Caught in the middle

I have entered a conversation that I really don’t want to be in, but that I feel compelled to join. I hope its of You, Lord. It involves the terrible tangle of competing theories of Just War and Pacifism. I hate competing theories. I’ve read enough about both to know that those compelled to either theory feel the need to defend their position in relation to the opposing theory. I don’t like that. So I feel caught between both. Like a brow-beaten child forced to witness his parents fighting. How would I be the child of both theories? I’m a Protestant for one. I’m an American citizen for another. That’s enough Just War Tradition right there to imagine the daddy. But I know enough about war history to know that every War fought in just the Twentieth Century has been much more about State Imperialism and the expansion of Corporate interests than anything laid out as Just War Theory. I was raised in a commune that taught practical pacifism. My dad had trouble with his temper personally but he was a practical pacifist and we practiced nonviolent political resistance in behalf of those without a voice. Personally from the ages 16-18 I could honestly say I was a full on pacifist. Then I spent a lot of time reading philosophical pacifists like those in the Fellowship of Reconciliation and I had a change of heart. I couldn’t see how what they were espousing really needed Jesus. So I guess that’s my pacifist mommy side.

Anyway, I’m reading Robert Brimlow’s book What About Hitler? because I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project. Brimlow makes no bones about his pacifism and his arguments follow many of the status quo arguments I’ve always heard from pacifists. But the book is not just that. Its really looking for a spirituality of pacifism. So I keep reading. As a browbeaten child of both theories I care less about the roots of these theories and I keep my focus on the end in sight of how I understand each. I’m looking for the good. I’m not asking “Where is each theory limited?” but rather “How could either help me serve Jesus in this world today?”

From reading my John Howard Yoder and my Stanley Hauerwas I’ve come to learn something about pacifists. They have a long tradition of not being listened to. And they’re right on that account. How many pacifist ecumenical ethical theologians can you think of? Ahhh. . . .somebody knows—but not me! My point is that pacifists have always been put in the position of defending themselves to their accusers in the hope that they would be muffled into silence, or submerged until drowned. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that sad Anabaptist allusion to history.) So within that scenario I have to always imagine Daddy Just War never listening to mommy Pacifist and historically even beating her black and blue any time she spoke out of turn.

So when Mommy has her say, its usually when daddy is not around. She’ll work twice as hard to train her child not to be like the daddy. In the end, if daddy doesn’t change there will be a divorce. What a dysfunctional family! What’s a poor brow-beaten child to do? Well, for one thing he won’t play one parent off the other in either’s presence! But if he loves both parents he’ll try to remember what’s best about each.

This analogy can obviously only go so far. The reality of the situation is that there is no mommy or daddy. The American denominational landscape is thoroughly separated for the most part along traditional lines. Most pacifists are Anabaptists: Mennonites, and Amish. Now, when we start talking ecumenism it’s a totally different picture. The lines are blurred. Suddenly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians are finding a new tradition in pacifism or nonviolent forms of understanding Just War. Most of this type of thing, if it is theological, is a result of the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

I’m an odd duck. I feel like I sit and look back at history and tradition within these theories and don’t feel close to either option any more. I see hope in the way some talk about Just Peacemaking, but then I don’t see enough conversation along those lines. Pacifists seem to retreat back to their old battle lines because that’s safest. “The way of Jesus,” they say, “is never violence.” Ever. The Spirit of Jesus would never lead someone into a subversive activity wherein someone somewhere is violent. Well, in a vacuum that sounds nice. But in reality there’s a lot of fingers in the ears and eyes shut tight going on in that argument. Stanley Hauerwas himself says that having the courage to be nonviolent involves knowing that this will no doubt make some folks more violent. There are always effects to our actions!

So what am I saying? That Jesus wants me to be violent sometimes? That’s not an ethical theory either! It’s a trap! Basically what I’m saying is that pacifism in essence presumes to know what God won’t do under any circumstances. And that’s not the Bible! That’s a safe “ism.” It’s a new form of natural law. It’s a modernist construct. But it doesn’t take into account the overall give and take of the Scriptures.

Really I am not leaving any safe ground on which to stand. I believe that we need more of the kinds of ethical theories theological pacifists are working on. But pacifists need to look critically at their own history and be honest. Instead of battling back now that they have a voice, they need self-disclosure about the flaws their own ways have espoused. What ways have not necessarily been the ways of Jesus. For instance, in what ways have pacifists historically been too passive? In what ways have they rested content in their righteousness and not been peacemakers where there was no peace? In what ways has their silence resulted in the deaths of the innocent oppressed?

On the other side, as Christians we must not internalize Jesus command to “turn the other cheek” and then do what we want instead. We need to infiltrate our society with a way of following Jesus that courageously takes on the status quo which is an Imperialist War Machine. We need to question how our society got this way and how we can infect it differently. But in the end this needs to be about Jesus and not about “isms” as much as they form our tradition. I guess what we need is more ecumenism, more theology, more work that moves beyond the old camps. That’s my conclusion and I’m sticking to it.

Dear Jesus help me follow in the Way you have for me. Help me to seek out community with others following in Your Way regardless of what it looks like, or whether we will always agree. May they know that we Follow You by our love for one another. By our ability to listen to one another and defend one another.


1 Comment

Filed under pacifism, Pastoral Ministry

One response to “Caught in the middle


    great post. I see the newer tradition of ‘messy’ pacifism (mediation etc) as something of a middle ground. I order the Brimlow book a couple of days ago, it looks as if it will be very interesting.

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