Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

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When the guns went quiet

Had the privilege of preaching at MCC on Sunday. Since it was the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 it seemed appropriate to think of Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies (Luke 6:27-36).

end_of_the_warI finished the sermon with this picture and associated sound clip. The picture is of film onto which different microphones in the trenches were recording the sound intensity of enemy guns. Using triangulation, they could then pinpoint the location of those enemy guns.

The films were unearthed a while ago in the Imperial War Museum. The most dramatic one is of the 11th of November 1918, the day the guns went quiet. The film shifts from spikes of sound to the flat line of silence (above).

Clever people have reverse engineered the film to recreate the sound it first recorded. So, although there are no sound recordings of WW1, we can now hear the ending of the war and the first moments of peace after years of senseless slaughter.

Have a listen to the arrival of peace

The closing point I made in the sermon is that this is an image of Christian eschatological hope. Christians believe that one day the guns will go quiet for ever: no more war, no more mass shootings, no more violence, no more arms industry making billions from deaths of others. God’s kingdom will come, the Prince of Peace will rule, God will be ‘all in all’.

And in the here and now, it is the calling of those who belong to that King and his kingdom, to live lives of peace within this violent world. To lives that point to another kingdom to that of the world. A kingdom in which disciples refuse to take part in war, but follow the even harder calling of loving enemies.

Because this is what God is like – a God of kindness and mercy to the undeserving.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (7) on non-violence and Yoder’s sins

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

Hauerwas’ critique of Christian just war theory (eg Reinhold Niebhur) is a defining mark of his public persona – even if his work extends far beyond pacifism and just war. Brock elicits some very interesting responses in this chapter, not least on the actual details of what pacifism might look like in practice for a Christian.

But before we get there, what emerges is Hauerwas’ main concern – to attempt to get followers of a crucified Lord who rejected violence to at least have a major ethical and theological problem with going to war.

Christians belong to a different story to that of the modern nation-state. Theirs is a much older and deeper story; the story of God’s redemptive work in the world through his Son. They belong to his ‘peaceable kingdom’ which has arrived with the coming of the King. We live in the overlap of the ages as people of his kingdom and are called to humility, peacemaking, justice and love.

Hauerwas has tough words for American exceptionalism that has led to the hubris of multiple disastrous and unnecessary wars.

Well I think America hasn’t come to terms with being a genocidal nation, in relationship to Native Americans. We don’t tell that as a part of the story. I don’t think we’ve come to terms, still, with being a slave nation. Basically, we’re caught on the presumption that slavery has been defeated by the Civil War and by later developments that challenged segregation. Martin Luther King won. The radical implications of the fact that you are a slave nation and how to make that part of the story is just very difficult in America.  Often I say: if Americans had taken seriously that we were a slave nation, would we be in Iraq and Afghanistan now? The kind of humility that enables the historical acknowledgment that in turn funds a humble posture toward the contemporary world would give you a very different kind of foreign policy than we currently enact. (161)

And later on in a long and detailed discussion he explains his goal this way,

People oftentimes, as I’ve said earlier, ask “What about Hitler? Wouldn’t have you been a soldier in World War II?” I’m sure I would have been. It’s not like the position is saying, “You fought. You didn’t. The one that fought is wrong. The one that didn’t is right.” Those kinds of retrospective judgments do no one any good. The question is not, “Did someone, by being one of Caesar’s Legions become less Christian?” The question is, “What are we to do?” I’m just trying to help us recover why those that fought in Hitler’s Legions might have been better off if Christians had offered them a different life. I’m sure we could have! And what now, do we do, as Christians? I just want Christians to be able to say “no.” They probably won’t do it on just war grounds, but they should be a people who can maintain the kind of critical edge toward the nation- state that helps us keep the war- making potential of those states limited. (174)

I found this helpful. Christian pacifism is a minority pursuit historically. The predictable ‘What about Hitler?’ question is thrown out routinely as an obvious one-line defeater of the impracticability of non-violence. It blithely assumes that there are no other alternatives; it precludes critical analysis of nationalist narratives of war; it stunts the imagination of asking what does it mean to follow Jesus in a violent world; and it all too easily gives a ‘free pass’ to the inevitable unjust practices of war – since pretty well NO war ever matches up to the idealistic and impractical criteria of Christian Just War Theory.

What Hauerwas wants to see is real alternatives on the table for Christians – a bit like the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge I guess.

Brian Brock pushes Hauerwas to spell out what he means in practice it means to be a Christian committed to non-violence. It means a basic unwillingness to kill.

