Tag Archives: pacifism

When Scripture Gets Scripture Wrong

I became a believer and began reading the Bible not long before I turned eighteen.  It didn’t take long before I recognized that the writers of the New Testament often seemed to be reading a different Old Testament than I was.  The gospels or epistles would cite a passage, and like an earnest first-time Bible student, I would look it up, expecting to find basically what the New Testament author said I’d find, but with more detail.

Instead, I often found completely different wording, sometimes completely unrelated or completely opposite what the New Testament author is saying.  Other times the quote is correct but lifted completely out of context, the very next verse modifies the meaning.  Other times the quote is correct but the original author is clearly referring to something that had already happened or was currently on-going.

When I went to university and began working on my theology and then my literature degrees, I learned the categories of explanation for this.  Ancient readers understood texts differently than moderns do; employed different techniques of persuasion or explication.  The writers of what became the New Testament looked for the sensus plenior, or fuller meaning, of the Judaic texts.  Further, the first category of cases is easily accounted for when you realize the history of transmission.  By the time the New Testament was composed, the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, and the Greek and Hebrew versions stood side-by-side, complementing each other.  Often writers would draw on a nuance of the Greek text to make their point, while the Hebrew said something quite different.  English-speaking pastors do this with translations of the Bible constantly.

But there is one category of scriptural misuse that still gets my attention, and that’s when the Christian writers seem to deliberately misuse passages from the Hebrew scriptures.  Sometimes the writers draw the opposite meaning from a passage from the original author.  Kenneth Bailey, in his must-read Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes,  observes that Jesus leaves two crucial verses out of his quotation from Isaiah.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in a local synagogue (a practice often open to itinerant lay preachers, as it were). It’s unclear whether he chose the passage, or whether the synagogues were already following a lectionary by this point, but Jesus read from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But Jesus angered the gathered crowd by omitting what history shows us was their favorite part of the passage, which goes on to say, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort those who mourn.” Luke records that they were so angered by this omission, and perhaps his self-designation as a prophet, that they attempted to put him to death.

Of course, the passage does not say so clearly that this is why the crowd was angered, which has left the story somewhat bewildering to anyone not as familiar with the Isaiah passage as Jesus and his audience were.  It was subversive, the same way removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance is subversive.

But there are broader examples.  One of the most commonly cited psalms is Psalm 110.  This is an enthronement psalm that proclaims:

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
“Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb.

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek. ”

The Gospels, the book of Acts and the book of Hebrews make frequent use of this psalm, but consistently skip over verses 2 and 3, which are never alluded to, even where verses 1 and 4 are used together.  This leads D. Stephen Long to point out that “Sometimes doctrine arises as much from what we must forget as what we affirm.”

What this demonstrates is that the way Christ conquers his enemies and is enthroned is both similar to and different from what the psalmist intended. Christ has conquered and is victorious, but he has not conquered as one who has “led forces on the holy mountains.” That theme from Psalm 110:3 disappears. He has conquered as a priest offering sacrifice, and that sacrifice is his own blood.

In the end, when scripture gets scripture wrong, it often gets it more right.

Fundamentalism and Foundationalism

These are two words thrown around a lot in Biblical studies.  Fundamentalism is also a word thrown around a lot in the culture at large.  Westboro Baptist Church is seen as a fundamentalist church; Al-Qaeda is seen as a fundamentalist Muslim group.  In these cases, fundamentalist basically means “so conservative that they’re bad.”  The underlying idea seems to be that to really, truly believe the tenets of Christianity or Islam is dangerous.

John Yoder, in his essay “A Theological Critique of Violence,” defines the terms this way.

I define fundamentalism as that form of theological culture that assumes there are no hermeneutical problems, since what I take to mean is what it has to mean.  Foundationalism… makes a similar but opposite mistake. It assumes that since there are hermeneutical problems, we should and can resolve them before entering into the substance of the debate by making a ruling on how terms must be used.

In Yoder’s view, it would seem that fundamentalism isn’t a problem of how strongly or how conservatively we believe whatever we believe, but how adroit we are at engaging those who see the same things differently.  What is important is not holding our own beliefs at arms’ length, but learning how to negotiate disagreement.  As such, definitions become vitally important.

