January 18, 2005
The Lamb's war

In the last chapter of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder moves beyond Jesus and Paul and on to the Book of Revelation. He doesn't get entangled in arguments about how literally to take it as a prediction of the future; rather, he looks at what it says about the meaning of history.

When Yoder first wrote the book in the early 1970s, the meaning and direction of history was a major cultural preoccupation. Lots of grand theories about it and how to affect it were in play. Yoder says Revelation supports the idea that history has a meaning and direction, and thus rejects the static "order of creation" preferred by medieval Christianity (and implicitly, the cyclical and atemporal views of time in some non-Christian religions). However, he also rejects the modern humanist view that historical progress is made and directed by progressively more enlightened human beings. In fact, he believes that efforts to control and direct society are generally doomed, because it is simply too complex and unpredictable a system. (To support this, he quotes Niebuhr of all people.)

So what the Bible and, in particular, Revelation tell Christians is that history will work out all right; God will see to that. Following Christ faithfully may, at times, seem impractical and to serve no good purpose, but ultimately that is the only method we have of being on the "right side of history."

The passage of this chapter that my brain has been chewing on most is this:

This is significantly different from that kind of "pacifism" which would say it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one's will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the diginity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one's legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.

I've been wondering what, in practice, it means to refrain from forcing your will on another. In honor of MLK Day, our pastor on Sunday passed out copies of the "Ten Commandments" that King gave to all participants in his movement. Most of them you can probably guess, but what caught my attention was No. 3: "Remember that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory."

When I was learning about King's movement growing up, I always heard it in the usual terms of political chess: the movement wanted this, they used such-and-such strategy, and they won this and lost that. Could this be a distorted understanding of what was going on? Lee links to an article saying that it is:

The first issue that gets lost is that King sought "reconciliation" with his adversaries and an improvement of life for everyone. This is the end goal and if victory is all that's wanted then that's not Kingian nonviolence. Reconciliation is also probably the most difficult aspect of the Kingian philosophy for activists to embrace. In his book "Stride Toward Freedom" King said that the nonviolent methods are "not an end in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness."

There is almost always a misunderstanding of how to define the adversaries in nonviolent social change. Dr. King said it is not a "battle" against individuals who commit evil acts but against the evil itself. Regarding the Montgomery struggles, he said, "The tension is between justice and injustice, and not white persons who may be unjust." King said further that "the nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or engaging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in-kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate."

Easy to say, but so, so hard to do. The current struggle over gay marriage is a case in point. And it still leaves me wondering how Christians negotiate these things, especially when you're convinced that Jesus gave an absolute and unequivocal command to do X, and the other party thinks the opposite.

I've been thinking about this since before the election, actually, since that was such a bitterly divisive event for many Christians. There was an interesting but, alas, no longer extant discussion of this at the now-dead Among the Ruins blog. (I note, by the way, that ATR regular Andy now has his own blog, although he hasn't exactly swung into furious posting action yet.) Keith remarked that when people find out he's a Republican they often take it as a blot on his moral character -- the idea of reasonable people disagreeing apparently doesn't apply to this realm. Andy pondered the fact that he and Keith are nearly identical theologically and yet are on opposite sides of the political divide. Does that leave any hope for a unified Christian politics? If not, what does "the politics of Jesus" really mean?

I've been thinking about this also as I've been hanging with the Mennonites. Everyone, not surprisingly, asks me how I came to visit their relatively obscure denomination. I sometimes mention Hugo, but he's more the reason for my going to that particular church, not for the denomination in general. The ultimate reason, I try rather confusingly to explain, is that I was lured into Anabaptist theology by someone who isn't an Anabaptist.

It's been a continuing puzzle to me and to others who know Telford exactly why he's an evangelical Pentecostal. He has no charismatic gifts of his own, and his theology is far more Anabaptist than it is American evangelical. When I try to describe him to people, I say he's an evangelical, but he's a pacifist, communitarian, non-creationist, non-biblical-literalist, semi-feminist, pro-separation-of-church-and-state evangelical. You know, that kind.

More and more, though, I think that the basic answer is that he's an evangelical because he's more politically and culturally compatible with them. (Or at least, with the Southern California version -- I have a hard time imagining him being happy in some rural Southern Baptist church.) The academic/artist/left-wing activist mix that makes PMC feel so much like home to me (hey, I'm from Marin County) no doubt alienates him.

It's become popular, in our age of political vitriol, to see the "two Americas" as acting from two vastly different and incompatible worldviews. George Lakoff's scheme of the liberal and conservative "frames" is probably the best known, and there's a lot of truth to it. But we also have cases like Keith and Andy, and Telford and the Mennonites (ooh, band name!) where the frames are actually very similar when it comes to things like God, morality, and human nature. And yet they wind up in different political parties, and (more damaging for the Church) different denominations. What's going on?

