Tag Archives: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Nonviolent Politics Par Excellence: Bonhoeffer, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, & The Seamless Garb

No, I’m Not Talking About The Seamless Garb Jesus’ Fake Wife Sewed Up For Him

In Christian and political circles, there seems to be  some confusion about what the Consistent Life philosophy, the Seamless Garb, is all about. In one of its most recent essays, Keith Pavlischek of the Institute for Religious Democracy berated pacifists who couldn’t stick to their “unrealistic” positions, in his post, Distorting Just War Theory. At a crucial juncture of his post, Pavlischek dismisses the Seamless Garb philosophy and the idea that Jesus’ demand to love the enemy includes embracing them has no relevance when it comes to politics. Under the guise of Niebuhr’s Christian realism (like President Obama: see: Preisdent Obama’s Christian Realism, the Institute for Religious Democracy promotes a new American Crusade mentality, where violence IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE response to evil in the world. This is the significant difference between reasonable Just War Theorists and the IRD.

In another essay by Pavlischek, Seamless Silliness, he argues that, “The “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” position recognizes no moral difference between the acts of a cold-blooded murderer, a vigilante lynch mob seeking revenge.” Not only is this premise inaccurate, but as the principle argument that the IRD and KP rely on, their entire argument breaks down because they just do not read pacifist and Seamless Garb (TSG) closely. The Just War has a limited set of criterion (suggestions) in which politicians should use (ideally) as a guide to know when to get to war. Just War Theory as Public Policy has leaders of nation-states (as part of asking the question who goes to war), based on Just Cause (self-defense sometimes), Right Intent (an intent, mind you that does not limit warfare since occupying is considered a valid part of JWT throughout its history), and the pursuit of the common good (which gets confused a lot with the national interest).

What the Seamless Garb/Consistent Pro-Life Ethic does is it takes the Just War Theory, and eliminates all of the aforementioned criteria, and makes One Person the set criteria for Justice and Peace: The body of Christ Jesus. One of the most articulate voices of the Seamless Garb is the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Apart from being reform minded when it came to ecclessiology, he was also an advocate of a Christ-centered, tradition respecting nonviolent politics. Born to Italian immigrants in South Carolina, he grew up in the Bible belt and the former hotbed of the Confederate States of America. Coming from a place of marginality, Italian and Catholic in uber-Protestant South, Bernardin grew intellectually to value human life as sacred, in a world where black bodies were desacralized during the Jim Crow Era. “I have a profound belief that the gospel invites us to embrace a “consistent ethic of life.” Such an ethic is based on the belief that life is a precious gift from God which must be protected and nurtured from the moment of conception until natural death” (Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Volume I: Homilies and Teaching Documents. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000). The cardinal was morally opposed to the Cold War, especially to Ronald Reagan’s over-aggressive military spending. Nuclear arms build-up produced a culture of fear and death. The revenue usurped by the Pentagon could have been use to uplift those who lived in poverty. The Vatican under Pope John Paul II continued to advance Bernardin’s agenda. Today, as for Pope Benedict, that is still up in the air, but Sister Helen Prejean continues to be an outstanding opponent against the death penalty.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), Archbis...

The IRD sees the lives of our “enemies” as cheap, expendable, in the name of Church Crusades Revitalized. While there are many Consistent Lifers who are pacifist, there are some who are Just Warriors. I just happen to fall into the former category. The beautiful thing about the Seamless Garment is that it is about putting Christ Jesus of the Gospels first, him on the Cross. In John 19:23, there is a picture of Jesus’ robe being divided up by the Roman soldiers. They agents of empire are splitting up and dividing up that which gives us life, like when Jesus’ encounter with the woman with the issue of blood, she was given new life just by touching his garment (Mark 5: 21-34).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One respected Protestant thinker of the Seamless Garb position was that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I mentioned in my review of his ETHICS, following the Crucified Christ means that Jesus invades not just the depths of hell, but also the everyday mundane sinful state of our affairs. Bonhoeffer views human bodily existence as absolutely essential, and of sacred worth much like Bernardin, as I argued in Prolife And Black 2: Bonhoeffer, Slavery, Abortion, and Black Bodies.

Lesson: When we treasure the embodiment of YHWH’s Word Made Flesh as Invaluable and absolutely necessary for our salvation, rather than something as inconsequential, in politics, we will come to see every person as being of infinite worth.

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In which I was part of a panel at a scholarly conference for the first time

Langston Hughes was part of the Harlem Renaiss...

My Experience At the Southwest Commission for Religious Studies

Saturday, I entered arena of scholarship once more, the first time as an “Independent Scholar.” But don’t be deceived, my independence gave me the freedom to ask questions at every session I attended. My goal was to network as much as possible, and I achieved that goal, primarily in the morning.

In the afternoon, I felt I was in good company with the Womanist and Liberationist Ethics session of the AAR, and then a little later at the plenary session lead by Joerg Rieger.

Our panel, the Harlem Renaissance and Black Religion(s), was the first Panel I have been asked to be a part of. It was sort of a risk to go where I had never gone before, to actually do a scholarly presentation on black science fiction, postcolonial theology, Christianity, and race, but I pulled it off. My thesis adviser and Brite professor Keri Day was the moderator, while Phillip Luke Sinitiere also presented on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also volunteered to read Lou Joseph’s paper on Langston Hughes’s play Emperor of Haiti so he could receive credit on his CV. I felt like this panel was the beginning of something different and special, and Lou’s work was very important. Thus, I felt compelled to volunteer to read (I myself in the past have had a reader for a paper).

The best thing about all of our research projects is the potential for engaging the Harlem Renaissance and Black Religion(s) from an intercultural perspective. With Lou’s look at the Haitian Revolution in light of the Catholic religion and Langston Hughes’ literature, Phillip’s engagement with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s being influenced by the Negro church tradition, and my observations on the similarities and differences between Irishman C.S. Lewis and George Schuyler, the possibilities are real and endless. It’s part of my vision to be a Black Church scholar for a Multicultural world, and this project may fit the bill. At the panel itself, I spoke for a total of close to 80 minutes (both presentations were at 30 minutes, then the q & a); I just couldn’t stop talking. I was like the Bubba Blue of Black Sci Fi!


I would definitely like to be part of a panel again, even if it’s not about the Harlem Renaissance or science fiction. I would highly recommend you give it a try if you are a student, since it means collaboration with other scholars and more engagement with the audience.

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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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