2011 Nobel Peace Prize Awarded

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three African women “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

The most prominent of the three winners is perhaps Leymah Gbowee, who engaged in non-violent protests of the conditions of women and children during the 2003 Liberian Civil War.  She was a mother of six, working as a trauma councilor to former child soldiers when she realizes that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.”  This led her to a strategy of non-violent social protest that began with local women praying and singing in a fish market, and culminated in thousands of women engaging in sex strikes and hunger strikes until they forced a meeting with the Liberian President and persuaded him to negotiate with the rebel forces.

Through these and similar efforts they forced an end to the civil war.

Gbowee has since worked closely with Mennonite church in the United States and worldwide in constructing her Women Peace and Security Network Africa, a large organization structured on principles of non-violent social formation.

In her memoir, published 2011, she wrote “I read Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and the Kenyan author and conflict and reconciliation expert Hizkias Assefa, who believed that reconciliation between victim and perpetrator was the only way to really resolve conflict, especially civil conflict, in the modern world. Otherwise, Assefa wrote, both remained bound together forever, one waiting for apology or revenge, the other fearing retribution.”

She also writes that her time working with Mennonites has taught her about the importance of “restorative justice.”

Restorative justice was… something we could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners. And we needed it, needed that return to tradition. A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa. People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable. More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done.

I think this awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize makes much more sense than Obama’s, though I think I understand what the committee was intending when they awarded it to Obama.  It is nice to see the actual work of peacemaking and reconciliation receive some attention, especially amid the sea of voices (including Obama’s at his own acceptance speech!) who claim that peacemaking is nice as a side project, but that real peace comes from the end of a gun.

It would also be nice if the church developed a reputation for being involved in this sort of thing.

What do you think of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize?

Christian Soldiers

I am convinced (it is well known) that the New Testament expects a strongly countercultural lifestyle for followers of Christ.  Part of that strange discipleship is a renunciation of violence, in principle if not in fact.  By that I mean that perhaps “heroic exceptions” exist to such an expectation, but that as a matter of lifestyle, Christians should   refuse to be put in positions, such as the military and police, that legitimate the use of force.  The center of the gospel, after all, is the God-man who would let his enemies kill him rather than make himself king by force.

I realize that not all Christians are so convinced.  And part of being committed to nonviolence is being committed to dealing generously and honestly with those who disagree, on their own terms.  It would be a form of rhetorical violence to propose terms and say, “We speak along these lines or not at all.”  For that reason (and others), I take the just-war tradition very seriously.  Often I feel like I take it more seriously than those who claim to hold it as a position.  And for that reason I take seriously the claim that a Christian can be a soldier in wartime without violating the clear aspects of Christian discipleship: love of neighbor, love of enemy.

I take the claim seriously, but I am not convinced it is the case.  Even if we ignore the matter of violence entirely, war is problematic for Christians.  Following is a handful of reasons, drawn more or less at random, why I find it difficult to accept that Christian discipleship can fit well within the U.S. military.

The Office of the Surgeon General of the United States has for a long time maintained a Textbook of Military Medicine.  In this textbook, it gives general descriptive and proscriptive advice for military command to institute in the armed forces.  These guidelines are not law, but are generally highly regarded.

Radiation from a nuclear explosion or a dirty bomb can be fatal, of course.  Initial symptoms of radiation poisoning are headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  Most who die from radiation poisoning die within two weeks.  Here is what the Textbook of Military Medicine states in regard to soldiers in warfare who have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation:

Fatally irradiated soldiers should receive every possible palliative treatment, including narcotics, to prolong their utility and alleviate their physical and psychological distress.  Depending on the amount of fatal radiation, such soldiers may have several weeks to live and to devote to the cause.  Commanders and medical personnel should be familiar with estimating survival time based on onset of vomiting.  Physicians should be prepared to give medications to alleviate diarrhea, and to prevent infection and other sequelae of radiation sickness in order to allow the soldier to serve as long as possible.  The soldier must be allowed to make the full contribution to the war effort.  He will already have made the ultimate sacrifice.  He deserves a chance to strike back, and to do so while experiencing as little discomfort as possible.

From this official prognosis, it would appear that soldiers are stripped officially of their humanity.  We as individuals may not know how to respond to someone who has only weeks to live, but we know that they are people and not tools, that they are to be related to and comforted, not in order to “prolong their utility,” but because that is the thing humans do for one another.

