Nonviolence & Receiving Life: Yup, I’m still pacifist but why & how?

Earlier today, Tim had some questions for pacifists of the Anabaptist variety, and explained why he is not, or has never been pacifist. Since one of our common starting points is the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I wish to offer a response, with Bonhoeffer, and work my way out into how and why I am a proponent of Christian nonviolence. At the conclusion, I wish not to convert Tim, but hopefully invite him to consider, as he is working out his “non-pacifism” that Tim consider the Just War Tradition within Christianity.

In Bonhoeffer’s ETHICS, his first few pages are written to convince us as Christians “invalidate the knowledge of good and evil” as those who do ethical reflection do (page 17). How do we know to behave in this world? For Bonhoeffer, it is within the very life of the Godhead (18). After making these claims, Bonhoeffer goes into the stories of creation and the traditional fall (Genesis 1-3). God alone is good, and Christ in complete union with that good, places a demand on us (30). Because of our brokenness, we cannot act as judges; for only God can judge me, as Tupac once said.

Tim’s case against the new high-church pacifisms inspired from the Duke school (if we can indeed name a place) is this; that pacifists place under judgment even the oppressed who wish to defend themselves, who care nothing for what we learn in cemetary seminary. For Tim, it is “in talking to a refugee, a Christian man, who was part of a militia in Burma. He carried a gun to protect his village–his family–from slaughter at the hands of the military. My pacifist ideas would have seemed hollow and trite to him, and I knew that, so I kept them to myself, and realized a few hours after the conversation that I wasn’t really a pacifist–any longer, or, if you prefer, I realized I never was.”

Tim, in his post and subsequent comments, does not argue for the necessity of violence. This, I would argue, is the foundation of the Christian nonviolence ethic. Violence is a choice, and never needed per se. It is not something programmed into the male biology where, in order to perform masculinity, men have to fulfill the need to exert violence towards others. My concern for Tim’s position is that while it is neighbor-centered, the question remains, we have so many neighbors, and therefore a multiplicity of demands, and so I must ask, whose demands do we submit our duty to? As a Christian proponent of nonviolence, I do not know what good or evil is apart from the Triune God. When it comes to the bloody slave revolts of the Nat Turners of the world, I simply refuse to judge them. Turner claims, according to some accounts, that God spoke to him, using the words in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Who am I to judge this man? To judge his experience, is to exert violence toward his very being.

Now, the problem with the high-church pacifism of glory that Tim McGee critiques is that THE CHURCH is set up as the judge of human action, and that pacifism is seen as the only way, as counter-cultural to American nationalism. Honestly, I have serious questions for Stanley Hauerwas’ reading of Bonhoeffer, and I do not think that Bonhoeffer would ever see THE CHURCH as God’s kingdom here on earth. Sure, Bonhoeffer affirmed community, rejected the “To Each His/Her Own” libertinism of Western European culture.

Further more, anti-nationalist Anabaptist pacifism can only take us so far if stuck in upper-Middle class church circles. Perhaps I am seeking a nonviolent Christianity that not only seeks to address the national community, as such, but also the gender, race, and class violence that THE CHURCH is responsible for as well. Any talks of nonviolence abstracted from realities of racial, class and sexual oppression should be considered a pacifism for the status quo. There are forms of pacifism that are this-worldly, that seek to keep us encapsulated in the way things have always been done. The anabaptist/mennonite traditions are not the only Christian traditions that have promoted pacifism; often overlooked is the Spirit-filled pacifism of historical Pentecostalism; Bishop G.E. Patterson, of the Church of God in Christ wrote President Bush prior to the Invasion in Iraq, showing his dissent. It is exclusive forms of pacifisms (the chic & relevant white lead anabaptism) that I can agree with Tim, that they may be “part of a social power sustained through death.”

Along the lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and perhaps the Logos Christology of early Christianities, perhaps for those Christians who wish to engage the world nonviolently should repent, and confess of the violences we do not wish to speak of. The Other that places a demand upon our bodies is the very scarred body of the Word of YHWH. It is only in this Wisdom can we as Christians know what is evil and what is good.

It is my hope that even if Tim has chosen a different path, even though we may have a similar foundation on the non-necessity of violence as well as the invalidity of all human knowing of the good or evil, that he could perhaps take up the Just War Tradition. Last week, I did a 2 part series on Daniel M. Bell’s Just
War as Christian Discipleship. In part two, I tried to re-imagine the Just War Tradition, rather as something that has a “CENTER” at all, but something from the margins. While Just Warriors claim that they are only comfortable with the idea of limited war, this ceases to be the case when they approve of colonization as a means of waging war. Empire building is actually a means of going to war perpetually, for the battle lines are drawn each day, between colonizer and the colonized.

