Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

Yesterday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allows religious-based organizations involved in foster care to discriminate in the provision of services based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” It previously passed the House and there is no reason to suspect that Governor Abbott will not sign House Bill 3859 into law.

As an attorney, (but not a constitutional law attorney, mind you), I have a strong suspicion that this bill violates the Constitution’s protections of religion, right to privacy and, as only recently affirmed by SCOTUS, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. We shall see.

But this is not a post about the law. This is a post about my views on the matter as a Christian and a foster parent. I’m appalled, but unfortunately not surprised.

There has been a growing movement among conservative Christians–especially in Texas, I think, though my lens is distorted since that’s where I am–to protect the right to refuse people services based on religious belief. This is both theologically untenable and ridiculously counterproductive from the standpoint of evangelism and discipleship.

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to refuse to: (1) place children with certain families because of the family’s differing religious views; (2) place children with persons or families whose homosexuality–as the Methodist Church would put it–is incompatible with Christian teaching; and (3) provide certain services (abortions or vaccines, for instance) to children in their care. There is no question that this legislation is motivated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

I hear about this bill and what the Christian churches involved in lobbying for the bill say through the legislation is: “My right to force my values on other people is more important than helping children without homes. I want to help children without homes, but only if I can do it my way without any risk of repercussions.”

That is not a witness to the Christ who tells us, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Nota bene that the statement does not read, “whatever you do for the least of these who believe in me just like you do….”

The Texas foster care system has been judged by a court to be illegally deficient in the protection and services provided to foster children. There is a shortage of foster parents and a surplus of children who need homes.  Is this really the time to move for the right to exclude foster parents who are otherwise qualified and vetted to take in and care for children from “the system?”

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m pretty passionate about my own interpretations of the Christian faith. But I’m also not so egotistical and prideful as to have surety of my religious understanding so as to completely discredit, disregard and disrespect those of other beliefs–Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, there comes a point where I feel that the hypocrisy is so blatant that I cannot help but take offense and I am filled with a righteous-seeming anger that the actions of other people acting under the banner of Christianity are besmirching my faith and sabotaging my own ability to evangelize and disciple to the world. It’s an uphill battle when you have to start a conversation about your faith with, “No, that’s not really what Christianity is about. I promise.”

Just last night I was in a church meeting where the perennial question, “How do we get more millennials to come to church?” came up. The best answer: stop doing stuff like this! Stop putting self-affirmation in front of helping people and making the world a better place? Millennials smell hypocrisy like a bloodhound tracking a scent, not that they need to be able to when judgment is thrown before mercy in such blatant manner! People are leaving the church (or never giving it a thought in the first place) not because of outdated furniture, color schemes or worship styles but because some make of it an instrument of oppression and transgression rather than one of confession and profession.

As a foster parent, how dare the government spend time trying to exclude some of my willing helpmates rather than actually fixing a deplorably broken system for the benefit of the children? It makes my life tougher even as I’m trying to help. That’s not good for an already-overburdened system.

There. That’s enough said about being appalled. Why am I not surprised? Because this is just one more milestone on the current trajectory of many Christians. We see this in the demand for people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and talk about the “war on Christmas” or the “war on Christians.” A little secret: no one needs to make war on Christianity for the relevance and the effectiveness of the church to dwindle into nothing–we’re doing a great job of that ourselves.

More broadly, it’s an indication of current trends in American culture–let’s blame others so that we can discriminate against them rather than truly trying to solve the suffering of the world.

When our priorities are correct, the revelation of our faith in Jesus comes naturally and is inevitable. When we make our goal protectionism over all else, I’m afraid that Jesus turns away from us in shame. Can you blame him?

Demonology

I’ve been doing some research into demonologies lately for some of my fiction writing, and, naturally, it’s got me thinking about demons and devils from a theological standpoint.

Most of Christian demonology (and the demonology of Judaism and Islam, for that matter) is based on folk belief run amok.

The Book of Job features “the Satan” (“Ha-Satan”), not so much a formal name as a title of office: “the adversary.” In Job, the Satan’s position is just that, the skeptic who doubts Job’s sincerity and requests God’s permission to test Job’s faith. Here, the Satan’s intent is not to corrupt Job but to uncover the truth of his piety. We should also read the Satan in this text as highly metaphorical; through the story the author is leading us through an investigation of the problems of evil and suffering. The ultimate answer given at the end of Job is that we humans cannot fully understand evil and suffering and must trust in God as the only satisfactory resolution. The Satan, then, represents a force or condition personified for mythopoeic effect more than a literal being.

The word “satan” appears in the Old Testament about 18 times outside of Job. The King James Version (already saturated with folk demonology–James VI & I himself wrote Daemonologie in 1597) sometimes translates the word as a proper noun when it more correctly should have been translated as “an adversary.”

There is one notable exception: Revelation 12:7-9, which reads: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” We’ll return to this below.

The word translated by the King James as “Lucifer” appears in Isaiah 14 and should properly be translated as “morning star” rather than a proper name.

So where do our ideas about Satan and Lucifer, fallen angels and great demons come from? As I mentioned above, a borrowed and greatly embellished folk tradition that somehow became enmeshed within Christianity.