This prognosis also assumes something about “the soldier” that Christians cannot embrace: the desire for vengeance.  For the soldier who is a Christian, “a chance to strike back” can never be an end in itself.  Acts of warfare must always be waged to prevent some specific wrong; they must be “justified.”  Retaliation in itself is not justification.

But there’s more.  Part of basic training is “stress inoculation,” which attempts to make training as much like actual combat as possible, which is to say that combat becomes as much like make-believe as possible.  The military attempts to replicate the light, sound and intensity of combat.  One Army Ranger who fought in Somalia (1993) recalled

I just starting picking them out as they were running across the intersection two blocks away, and it was weird because it was so much easier than you would think.  It was so much like basic training, they were just targets out there, and I don’t know if it was the training that we had ingrained in us, but it seemed to me it was just like a moving target range and you could just hit the target and watch it all and it wasn’t real.

Of course, even with such inoculation, killing feels unnatural to healthy people.  Only about two percent of the population are considered “natural killers.”  According to U.S. military sources, this two percent actually account for up to 50 percent of the kills made by a unit.*  For the other 98 percent of soldiers, there is a natural resistance to killing that must be overcome.

The remorse and revulsion that a soldier can experience after killing, especially at close range, can render soldiers unable to kill again.  Dave Grossman describes the experience as a “collage of pain and horror:”

[M]y experience was one of revulsion and disgust… I dropped my weapon and cried… there was so much blood… I vomited… and I cried… I felt remorse and shame… I can remembering whispering foolishly, ‘I’m sorry’ and then just throwing up.”

The military uses a variety of means to overcome this resistance to killing in its recruits. Instilling hatred of the enemy into soldiers is at the center of these means. Veteran officer J. Glenn Gray wrote that, “Professional officers consider part of the psychological training of their troops to be training in hatred, and this becomes more systematized and subtler as the war goes on.”  Obviously, propaganda plays a part in this, as does ethnic and cultural stereotyping.  Dehumanizing terms like “gook,” “kraut” and “sand nigger” are employed, as are euphemisms for killing such as “knocked out,” “lit up” and “engaged.”

If Christians must kill (which, of course, I do not grant), this killing cannot be accompanied by hatred, or be done without regard to the image of God found in all people, whether neighbor or enemy.  Yet the military, in order to be efficient, relies on hatred and dehumanization of the enemy.  At the very least, this presents make the idea of Christians serving as soldiers difficult, and I believe the burden is on those within the just-war tradition to explain how soldiering as a profession is within the realm of Christian discipleship.

*Statistic presented in David S. Pierson, “Natural Killers: Turning the Tide of Battle,” Military Review, May 1999

No Pacifist Utopias

According to a common understanding, Christian pacifists are pacifist in part because the early church was pacifist before Constantine became the Emperor of Rome, at which point the church sold out on their pacifism and anti-government attitudes in exchange for a cozy spot as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  I know that in many cases this common understanding is true.  Many Christians are pacifist and hold to exactly this reading of history.

But if we read carefully John Howard Yoder’s argument for a Christian commitment to nonviolence, we will find that he, at least,  does not rely on such an account at all.  “Constantinianism,” as Yoder uses the term, does not depend on Constantine, but uses him as a symbol of the marriage between church and Empire.  According to Yoder, this marriage “began before A.D. 200 and took over 200 years; the use of his name does not mean an evaluation of his person or work.”  Any account of Constantinianism that begins before 200 A.D. doesn’t allow much time for a pacifist utopia to flower and then decay.

It is true that we find very strong pacifist writings among the church fathers.  But there’s a huge absence of information surrounding the early church, and those polemical pacifist writings were written against something present in the life of the church.  Some of the warnings against Christians serving as soldiers were clearly being aimed against Christians who were in fact serving as soldiers.  Even pacifist historians like Roland Bainton make it clear that the church was, at best, inconsistently committed to a nonviolent posture.

But likewise, Yoder argues that non-Constantinian strains continued to exist in the institutional church;  in the heights of the Middle Ages and through the Crusades you can find strains of pacifist resistance.  In his recently published Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, he says

Constantine did not change everything, and later reformations did not change everything. So we tip our hat at this point to a pacifist undercurrent in medieval culture, about which we can know little except that it existed. The medieval church remained largely pacifist. It is a fact that caesars and princes and their soldiers were let into the church, and that an ethic developed to permit them to be in the church despite their killing. This change did not mean that people saw the new ethic as normative for the rest of the Christians or believed that it set aside the earlier position. For most people, just war and canonical provisions allowing soldiers access to the church and the sacraments were concessions and exceptions, not the rule.

