February 15, 2005
War and murder

Verbum Ipsum has been doing a series of posts quoting various Christians criticizing Christian pacifism. They've all given a lot to think about. One problem that became apparent to me is that people -- including many pacifists, it seems -- assume that pacifism means that all killing is morally the same. That is, that Jesus somehow expanded the definition of murder to include even things like shooting a psychopath who's trying to abduct your daughter, for instance. And that, not surprisingly, is morally offensive to most people.

I don't think that would really do justice to the Bible, however. It would say that the clear distinction God makes between lawful and unlawful killing in the Old Testament was just foolin'. This brings us to the question of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, which has of course been a subject of great debate every since the beginning of Christianity, so I don't expect to settle it here. But I've been thinking about this a lot lately, so here are my thoughts.

As I've said before, I think that basic moral norms don't depend on any specific revelation from God. They are what Calvinists call a common grace. Defenders of putting the Ten Commandments in public buildings have often pointed out that, eliding the first four, the Commandments express moral principles that no reasonable person would disagree with.

I think that's true. All societies have had to hew to those principles if they want to survive in the long term: restraining violence, respecting property, ordering sexual and family relations, and promoting honesty and trust. To the extent that they've differed, it's in how exactly to define those terms. Obviously, today some cultures consider abortion, euthanasia and/or the death penalty to be murder, and others don't. In the past, infanticide and killings in fairly fought duels were also not considered murder. But "murder" has existed as a moral category in every society that has laws.

But this seems to be making the opposite point from what Decalogue defenders want it to make. If every society knows this, why do we need to display them? Why that particular expression of the general moral law? Wouldn't quotations from Socrates or Confucius -- or the civil laws, for that matter -- do just as well?

It's interesting to compare this to the big meeting in Acts 15 where the Apostles first decide what part of the Jewish law should apply to gentile Christians. They settle on three: no eating blood, no eating unkosherly slaughtered animals, and no sexual immorality. The Ten Commandments are nowhere in sight. Not because they thought it was OK for gentiles to murder, steal, etc. I can only assume they felt they didn't need to say this because the gentiles already knew. Whatever moral training they'd had in their pagan upbringing was sufficient to prepare them to hear the Gospel -- they didn't need to learn from Jewish law what good and evil are.

I don't know when or how the Ten Commandments came to occupy such an important place in Christianity. I'm sure there's an interesting story behind that. But the Decalogue seems to have taken the place of the general moral code, those basic principles you teach to your children to make them civilized people. After all, the Apostles in Acts 15 were dealing with adults, but children do need to learn the Law before the Gospel, to a certain extent. The grace of moral law is not so common that an individual will always generate it all by himself.

That's fine as far as it goes, but I have trouble with the fact that this seems to convince people that moral law belongs to Christianity. As it became the dominant religion of the West, it became the defender and teacher of the basic social order. There's nothing wrong with that, but this approach often seems to lose sight of the Gospel. When I read the people Lee quotes, or the article I linked last week, the arguments remind me of Martin Kelley's "I'm a Quaker" phenomenon. This is a form of theologizing where the individual says, "I'm a Quaker and I believe X, therefore that's a Quaker belief!" A lot of the just-war theorizers similarly seem to be thinking, "I'm a Christian, and my God-given moral reasoning leads me to believe this, so this must be Christian!" I mean, look at that First Things article again. Where's Jesus? Where's the Bible? The whole thing is built on one line from Paul, and it's a line that, in isolation, could just as well have come from a pagan.

I think that this problem probably wouldn't have seemed like such a big deal if everybody you knew was Christian, and the few non-Christians you might have known shared most of the Old Testament with you. But encounters with other societies over the last few centuries have shown Christians just how much they don't own basic morality. And this seems to have taken them in two different directions. One is to go really sola fide and say it was all about a transaction with a supernatural being (the Father or the Devil, depending on your theory) in order to save humanity. "Save" in this case meaning assure that you go to heaven after death, so long as you believe it. The difference between the saved and the damned has next to nothing to do with desert, and a lot to do with what name you worship. Not surprisingly, this provoked a reaction among more liberal types, and led to the theory that God lets his will be known to different peoples in different ways and this is why non-Christians are capable of acting morally.

Both of these approaches seem to be assuming that the content of Jesus' preaching was not terribly original. The distinguishing features of the faith must be found elsewhere. And, of course, not everything Jesus said was new. He often reiterated Jewish scriptures and prophets. But what he did with them was the interesting part.

Jesus certainly revised the definitions of certain moral categories. "Adultery" he expanded to include divorce and remarriage and even ogling. "Purity" turned from physical cleanliness to moral. But when speaking of loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, he didn't redefine self-defense as evil. Rather, he pointed to the example of God: the sun shines on the good and the wicked alike, and so should you.

Jesus does a very interesting thing in that part of the Sermon on the Mount: he takes an ancient theodicy problem and turns it on its head. The good suffer and the wicked prosper, we say, so how can God be good? Jesus flips the question around: forget whether God's conduct measures up to your standards -- does yours measure up to his? If he's good to the wicked, why aren't you?

This is one of the ways that, as Peter Nixon used to say, the Gospel grinds horribly against our idea of justice. Telford, in an old article, called this "the evil of mercy."

The trouble with God's mercy is that it goes out to the wrong people. Judgment is suspended for precisely the oppressors who deserve it immediately. Even the bloodthirsty God of Revelation is not Dirty Harry, daring sinners to make his day, but the Lamb who was slain for the ransom of many (Rev. 5:9). So God mercifully withholds the eschatological violence until every chance at repentance and forgiveness has passed. And this causes frustration, suffering, and even death for innocent victims who must wait. To the martyrs who cry, "Sovereign Lord, how long?" God answers: "A little longer! ... Until the number of your fellow servants and their brothers and sisters should be complete, who are to be killed as you yourselves have been" (Rev. 6:10-11). John the Seer understands the tragedy of divine mercy.

This is not the answer to the problem of evil that Telford seems to think it is, but it does say a lot about the relation between our common moral reasoning and God's love. Indeed, the sense of injustice adds greatly to the suffering of the martyrs. If Jesus or Stephen had decided they were being persecuted because they had bad karma, it wouldn't exactly have alleviated their suffering but it might have made it easier to bear. The Gospel rather cruelly takes away such comforting rationalizations. The blind man wasn't born blind because of something he did, or because of something his parents did. It was because God had a purpose for him.

But Jesus' solution to this is not, as I see it, that we should toss out our ideas of right and wrong and assume that whatever happens is just. Feeling the injustice keenly is part of taking up the Cross. That's why I also don't believe, as some have claimed, that the Gospel is largely a call to get over our tired moralism and embrace people uncritically. The fact that God had already shown his great interest in ethics in the Old Testament demonstrates that this isn't easy for him either. The injustice of the world pains him. And that's why it should pain us.

So while this doesn't relate to pacifism per se, I think that most anti-pacifist arguments don't really work for me because they don't take that into account. They make it sound like the world is orderly and fair, and we imitate God by rewarding the good and punishing the bad. And yet, Jesus makes clear, we really don't.

Posted by Camassia at February 15, 2005 12:26 PM | TrackBack
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