The early Mesopotamian cultures had extensive legends about demons, much of which we have come to know from apotropaic amulets and inscriptions. There are Alu and Agag, the edimmu and the Lilu, just to name a few. Mesopotamian ideas naturally influenced Jewish ideas (remember that Abram is called by God to leave the Mesopotamian cities in Genesis) and through Jewish thought came to Christian thought. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity provided additional opportunities for pagan demonologies to influence demonological thought among Rabbis and Jewish scholars.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide some insight. We know that Qumran, the community of the (probably) Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was probably founded between the 130’s and 100’s B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, both of which make reference to the episode in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God”–interpreted in these texts as angels–rebel by taking human wives, giving birth to the Nephilim. Because of this, we know that a well-developed and codified set of demonological ideas exists at about the time of Christ. To what extent these ideas were widely accepted is, I think, unknown.

The likeliest influence for a chief demon in the popular concept of Satan is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion, in which the good God Ahura Mazda battles the evil god Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) for control of the world. This idea of a powerful evil being in opposition to the supreme being (and in the early Old Testament the Hebrews appear to be henotheistic long before they are truly monotheistic) must have been an attractive one for the explanation of evil and suffering in the world.

This jibes well with the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, a war in heaven that ends with Satan and his followers being cast out or cast into Hell. In a truly monotheistic mindset, it doesn’t make sense to think that one–angel or not–could overthrow the sovereign creator of all things and take God’s place as lord of creation. If this popular “Satan’s rebellion” story is true, I question the danger of an adversary who can’t do a basic benefit to risk assessment; it’s the smart criminals you have to watch out for.

Now we return to the passage in Revelation. But we ought to be careful: while the core nugget of Satan rebelling against God and a war in heaven is there, the nature of the text and the narration make it unclear whether we’re looking backwards in time or forwards. Based on the surrounding context (that the seven seals have been broken and trumpets are blowing) this appears to be a depiction of a future time–not a spiritual history.

The Revelation of John was probably written somewhere in the 70’s to 90’s A.D.–not long after or perhaps even concurrently with the Book of Mark. Plenty of time for popular demonological beliefs to take hold–and well before the canonization of the New Testament texts. We know that 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees existed before the Book of Revelation was likely written, so we know that there were demonological ideas that to draw upon at the time, even if most of these ideas would not make it into canon.

There is much information to be had on ancient demonologies and their potential influences on one another. For my purpose here, I mean only to point out in broad strokes that most of our ideas about “the devil” and Satan are based on conjecture and elaboration–some of it fanciful–rather than Scripture.

Most of our understanding of the “war in heaven” narrative–in the popular mind–comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is from that work, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and long-standing oral traditions that our concept of the devil comes about.

Why does this matter? Because the way we think about evil matters. Is there evil in the world? I don’t think there’s any question about that. Is there a personified, capital “E” Evil at work in the world? I don’t know–I don’t think that Scriptures are entirely clear on this matter and we can cause more suffering than we alleviate if we focus overmuch on a the “spiritual warfare” against a personified Other in our efforts to seek justice and peace in our world.

To be clear, the Scriptures do indicate a confidence in the existence of supernatural entities that can affect the world, some of them evil or unclean. The Witch of Endor (surprisingly not related to Star Wars) summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel at Saul’s command; Jesus is shown driving spirits out of the afflicted as well. I’m unwilling to deny this; nor can I categorically prove or disprove the existence of a Satan. But, we don’t know the extent to which Jesus’s exorcisms were really the contemporary cultural understanding of the miraculous healing of mental illness and to what extent actual predatory beings were involved. Maybe I’m hedging my bets, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s some of both. Still, we’re not Jesus and therefore not blessed with absolute knowledge of which is which, We ought to take a very careful approach, then.

What are the dangers of a focus on Satan as a strong influence on our lives? The most obvious, I think, coincides with the previous paragraph: the employment of exorcism as a tool when the situation really calls for mental health treatment. Much research shows how mental conditioning can create a situation where a person can be made to believe that they need an exorcism and to play the role of the afflicted even when they would not have said that they were possessed before entering the preparation for exorcism. The extreme measures used in some exorcisms have led to deaths–this isn’t really helpful to anyone. Again, I’m not saying that an exorcism can never be an appropriate course of action (I’m skeptical but I don’t have any way of knowing for sure) and I have no problem with ritual abjuration and exorcism, such as performed by the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to baptism. More often than not, however, I think exorcism is the creation of problems that do not exist, obstructing the addressing of those problems that do.

In the wider spiritual sense, however, it’s not exorcisms that most concern me. What concerns me is the functions a Satan figure fulfills in practice. On the one hand, Satan makes a convenient scapegoat for personal responsibility–the classic “the Devil made me do it.” There’s a definite psychological advantage to saying “I did that thing I feel guilty about because I was weak in the face of the Devil’s temptation” over saying “I made a bad choice that was my doing entirely.” While psychologically advantageous, this practice is not spiritually advantageous–to repent for sins we must accept responsibility for them.

The most dangerous, as I’ve seen firsthand: saying that someone is under the influence of Satan is the ultimate act of creating Otherness. Once done, the namer typically treats the name as a force of Evil against which the only righteous course of action is vehement opposition. The named can never have a good point, raise an issue that ought to be considered, or be approaching a conflict from a place of reason. The voice of the named may be entirely disregarded. I have seen this in intrachurch conflict; it is painful to watch, frustrating to deal with, and Sisyphean to resolve.

As a further example of this, take a look into the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is the closest we’ve come to a witch-hunt in modern times, I think, and most if not all of the accused were innocent. If there is a Satan, he was well served by those events.