The claim that “the medieval church remained largely pacifist” might seem a bit exaggerated.  So what did Yoder mean by this?  He sets out six basic dimensions:

  1. The Peace of God protected specific places or persons (e.g. on church property, non-combatants named in 4, below).
  2. The Truce of God forbade violent hostility at certain times (e.g. holy days, Sundays).
  3. Bishops engaged in diplomatic intervention to mediate or arbitrate conflicts.
  4. Clergy, religious, penitents, pilgrims and peasants had exemption from military obligation; it was linked, in the case of the clergy and religious, to total prohibitions against fighting.
  5. The right of sanctuary was observed.
  6. Peace awareness had a liturgical undergirding; there were, for example, masses for peace, celebrations when wars ended, and legends that developed around peacemaking saints.
  7. Nonviolent – usually spiritual – sanctions dissuaded people from going to war, or from giving offense so as to promote war; these included excommunication and fostering the moral power of higher nobles.

Yoder readily admits that this was “the normative teaching of the church, which was seldom fully respected.”  Yoder goes on to describe the several militant orders that arose within the medieval church (Knights Templar, etc), but states that

this worldly church – the princely bishop, and the militant soldier-priest – remained the exception.  The main stream of canon law continued to say that a soldier could not be a priest or a priest a soldier.  A priest who went to the battlefield had to go as a confessor (chaplain), and he could not have a lethal weapon for self-defense…. Shedding blood disqualified a priest for ordination… People who have shed blood, even in a just war, do not have access to the Eucharist without a period of penance.

Yoder summarizes, “So we have several strands of rejection of war: the stories of saints, holy times and places, clergy exemption, and the polluting effect of shedding blood.”  And of course there were the movements within the church that made rejection of violence a focal point: Franciscans, the Brethren of the Common Life and other such groups.

What are are left with is an intelligent, mature, robust church history, in which peace concerns didn’t move from central to non-existent at one exultant instant, but rather where general fidelity to the radical counter-cultural lifestyle of the gospel was constantly being eroded by “realist” political concerns.  This explains why Yoder sees “Radical Reformation” not as a moment in history, but as a posture that attentive Christians must always assume as part of a church amidst Constantinianism in every age.

Why Does The National Anthem Matter?

A lot of folks in the U.S. are upset with Christina Aguilera for missing a step in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl last Sunday.  As she was singing, she replaced one line with an earlier line, apparently realized it halfway through and changed the verb in the earlier line to the correct verb.  In short, not a difficult mistake to make.

But why is it so important?  American typically watch videos of celebrities screwing things up so they can laugh at them.  Celebrities screw things up all the time and we love it.  Why is it so different to screw up the national anthem?

Well, one difference is that the National Anthem is a ritual.  That is is a ritual is inarguable, however you interpret the ritual.  It is a ritual because it is enshrined in law how to act during the ritual.  The U.S. Flag Code states:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. (src)

There are a number of ways this ritual can be understood.  I am convinced, following Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, that it is a totemic ritual.  In the imagery of the anthem, the flag stands as a totem or talisman of power, the presence of which guarantees that the British (in this case) cannot overcome the Americans.  As Marvin and Ingle put it in their Blood Sacrifice and the Nation,

During the British bombardment of 1814, Francis Scott Key was moved to model in poetry the flag’s endurance under fire. The battle for the death defying Star-Spangled Banner was ritualized as a creation-sacrifice guaranteeing the nation for eternity and illuminated by the regenerative dawn.

Now, I think Marvin and Ingle go too far, and rely too much on Weber’s account of a sociology of religion.  They argue not that Key meant this, historically, but that sociologically this is what his lyrics must have meant.  I reject that kind of social science.   Nevertheless, I do think their basic reading of the ritual is right: “The patriotic statement that Americans are an unconquerable people, common at times of totem peril, is a deadly serious statement of totem faith. The totem wards off evil and protects from harm.”

That is why it is a grave sacrilege for Christina Aguilera to flub a line.

As an iconoclastic Christian, I of course do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem.  But looking at the legal structure of the ritual, I wonder if standing is not as much a part of the ritual as singing.  Many of my fellow iconoclasts and “Jesus Radicals” say that they stand, not out of fidelity to the nation but out of respect to those around them, but now I am rethinking that.