Back at the now-vaporized ATR discussion, I suggested that the difference is in epistemology. That is, people have different views of what the world out there is actually like, and so have very different ideas of how to act in it. Telford, for instance, lamented to me before the election that one of his colleagues -- a "wonderful, compassionate Christian" in his words -- was convinced that the U.S. is turning into Nazi Germany (or maybe had already turned into it, I don't quite remember). This led to some arguments with Telford, not because he thinks that turning into Nazi Germany is a good thing, but because he simply doesn't think it's happening.

I suggested that there are two factors that lead to this sort of thing, which interest me both as an amateur theologian and as a professional journalist. One is the sources people trust. In our world, only a tiny portion of which we can know from direct experience, we have to develop trusted sources in order to know anything about political events. So even people who like to bash "the media" back up their assertions by pointing to other media that they deem more reliable. (Telford mentioned that his colleague likes Indymedia, which explains a lot.)

Why do we trust some sources and not others? I've actually had my own arguments with Telford about that, not regarding politics but regarding religion. He mentioned in his interview with the Internet Monk that he thinks modern epistemology erred in its presumption that people aren't really trustworthy, so you have to go on hard, scientifically provable evidence. But he's never really responded when I've pressed him on how you know whom to trust, given that we have a bunch of mutually exclusive claimants on the nature of God. I suspect that a lot of it -- probably more than we'd like to admit -- has to do with that sort of tribal affiliation that I feel with the Mennonites, and Telford feels with evangelicals.

The other factor I mentioned is that even when we agree on basic facts, we can fundamentally differ on what stories we weave those facts into. Because stories, not bare facts, are our essential way of knowing about the world. So I can imagine that the colleague took a number of facts that are not in dispute -- the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay detentions, and so on -- and knitted them into a narrative of the U.S. turning into a fascist imperial power, while Telford would view them as part of a well-meaning, if at times incompetent and overzealous, effort by the administration to defend us from a grave terrorist threat.

The thing that always fascinated me about Telford's worldview is that through his studies he became convinced of Anabaptist theology, with all its radical implications, while at the same time he's hung on to his moderate Republican epistemology. So basically, he never changed his view that government interference in the economy tends to be counterproductive, or that the U.S. tries to stick to its original ideals most of the time, or that sometimes wars prevent further violence from occurring. The important thing about this to me is not whether he's right, but the fact that he does not see them as conflicting. He has, in a purer fashion than anyone else I know, followed Yoder in splitting his beliefs about God's will from his understanding about what will work.

This was especially important when I met him because I was, two years ago, having a sort of political-epistemological crisis of my own. After 9/11, I was unlike a lot of my friends and family on the left in that I really believed in the Islamist threat. I didn't buy the idea that they were essentially annoyed at America for the same reasons that American liberals are annoyed at it, and so making the country more liberal would neutralize the threat. I'm sure that U.S. shenannigans in the Middle East haven't helped matters any, but basically I think it's Western culture that they despise.

Understanding the Christian view of pacifism and love of neighbor has helped me grapple with this a lot better than the humanist pacifism that I was more familiar with. But I've also found that in some sense my political view was also a view of myself. I had to face my own deep attraction to religious fanaticism and my discontent with modern liberal culture, which is so against the way I was brought up that I didn't really admit it even to myself before. I feared the enemy not because he's Other but because I was afraid that he's actually a lot like me.

I wonder how many other people's political perspectives are a similar hall of mirrors. The biologist in me thinks that the size and complexity of today's world simply stretches our poor little brains beyond their capacity, because after all we evolved for little hunter-gatherer bands that only sporadically came in contact with strangers. We try to apply our first-hand experience and our archetypal story lines to the whole planet, and neither is ever adequate. I guess I can only hope that God has it all under control, because we sure don't.

Posted by Camassia at January 18, 2005 02:20 PM | TrackBack

"Why do we trust some sources and not others?"

Another thought-provoking post. This question that you pose has been bugging me a lot over the past year or so (admittedly in the context being a Christian who is gay).

And it raises other questions, such as when and how are we able to change our minds about anything? As some of your examples imply, if we are capable of being "converted" at all, conversion happens incrementally (of course, I'm not referring to religious conversion necessarily). Is it because we distrust "facts" and "hard evidence"? Have we always?

Posted by: Robert on January 19, 2005 07:16 AM

I agree it all come down to the sources. Which in the political realm means most of us are changed only by "Nixon goes to China" experiences - i.e. when truthtellers on "our side" convince us.

On the religious front, Prov. 25:2 suggests that our searching is our glory: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out”.

The Pope in Fides Et Ratio writes:
Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to other's, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

It should be stressed that the truths sought in this interpersonal relationship are not primarily empirical or philosophical. Rather, what is sought is the truth of the person—what the person is and what the person reveals from deep within. Human perfection, then, consists not simply in acquiring an abstract knowledge of the truth, but in a dynamic relationship of faithful self-giving with others. It is in this faithful self-giving that a person finds a fullness of certainty and security. At the same time, however, knowledge through belief, grounded as it is on trust between persons, is linked to truth: in the act of believing, men and women entrust themselves to the truth which the other declares to them.