Here’s the ultimate irony, I think: Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. If there is a Satan, as an archnemesis of humanity, ought we not to try to love even him? Yes, we must reject evil, but rejecting evil is a matter of standing against particular actions and outcomes, not against people themselves. What does opposition to a Satan in a way that shows mercy to the extent possible look like? Personified evil can only lose its power in the face of love.

A focus on Satan as a force of evil blinds us to looking at institutional evil, the ways in which our society–which includes us and our own complicity–perpetuates oppression, injustice and inequality. When we look to a personified evil acting in the world for us to oppose, we neglect the evil we do, especially when we can say “my evil is far less than that of the Devil.”

As an aside, I think it’s interesting (and perhaps important as well) to note that most self-avowed Satanists do not belief in a literal Satan. They instead believe in the Nietzschean pursuit of selfish power at the expense of all else (an idea that remains nevertheless anathema to the Christian), but they do not per se believe in a Devil or even necessarily in evil for evil’s sake (although the line quickly blurs when exercising power for power’s sake). If even those who explicitly make Satan the focus of their philosophical ideology (and there are, unfortunately, some Christians who do the same, albeit from a more oppositional  perpesctive) view Satan as a figurative symbol for selfish living and rebellion for its own sake, we ought to consider the figurative meaning of a Satan in our own theology at least as much as a literal meaning.

The thoughts of Satanists do not make the existence of Satan true or untrue. My own thoughts here bear the same powerlessness, and I’ll explicitly state once again that I believe in the possibility of the existence of evil supernatural entities–personified evil or not. There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. At the same time, we are far better served striving against the evil within us and within our collective way of living before looking for some external evil to combat–even spiritual warfare has a tendency to bring out the darker side of human nature, I think.

A close inspection at the Biblical sources for Satan, especially when viewed alongside the historical development of popular ideas about a personified evil in the form of some archnemesis spirit, leaves some doubt about the literal existence of a demonic force. A belief in Satan as the ultimate adversary is not a key component of Christianity (although I think that it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of evil as a condition or description of conditions is). I fully understand that there are those convicted that they know that Satan does exist. I must respect their position as much as possible because I cannot confirm or deny the truth of their experience–not that there is no absolute truth about their position, just that I don’t have access to it. In light of such uncertainty, we are better served looking to humanity and the ways in which we sin and bring evil to fruition before we blame Satan or some other supernatural force for the decisions we make and the conditions we allow to persist.

 

The End of Violence, Part IV: An Argument

As promised, I’m going to humbly offer here my own views as to the appropriate relationship between the Christian and violence. The best way to begin, I think, is to start with a few statements based upon the previous posts in this series (or from scripture not discussed) and which all readers could (I hope) agree upon. Following these statements are some questions raised by the previous analysis that represent issues that must be resolved.

First: When it has a chance of success, a non-violent approach is morally superior to a violent approach.

Second: Jesus never explicitly commands his followers not to do violence.

Third: Jesus wants us to love even our enemies.

Q: If some violence is acceptable, when and how much?

 Q: Does loving our enemies (or our friends, for that matter) necessarily mean punishing those who commit injustice?

Q: How do we resolve the tension that results when we are called to love both those who would do harm and those they target as victims?

The three statements and three questions give us a good foundation to build upon before we delve into the gray area. Here’s how we begin:

Precept 1: The Christian should, to the extent possible, avoid using violence.

Violence solves problems, yes, but it typically creates more problems than it solves. Thus, Matthew 26:52, “They who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

As a student of Renaissance history, I often think of the Wars of the Roses or the vendettas fought amongst the Italian nobility during the Quattrocento. One act of violence creates a need to “get justice” or “get even” or “punish wrongdoers.” We are left with a century of bloody conflicts, each subsequent engagement arising out of those fought before it. I’m not sure that any other century is different.

Machiavelli, writing about that time, offers the pragmatic advice in The Prince that, when one moves against one’s enemies, one ought to destroy every remnant, every vestige of the enemy and his friends and relations so that none is left to seek reprisal. In the struggle for power, as was the status quo in Machiavelli’s Italy, this is sound advice. But it also reflects the extremity to which violence must be used to prevent further violence.

We ought to realize that violence, even if used for just purposes, is a result of the fallenness of humanity. Were everyone to love his neighbor as himself, there would be no need for violence. Thus, while an individual act of violence may not be a particular sin, the use of violence is always the participation in the corporate sin of humanity. Because of this, it must be used only as a last resort and should be employed only with a since of sorrow that a better outcome could not be achieved.

Precept 2: Violence should only be used to prevent or stop violent injustice against a person, not after the fact. The need for violence must be immediate.

If there’s time to think of alternative solutions, there’s time to seek a non-violent resolution to a problem. On the other hand, if immediate action is required, however, the time for seeking de-escalation of the conflict has been lost. This precept helps us to comply with Precept 1.

Let’s also think of the collateral consequences here. One of the questions posed above was how we can balance loving victims and wrongdoers. When immediate action is not necessary, we can attempt to work on loving solutions for both parties. Yes, this may be punishment for a wrongdoer, but I leave that an open question for another series of posts. When immediate action is necessary to preserve life and limb, it seems just to intervene against the wrongdoer to protect the innocent. Not our first choice given the requirement to love even our enemies, but the choice to do something non-violent has been taken from us when immediate responsive violence becomes necessary.