What do you think?  Is the performance of the national anthem a ritual Christians should distance themselves from?  If so, is standing an important part of the ritual?  What do you do?  If not, how do you understand the ritual of the national anthem in a way that is not problematic for Christians?

How Craig Carter Changed My Mind, Twice

When I became a rosy-eyed Christian at the age of seventeen, I took the stance of non-violence more or less for granted.  I had been considering joining the military after high school, but joined the church instead.  It seemed like a clear case of either/or.  My recruiter seemed to think so too, and the instant I told him I was backing out of the process, and mentioned why, he backpedaled and that was that.  I guess army recruiters have better things to do than argue theology with high-school students.

It wasn’t until several years later that I began to actually begin studying a theology of nonviolence.  In the meantime, I drifted back and forth, embracing a Baptist-style casuistic ethic picked up (regretfully) from doing apologetics, and then embracing a leftist version of hippie pacifism picked up, in all likelihood, from listening to too much U2.

Enter Craig Carter.

I found his book Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post Christendom Perspective at a tiny Methodist bookstore at a retreat center in Florida.  It was the monthly special, and marked down to half-price.  I was vaguely familiar with John Howard Yoder, whose thought was at the center of the book, and I had of course read Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture for one of my ministry classes.  So I picked it up.

And it changed  my mind.

Suddenly these questions mattered deeply to me.  About half of my college friends and roommates were committed to nonviolence and about half were utterly opposed to it.  This became the center of most of our theological engagement.  I began reading all the Yoder I could get my hands on, and more than arguing for pacifism, I began arguing against Christians taking up a non-Christian understanding of pacifism.  (I guess I still took the non-violent posture of the church more or less for granted.)

But now Craig Carter is in the middle of a new rethinking.   His whole blog, Politics of the Cross Resurrected, is dedicated to this rethinking.  And this has led me to a major rethinking as well.

Carter is arguing in the same direction I had been (against Christians adopting a non-Christian form of pacifism), but much more forcefully.  Increasing numbers of left-leaning Evangelicals are reading (or perhaps co-opting) John Howard Yoder and instead embracing a form of liberal pacifism that they would then apply beyond the discipleship community.  (If Yoder and Bono are both listed as one’s spiritual influences, there is a good chance this is going on.)

The center of Carter’s rethinking seems clearest to me in a January 31 post entitled Yoder, Augustine and Christendom: What Is The Real Politics of Jesus? He begins with the observation that many self-described adherents to Yoder’s politics end up with an “individualistic and privatized” faith.  To the possible claim that such adherents are not embracing individualism just to the degree that they embrace a socialist view of society, Carter challengingly responds,

But what if socialism and the liberal democratic state are simply parodies of true community? What if, as Alasdair MacIntrye recognized, they mask a deep individualism at their roots which is more modern than Christian? Suppose we apply an Augustinian analysis to the modern welfare state. Should we not conclude that the modern state is – precisely to the extent that it privatizes Christianity – deeply idolatrous and pagan?

This resonates in my mind with Milbank’s reading of Augustine.

Carter goes on to provide a possible rereading of Christendom, drawing on Peter Leithart, that would challenge Yoder’s view that all Christendom is “Constantinian” and therefore heretical.    He begins by citing Stanley Hauerwas’s summary of Leithart on this point:

Leithart does not think his disavowal of pacifism means he has to reject Yoder’s contention that Jesus has a politics. In order to defend his own understanding of the politics of Jesus, he introduces a theme I can only hope he will develop in the future: his defense of Constantine turns on his claim that as a Christian, Constantine ended the Roman sacrificial system. Accordingly Constantine “desacrificed” the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice. The church, for Augustine, is the embodiment of Christ’s sacrifice, and this creates a new political reality necessary to keep the state appropriately modest.

I think “appropriately modest” is the key here.  The state is appropriately modest when it does not make pretensions to be the church (or a likewise salvific body, such as the welfare state or security state).  Carter’s evaluation of Leithart’s “theme” is brilliant, and gets perfectly at the heart of the kind of political theology I have been trying to argue for.