Any number of examples could be found to demonstrate this; but I think immediately of the martyrs, who are the most authentic witnesses to the truth about existence. The martyrs know that they have found the truth about life in the encounter with Jesus Christ, and nothing and no-one could ever take this certainty from them...This is why to this day the witness of the martyrs continues to arouse such interest, to draw agreement, to win such a hearing and to invite emulation. This is why their word inspires such confidence: from the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince. The martyrs stir in us a profound trust because they give voice to what we already feel and they declare what we would like to have the strength to express.

Posted by: TSO on January 19, 2005 10:56 AM

Robert: I don't know if it's so much that people mistrust hard evidence, as that we have hard evidence for so little, really. Lee pointed out recently that one feature of scientific proof is repeatability, which basically excludes all unique persons and events from the realm of the provable. If you think about it, that means most of our lives, and indeed ourselves, are actually unprovable. Weird, isn't it?

TSO: Actually, I've known a number of people who were changed by what you might call reverse Nixon-goes-to-China experiences, where important people on their own side betrayed or let them down somehow, so they became more open to the claims of the other side.

That's an interesting passage from the Pope, and a good point about martyrs. I think that's a lot of the reason why King, despite his flaws, is so compelling to American Christians. Most Protestants don't really know the martyred saints, so he kind of fills that role. (This was quite obvious to me at church on Sunday!)

Posted by: Camassia on January 19, 2005 12:10 PM

Interesting, that reverse Nixon-in-China view never occurred to me. Speaking through my own prism, I was influenced by WFB coming out for pot legalization. And by the Pope's anti-death penalty stand. Still working on that semi-pacifism thang, but no question that turning the other cheek as King practiced was a form of martyrdom (which is what made his private life so surprising, though none of my business).

Posted by: TSO on January 19, 2005 01:09 PM

Camassia -

You wrote:

"I don't know if it's so much that people mistrust hard evidence, as that we have hard evidence for so little, really."

Yes. I think that's what I was trying to get at. Maybe "accept" is a better word. We have some reason to doubt the "evidence" -- including our own experiences. Perhaps that's why we let the pereceived "trustworthy (or nontrustworthy, as the case may be) nature" of the speaker/proponent do so much work.

I know these are not new concepts, but I've been amazed at the effect of internalizing them over the past year. Realizing that I blindly both "trusted" and "didn't trust" a whole lot of things.

So, the Pope's article with its martyrs example resonates with me (as well as the Nixon/China analogy). Both seem to be shortcuts for "truth", in that they may effectively confirm or challenge our own intuitions (or experiences).

Posted by: Robert on January 19, 2005 02:29 PM

This is the most thoughtful, well-written post I've read in my short blogging career.

It made me think of many things as I read it, particularly the parallels between MLK's search for reconciliation and redemption versus some sort of "victory." The same approach is evident in South Africa, where people like Mandela and Desmond Tutu have led their people toward reconciliation and redemption. When asked why he doesn't want revenge and punishment for those who abused him, he simply replies to the effect that he would prefer to devote his energies to more positive things. The truth is, people like Mandela and Tutu have led South Africa away from what well could have been a horrible bloodbath. We could all learn from them.

Posted by: Tom Carter on January 21, 2005 10:02 AM

A fine and thoughtful post, Camissa. I also appreciate the ATR mention. I have retired from blogging, but I haven't retired from blog reading. Yours is a regular visit.

I think you're right about epistemology. If I remember my discussion, I think I ultimately pointed to values as the primary cause for the divisions between like-minded Christians who disagreed politically. I said that every time we choose a party or vote for a candidate, we all have to compromise some of the values that we hold (because no candidate can embody them all). Our differences in political affiliation are due what we're willing to compromise on and what we're not. For example, I won't compromise on abortion at all, and that means that I tend to lean toward the GOP--even though that means I am going to have to compromise on other issues like social policy and war. I rank my values--in an admittedly subjective way--and make that determination. I think it is possible for someone with the same faith to look at the same issues and on the basis of their faith make different value judgments--thus choosing a different party and candidate--and be fully justified doing so.

If that's right, I'm not sure what that say about Christian unity or Christian politics. Your more epistemological look at it might be a better way to get at the issue. I would like to think that Christians could have a unified politics, but I think I'm too entrenched to figure out exactly what that would look like at this point.

Posted by: Keith on January 21, 2005 03:36 PM

I know I can attribute much of my gut-level sympathies to my desire to be contrarian, to speak up for what's being left out.

I may be moving to Canada for graduate school. My ultraconservative brother-in-law has threatened never to visit us if we go because of the rampant liberalism (the same would definitely hold true if we were headed to CA). He doesn't know me well enough to realize that the best way to push me in a more conservative direction is to surround me with self-satisfied liberals.

I discovered Telford and his site a few years ago and briefly followed your conversation with him there before losing the thread for quite a while.

Telford fascinates me. Because I've spent most of my life in or near evangelicalism and most of the people closest to me are still there, I often wish I could be a content yet thoughtful evangelical, like him. You seem to share many of the concerns that make that option unviable for me.

Thanks for the mention. I've written a second post and hope to get into a rhythm.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Andy on January 23, 2005 08:58 PM
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