Putting the “fist” back in “pacifist”

As he is wont to do, Mark Driscoll recently set the blogosphere aflame by his characteristically crass rejection of the idea that Jesus was a pansy (the manly man term for pacifist).  This post is a part of a synchroblog devoted to the topic. I wasn’t going to get involved, but then I read Arni’s contribution over at I Think I Believe, “My Own Personal Pacifism“.

I have heard people objecting to the type of scenario that begins Arni’s post, where someone breaks into your house and threatens to kill your entire family and you have the chance to play the hero and save the day by defeating the attacker. “We don’t make principles based on extreme, unlikely circumstances.” Very well; neither should we make principles that don’t suffer allowances for extreme, unlikely circumstances. In this case, I think the principle of non-violence is specifically formulated so as to preclude all such exceptions, which are admittedly rare but do occur. This is the reason I want to “resist” (non-violently!) that principle as it is most commonly stated.

Arni makes some very good points, including the following:

If you can’t force someone to become a Christian and you can’t be a Christian on other people’s behalf – can you force them to be non-violent? Or, more pointedly, can you force them to endure violence because you are non-violent? Wouldn’t that be… violent?

Arni’s overall stance is very close to where I stand. In my estimation, a hard and fast principle of “do nothing that causes physical harm to anyone under any circumstances” is not what a justly principled non-violence looks like. The violence that is to be avoided at all costs has to be defined as a selfish assertion of strength over others. But I also believe we can also selfishly withhold assertions of strength over others.

The rub is that it’s often hard to determine the purity of our motives, and so such violent assertions of strength should indeed be condemned as a rule for normative ethical interaction, and we should, as a rule, hold everyone in society accountable to act non-violently. I truly believe that non-violence is to be a cornerstone of human interaction in the Kingdom of God. So I am with “the New Pacifists” very far down the way.

But as Arni was trying to say, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others as a principle; we are not called to sacrifice others for the sake of our principles. In my current thinking, it is precisely wrongful assertions of strength over others that are  being promoted by onlookers who refuse to lift a finger to potential victims in these cases of abnormal, exceptional interactions. Our goal is not primarily to be non-violent, but to be pro-life. That this entails non-violence is a not inviolable principle.

Please understand that I fully believe that intentionally causing harm to other people (even “bad guys”) damages our psyches and, possibly exceptionlessly, ultimately brings judgment upon ourselves. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is only a complete devotion to that conviction that could ever excuse “violence” in the interest of the defense of others. What I mean is that knowingly bringing condemnation and harm upon ourselves, choosing to “die by the sword” as Jesus warned in order to prevent immediate and sure violence being perpetrated against the innocent, is a kind of self-sacrifice that I believe is indeed cruciform, and as such can be righteous. At the very least, it stands a greater chance of being righteous before God than standing by and sacrificing others so as not to sully our personal holiness.

The moment we do something good not for its own sake but specifically to keep from tainting our personal righteousness it becomes a selfish, unrighteous act. I trust that God will have more mercy on me for choosing to act instinctively and unconsciously – even if violently – out of self-sacrificial love than He would if I knowingly allowed someone else’s sin to hurt others just so my personal righteous standing could remain unblemished. And even if our non-action is caused not by self-righteousness but by a sincere effort to please God, we must remember that Jesus taught that we love God completely only by loving our neighbor: letting our neighbor be harmed because we are wanting to please God strikes me as completely naive and wrongheaded.

Now, the idea that selfless, “violent” resistance to evil can be a relative (only ever relative) good is not a hard and fast rule, either. It can play out all right in the case of an intruder and other simple settings, but it does not play out well on large, complex scales, as in the case of war. There are simply too many variables involved with raising armies and sending them to kill and die, ostensibly for others’ sake but where there are invariably other cloudy interests involved and the planning and consequences of these actions are opaque to those doing the killing and dying. Whereas a quick, decisive action like a fist to the jaw or a bullet can conceivably resolve simple, immediate circumstances like a small alleyway assault, war is so much slower and requires enough planning and strategy that non-violent, or at least relatively less destructive, means will probably present themselves to anyone interested.

Additionally, and vitally, any violent resistive action toward the offender must not be done in anger or hatred (that’s the kicker, isn’t it?), but instead must be done either reflexively in immediate circumstances or, when reflection is possible, must be done despite sincere, loving sorrow for the victims. But as any soldier will tell you, that’s not the way a war is won! And in war there are always many more repercussions and ramifications for many people to worry about than there are for an assailant in an alleyway. So I’m not a real fan of just war theory for the cover it gives these dubious state objectives, although I recognize that the principles within it generally have some merit.

I’ve given this so much thought over the last few years. In some ways I want to be a hard and fast non-violence pacifist, as I think that’s close to the heart of God. But hopefully this explains why I can’t quite get there.

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