It seems to me that what Leithart sometimes calls the “desacrificing” of the Empire, and other times the “baptism” of the Empire, could also be called the “conversion of the Empire.” But misunderstanding lurks at every turn here. This “conversion” is the renouncing of idolatry by the Empire, not the turning of the Roman State into the Church. When the State becomes a Church we have a deformation of Christendom. Rather, what happens when the Roman State ceases sacrificing to the gods is that it becomessecular (i.e. belonging to this age between the two comings of Christ, destined to pass away at the end of the age).

Implicit in the ceasing of sacrifice is the recognition of the Church as an alternative polity, a community which proclaims the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ as the call to worship the True God alone through the sacrifice of Christ and therefore to cease from sacrificing to the gods. Yet, in recognizing the Lordship of Christ, the State does not become a Christian State in the sense of the Church taking over the State; instead the State recognizes the existence and legitimacy of an alien polity within its territory – the Church. The Church is the embodiment of true religion so the State no longer has to be religion in and of itself. It is Christian precisely by being secular.

Now, I am not sure that “converted” is the best term to use.  Carter makes a distinction between what an individual should be converted to (Christian discipleship) and what a state should be “converted” to (to cease sacrifice).  Perhaps with the different meaning we could simply come up with a different, and less contested, term.  What the state is doing may not be a conversion, but may simply be taking its appropriate place in God’s economy.  It would be a just authority, in the terms of Augustine’s sermon, in the previous post.

Carter concludes by suggesting that Yoder’s inability to see this form of modest, limited state as an alternative to either unfaithful theocracy and pagan idolatry means that we must look to the Augustinian tradition rather than the Anabaptist tradition to speak well of “The Politics of Jesus.”

At this point, I am not sure that it isn’t both.  To the church in Kenya (or a revitalized Church of England, one can only pray), this Augustinian reading of theological politics sounds exactly right.  But can the church in America work toward such a vision while remaining faithful disciples in the meantime?  Or must we draw on the Anabaptist tradition and recognize that  we are a minority church in an idolatrous nation?  (If Milbank reads liberalism rightly, it seems to me that this must necessarily be the case.)

My other difficulty with this political theology is how it might compromise ecclesiology and ethics.  If I am convinced, against Augustine, that the Christian cannot wield the sword of the state, then this political theology, for all its attractiveness, is rendered impracticable.  Do I take it, then, that Carter holds no commitment to total nonviolence in the life of a Christian?  Do we see a sort of Lutheran division of loyalties: is the Christian nonviolent while dispensing the gospel, but free to use force while traveling as a citizen?  If so, I am not sure how far I can travel down this particular road.  But, so far, I still travel with hope.

Augustine, Martyrdom and Nonviolence

Now we must follow in the footsteps of the martyrs by imitating them; otherwise our celebration of their feast days is meaningless.

This is among the first words in Augustine’s sermon on the feast of St. Laurence,one of his theologically and politically densest sermons.  The strand of thought that ties together the whole sermon, which moves from a meditation on the nature of life to an exhortation to exercise nonviolence in our personal lives (while supporting the violence of the God-ordained magistrate), is the contrast between lovers of this life and lovers of the next one.

Augustine’s encapsulation of this life is poetic and prescient, would not feel out of place in Pensees or Ecclesiastes, and deserves to be quoted in full.

Surely I needn’t remind you how short life is. We know from experience that it is full of suffering and complaining. It is beset by temptations, it is filled with fears. It burns with passions; it is at the mercy of change. It hurts in misfortunes; with success, it grows arrogant. It greets profit with unrestrained joy; and is tormented by losses. Even while someone is rejoicing over his profits, he is trembling in case he loses what he has already got, and has that to complain about. Though before he ever got it, of course, he wasn’t complaining. In short, life is genuine unhappiness, or deceptive happiness.

Augustine continues in this vein, and finally expresses puzzlement.  How is it that this unpleasant life has so many and such ardent lovers?  “There are so many lovers of this present life,” Augustine exclaims, “Temporary, brief, unpleasant, yet it has so many lovers!”  Augustine compares the clinging love of this life with the love of a “bad woman.”

What have you fallen in love with? What do you love that’s drawn you to it? You’re a corrupt lover of a bad woman: what are you going to say to her? How are you going to address this life of yours that you’ve fallen in love with? Talk her up, chat her up, win her over if you can. What are you going to say? “Your beauty has reduced me to this state of rags?” She shouts back, “But I’m ugly. Are you in love with me?” I can hear her shouting, “I’m a hard woman, and you’re embracing me?” She’s shouting again, “I’m the flight type – are you going to try and chase me?” Listen to the woman you love answering you: “I won’t stop with you; if I do spend a time with you, I won’t stay. I could strip you of your clothes – but I couldn’t make you happy.”

