. takeover of Iraq is the only way to "foster any chance of a lasting peace." I am sure that Mark and many others like him would also like to see a lasting peace in Iraq, but don't necessarily agree with the latter assertion -- because of the U.N.'s spotty record elsewhere, or because the U.S. might generate more anger by ducking out, or whatever. Why the NCC believes that this is the best method is really not stated, other than a kind of broad support of internationalism.

Look at it this way: Suppose I ask my pastor to recommend a good restaurant in town. I would not be appealing to his authority as a pastor, but as a guy who loves food and has lived in L.A. all his life. So his answer to me would not be from pastoral authority, and it would not demand any reference to Scripture. But when a group of pastors puts their policy advice in a letter mixed in with pastoral advice, it's no surprise that they seem to be speaking from religious authority all the way through.

This matters, I think, because it's not only irritating to political scientists like Mark, but it carries theological implications I'm not happy with. What is the goal of this policy advice? Ultimately, it appears to be figuring how the greatest number can survive and prosper. America, the letter says, has provoked hostility by occupying Iraq, so withdrawal isn't just good for Iraq but for America's self-preservation. It will leave everybody better off. The ultimate argument is basically utilitarian.

Compare that with Fr. Jake's commentary on Christian pacifism, especially this bit:

And there's the rub; the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ laid bare; we will die before we resort to violence. To accept that truth, we have to let go of our desperate drive to survive. Is survival what it's all about in God's kingdom? I think not; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Wrap your brain around that for a minute. What do you think would happen if the NCC wrote a pastoral letter advising our government leaders to "let go of their desperate drive to survive"? Mark Kleiman wouldn't like it, but I suspect he also wouldn't feel like his professional turf had been invaded. Because it would be obvious that they're aiming for completely different things.

As it is, though, it's not really very clear if the church body's goals are that different from the goals of any decent-minded person. Make the world as peaceful and happy as possible. Avoid war as much as possible. Gain the world's respect. All those are worthy goals, and few would disagree with them, but that's why Mark didn't really see it as falling under religious expertise. Do Christians have anything unique to bring here?

Posted by Camassia at May 27, 2004 04:04 PM | TrackBack

Thanks! Yes, that's what I meant to say. (Sorry if I seemed "needlessly rude.")

Having gone to a Quaker college, I have lots of respect for real pacifism, though it's not a doctrine I agree with. But I'm always puzzled when people who say in one breath that war is never justified start in the next breath to offer advice on how best to wage it.

Posted by: Mark Kleiman on May 27, 2004 08:22 PM

Do Christians have anything unique to bring here?

Behind many wars are tensions between various religions. Behind the war in Iraq is Islam squaring off against Christianity and Judaism. I think Christian leaders have a moral obligation to speak out loudly and often against Islam being the enemy. What the US (correctly or not identified by the world as primarily a Christian nation) is doing in Iraq is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Posted by: Jake on May 28, 2004 12:47 AM
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