This also means that we do not use violence to punish wrongdoers when there is no immediate threat. Violent punishment has largely been shown to be ineffective at deterring future offense (look at 18th Century England, where the death penalty was handed out like it was about to be outlawed). More important, punishment is more about the punisher and not the punishee. When we seek violent retribution for wrongs done to us or others, we are willingly participating in the fallenness that perpetuates violence in the world. “Vengeance is mine…sayeth the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19). Violence inflicted as punishment cannot restore to wholeness the party injured by a crime. Because only God is truly just, we ought to leave the meting out of retributive punishment to God. I’m not saying we should never punish wrongdoers; however, violently punishing them is nothing but retribution.

This also means that violence should not be employed to protect property—only people. I’d like to avoid (for now) debates about Jesus’ views on personal property and ownership. Without going into that, I think that we can agree that Jesus’ teachings and life made clear that he valued human life over any property rights he believes in (whatever those may be).

In Texas, where I live, the law explicitly allows justified use of force for the protection of property in specific circumstances. But the law and morality should not be confused—they are separate entities with separate goals and concerns, only sometimes aligned.

Precept 3: Only the necessary amount of violence ought to be used.

To the extent that we can avoid doing more harm than necessary, we should. This is an aspect of loving our enemies. Deadly force ought not to be used if less-than-deadly force could reasonably suffice. The amount of violence we use ought to be scaled to the injustice or violence we seek to prevent. This, perhaps, is what we should take away from Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek—violence is not the answer to offense, even if violent, that does not really threaten life or limb.

I need to hedge and be absolutely clear that, while a solid precept from a philosophical/theological standpoint, strict adherence to this precept is extremely difficult in practice. When we apply force—especially deadly force—against another person, we have little surety in the ultimate results of the force. There’s plenty of second-guessing to be done in the aftermath of a violent engagement (Would fewer shots fired have been sufficient? Could I have done something differently to stop the attacker and injure him less?), but split-second decisions must be made in a fight and survival is on the line, so the objectively best choices may not be made in the moment.

I recently heard someone say, “if the bad guy is worth shooting once, he’s worth shooting five times.” This is tactically correct—while the human body is a frail thing and a single wound from a firearm may kill a person in a relatively short amount of time, the body is also highly resistant over the short term and a single shot from a weapon the likes of which a civilian would be wielding is unlikely to immediately physically stop the attacker (though it might psychologically). Since the goal of morally-applied violence is to stop the attacker as soon as possible, a high amount of force quickly applied may be necessary, making it less likely that the attacker will survive.

As another complicating factor, applying a lesser degree of force is often accompanied by a greater degree of risk of injury to ourselves. Having studied techniques of unarmed combat, I know (technically) how to defend and disarm someone with a knife. But the same training has made clear that, when fighting a person with a knife, you will get cut, and even expert fighters (which I do not claim to be) can be killed in a knife-fight because of bad luck. If knives come out and I have reasonable tactical distance from the threat, I’d rather be behind a gun. I’m not a big guy by any means, and there are plenty of people in this world with whom I’d prefer not to go toe-to-toe unless forced and, if I’ve decided that violence is morally justified, I’m going to fight to win. A disparity in force with my opponent means the stakes of the violence may be raised higher than I would have voluntarily raised them and I must respond in kind.

Where we can, though, we ought to mitigate the results of our violence to the extent possible. After the threat is over, we ought to provide all the medical attention we can to the injured parties—including and perhaps especially any wounded attacker(s). Again, this is a matter of loving our neighbors.

Precept 4: A Christian who is prepared to do violence must make efforts in the world to prevent the necessity of violence.

If, as I do, you stand willing to do violence to other human beings to protect the innocent, you must recognize some responsibility for participation in culture and human nature that permits violence. Recognizing that, you ought to make efforts to proactively prevent the causes of violence where possible.

By this, I mean actively trying to make the world a better place. Of course, the Christian is called to this anyhow; we are called to show mercy and love justice, so we ought to (non-violently) pursue justice for the oppressed where we can, and we ought to focus on giving wrongdoers the chance to atone and reintegrate into society rather than focusing on punishing them.

This means showing kindness and respect to others—especially those with who you disagree, helping the poor to escape poverty, helping to improve unjust systems and institutions, and showing the love of Christ to our neighbors.

The person willing to do violence ought not to be quick of temper and ought to be ready to forgive offenses—otherwise our readiness to do violence turns to definitely destructive and sinful ends. We ought to hope that we never have to do violence to another person, even if we devote time, talent and money to preparing for the possibility. We must recognize that the proper response to violence is not always more violence.

If we are prepared to do violence, we Christians must be more prepared to refrain from doing violence.

Conclusion

I’d like to summarize my argument thus: We ought to view violence itself as an evil, but one that may be occasionally be used to prevent greater evil. While Christ does not explicitly command us not to do violence, it is clear that love ought to prevail wherever it can. Violence should be employed only reluctantly and with sorrow for the alternative resolutions that have been lost, even if they have been lost through the will of someone other than ourselves. Most of all, we ought to do everything that we can to prevent violence, both in our immediate situation and in the world at large.

I think I probably have one more post on this topic to do, to clean up a few loose ends and address a few things that I realize I’ve left out (what about the Ten Commandments!). More to come.

 

 

 

The End of Violence, Part III: Re-examining Jesus and Violence

To be fair, there are several arguments (other than the one about the swords) given for the position that Jesus advocated for non-violence where possible but never took the position that violence was categorically impermissible.