BB I think it will be very helpful to continue to probe a little bit more around the edges of this position. For instance, could a Christian be a law enforcement officer if they had to train on the gun range, shooting at human-shaped targets?

SH:     No.

BB:     So they couldn’t really be trained on guns?

SH:     They couldn’t really be trained on guns. They could be trained on certain kinds of physical response to people threatening violence that would look coercive. A kind of judo? I think that’s pretty interesting; that they learn to use the violence of the attacker against themselves. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

BB:   And, as you suggest in that passage, a Christian who was a prison warden or a cop and was in a police force where they were trained for choke holds should quit?

SH:     Absolutely. That’s exactly right. No question.

BB:     That’s a pretty robust hermeneutic for thinking these things through. But you haven’t really laid it out in this type of detail before.  (178)

What do you think of these practical positions?

Towards the end of the chapter the conversation switches to discussion of the revelations that have emerged over the sexual misbehaviour of Hauerwas’s friend and theological mentor John Howard Yoder.

Brock asks a fascinating and disturbing question – how is it that people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Yoder, all deeply committed to peaceful revolution and justice for the disempowered, were all implicated in blatant unjust exploitation of women? They misused their power and prestige over the powerless by ‘cashing in their fame by taking sexual liberties with women.’

Hauerwas has been criticised for too quickly ‘closing the case’ on Yoder’s misdeeds, after a church disciplinary process and failing to acknowledge just how damaging his actions had been. Here, he admits he hadn’t appreciated the ‘violence’ done by Yoder and how that process had not been complete.

But it shows that men have been socialized in ways that are destructive for us and clearly are destructive for women. I myself think that I did not appropriately appreciate the damage that John was doing to women, in terms of my own involvement in that situation, which was clearly on the side. But I don’t think that the disciplinary process was as successful as I thought it had been. (184)

Hauerwas also comments that

SH: It’s called self-deception, isn’t it? I mean, who knows what kind of stories Martin Luther King was telling himself. Yoder had this stupid theory. Gandhi was a Hindu so in terms like this, who am I to speak? I don’t know how to account for them. (185)

I think some more could be said on how to account for King and Yoder’s hypocrisy, self-deception or double-standards as Christian men, but the conversation moves on.

There is a paradox here is there not? On the one hand Christians are called, and enabled, to live a new life, pleasing to God. A life of service, care for others, love, kindness, and covenant obedience to God within an accountable community. As Paul says, we are to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’.  Sin is not to be accepted as inevitable.

Yet, on the other hand, Christians should also know better than anyone else, that the heart is deceitful and wicked. Leaders fail – rare is the leader who does not. As people of the cross we should know about the power and presence of sin. As pastors and pilgrims, we should also know people and all their frailties and contradictions.

So, we should be disappointed and surprised by the infidelities and failures of King and Yoder. But not shocked.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS there is also a long discussion on gender and sexuality, so I will do a second post on this chapter.

St Stephen’s Day and the Christian paradox of powerlessness

The last few months haven’t been conducive to much blogging. And how enjoyable to have a restful and quiet day today this St Stephen’s Day.

And, in case this is the last post of 2014, warm greetings to everyone who has passed through here in 2014 and very best wishes for 2015!

Growing up in the North, the 26th was always ‘Boxing Day’ – I never really knew why. As a boy I always vaguely associated it with the sport of boxing but, confusingly, boxing never seemed to be on TV. Apparently (well, according to Wikipedia anyway) it has to do with a Victorian custom of giving a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen and servants.

Which also helps to explain why a British custom like ‘Boxing Day’ is never mentioned in the Republic of Ireland. In the ‘South’, it is always St Stephen’s Day – and a far better name too.

At first glance, locating the day of the first Christian martyr the day after the birth of the Messiah appears to be a rather crude mistake. Birth, joy, fulfilled promise, and hope one day followed by mercilessness, violence and execution the next?

Yet, whoever it was who got to choose St Stephen’s Day was inspired. For this day is an immediate reminder of how, while the Word has become flesh, the world into which the Word entered remains (until its final restoration) a broken, hostile, political and violent place.

Incarnation was followed by the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem for their slaughtered children. The birth of the Christ-child led to Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives.

Deeply woven into the essence of the Christian faith is the ‘paradox of powerlessness’ – how God’s purposes are worked out in weakness, suffering and non-violence.