And yet this life has its lovers.  Augustine holds up the example of the martyr to show us that another love is possible: love of the next life.  Augustine gives several illustrations of why this is a sensible move to make.  He describes how some lovers of this life will pay their entire fortunes to live a little longer, and in the end are left without their fortunes and have only postponed death.  Why not instead give your fortune to Christ, who will keep both your fortune and your life to await you in the next life?

The martyrs possess this kind of wisdom, and unlike the dead who lost the life they love, now possess the lives they love, and “will possess it even more fully at the resurrection of the dead. And so, by suffering as much as they did, have paved the way for us.”

But Augustine hits an interesting wall here, because in recounting the martyrdom of St. Laurence, he observes that he was killed by the Roman state.  This leads Augustine to make two points, held together in a sort of dialectical tension.

The first point is that Christians must follow the martyr in not resisting evil men.  This passage mirrors or even pre-figures many writers who argue for Christian nonviolence, and is worth quoting at length.

If you are able, and are not bad yourself, then pray for the evil person to become good. Why do you treat those who are bad violently? You reply, ‘Because they are bad.’ As soon as you treat them violently, you add yourself to them. Let me give you some advice. There’s some evil person you despise? Well, don’t let there be two. You criticize him, and then join him? You swell the ranks you’re condemning. Are you trying to overcome evil with evil? To overcome hatred with hatred? Then there will be two lots of hatred, and both will need to be overcome. Can’t you hear the advice your Lord gave through the apostle Paul, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Now maybe he is worse than you; but you are still bad, and so there will be two of you who are bad. I’d rather that at least one were good. And in the end violence leads to death. Then what about after his death, when the one bad man can’t be touched by punishment any longer, while the other is taken up alone with his hatred? But this is not civil order; this is madness.

Augustine then moves from Romans 12, which he quoted above, to Romans 13, observing that punishment and the upholding of civil order is appointed not to individual Christians, but to the state.  “Bad men have their own judges and authorities,” he says, “He does not wield the sword without reason. He is an avenger of [God's] anger, but on the evil-doer.  If you do evil, then fear him.  Do you want to live without fear of the authorities? Do good, and you will have praise from them.”

But here is where Augustine is led into a position in tension with the one above.  St. Laurence did good, and was killed by the authorities.  And his answer, while unsatisfactory in itself, leads us in a promising direction.  His answer amounts to a word game.  He says,

The apostle did not say, ‘Do good and the authorities themselves will praise you’….If the authorities are just you will have praise from them in that they themselves will praise you. But if they are unjust, if you die for your faith, for justice and for truth, you will have praise from them even though they treat you violently.  You will have praise from them, even though they don’t praise you themselves.  They provide the opportunity for you to be praised… if the holy martyr Laurence hadn’t had [such] praise from the authorities, we wouldn’t be honoring him today.

I find this unsatisfactory because it holds an almost childishness overliteralness.  Who knows if this trick would work in Paul’s Greek anyway?  But for all that, the fundamental point is exactly right.  When an unjust authority persecutes Christians who are living holy lives, that is itself a form of praise. It means we’re doing something right.  When Christians living holy lives are put to death, the authorities are exposing both themselves and the church for what they are.

And yet Augustine famously endorses Christians to act as judges, executioners, governors and soldiers.  In these capacities (and only these) the Christian can act in judgment and punishment of others.  But even here Augustine is problematic for modern liberalism, as he observes that as a bishop of the church “when we find a pagan in authority, we treat him as we ought to treat a pagan, when we find a Christian in authority we treat him as a Christian.”  In other words, as a bishop he has spiritual authority over Christians, regardless of their position.  Indeed, in letters Augustine often pulls rank on Christians in government, illustrating a complicated church-state relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

Martyrdom is politically significant. The martyr shows us another way to live, in  faithful confrontation with the world. Augustine’s political theology, which I find problematic at points, gives us resources to draw on in a critique of modern liberal democracy. Among other things, it calls into question the distinction that Kennedy, and more recently Mitt Romney, stress between a spiritual Christian identity and a political, non-sectarian one.