An article on RealClearReligion.com by Jeffrey Mann organizes some of these arguments, so I’m going to make reference to it (from April 30th, 2014, available at: http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/04/30/the_myth_of_a_non-violent_jesus.html).

Mann makes a few good arguments, I think. In the original Greek, the word used in Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek refers to an open-handed strike—an act of humiliation rather than of serious threat. For Mann, the statement does not preclude a permission to defend oneself. Mann also argues that the example of Jesus going to his death without fighting against it should not be viewed as the example for all people in all scenarios.

I want to agree with the second argument, but I have to acknowledge that we get into tricky territory when we start to say “follow Jesus in this, but not in this.” That difficulty, however, is not sufficient to say that the argument itself is incorrect.

Mann also brings up the point that, when we’re talking about the use of violence to protect others, there is a natural tension between loving the person against whom we might use violence and loving those who we seek to protect. I want to acknowledge that, but I want to argue against his statement (drawn from C.S. Lewis) that failing to punish criminals is a failure to love our neighbors. Punishment occurs when there is no immediate threat; that is a very different thing than using violence to stop an immediate danger to life and limb. I’ll talk about my views on justice in the legal system in other posts, but suffice to say for now that I believe that our punishment of criminals is more about us than them, and I stand against the death penalty as a punishment.

Mann asks the question, “Should we simply forgive them [our enemies] when they do awful things? This clearly cannot be what Jesus intended.” And yet, Jesus forgives those who persecute and kill him. I think that Jesus would have us attempt to love both victim and offender—to help restore the victim to wholeness (to the extent that we can) and help the offender to not offend again. We are called, ultimately, not to judgment but to healing. Unfortunately, people do not always give us the option to help them and sometimes wholeheartedly resist our attempts to love them.

There is also the passage in which Jesus takes a whip to the moneylenders in the temple. (John 2:15). It’s hard to call that a non-violent event; it’s even premeditated considering that we’re told that Jesus fashions the whip himself. On the other hand, the other Gospels make no mention of a whip in the same event, the word for “drove” is the same root as when Jesus “drives” demons out of the possessed and, after all, John is the most metaphorical and least literal of the Gospels.

Origen, the only church father to have commented on this passage in the first three centuries of the Church, reads it in purely a spiritual rather than a literal light. And, nowhere is it stated that Jesus even swings the whip at people, much less that he strikes anyone. For a great commentary on John 2:15, see “Jesus, the Whip, and Justifying Violence” by Nathan W. O-Halloran, SJ on The Jesuit Post blog on Patheos.com (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thejesuitpost/2015/03/jesus-the-whip-and-justifying-violence/).

Where I strongly disagree with Mann is in his use of the Old Testament scriptures as an argument for the permissibility of violence. I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have read my posts on Ambiguity in Scripture and therefore already know my thoughts on this matter. I just don’t think that God did authorize the slaughtering of innocents for the benefit of Israel. I have less trouble with the idea of defensive actions fought by the Isrealites, but the question of whether such behavior is acceptable under Jesus’ New Covenant stands.

Before I leave Mr. Mann aside, I do want to accentuate his excellent point about the theological danger of heaping judgment upon professional or volunteer soldiers if one believes that Jesus would never tolerate any violence under any circumstance. Jesus also told us that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Soldiers end up in often horrifying circumstances not of their own choosing, being asked to give all to do things that others won’t do so that those same others don’t have to.

The soldiers I know, especially those who have seen combat, do not want to kill people but are willing to do so to perform their duty and to protect their brothers and sisters in arms. They have a tremendous respect for the enemy who faces them in open combat. They have a conviction of belief that makes them ready to shed blood for what they hold dear. That is a powerful thing, and to be respected.

On a different note, let us also not forget that Jesus also has hard—and sometimes downright terrifying—statements as well. He tells us that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). His pronouncements about the fate of the wicked often seem to be uncompromising, and he is unafraid to speak of the way that the world will hate those who follow him. Some of this is likely intended to be metaphorical, to be sure, but we cannot simply write off the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.

Maybe I’m simply not capable of unambiguously dealing with an issue of importance. Or maybe it’s that every issue of importance remains ambiguous to some degree or another. Either way, we again end up with great ambiguity with the question of violence.

In the last (probably) post in this short series, I’ll try to offer a nuanced and workable approach that, I hope, seeks to follow Jesus intentionally and to the fullest extent possible while also accounting for the exigencies and realities of a fallen world.

The End of Violence, Part II: Jesus and Just War

Jesus is pretty clear about violence, it seems. We are to “turn the other cheek” to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” and to “love our neighbors.”

The “sheepdog” community (those tactically-trained civilians who see it as their duty to protect the unarmed masses from threats—we’ll talk more about this later) often likes to refer to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells the disciples, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…” as justification for the carrying of weapons and use of defensive force. This, I think, takes the comment out of context. Just two lines later (Luke 22:38), the disciples bring Jesus two swords and he says “that is enough.” Something non-literal, something symbolic is taking place here.

Some theologians point to the passage as Jesus ensuring that a prophecy is fulfilled, without any real intention that the disciples take up arms. Indeed, Jesus has up to this point defied the expectations of those awaiting the Messiah and avoided leading an armed rebellion against Roman overlords.

The authors of the New Bible Commentary: Revised Third Edition go even further, comparing the statement with previous times Jesus has sent the disciples out with nothing—especially not swords—and they had been provided for without fail. The statement “That is enough,” is Jesus ending a conversation the disciples have failed to understand rather than commenting on the number of swords he has been brought.