The Christmas story itself is full of such paradox. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of such paradox. And the cross is the place where that paradox climaxes in the violent death of God’s Son, Israel’s promised glorious liberator.

And the witness and lives of disciples of Jesus ever after are also to display that paradox.

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen
Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

As a follower of a crucified Messiah, Stephen deeply understood that paradox. He knew that the purposes of God will encounter violent opposition. He knew that a powerful experience of God’s Spirit was more likely to lead to death and persecution than to comfort, ease and peace. He knew that a deeply Christian response to injustice, violence and persecution was not to take up the sword in response, but, like his Lord, to pray for those who were about to take his life.

So self-evident is this paradox of powerlessness in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the life of Stephen, in the life and teaching of Paul and the rest of the NT writers, that it remains remarkable to me how many Christians, when they have a choice, routinely disregard the path of peace and non-violence for one of power, war and force.

Here’s a quote from a fine book I’m reviewing by Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters:

non-violence in its many expressions is not merely an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel … This gospel challenges the status quo of the (Roman) political order but not in a directly subversive way. Rather, it creates an alternative political body that seeks to overcome evil and enmity not by subduing it (as Romans and their opponents would have it), but by reciprocating good for evil. Such a strategy does not promise to be effective, not does it promise to achieve desirable results by gentler means. Rather, Christian obedience to the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history”.

It is as if the paradox of powerlessness is, when push comes to shove, seen as unreal, idealistic, naive and impractical in the ‘real world’.

The refusal to embrace the paradox of powerlessness is, I suggest, the greatest and most destructive temptation for the church, and for each individual Christian. For, at heart, it is a matter of faith and trust – in whom or what do we trust? In the foolishness of God and the power of his cross or in our own ability to protect ourselves and enforce our will on others?

The failure of Christendom through which we in the West are now navigating – where the [Western] church was in a position of authority and power for centuries to shape culture and impose its will – lies in its disconnect with the witness of people like Stephen (and ultimately his Lord).

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that the church is growing and vibrant and expanding globally in the very places where Christians experience and embrace the paradox of powerlessness; places where they are poor, excluded, persecuted and marginalised.

Yes of course these are not good things in themselves. Yes, we should work and pray against such injustice and violence. Like Pope Francis, we should speak out for and seek to help those enduring terrible suffering.

But we should also pray for God’s Spirit to empower believers to endure suffering in the name of Christ. That in their very powerlessness that the power of the gospel would be made manifest. That in their love for enemies, the love of God would triumph over evil.

And what we pray for others, we need also to pray in faith for ourselves this St Stephen’s Day.

‘No-one can force us to hate’: the courage and cost of non-violent resistance

One of the themes that Darrell Bock, who is a messianic Jew, unpacked from Luke-Acts in the recent IBI Summer Institute, was the place of Israel in the continuing purposes of God.

As this topic always seems to do, it raised some raw emotion and lively discussion. Bock is on the other side of the fence (you could almost take that literally) from Munther Issac, a Palestinian Christian who visited IBI a while ago.

But Prof Bock has been to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, has Palestinian – Christian friends, and keeps an open dialogue going on. While holding to a different theological interpretation, he actively forges relationships with fellow believers in working towards reconciliation.

All this is to link to this storyplease read it. 

This is a report from a professional secular news agency: but the heart of the story is the good news of the Prince of Peace. I can’t think of anything I’ve read that embodies the gospel more than Daher Nasser and his family.

News of reconciliation

News of love in a world filled with hate

News of hope

News of peace in a region of war

News of another kingdom

What are your reactions as you read it?

Anger? Outrage? Rage at the injustice of Israel?

Admiration?

Inspiration?

Grief?

Prayer?

Sometimes those who believe that Jesus’ words about loving enemies means not killing them are accused of being unrealistic and naive – taking the ‘soft option’ of non violence rather than the realistic option of violence in the cause of the greater good.

The Nasser family put that old canard to rest. This is the way of the Messiah who confronted injustice, evil and violence with self-giving love. It is in weakness, persecution, and even death that God’s power is, ironically, most evidently displayed.

May the Lord sustain and empower the Nasser family as they walk in the way of the cross.

 

Jesus and violence

In late July I did a seminar at New Horizon on ‘Jesus and violence’. Here are the ‘starters for 10’ used on the day.  I really enjoyed the interaction and discussion in a packed (and very hot) room.

And really enjoyed meeting Rikk Watts and his wife Katie and listening to his excellent Bible reading on Friday morning. Very encouraging to see loads of teenagers and young adults there.