Tim has already dismissed (and rightly so) the Natural Law tradition in agreement with Bonhoeffer; yet the Just War Tradition relies heavily on NLT. If Tim does so choose to go the JWT route, I hope that he can start with a praxis founded upon the experiences of the crucified populations of the world.

I don’t think that Tim is wrong in the way he makes his case, but his conclusions do not necessarily have to be true.

I hope we can continue this dialogue.

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0 thoughts on “Nonviolence & Receiving Life: Yup, I’m still pacifist but why & how?

  1. Tim McGee

    Great thoughts. It’s late and I need to get to bed but I wanted to thank you for the careful engagement and encouragement for further reflection. After some sleep, we’ll let the conversation continue! Thanks again.

    Reply
  2. Tusk

    Genius!

    I love this post. It should come as no surprise though that I have a few critiques and questions.

    First…

    “Who am I to judge this man? To judge his experience, is to exert violence toward his very being.”

    Either this is completely false, or I am (true to form) misunderstanding what you mean and in need a little clarity. You live the very antithesis of this statement every single day of your life. Everywhere you go, be it in the real world or the blogosphere, you run into people who disagree with you and/or your experiences from time to time. Occasionally, I am one of them. And I have found it heartening time and again, that even if you can’t correct me (or I you), neither of us feels violated for questioning or even trying the other.

    Miracle claims are a decent example of “experiential evidence,” and even these, from time immemorial have been judged and criticized (positively and negatively). Eye witness accounts are scrutinized in courtrooms. If a person is not capable of withstanding scrutiny of his personal experiences that seems like more of a personal matter. Words are not violence. Scrutiny is not violence. Doubt is not violence. Questions are not violence.

    Maybe that sounds crass, and you might think you disagree, but I think you live otherwise in your own day-to-day interactions.

    Nextus:

    “Perhaps I am seeking a nonviolent Christianity that not only seeks to address the national community, as such, but also the gender, race, and class violence that THE CHURCH is responsible for as well.”

    Thank you for not trying to throw apologetics in here for qualification. It takes balls to recognize that the organization you’re a part of has it’s fair share of heinous atrocities. I sincerely hope what you are seeking yields good fruit.

    Reply
    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      “Words are not violence. Scrutiny is not violence. Doubt is not violence. Questions are not violence.”

      Words can’t be violence? I think I disagree. There can be something called linguistic violence, especially when people use derogatory language towards the Other.

      To clarify, I think, I am working on this; as I begin to see our actions are more contextual than anything, I can’t just use my context and my standards to judge Turner’s context, well, in terms of violence versus nonviolence. I see it more about self-defense; I can disagree with his propositions or his actions, but making personal attacks about his experience would be wrong. I guess what I am trying to say, as I try to privilege the voices of the oppressed, to claim to do so, and then to say, oh, because I’m a pacifist, Nat Turner was a liar, I think would be quite detrimental, and unhelpful.

      Reply
      1. Tusk

        “Words can’t be violence? I think I disagree. There can be something called linguistic violence, especially when people use derogatory language towards the Other.”

        I thought you’d bring this up. And I think this is where we disagree. In short…No, I don’t think that words can be violence, even in the cases you’ve cited. Words can incite violence, sure. But as far as “linguistic violence” (hate speech?) goes, I think there are a few things to consider. “Who is saying it and why?” And then also, “Who is hearing it and why or how does it harm them?”

        For the first consideration, the reasons for someone using hate speech may admittedly be to harm someone emotionally (This does not mean that it actually does harm to the hearer.). They may also be stated out of ignorance or emotional instability or you name it.

        For the second consideration (Why or how is the hearer harmed?), I think this is an entirely personal matter. As I’ve stated before, words are just words. They are guttural enunciations vacating our lungs and passing a few vibrating muscles on the way out, then further shaped by they way our mouths move and the way those vibrations strike the hairs and bones in our ears. The meaning given to those words is entirely personal. One’s reaction to those sounds is entirely personal, and relates to your personal recognition and association of those sounds. If someone denigrates you in Russian, you; wouldn’t give two damns about it. You don’t understand the language: You don’t recognize the sounds.

        However, when people hear words like kike, spick, beaner, honkey, cracker, nigger, darkie, daego, fag, dike, kraut, nazi, wop, chink, ruskie, savage, jap, moop, raghead, liberal, conservative, etc…their reactions to those words may be negative. But they are also entirely emotional and located in the mind. Were these words or their equivalents hurled at you in any other language, you would be none the wiser…and so what?

        One can hold on to this perceived violence and feel violated. Or better yet, one can take a step back, assess why they are offended and assess why one human would call another human something so hatefully, and move forward uninfringed.