This jibes well with the events in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting the ear off of one of the men who comes to arrest Jesus, healing the man and warning that “they who take the sword shall perish by the sword”—violence begets violence (Matthew 26:52).

The entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry makes clear that Jesus would have us love, and that his conception of love does not brook violence, right?

I think that we can definitely say that Jesus tells us (and experience bears this out) that violence is never a good solution to a problem. But does that mean that the Christian should never use violence as a last resort?

An example of the other side of the coin can be found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the main character’s civics teacher, a military veteran himself, retorts to a student who complains that “violence never solves anything” to “tell that to the Carthaginians!” (During the Punic Wars the Romans completely devastated the Carthaginians so that they could never again be a competing world power against the Republic.)

It is true; violence does solve problems. A person you’ve beaten into submission or killed is no longer someone you have to argue with (at least not directly). But that doesn’t mean that violence is ever a good solution. Still, the exchange in Starship Troopers does, I think, lay bare the purpose of violence—to end a conflict that cannot be ended through peace, agreement and reason. Let’s explore whether that end can ever be legitimate in light of Jesus’ example.

I’d like to talk about Just War Theory or Doctrine. Just War Theory (within Christianity) has two primary concerns: when it is just to go to war (or to use violence) and how war must be ethically conducted (how violence may permissibly be used). In essence, this is the same inquiry I’m making in these posts, but I’d like to point out some places where I disagree with the commonly propounded aspects of the doctrine.

Both Augustine and Aquinas believed that war could only be justified by a proper governmental institution. To them, this was a safeguard that the aim of a war complied with the greater good of the people. Unfortunately, I think there is a greater tendency for violence authorized by the state to be unjust than to be just. In many cases, the desire for the highest degree of national security and the desire to act ethically are diametrically opposed. To make the state the arbiter of when war is just or not implies that the actor contributes to the righteousness of the thing at least as much as intention.

I also disagree with doctrines of Just War that assert that the punishment of a guilty party is sufficient cause for war (see below) or that a preventative war might be permissible as just. One of the conclusions that I’ll ultimately arrive at is that violence must be used only to prevent an immediate threat. A peremptory strike may obviate the possibility of attempts at peaceful resolutions.

Regarding the conduct of war, experience shows that no war is just in its conduct. Even in the best of circumstances and the noblest of intents, there is death, suffering, exploitation, humiliation, fear and a whole host of other undesirable ripple effects. These are things that may be necessary, but should never be called just. Can war be conducted ethically? Yes, particularly on the individual level. In the greater scheme of things, I’m not so sure.

On the subject of justice, my reading of history seems to indicate that most wars simply set things up for the reasoning of the next war. Consider the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the first World War and the second, with the Treaty of Versailles placing Germany in such a position as to allow the rise of one like Hitler. Shouldn’t a just war result in lasting peace? I’m not sure that there’s ever been such a thing.

That said, I don’t want to say that wars are never necessary or that they never accomplish some good. Certainly, Hitler and the Third Reich needed to be stopped because greater suffering would have resulted from their victory than from fighting them, steep as the cost was. Even less do I want to say that soldiers are evil, or even necessarily wrong, in the professional practice of violence. I hope that this will become clear as these posts continue.

So, point and counterpoint—Jesus tells us to avoid violence, but World War II gives us a seeming example of when violence proved necessary. And here’s the crux of this whole issue: we Christians want (or at least ought to want) to love as fully and deeply as Jesus did and to avoid violence, but sometimes violence seems like the best of alternatives. How do we resolve that discrepancy?

The End of Violence, Part I: Introduction

This Saturday, I’m going to a combined defensive pistol and defensive carbine class. It’s not my first tactical shooting class, and I’ve in the past been an NRA Pistol Instructor and a Texas Concealed Handgun Instructor. Regardless, the occasion seems a good one on which to share some of my thoughts about violence given my Christian faith.

This is not an easy subject and, while I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying various martial arts—krav maga, karate, sport fencing, historical European martial arts (swordplay, knife/dagger fighting and wrestling, mostly) and shooting—I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a real fight. As such, I simply don’t have access to the experience of either the event itself or the psychological aftermath. I invite those with such experience to comment on this series; I’m going to attempt to restrict myself to the abstract and philosophical side of things.

As a person of staunchly moderate political leanings and progressive theological positions, I’ve had the rare opportunity to be considered both conservative and liberal. Coming from one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. and being a theatre person with friends holding a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities, moving to College Station put me solidly in the liberal minority, at least among the studentry (I nevertheless had no problem finding likeminded people—Texas A&M is a big school, after all). Then, going to Austin for graduate school, I suddenly found myself to be considered a conservative by my peers.

When many of my fellow students of medieval and renaissance literature discovered that I had a license to carry a concealed handgun, they suddenly had this idea that I had fashioned myself a vigilante; that I wanted to live in the Old West and have a shootout at high-noon; that I had naively decided that combat would be fun (or evilly decided that hurting other people could be enjoyable). When I explained myself, however, I often found them surprised.