Much to keep reflecting on, especially from reading Yoder’s War of the Lamb.

THESIS 1: THE USE OF ‘JUST VIOLENCE’ HAS BEEN, SINCE CONSTANTINE, THE MAJORITY POSITION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

THESIS 2: VERSIONS OF ‘JUST WAR’ HAVE UNDERPINNED CENTURIES OF VIOLENCE IN IRELAND

 

THESIS 3: JESUS CALLS HIS DISCIPLES TO FORSAKE VIOLENCE AND EMBRACE A LIFE OF RADICAL OBEDIENCE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

THESIS 4: VARIOUS HERMENEUTICAL OBJECTIONS TO JESUS’ TEACHING IN MT 5 ON RADICAL NON-VIOLENCE FAIL TO PERSUADE

THESIS 5: THE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CONFIRMS JESUS’ TEACHING ON NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 6: IN REGARD TO VIOLENCE IN THE OT, THE BIBLE NEEDS TO BE READ AS ONE UNFOLDING NARRATIVE THAT CLIMAXES IN THE LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS

THESIS 7: EARLY CHURCH HISTORY IS COMPELLING IN ITS WITNESS TO NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 8: ACTIVE NON-VIOLENT WITNESS IS NOT EQUAL TO SUPINE PASSIVITY

THESIS 9: CHRISTIAN ‘JUST WAR’ PRACTICE IS FATALLY FLAWED

 

THESIS 10: PRACTICING ACTIVE NON-VIOLENCE REFLECTS THE UPSIDE-DOWN, SURPRISING, COUNTER-CULTURAL AND SELF-GIVING WAY OF JESUS – AND IS A POWERFUL FORETASTE OF AN ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITY LIFE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Hauerwas and ‘war and the Irish difference’

I’m writing this on a train sitting in Connolly Station. On the table in front of me is a book I’ve been reading by Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity. It is superb.

Back when, I wrote a book on evangelicals and nationalism in Northern Ireland but I can only dream of writing like Hauerwas on ‘War and the Irish difference: theological reflections on violence and national identity’.

In a quite brilliant chapter he unravels ‘Why war is a moral necessity for America’.  In it, he traces how the Civil War descended into a ‘total war’, vigorously supported by the clergy. The moral stakes were raised to justify obliteration of the other side. God and nation were joined together, the latter being given a messianic destiny that demanded utter loyalty – and utter violence. For both North and South, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.’ [Hauerwas quoting Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: a moral history of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), p.43]. Blood sacrifice and martyrdom for the noble national cause sacralised the war, elevating it to a moral battle. And nowhere is this more plainly seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work for which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people , by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A nation determined by such words, Hauerwas proposes, means that it does not have the capacity to keep war limited.

Which brings me back to Connolly Station. Just across the platform on the wall is a plaque inscribed with the 1916 Irish Declaration of Independence. It begins

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

The context is different, the theology of blood sacrifice for national freedom the same. ‘Just war’ or ‘just violence’ lies at the heart of Irish identity and history, just as it does for America. And the unleashed power of sacred nationalism could not be controlled in Ireland either – it led straight to a vicious civil war and later to 30 years of IRA violence.

Later, Hauerwas talks of the silence surrounding war and killing.

To kill, in war or in any circumstance, creates a silence – and certainly it is right for silence to surround the taking of life. After all, the life taken is not ours to take. Those who kill, even when such killing is assumed to be legitimate, bear the burden that what they have done makes them “different”. How do you tell the story of killing? Killing shatters speech, ends communication, isolating us into different worlds whose difference we cannot even acknowledge. (67)

This is why, I think, the Irish Civil War was virtually erased from popular consciousness throughout the 20th Century. The shame and pain of Irish ‘fratricide’ was too deep to dare uncover.

And such is the stain of killing that establishing the legitimacy of violence becomes of crucial importance.  The battle for legitimacy of past violence continues to dominate Northern politics.

But, Hauerwas argues, the Christian alternative to war is worship and reconciliation.

The church does not so much have a plan or a policy to make war less horrible or to end war. Rather, the church is the alternative to the sacrifice of war in a war-weary world. The church is the end of war … Christ has shattered the silence that overwhelms our killing and restores those who have killed, because his sacrifice overwhelms our killing and restores us to a life of peace. Indeed we believe that it remains possible for those who have killed to be reconciled with those they have killed. This is no sentimental bonding represented by the comradeship of battle. This is reconciliation made possible by the hard wood of the cross. (69)

Comments, as ever, welcome.