        People are most usually hateful because they are afraid.

        P.S. Thanks for clarifying. I understand now what you are “working on,” and I salute it.

        Best wishes.

        Reply
  3. david cl driedger

    I agree that this can continue to be a constructive engagement as no one seems really caught up on whether the term ‘pacifism’ as such should be accepted or promoted but willing to explore the implications and responses to violence. Thanks for the further engagement Rod.

    Reply
  4. Optimistic Chad

    I was thinking. If someone who was a committed pacifist, came upon a situation in which there was a preventable oppression, and yet they did not have the time, creativity, means, or inspiration with which to take non-violent action, do you think that a violence would fall within the realm of freedom to love? Love of course being for the oppressed first, then the oppressor. I am not saying that there isn’t a non-violent solution, I am saying that what if it wasn’t apparent, and time was of the essence? Science fiction seems to delight in coming up with these types of scenarios and thus I find myself thinking that while I would philosophically hold to non-violence, I would probably face judgement and life-long guilt for using violence in defense of the weak if I could not think of a better way. I hate to say that out loud, but I am curious as to your feelings about it.

    Reply
    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      I would like the non-lethal force for $400, Alex.

      The key point is not to glorify violence or make it a part of what it means to be human, that’s the sticking point for me, and not just “violence” in general.

      Reply
  5. Tim McGee

    Rod,
    Thanks again for this post. You are right to note that I’m not quickly jumping into jwt position and that there would be some major obstacles (e.g., natural law) towards such a resolution and I want to keep emphasizing the importance of nonviolent responses so that our imaginations don’t jump so readily towards a violent resolution. My worry is that this push towards a kind of nonviolent inculturation vis-a-vis the church (Duke theology on the virtues here) forms our imaginations to neglect from the violence that structures our very existence (especially in the U.S.). I’m not sure whether JWT or nonviolence is the most helpful way to address something like the war in Iraq (for what the general commitment to pacifism and JWT are ABLE to leave out is the whole history of imperialism that this war continues). What would it mean for both pacifism and JWT to think, as you suggest in your previous post, from the margins, or, to invoke Carter’s post, from the space of the abject?

    The Levinas quote was helpful for it draws attention to the abject, to those whose live on the pathways of death (social death). I wonder how often the “pacifist subject” is the subject whose life is its own possession. What would it mean to think from the position of someone struggling to overcome the ways its very desire for life and love is being used against it (the threat of death) to render it barely alive (social death)? Is the dilemma between JWT and Pacifism the most helpful framework here? Or, whose dilemma is it (what kind of subject can have that dilemma?). I don’t know as I’m still thinking this out but I do know that the kind of Christian nonviolence I encountered at Duke was not convincing or helpful here.

    Reply
    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      Tim,

      I think you are on to something:

      ” whose dilemma is it (what kind of subject can have that dilemma?)”

      This is why I do not think that the question of violence is easily answered. Just whose questions, existential dilemmas, are we dealing with here?

      I think that is the crucial issue when we are discussing things like revolution (something that neither pacifism or just war adequately addresses).

      “My worry is that this push towards a kind of nonviolent inculturation vis-a-vis the church (Duke theology on the virtues here) forms our imaginations to neglect from the violence that structures our very existence (especially in the U.S.).”

      Yup, I have many concerns about the validity of virtue theory being a superior form of ethics. For, as i stated in my second post on just war, the thing with virtues is that you have to rely on a story, and a LIMITED number of characters, and therefore the lives of those heroes/models/what have end up becoming just as rigid as the laws and rules that are indicative of deontological ethics (things that virtue ethicists protest). Perhaps there needs to be a recovery of duty and The Law/the Word. I certainly see that with Bonhoeffer among others. Character ethics can be its own form of legalism as well, thus the emphasis on language games and doctrines as “rules” from texts like the Nature of Religion.

      Reply
  6. Tim McGee

    “This is why I do not think that the question of violence is easily answered. Just whose questions, existential dilemmas, are we dealing with here?”

    Great way to put this. I’m going to keep thinking on this as it is clarifying some moments in Fanon for me (on violence as the perfect mediation). Perhaps another angle would be to object to the materially thin account of “violence” in some of these approaches to pacifism (again, I’m trying to hedge my language as JWT/Pacifism hasn’t been a focal point of my studies).

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  7. Tim McGee

    Yes also on duty, or, perhaps better, obedience. I took a course with Willie Jennings called Slavery and Obedience and we ended reading sections of Barth (4/1) and Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship as attempts to narrate the possibilities of Christian obedience beyond its status as a trope to secure Christian domination (that is, obedient slaves and docile bodies).

    Much to ponder…

    Reply
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