I told them that I preferred to carry—legally, and not all of the time (campus carry was illegal back then, of course)— a firearm that I had trained seriously with because that way I knew that I would walk away from a violent confrontation (or, I at least had a good chance of doing so) and that I could try every non-violent dispute resolution technique I could think of rather than responding out of fear. Indeed, as a Resident Advisor at Texas A&M I had been trained in conflict de-escalation, and Texas requires similar training as part of the concealed handgun license coursework. I am convinced that there is no more valuable skill that a person may learn—whosoever they may be—than how to communicate peaceably, respectfully, empathetically and constructively with others, even if that results only in an agreement to disagree. In the broader scheme, more training in the world in how to relate and talk to people with competing interests would save more lives than all the firearms training in the world.

That was certainly my experience the only time I ever came even remotely close to drawing my weapon when carrying it. This was, conveniently, in Austin. K and I were living in an apartment on the southwest side in a suburban area well away from campus. Nevertheless, at about 2:30 in the morning one night, some undergrads in the next building over were blaring music, drinking heavily, and throwing beer bottles into the parking lot from their third floor balcony.

Admittedly, I am a very grumpy person when disturbed from my slumber. I got up, put some clothes on, and holstered my pistol in concealed holster just in case. The first move was mine, and I immediately made a mistake: upon getting close to their building I yelled up at them to turn the music down, using no expletives but not in the friendliest of voices. Immediately, three men, all very inebriated, ran down the stairs to confront me. I stood my ground but tried to backtrack, apologizing for yelling and explaining that I wanted to come ask them to turn the music down and stop throwing beer bottles rather than just calling the police.

They responded with threats. I kept my hands up and palms toward them in a non-threatening manner (also because it happened to be a good defensive position, just in case), but I also made clear that I was not intimidated. I repeated my request matter-of-factly, despite their threats at my mention of the police (they were happy to remind me that they outnumbered me, despite the fact that they were all practically falling over on their own and any collaboration between them was certainly out of the question). In the end, it became clear, perhaps as it should have been from the beginning, that I could not reason with them. I cautiously removed myself from the situation, returned to my apartment and called the police. The next day, I reported the confrontation (although not my possession of a firearm, which was immaterial as it was never produced) to the apartment management. The offending tenants were evicted for threatening fellow residents—a clear violation of the Texas Apartment Association form lease.

I’d like to think that, despite my rough start, the confrontation went about as well as I could have hoped for—I walked away unscathed and without the regret and what-ifs what would have attached if I had injured someone else—justifiably or not.

But the point of this post is not to talk about me (although I hope the long introduction has provided some background to my own biases and experience). Let’s talk about weapons, violence and Christianity. We’ll start in the next post.

Toward a Positive Morality

When K gives Bess a bath, they blare music and sing along. A great time is had by all, I’m sure. Bess is a quick study of melody if not of words and her little voice combines with K’s in a pleasing microcosm of happy home life.

Cute as it is, I don’t really care for the music they listen to. Most of it is old Sunday School songs that K and I heard as kids (and K actually remembered). After bath time, recently, K asked me why I had that look on my face. She knows I’m not a big fan of Christian “genre” music and knew what was going on before she asked, I think.

“I don’t like the music,” I say.

“What’s the matter with it?” she asks.

“I don’t think it’s good theology.”

“What’s the problem.”

“It’s too simplistic.”

“They’re kid’s songs!” she exclaims.

The one that really got me was the “Ten Commandments Song,” and not just because it is still infuriatingly running through my head—“Number One, we’ve just begun; God should be first in your life…” If you keep singing this to yourself, you’re probably a child of the eighties.

I’m not a big fan of the Ten Commandments. Gasp if you must, but I’m just not. I don’t think that they really have much of a place in Christian morality. Gasp again, this time so others turn to look at you.

That’s because the Ten Commandments, like most of the Old Testament law, enforce a negative morality—“thou shalt not.” There are several problems with this.

First, negative morality gives us ample ammunition to infringe upon the warning that we “judge not, lest [we] be judged.” Matthew 7:1. It’s just so tempting to say, “But he did!” when comparing someone’s actions to one of the Big Ten.

Second, negative morality does not allow us to fulfill our calling to follow after Jesus. Consider the Rich Young Ruler episode (Mark 10:17-27; Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23). The Rich Young Ruler has followed the commandments all of his life, and Jesus quite readily tells him that there’s still more he lacks.

Negative morality is legalistic. Trust me; I’m a lawyer. It allows one to say, “I have avoided doing those things; I have fulfilled my obligation.” Jesus continually confronts the Pharisees about this problem, largely because the Pharisees hoped to reclaim righteousness through jurisprudence and adherence to the letter of the law. Compare with Jesus’ commands, which seem to be largely positively framed: “forgive those who trespass against you” (Matthew 6:9-13); “give to him that asks of you” (Matthew 5:38-42); “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44-46); “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).

This is a point made by E. Stanley Jones in The Christ of the Mount, which I’ve referred to before. Jones argues that, unlike negative morality that allows us to say, “I’ve done (or haven’t done) that, box checked,” the positive morality of Jesus always calls us to do more. “Love your neighbor as yourself” has no resting place—you must always ask what more one can do to love your neighbor. Negative morality tells us not to get worse; positive morality calls us to be better. It brings the spirit of the law to the apex and allows the letter of the law to subside in importance.

There is a good place for negative definitions of behavior—the legal system. Negative commandments allow us to offer societal protection against evils while preserving the greatest amount of freedom in the individual—“if it doesn’t say I can’t do that, then I can.” Excellent for the needs of society to order itself, but not great for those on a journey of sanctification.

Third, negative morality is not terribly responsive to our moral needs. “Thou shalt not kill,” doesn’t help us with questions like, “Is it permissible to kill one person to protect ten from him?” The commandment against bearing false witness is even flatly contradicted in the Old Testament, or at least an exception is made. Rahab, a prostitute (or perhaps innkeeper depending upon how misogynistic you like your translation) hides the Israelite spies in Jericho, lying to the authorities about the presence of the Hebrews in her home. For this lying, she is rewarded and blessed.

We live in a fallen world, so we need moral guidance that allows us to understand and work morally within that world. Black and white commandments of “thou shalt not” do not make room for the myriad potential factors and circumstances that influence any particular moral choice. Our intuition tells us that there’s a difference between killing someone for profit and a soldier killing to protect the lives of his brothers-in-arms.[1]

The positive commandments of Jesus—to “love your neighbor as yourself” is at once imminently simple and infinitely complex and responsive to circumstance. We must ask ourselves, “What does it mean to most love my neighbor in this circumstance? What does it mean to love two neighbors who are in conflict with one another?” Etc.

Fourth—and this is what got me thinking about this in the first place—positive morality is a, well, more positive formulation of behavior for instructing young ones. Isn’t it far better to say, “It hurt little Jimmy when you did that; what would be a way to love him better next time?” than to say, “That’s bad; we don’t hit,” which carries with it the connotation of “you’re bad and defined by that one action.” Am I overthinking this? Perhaps? Is it hippy-dippy (to use the term for the first time in my life)? Definitely. But would it have a positive impact on children’s behavioral development? What little knowledge I have on the subject seems to indicate yes.

I’m fairly well convinced that it’s worth it to start thinking about how we can be better rather than focusing on how we’ve messed up—to avoid hurting others by focusing on our relationships with them rather than sterile commands. What do you think?

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[1] A few caveats here. First, one must admit that, being subject to a fallen world, our intuitions may not always be trustworthy. Nevertheless, I believe in C.S. Lewis’s arguments about “natural law” and the existence of conscience as a signpost to God. Additionally, when we talk about comparative morality—“X is okay in this kind of situation but not this”—we open ourselves up to far more ambiguity than we can handle in this post. Still, that gives a good reason for the theological point that we treat all sin as equal—we’re incapable of knowing with certainty how to rank one sin against another, so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can.

What Tom Clancy’s The Division Teaches Us About Humanity

I’m a big fan of Tom Clancy games in general, but The Division really hit a chord with me. I don’t usually devote much time to MMO games, but I’ve remained steadily involved with the game since its release back in March. This is partially because I have good friends to play it with; friends make everything better.

But this is not a review. Instead, I want to talk about some of my observations in the game.

If you’re not familiar, the game has a place called the “Dark Zone”, a smallpox-contaminated part of Manhattan quarantined from the rest of New York City. The Dark Zone is the game’s PvP (Player versus Player) area. Some of the toughest computer-controlled bad guys are in the Dark Zone, as are some of the best rewards. To eliminate these bad guys and reap the rewards, one typically needs to form a group with other players. Once you’ve grabbed the loot, you have to go to a special area and call in a helicopter to extract the items before you “own” them. They are contaminated, after all.

Before you’ve extracted items, any other player can kill you and steal those items. Lone wanderer players make easy targets to teams of other players and—especially when you get the drop on them—are often easier to kill than the non-player character bad guys.

This is supposed to be part of the draw of the game—the cat and mouse of stalking and evading other players, the team-on-team direct combat against player opponents and, most of all, the tension the system creates. There are few people you can actually trust, and I’ve had more than a few encounters where, randomly encountering another player, we both have to scope each other out, not wanting to fight, but unsure of the other’s intentions. That nervousness is in some way satisfying because it is so immersive; it brings you into post-disaster New York in a personal and experiential way. I like that.

On the other hand, particularly because I’m introverted and often avoid linking up with random players (only joining teams of people I actually know in real life), I often find myself navigating the Dark Zone by myself. Consequently, I often find myself getting killed and my stuff ganked because I’m outnumbered, outgunned, or simply stabbed in the back by an opportunist while I’m trying to defeat the Zone’s tough computer-controlled hostiles.

My time playing has taught me that there are three groups of people when it comes to the Dark Zone. The first is where I find myself, reluctant to “go rogue” to kill and steal from other players even when I’m in a group and confident I can get away with it. I’ve encountered only a few other players with this view. The second group is probably largest. They understand that this is a game—there are winners and losers, and those who play have agreed to the rules that govern the game. This group probably enjoys the game the most because they fully play out the game’s possibilities—sometimes going rogue and killing other players in ambushes or pitched battles. But they don’t strike me as the type who would probably act that way were the game real life. They know the difference in the stakes and consequences of a game versus the real thing.

The last group is the one that I find so simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. These are the bullies, those whose primary joy in the game is picking on players less powerful than themselves. These are the ones who, having killed you in an unfair fight (usually extremely so—four to one odds and they strike when you’re otherwise occupied) come up and stand next to your body to laugh and mock you until you’re able to respawn. These are players with malice aforethought.

At the end of the day, it’s still a game, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to make a presumption about a stranger’s moral capacity in the real world based on behavior in a digitally-manufactured world. On the other hand, I’m a believer that the anonymity of the internet (including multiplayer games) allows people a release from the social conventions that normally restrain their baser selves.

When playing the game (admittedly, perhaps more to relieve my own frustration than any objective reality) I am constantly reminded that maybe there really is a fine line between social order and the chaos of those with more power and less restraint.